Response to “The Population of Hell”

First Things magazine posted the article “The Population of Hell,” adapted from a lecture from the late Cardinal Avery Dulles.

On Romans, Dulles says, “The text seems to refer to the world of nature; it does not say that all human beings will achieve the glorious liberty in question.”

But Romans ch. 11 does; it says that the pleroma of Gentiles and pleroma of familiar Israel (some of whom were elect, some unelect) will be reconciled eventually. “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all.”

The “narrow gate” and “scarcely to be saved” — under St. Gregory of Nyssa’s view of purgatorial hell — refer to the fact that most people will undergo that purgation — they will not be saved from punishment — even as they’ll have an ultimate reconciliation through shame.

Dulles correctly mentions St. Clement of Alexandria, who described the process in his 2nd C. commentary on 1 John 2:2:

“1 John 2:2. ‘And not only for our sins,’ — that is for those of the faithful, — is the Lord the propitiator, does he say, ‘but also for the whole world.’ He, indeed, rescues all; but some converting them by punishments; others, however, who follow voluntarily with dignity of honour; so ‘that every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth.'”

Under purgatorial hell, the threats of hell have teeth, just as Paul’s threat against lazy building in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 has teeth, though one is rescued “through the fire.”

The correction under Catholicism is to maintain the meaningful threat of hell and loss of salvation-from-punishment, but to recover the assertion that purgatory is the threat from which to be saved. This requires reading Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as ancient Greek-speakers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa did: As age-pertaining, not as necessarily endless.

More reading at the Purgatorial Hell FAQ.

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