“Love Wins: a Book about Heaven and Hell” by Rob Bell posits that the infinite mercy of God excludes the possibility of hell and therefore all people will be saved. His idea was popular enough that the book became a best-seller.

His thesis is an adaptation of the traditional theological concept of universal salvation which holds that God in his infinite goodness wills the salvation of all. Yet God’s will also includes the autonomy of our free will. Thomas Aquinas noted that although God does will eternal happiness for all, each one must be free to accept it or not. The account of the fallen angels in the Book of Revelation bears on this discussion.

Scripture is replete not only with passages of the difficulty of attaining salvation, but also of the existence of hell. In the parable of the final judgment, the sheep are blessed but the goats are condemned, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) In the Gospel of John, which says little about hell, Jesus says: “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear the Father’s voice and come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28–29).

When the concerned apostles asked whether those who are saved will be few, Christ did not answer directly but replied, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able” (Luke 13:23–24). In the parable of the wedding guest cast out for improper attire, Jesus declares, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). Passages such as these give the impression that there is a hell, and that many go there, perhaps more than are saved.

Although scripture can be very challenging on the means to salvation, Christianity, especially the Catholic tradition, has been very positive about eternal life. The Catholic Church has, by the canonization of its saints, pronounced that very many have, in fact, entered eternal life with God. But it has never pronounced that any one individual, including Judas Iscariot, has been condemned to hell.

When the noted theologian Avery Dulles was asked who can be saved, he offered this thoughtful response: “Christians can be saved if they believe the word of God, submit their lives to Christ and obey the commandments. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Atheists can also be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice.”

God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. “Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.” (Luke 12:48)

Father Earl Meyer is at St. Fidelis Friary, Victoria.