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By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics
Former Instructor St. John's University, New York City

Is Hell Empty? My Comments on The New Oxford Review vs. First Things Debate

Is Hell empty, here is an article I wrote on the Neuhaus-New Oxford Review debate. New Oxford Review rejected the article but wrote a nice note to keep trying. Neuhaus said the paper was engaging and that he might comment on it in his "Public Square" Column in First Things. As there is no where else to send it, I put it here.

A local philosophy professor I showed it to, said he wouldn't change a word, and I think you will find enough original and interesting thoughts to make it worth the reading even if you do not care about the original controversy.

The Sense and Census of Hell

When Father Richard John Neuhaus was seven he attended a mission festival. The preacher suddenly stopped in the middle of his sermon and looked intently at his watch for a full minute. No one made a sound. At the end of the minute the preacher announced that 37,000 souls had just gone to hell. Neuhaus was horrified, he began calculating how many people had gone to hell since the speech began. At 37,000 souls a minute over 2 million would have gone to hell in an hour. But, he noted that everyone else was taking the news calmly. So he decided that it was just "church talk."

Neuhaus dealt with the shock through theology, as you would expect a preacher's son to do. I, however, am an economist by training. I know, may God have mercy on my soul. So, as you would expect, I checked the statistics.

The young Neuhaus was right to think the preacher was engaging in "church talk." If 37,000 people had been dying every minute in 1943 the human race would have been reduced from a little less than two and a half billion to zero in less than seven weeks. Even today with more than six billion people the death rate is close to 100 per minute not 37,000. Given that some of the 100 are infants and children whom nearly everyone agrees will not go to hell, and some adults do take advantage of God's grace and go to heaven, the preacher was probably off by a factor of more than 400 to one, unless that was a particularly bloody minute in World War 2.

Apparently, Neuhaus did not question the death rate implied by the preacher. Instead Neuhaus excused himself from the responsibility of spreading the Gospel by believing that God would not damn anyone to hell, all would be saved and go to heaven, in other words universalism. Among other things this gives him the freedom to focus on "first things," including important aspects of the Catholic Church's political agenda, rather than last things.

The Controversy

Because of Father Neuhaus's importance to the conservative Catholic movement the New Oxford Review ran several articles and many letters on Newhaus's article. The July/August 2001 issue included two articles, one by Hanet Hall Madigan and a reply by Dale Vree, debating Neuhaus's views. After reading both sides of the debate I was left wondering exactly where Father Neuhaus stands. So I read the August/September issue of First Things, where Neuhaus clears the matter up very quickly in his "The Public Square" column. The column is now available on the Internet at, but they are now charging money to read their archives.

Father Neuhaus, like Hans Urs von Balthasars whom Neuhaus cites, claims that even though there is no doctrine that says all are saved, we can still hope that all are saved. Neuhaus emphasizes the difference between a hope and a doctrine by writing, "The Hope that all will be saved is precisely that, a hope. It is not a doctrine, never mind a dogma."

Dale Vree and others have argued that various texts from the Bible and church documents deny us even the hope. You can read these arguments in the January and July/August 2001 issues of the New Oxford Review, and in numerous letters to the editor, these are not available on line.

Fear of No Fear

The critics of Father Neuhaus fear that his hope that all are saved will discourage hell fire and brimstone preaching. But even if we were permitted to hope that hell is empty you could still be a hell fire and brimstone preacher. Any fraction of infinity is still infinity so the expected cost of sin would still be an eternity in hell even if one hoped God would save everyone.

For those of you unfamiliar with economist's jargon the expected cost is calculated by multiplying the probability of an event, in this case eternal damnation, multiplied by its cost, in this case the pain, loneliness etc. of hell. Rational actors according to standard economic theory make their decisions by calculating expected costs and benefits.

This line of reasoning is important even if we reject the hope of an empty hell. Many a Catholic sinner, perhaps most, hope that they will repent of their sins and go to heaven, but if any sin merely increase the chances that you will end up in hell the price of the sin is still an infinitely long stretch in hell, because any fraction of infinity is once again, still infinity.

Similarly, a rational actor could be motivated to go out and practice both the new evangelism of Pope John Paul 11 and even the old evangelism of St. Isaac Joques and the North American Martyrs even if there was some chance that hell was empty.

All of this assumes that humans are rational actors which maybe even more unrealistic than the Neuhaus assumption that we will all be saints. To effectively motivate people to progress through the early stages of their spiritual growth we may need to convince people that hell is populated. As the song, Amazing Grace, says, "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, twas grace my fears relieved." Neuhaus does not emphasize the need for even an early stage in our spiritual walk that involves a fear of hell.

From Fear to Love

On the other hand Dale Vree and other Neuhaus critics do not give much emphasis to growing beyond fear to a motivation of love. Yet this is a very important and perfectly orthodox objective. The act of reconciliation reads, "I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all because they offend You, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love." While the fear of hell is one incentive to good behavior we are to grow beyond that.

Just as one might suspect that Neuhaus is trying to excuse himself from evangelical effort, one also might suspect that his critics are trying to excuse themselves from pursuing spiritual growth. If so, this is a dangerous attitude, Jesus warns us, "For anyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough: but from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away." (Matt. 13:12) It is not safe to rest on a minimal effort. We need to move beyond the fear of slaves to the love of sons.

The Pope and Judus

In defense of his Universalist hope Neuhaus writing in his First Things column "The Public Square" quotes the Pope in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Near the end of the chapter entitled "Does 'Eternal life' Exist" the Pope said, "Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, 'It would be better for that man if he had never been born' (Mt 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation."

Neuhaus took the Pope's words out of context. The Pope's point in the chapter was there should be more, not less, preaching on heaven and hell.

The Pope makes no effort to explain how Judas could be in heaven in spite of the passage, but Neuhaus does. Neuhaus writes that some theologians have suggested that evil people are simply annihilated. This is perhaps even more theologically suspicious than the hope that all are saved.

But if one is really intent on extracting Judas from hell I would recommend the following. Yes, it would have been better for Judas if he had never been born, but Jesus did not say it would have been better for Judas if he had never been conceived or formed in his mother's womb as the Bible might of put it. If we assume that babies who die before they are born go to heaven, which seems to be the general assumption currently, then one could assume that Judas would have been better off not being born, but was never the less in heaven.

Not that I would push that one very hard. One could imagine Jesus saying, I was pretty clear that Judas, and many others were going to hell, you went the long way around the block to convince yourself otherwise. But if you insist on hoping that Judas is saved you might as well be orthodox about it.

Universalism is a common temptation for theologians, from Origen to Hans Urs von Balthasars. Even some of those who accepted the hard teaching of an eternal hell, have attempted to minimize it. For example, C. S Lewis argued in the The Problem of Pain that the soul that was tossed into hell was to a human being a little like what the ash is to the original log, a left over residue but hardly a real human being as we are.

Eye Has Not Seen

But instead of denying, emptying, or minimizing hell it might be spiritually and theologically safer to maximize heaven. Perhaps the joy of one person in heaven is greater, perhaps much greater, than all the pain of the many people in hell, not because hell is any better than the hell fire and brimstone that we have been warned about, but because heaven is so far beyond our wildest imagination. I am taking the quote out of context but the First Corinthians 2:9 says " eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him."

The End

Here are a couple of articles that I did get published.

An article on vouchers published in the New Oxford Review

My conversion story originally published in Catholic Digest

There is a lot more original thinking of this site, sure you can read other sites but they will simply repeat what you have already read.

The New Testament shows great interest in how the Old Testament foreshadows the events of the New. This essay shows how what happens to many New Testament figures is foreshadowed by Old Testament figures of the same name. I believe this is a miracle and powerful evidence for God and our faith. A number of professors have been impressed by this. Check it out, and see what you think.

The rest of web site has tips on better AM radio reception, the better to bring in EWTN, and directions for getting Catholic books into public libraries. See my homepage.


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Last updated April 10, 2020

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