“Universal Judgement” (detail) by Michelangelo

I once heard a comment from a friend who was preparing a homily for today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 13:22-30). He was finding it difficult to “preach that there will be so few in heaven.” He has no problem on preaching about death, judgment, Heaven and Hell; but, he is disturbed and sad that, in his understanding, there will be so few saved.

He is not alone in his belief. Some of the great theologians and saints of the Church have written the same opinion regarding the population of Heaven. But is it a fact? And whether it is a fact or speculation, how can we benefit from reflecting on the question?

How many of us have been asked our opinion on this question, posed it to others, or simply speculated in our own reflections? The answer to this question has been argued in the Christian era for 2,000 years. Why is that? Did not Jesus answer that question? Do not the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew record his answer? Well, let us see.

The Question Posed to Jesus and His Answer

“Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

“And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’” (Luke 13:22-30 RSV-2CE)

One must admit that at first appearance, looking at this passage in isolation, the answer is not promising. “Many,” he says, “will not be able to enter.” And if we look at the parallel passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel we read, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14 RSV-2CE).

So this seems the answer to the question is that few will be saved and many will be damned, right? If it were this easy, the centuries of theological speculation, ranging from St. John Chrysostom (fewer than 100 out of thousands will be saved) to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (perhaps there are few who will be in hell) would not perplex us on this question.

A Necessary Perspective—God Revealed as Father

The simple answer is that we do not know the population of Hell, nor can we determine it from Divine Revelation. In the above passage from St. Luke, Jesus turns from the person who asked the question and addresses His Jewish listeners who were present.  He warns them clearly that their rejection of Him will lead to their being locked on the outside while the influx of Gentiles into the kingdom will come from the four corners of the world. Those who are called last (the Gentiles) will come before those who were called first (God’s Chosen People). So He might not be speaking, in general terms.

Recall that Jesus revealed to us that we are to see our relationship to God as a child to its Father. What father among us would consider seeing nine of his ten children attain Heaven as being enough? What mother would view the loss of only one of her ten children as few enough? Dr. Peter Kreeft wrote on this very aspect of Jesus’ words in an essay on Hell, “But ‘few’ here does not mean that less than half of mankind will be saved. For God speaks as our Father, not our statistician. Even one child lost is too many, and the rest saved are too few. The good shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep safe at home to rescue his one lost sheep found even 99 percent salvation too ‘few’.”

Four Things we can Learn…

If it is true that we do not know the population statistics of Heaven and Hell, what can you and I learn from the many warnings given by Jesus about Hell and the varied opinions of the Church’s theologians regarding who is there?

First – Hell is real and it is everlasting. We may not hear much about Hell these days and we may not even like to, but silence on the subject does not make the reality of Hell go away. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says this, “Following the example of Christ, the Church warns the faithful of the ‘sad and lamentable reality of eternal death’, also called ‘hell.’ Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. The Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26).”  (CCC 1056-58).

The Church has never definitively taught that anyone in particular is or is not in Hell.  Her theologians have speculated and taught that Judas is there; and of course the devil and the other fallen angels are there. Jesus said that “many” will find themselves outside the kingdom.  We also know that there will be a “multitude” in heaven (cf., Revelation 7). Beyond that, it is impossible to know the percentage of history’s population that will be there.  But underlying this, we cannot deny the existence of Hell and the very real possibility that you or I might end up there.

Second – There are two categories of paths in this life, a) the difficult path that leads to the narrow gate and life and b) the broad path which leads to the wide gate and destruction.  It is a popular error of our time to believe that it does not matter which road one takes. Some believe that all roads are like spokes on a wheel, all leading to the same place—Heaven. I hear it said by my own friends that “so and so” may not be a faithful Catholic anymore but they mean well and their new beliefs are sincere. But Jesus says that He is the “Way” and that He is the “Door”. We are not being loving by letting people follow their “own way” when that way is the broad path leading to the wide gate of destruction. If you know someone who is lost and following the broad path, help them find their way back to the narrow and hard path.

Third – Time is of the essence. Jesus speaks of the time when the householder will arise, shut and lock the door.  St. Faustina taught us that we are blessed to live in the time of God’s Divine Mercy.  Jesus tells us that the time of mercy will not last forever.  For some people, maybe us or maybe for others in the near or distant future, that time will close on the Last Day of Judgment.  For those who have died, that time has already expired. For most of us alive today, it will likely come at our own death when we face our Particular Judgment. Do we “strive to enter by the narrow door?”

Fourth – We must make our own salvation and the salvation of all those around us, our top priorities in this life. Nothing else ranks anywhere close in importance—not health, wealth, career, popularity, possessions or acclaim by others. Know what you must do to be saved and work out that salvation in fear and trembling.

Into the deep…

Editors Note: The Mass readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) are Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalms 117:1, 2; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30.

Deacon Bickerstaff is available to speak at your parish or event. Be sure to check out his Speaker Page to learn more. Into the Deep is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™.

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