Last end:
considerations on a subject yet not resolved

Par Rédacteur

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1. A subject which has been neglected and not well taught for a long time

The teaching on last end has been neglected for decades. Already Paul VI noted in 1971: “We rarely speak and not often of last end.”[1] Based on the analysis of 280 homilies on last end published between 1860 and 1990, Michael Ebertz has shown the erosion, then the progressive dissolution of the traditional eschatological code, in such a way that of the tripartition heaven / purgatory / hell, nothing remains practically except heaven.[2] Ebertz pointed out particularly the connection between this mutilation of the last end and the abandonment of a contrasted image of God to benefit a representation of a soft spoken God who takes pity of all, a loving and sweet God.[3]

2. Typology of major deficiencies with the introduction of last end

The grave negligence in regards to the introduction to last end in catechism, theology and predication have lead to the spreading of numerous erroneous opinions among the faithful. Father Philippe-Marie Margelidon, o.p., highlights the following four issues:[4] first of all, the discourse on the soul, its immortality and its distinction from the body are put aside or diminished. Second, the disappearance or the negation of the fear of God, of the judgment and everlasting punishment of hell, consequence of the abandonment or the relativization of the notion of mortal sin. Third, the oversight of the relation between sin and punishment, and also of the necessity of reparation and penance, which renders incomprehensible the idea of purgatory. Fourth, the eschatological universalism which we will address later: people think there’s no hell or that hell is empty; the damned and the demons, if they exist, will in the end be saved (Apocatastasis).

We could mention two more errors: The first one concerns the resurrection which is sometimes situated immediately after death, for lack of a just Christian anthropology comprising the permanence of the soul during the intermediate time between death and resurrection at the end of times (cf. CEC, n.1001). As such Fr. Gregory Gay, Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, announced in 2009 the celebration of the “anniversary of the death and resurrection of our founders saint Vincent de Paul and saint Louise de Marillac. »[5] The body of these two saints being still present on earth, these absurd remarks presuppose the non-existence of a relation of similarity between the historic body and the resurrected body. As it is, this is contrary to the definition of the dogmatic Council of the Lateran IV (1215), according to which “all will resurrect with their own body they now have, to receive […], some a never ending chastisement, others an everlasting glory with Christ” (chap. 1: DzH, n.801).

The second error consists in thinking that man could still choose for or against God after death. Against this final option[6] which relativizes the choices we make down on earth, we must affirm that “death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace” (CEC, n.1021). In fact, everyone is judged on accomplished works “while in his body” (2 Co 5, 10). Knowing that “with death, our life-choice becomes definitive,”[7] “it is […] while we are alive that we must repent. Doing it afterwards has no value.”[8] This doctrine implies that purgatory must not be conceived as a sort of second chance to go from perdition to salvation: “the state of purification is not a prolongation of the earthly situation, as if, after death, was given an other chance to change one’s own destiny.”[9]

3. The problem with automatic salvation

Yet, nowadays the major issue in regards to Catholic doctrine on last end is the presumption of salvation. In former days, it was admitted as evidence that all men will not be saved, without though ignoring or denying that God wants salvation for all. The Common Doctor wrote on this in a lapidary way: “ ‘God will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ [1 Tm 2, 4] But this does not happen[10].” The debates therefore was not over the fact of the reprobation, but over the number of those who would be the subject of it, or rather over the proportion between those saved and those condemned. In this way, it is only during the XIX century that the position of the (relatively) small number of those saved, til now the leading position among theologians, came to weaken.[11]

It is to be noted that the doctrine of a salvation that would be incomplete exits also in the documents of the Magisterium. The Council of Trent says: “But, though He died for all, yet do not all receive the benefit of His death, but those only unto whom the merit of His passion is communicated.”[12] As to the 1566 Roman Catechism it reads: “If we considered its virtue, we are obliged to say that the Blood of our Lord has been shed for the salvation of all. But, if we examine the fruit that men receive, we easily understand that many only, and not all, have benefited from it.”[13] A famous catechism published in 1905 taught that “Jesus-Christ is dead for the salvation of all, but not all are saved because not all want to recognize him, not all observe the law, and not all have use of the means of sanctification He left us.”[14]

The consensus around an incomplete salvation eroded starting around the middle of the twentieth century. Three Jesuits can be recognized as precursors to the position which reduces damnation to an hypothesis: Teilhard de Chardin (circa 1926-1927), Otto Karrer (in 1934) and Henri Rondet who was asking in 1943: There are demons in hell, but are there any men?”[15] Since then, notably Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar – there again Jesuits – have spread the opinion so called “hope for all,” according to which he would be not just allowed, but we should be hoping for the salvation of all men, without being able to affirm it.

This position has been seen as “largely dominant among theologians today,”[16] although some famous authors such as Cardinal Charles Journet and Leo Scheffczyk, the Dominican Jean-Hervé Nicolas or the Jesuit Cándido Polo have maintained that, for a fact, some men condemn themselves.

In reality, the position of “hope for all,” which serves at least tendentiously to avoid the doctrine on hell, even if it retains verbally the possibility of damnation, is outrun among many theologians – not to mentions priests and faithful – in favor of an exclusion of damnation (conservative groups or traditionalists, not to mention Islam, don’t go along the trend). Theologian Bernhard Lang was concluding in this way: “The one who takes seriously the message of forgiveness cannot believe in any type of hell.”[17] Salvation becomes a right for all, with for consequence the theoretical or practical negation of hell, as with Yves Congar[18]. To say the least, the contemporary hyper accentuation of divine mercy to the detriment of justice greatly reduces to the extreme the probability of perdition, as with Gustave Martelet when he writes: “Never does the Gospel present a similar deny [of salvation] as a plausible virtuality and with which Jesus could be satisfied. […] This seems to relate […] to what we can call the unthinkable or the absurd.”[19]

4. Consequences of this position

It is obvious that the presumption of salvation has disastrous consequences over all of Christianity, degraded consequently down to a religion with nothing at stake, and therefore useless. We think, among other things, of the removal of a powerful tool against grave sins, the ruin of the notion of the state of grace, the uselessness for conversion and for penance, the shipwreck of sacramental discipline, the diminution of zeal and vocations for the mission and conversion of souls, etc. This issue was recognized a long time ago at the highest level, without the shepherds offering any appropriate response. In this way, Paul VI already was pointing out: “Today, secularization allows us to disregard the terrible risk for our future”[20], whereas Benedict XVI was lamenting the fact that “many of our brothers live as if there was no afterlife, without concerns for their eternal salvation”.[21]

5. A brief outline of some remedies

Against the automatism of salvation and divine forgiveness, it is right first of all to recall that these depend on conditions, notably fidelity to the commandments (cf. Mt 6, 14-15 ; 7, 21 ; 19, 16-17). While the idea of a God “automaton of forgiveness” makes him look like “a cat purring by the fireplace”,[22] it would then be urgent to recover an image of a more balanced God, bringing together goodness and severity ( cf. Rm 11, 22), as advocated by the Council of Trent: “Because ‘we all sin in many ways ‘ [Jc 3, 2; can. 23], everyone must have before its eyes the mercy and the goodness, but also the severity and the judgement.”[23]

Also, It must be clear that the separation between saved and damned, operated by judgement, is a revealed truth. The thesis of the hope of a universal salvation can and must therefore be refuted, as it is possible to respond to the main objections against the existence of damnation.[24]

To conclude, it is indispensable that the doctrinal orthodoxy of predication at the time of funerals be finally restored, notably by putting an end to the quasi systematic “canonization” of the deceased.

Mgr Christophe J. Kruijen
Author of a doctoral thesis at the University of the Angelicum
published under the title: Peut-on espérer un salut universal?, see note 24.

[1] Paul VI, General audience, 8 September 1971.

[2] On this subject, Michael N. Ebertz, Die Zivilisierung Gottes. Der Wandel von Jenseitsvorstellungen in Theologie und Verkündigung, Ostfildern, Schwabenverlag, 2004.

[3] Cf. Michael N. Ebertz, “Die Zivilisierung Gottes und die Deinstitutionalisierung der ‟Gnadenanstalt.ˮ “Befunde einer Analyse von eschatologischen Predigten,” Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie. Sonderhefte 33 (1993), p. 92-125, here p. 112 & 119.

[4] Cf. La Nef, no 352, November 2022, p. 18.

[5] Gregory Gay, “Letter to the Vincentian Familly,” 13 May 2009, also in Nuntia. Monthly Bulletin containing information on the General Curia of the CM, no 6, June 2009, p. 1.

[6] For a refutation of this dangerous theory, see the thesis of Fr. P. Pius Mary Noonan, Loption finale dans la mort. Réalité ou mythe ?, Paris, Téqui, 2016.

[7] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe salvi, 30 November 2007, no 45.

[8] Benedict XVI, Angelus, 30 September 2007.

[9] John Paul II, General Audience, 4 August 1999.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Sum. theol., Ia, q. 19, a. 6, arg. 1.

[11] Cf. Guillaume Cuchet, « Une révolution théologique oubliée. Le triomphe de la thèse du grand nombre des élus dans le discours catholique du XIXe siècle », Revue dhistoire du XIXe siècle 41 (2010), p. 131-148.

[12] Council of Trent, Sixth session, 13 January 1547, Decree on justification, chap. 3 (DzH, no 1523).

[13] Catechismus Romanus, 2, 4, 24.

[14] Catéchisme de saint Pie X, Bouère, Dominique Martin Morin, 2004, p. 112.

[15] Henri Rondet, Y a-t-il un enfer ?, Le Puy,  1943, p. 23.

[16] Bernard Sesboüé, La résurrection et la vie. Petite catéchèse sur les choses de la fin, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2004, p. 163.

[17] Bernhard Lang, art. « Hölle », Neues Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, t. 2, éd. P. Eicher, München, Kösel, 2005, p. 173.

[18] Regretting the literal reprise of the evangelical texts on damnation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Congar adds regarding hell : « There is one I truly don’t believe in at all, that is the one with eternal damnation, completely vain as it leads to no conversion at all » (forewords from the book of Jean Elluin, Quel enfer ?, Paris, Cerf, 1994, p. 7).

[19] Gustave Martelet, Lau-delà retrouvé. Christologie des fins dernières, Paris, Desclée, 1975, p. 182.

[20] Paul VI, General Audience, 8 September 1971.

[21] Benedict XVI, Homilies during vespers in Fatima, 12 Mai 2010.

[22] Marie Balmary et Daniel Marguerat, Nous irons tous au paradis. Le Jugement dernier en question, Paris, Albin Michel, 2012, p. 23.

[23] Council of Trent, Decree on justification, chap. 16 (DzH, no 1549).

[24] Cf. Christophe J. Kruijen, Peut-on espérer un salut universel ? Étude critique dune opinion théologique contemporaine concernant la damnation, Paris, Parole et Silence, 2017