Monthly Archives: December 2014

Justification According to Scripture

Romans 5:1 is a favorite verse for Calvinists and those who hold to the doctrine commonly known as “once saved, always saved:”

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

This text is believed to indicate that the justification of the believer in Christ at the point of faith is a one-time completed action. All sins are forgiven immediately—past, present and future. The believer then has, or at least, can have, absolute assurance of his justification regardless of what may happen in the future. There is nothing that can separate the true believer from Christ—not even the gravest of sins. Similarly, with regard to salvation, Eph. 2:8-9 says:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.

For the Protestant, these texts seem plain. Ephesians 2 says the salvation of the believer is past—perfect tense, passive voice in Greek, to be more precise—which means a past completed action with present on-going results. It’s over! And if we examine again Romans 5:1, the verb to justify is in a simple past tense (Gr. Aorist tense). And this is in a context where St. Paul had just told these same Romans:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:1-2).

Righteousness is a synonym for justice or justification. How does it get any clearer than that? Abraham was justified once and for all, the claim is made, when he believed. Not only is this proof of sola fide, says the Calvinist, but it is proof that justification is a completed transaction at the point the believer comes to Christ. The paradigm of the life of Abraham is believed to hold indisputable proof of the Reformed position.

The Catholic Answer:

The Catholic Church actually agrees with the above, at least on a couple points. First, as baptized Catholics, we can agree that we have been justified and we have been saved. Thus, in one sense, our justification and salvation is in the past as a completed action. The initial grace of justification and salvation we receive in baptism is a done deal. And Catholics do not believe we were partially justified or partially saved at baptism. Catholics believe, as St. Peter said in I Peter 3:21, “Baptism… now saves you…” Ananias said to Saul of Tarsus, “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). That means the new Christian has been “washed… sanctified… [and] justified” as I Cor. 6:11 clearly teaches. That much is a done deal; thus, it is entirely proper to say we “have been justified” and we “have been saved” as Catholic Christians.

However, this is not the end of the story. Scripture reveals that it is precisely through this justification and salvation the new Christian experiences through faith and baptism that he enters into a process of justification and salvation requiring his free cooperation with God’s grace. If we read the very next verses of our above-cited texts, we find the inspired writer himself telling us there is more to the story here.

Romans 5:1-2 reads:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

This text indicates that after having received the grace of justification we now have access to God’s grace by which we stand in Christ and we can then rejoice in the hope of sharing God’s glory. That word “hope” indicates that what we are hoping for we do not yet possess (see Romans 8:24).

Ephesians 2:10 reads:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

There is no doubt that we must continue to work in Christ as Christians and it is also true that it is only by the grace of God we can continue to do so. But even more importantly, Scripture tells us this grace can be resisted. II Cor. 6:1 tells us:

Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.

St. Paul urged believers in Antioch—and all of us by allusion—“to continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43). Indeed, in a text we will look at more closely in a moment, St. Paul warns Christians that they can “fall from Grace” in Galatians 5:4. This leads us to our next and most crucial point.

Justification and Salvation as Future and Contingent

The major part of the puzzle here that our Protestant friends are missing is that there are many biblical texts revealing both justification and salvation to have a future and contingent sense as well as these we have mentioned that show a past sense. In other words, justification and salvation also have a sense in which they are not complete in the lives of believers. Perhaps this is most plainly seen in Galatians 5:1-5. I mentioned verse four above.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.

The Greek word used in verse 6 and here translated as “righteousness” is dikaiosunes, which can be translated either as “righteouness” or as “justification.” In fact, Romans 4:3, which we quoted above, uses a verb form of this same term for justification. Now the fact that St. Paul tells us we “wait for the hope of [justification]” is very significant. As we said before, that which one “hopes” for is something one does not yet possess. It is still in the future. Romans 8:24 tells us:

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

The context of Galatians is clear: St. Paul warns Galatian Christians that if they attempt to be justified—even though they are already justified in one sense, through baptism, according to Gal. 3:27—by the works of the law, they will fall from the grace of Christ. Why? Because they would be attempting to be justified apart from Christ and the gospel of Christ! St. Paul makes very clear in Romans and elsewhere that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8, cf. Gal. 5:19-21). “The flesh” is a reference to the human person apart from grace.

The truth is: this example of justification being in the future is not an isolated case. There are numerous biblical texts that indicate both justification and salvation to be future and contingent realities, in one sense, as well as past completed realities in another sense:

Romans 2:13-16: For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified… on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.

Romans 6:16: Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness? (Gr.dikaiosunen- “justification”)

Matt. 10:22: And you will be hated of all men for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.

Romans 13:11: For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

I Cor. 5:5: You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Future Sins Forgiven?

The Calvinist interpretation of Romans 5:1 not only takes Romans 5:1 out of context, but it leads to still other unbiblical teaching. As we mentioned above, at least from a Calvinist perspective, this understanding leads to the untenable position that all future sins are forgiven at the point of saving faith. Where is that in the Bible? Answer? It’s not. I John 1:8-9 could not make any clearer the fact that our future sins will only be forgiven when we confess them.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I should note here that many Calvinists—and many of those who may not be full-fledged Calvinists, but hold to the “once saved always saved” part of classic Calvinist doctrine—respond to this text by claiming that the forgiveness of sins St. John is talking about here has nothing to do with one’s justification before God. This text only considers whether or not one is in fellowship with God. And this “fellowship with God” is interpreted to mean only whether or not one will receive God’s blessings in this life.

There is a large problem here. The context of the passage does not allow for this interpretation. In fact, if you look at verse five, St. John had just said:

God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him, while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

This text makes clear that the “fellowship” being spoken of is essential in order for us to 1) walk in the light as God is in the light and 2) have our sins forgiven. If we are not in “fellowship,” according to verse 6, then we are in darkness. And if we are in darkness, we are not in God, “who is light and in him is no darkness” (vs. 5). There is nothing in this text that even hints at the possibility that you can be out of “fellowship” with God, but still go to heaven. That is, of course, unless you have that fellowship restored by the confession of your sins. This is precisely what verses eight and nine are all about!

The Example of Abraham

Another point we can agree with our Calvinist friends on is that Romans 4:3 demonstrates Abraham to have been justified through the gift of faith he received from God. The Catholic Church acknowledges what the text clearly says: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” referencing Genesis 15:6.

However, there is more to this text as well. While the Catholic Church agrees that Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 15:6 as St. Paul said, we also note that Abraham was justified at other times in his life as well indicating justification to have an on-going aspect to it. Again, there is a sense in which justification is a past action in the life of believers, but there is another sense in which justification is revealed to be a process.

Let’s take a look at the life of Abraham.

Virtually all Christians agree that Romans 4:3 depicts Abraham as being justified through faith in the promise God made to him concerning his offspring:

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (citing Gen. 15:6).

But what many fail to see, however, is Abraham is also revealed to have already been justified many years prior to this when he was initially called by God to leave his home in Haran to create a new nation in a then-unknown land promised to him by God. Heb. 11:8 provides:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance, and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.

What kind of “faith” is the inspired author speaking about? Hebrews 11:6 tells us it is a faith “without [which] it is impossible to please God.” This is a saving faith. So how could Abraham have saving faith if he wasn’t yet saved, or justified?

He couldn’t.

He had a saving faith because he was already justified through his faith and obedience to the call of God in his life long before his encounter with the Lord in Genesis 15. In addition, Abraham is revealed to have been justified again in Genesis 22 years after Genesis 15, when he offered his son Isaac in sacrifice and in obedience to the Lord.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God (James 2:21-23).

The Most Important Thing

When Catholics read of Abraham “justified by faith” in Romans 5, we believe it. But we don’t end there. For when Catholics read of Abraham “justified by works” in James 2 we believe that as well. For 2,000 years the Catholic Church has taken all of Sacred Scripture into the core of her theology harmonizing all of the biblical texts. Thus, we can agree with our Protestant friends and say as Christians we have been (past tense) justified and saved through our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

But we also agree with our Lord that there is another sense in which we are being saved and justified by cooperation with God’s grace in our lives, and we hope to finally be saved and justified by our Lord on the last day.

Jesus says so:

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matt. 12:36-37).

Is Infant Baptism Biblical?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us the most important reasons why we must baptize infants:

Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth (CCC 1250).

Original sin is a reality from which each and every human person desperately needs to be freed. Biblically speaking, Romans 5:12 is remarkably clear on this point:

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.

Even if nothing else was said in Scripture implying infant baptism, we could conclude it to be necessary just from this simple fact: babies need to have original sin removed from their souls.

But there is more.

Catholics Are So Jewish

St. Paul, being a Jew, as well as all of the apostles, understood the idea that true religion is a family affair. A Jew became a Jew when he was circumcised on the eighth day. They did not have to first “accept Moses as their personal prophet” before they could be circumcised. And according to St. Paul, baptism is the fulfillment of circumcision:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; …you were buried with him in Baptism” (Colossians 2:11-12).

The RSV, which I quoted above has the word “and” placed between “Christ” and “you were buried…” I left it out because it is not in the original Greek text. The Greek indicates that baptism is the circumcision of Christ!

This seems trivial to us today. Okay, so Baptism is the “circumcision of Christ.” But this was not trivial to first-century Jewish Christians who were being challenged to circumcise their children “after the manner of Moses or else they could not be saved” (cf. Acts 15:1-2). Many were being persecuted because they chose to baptize their children instead of circumcising them. As St. Paul says in Romans 2:28:

For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.

What is this “spiritual circumcision” of which St. Paul speaks? Baptism, according to Colossians 2:11-12. Not the shedding of foreskin, but the transformation of the inward man through the sacrament. As a fulfillment of that which is only a type, baptism does something circumcision could never do: “baptism now saves [us]” (I Peter 3:21). The change that occurs is not physical; it is spiritual. As it is often said, what you don’t see is what you get in all of the sacraments, baptism included.

Elsewhere in Scripture we find a close association between baptism and circumcision. In Galatians 3:27-28, St. Paul says:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul’s point is that baptism is more inclusive than its Old Testament antecedent. You had to be a free, male, Jew to be circumcised (at least, on your own volition). And when were males generally circumcised in the Old Testament, by the way? At eight days of age (Gen. 17:12). St. Paul’s point is that in the New Testament baptism is open to all. Of course, babies would be included.

The Implications of Circumcision

This idea of baptism as the circumcision of Christ and therefore open to infants is found at least implied in other biblical texts as well. You’ll recall that on Pentecost, Peter preached to thousands of Jews, who already had an understanding of their faith involving a family covenant, and said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins… For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39, emphasis added).

If Peter believed baptism was exclusive to adults, he was a terrible teacher!

Catholics Are So… New Testament

The Lord explicitly “called infants to him[self]” in Luke 18:15-17:

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

These were not just children who were being brought to Jesus, the Greek word here is “brephe,” which mean infants. And again, the Jews listening would understand that the parents’s belief and obedience suffices for the child until he is old enough to own his own faith. The parents bringing children to Christ, according to Christ, is equivalent to the children coming to him on their own. Moreover, because babies are icons of what we all should be, i.e., they put up no obstacles to the work of God in their lives, and they can most obviously do absolutely nothing to merit anything from God, they are reminders of “the sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation” as CCC 1250 says.

Household Salvation

From the very beginning whole “households” received baptism. There is no reason to believe infants would not have been included (cf. Acts 11:14; 16:15, 33; 18:8; I Cor. 1:16), especially considering what we’ve already seen. For brevity’s sake, I will use just one of the five examples cited in the above parenthesis while I’ll encourage all reading this to take a look at the other four examples as well.

When St. Paul led the Philippian jailer to Christ in Acts 16, he said to him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31, emphasis added). He does not say that all in his household must first believe. He simply says they will all be saved. How could he say that? St. Paul seems to have understood what St. Peter had already preached back when Paul was still persecuting Christians (in Acts 2:38). The promise of faith and baptism is for the jailer and his children.

First Come Faith?

Jesus said, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved,” in Mark 16:16. Many claim this to mean faith must precede baptism. And this would seem to exclude infants as possible candidates for baptism. Seems airtight. Can an infant possess faith? No. Therefore, a baby could not be licitly baptized.

While this argument may sound convincing on the surface, it does not survive serious scrutiny. First, Jesus did not say faith must precede baptism for an individual. He simply said one has to believe and be baptized in order to be saved. He said nothing about the two having to be accomplished in that order for the individual.

Moreover, even if we were to accept as fact that faith must come first, even though Mark 16:16 does not say that, this would not exclude the possibility that the faith of the parents could not suffice until the child reaches the age of accounatability.

Second, a strict reading of Mark 16:16 has devastating consequences. A baby cannot believe. Does that mean all babies who die without believing will not be saved? Of course not! The thief on the cross was presumably not baptized. Does that mean he would not go to heaven? Of course not! Belief and baptism are necessary to those who have the opportunity to do so. If they were to be impeded from being able to believe or be baptized, and that could be the case for many different reasons, God would judge them in accordance with what they were responsible for.

This last point gets to another reason why it is so important to baptize babies. Sometimes we are accountable not just for ourselves, but for others as well (see Ez. 3:18-19). Parents are responsible to baptize their babies. If they knowingly do not do so, they break God’s covenant in a very serious matter. Like the paralytic in Matt. 9:2-6 who was completely dependent upon others to bring him to Christ in order for him to get his sins forgiven (and his physical healing), a baby is completely dependent upon his parents to bring him to Christ.

And notice as well that it was the faith of those who brought the paralytic to Christ that God used instrumentally for the salvation of the paralytic: “… when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven’” (Matt. 9:2). Whose faith did Jesus “see” here? “Their” seems to refer back to the “they” of the same verse: “And behold, they brought to him a paralytic…”

The faith of the parent suffices when they bring their infants to be blessed by Christ via “the circumcision of Christ.”

Circumcision and Justification

St. Paul clearly teaches that circumcision never justified anyone, at least, in the sense of the initial gift of justification. “We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham… before he was circumcised” (Romans 4:9-10). So doesn’t this prove baptism does not save us either?

Three points:

1. As I said above, baptism is the fulfillment of that which was only a type in the Old Testament. The fulfillment is always more glorious than the type. Thus, “baptism does now save you” (I Peter 3:21) in a way that circumcision could not.

2. It is true Abraham and David were St. Paul’s two examples of justifying grace occurring apart from circumcision in Romans 4. And yet, Abraham instituted circumcision by divine mandate and David was, in fact, circumcised as a little baby. Indeed, God also declared in the Old Testament that “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:14).” It is not a contradiction to say both faith and circumcision were necessary to remain within God’s covenant in the Old Testament, even though circumcision played no role in initial justification.

3. The faith of the parents sufficed when it came to circumcising a child. Do we not see that principle in the New Testament as well? Jesus saw the faith of the friends of the paralytic and healed the paralytic in Matt. 9:2. When people cannot have faith, the faith of family or friends suffices. So it is with infants. The faith of the parents sanctifies the children as St. Paul says in I Cor. 7:14. This is just as much a New Testament concept as it is an Old Testament concept.

If you enjoyed this post and want to dive deeper, click here.

Were Joseph and Mary Married at the Time of the Annunciation?

In my new book, Behold Your Mother – A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines, I tackle about every objection to the Marian doctrines out there. One of these is the question of the annunciation as it relates to Mary’s famous response to the angel Gabriel.

When the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and declared unto her that she was called to be the Mother of God, as we see recorded in Luke 1, her response would become the cause of the spilling of a whole lot of ink over the centuries: “How shall this happen, since I know not man?” (v. 34, Douay Rheims, Confraternity Edition).

For Catholics this is an indication of Mary’s vow of perpetual virginity. It’s really quite simple. If Mary and Joseph were just an ordinary couple embarking on a normal married life together, there would be no reason to ask the question. Mary would have known very well how it could be that the angel was saying she would have a baby. As St. Augustine said it:

Had she intended to know man, she would not have been amazed. Her amazement is a sign of the vow (Sermon 225, 2).

But Protestants do not see it as quite so simple. Reformed Apologist James White gives us an example of the most common objection to our “Catholic” view of this text:

Nothing about a vow is mentioned in Scripture. Mary’s response to the angel was based upon the fact that it was obvious that the angel was speaking about an immediate conception, and since Mary was at that time only engaged to Joseph, but not married, at that time she could not possibly conceive in a natural manner, since she did not “know a man” (Mary—Another Redeemer? p. 31.).

Among the errors in just these two sentences (I counted four), there are two that stand out for our purpose here.

Error #1: Mr. White claims Mary was engaged to St. Joseph.

There was no such thing as “engagement” (as it is understood in modern Western culture) in ancient Israel. The text says Mary was “betrothed” or “espoused” (Gr.—emnesteumene), not engaged. Betrothal, in ancient Israel, would be akin to the ratification of a marriage (when a couple exchanges vows in the presence of an official witness of the Church) in Catholic theology. That ratified marriage is then consummated—in the normal course—on the couple’s wedding night. So when Luke 1:27 says Mary was betrothed, it means they were already married at the time of the annunciation. If this were an ordinary marriage, St. Joseph would then have had a husband’s right to the marriage bed—the consummation.

This simple truth proves devastating to Mr. White’s (and the Protestant’s) argument. If Joseph and Mary were married—and they were—and they were planning the normal course, Mary would have known full and well how she could and would have a baby. As St. Augustine said, the question reveals the fact that this was not just your average, ordinary marriage. They were not planning to consummate their union.

Betrothed = Married?

For those who are not convinced “betrothed” equals “married” for Mary and Joseph; fortunately, the Bible makes this quite clear. If we move forward in time from the “annunciation” of Luke 1 to Matthew 1 and St. Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, we find Matthew 1:18 clearly stating Mary and Joseph were still “betrothed.” Yet, when Joseph found out Mary was “with child,” he determined he would “send her away privately” (vs. 19). The Greek verb translated in the RSVCE to send away is apolusai, which means divorce. Why would Joseph have to divorce Mary if they were only “engaged?”

Further, the angel then tells Joseph:

Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit . . . When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife (vss. 20-24).

Notice, Joseph took Mary “his wife,” indicating both St. Matthew and an archangel considered this couple married even though they were said to be “betrothed.” “Betrothed” is obviously much more than “engaged.”

Moreover, months later we find Joseph and Mary travelling together to Bethlehem to be enrolled as a family according to the decree of Caesar Augustus, just before Jesus would be born. They were obviously married; yet, even then, they were still said to be “betrothed” (see Luke 2:5).

So let’s recap what have we have uncovered. First, Joseph had already taken his espoused “wife” into his home and was caring for her. Second, Scripture reveals him to be her legal husband and to have travelled with Mary to be enrolled with her as a lawfully wedded couple and family. Third, she was called St. Joseph’s “wife” by the angel of the Lord… and yet, they were still referred to as “betrothed.”

Referring to Mary and Joseph as “engaged” in the face of all of this evidence would be like calling a modern couple at their wedding reception “engaged” because they have yet to consummate their marriage.

Once the fact that Mary and Joseph were already married at the time of the annunciation is understood, Mary’s “How shall this happen…” comes more into focus. Think about it: If you were a woman who had just been married (your marriage was “ratified,” but not consummated) and someone at your reception said—or “prophesied”—that you were going to have a baby—that would not really be all that much of a surprise. That is the normal course of events. You marry, consummate the union, and babies come along. You certainly would not ask the question, “Gee, how is this going to happen?” It is in this context of Mary having been betrothed, then, that her question does not make sense… unless, of course, you understand she had a vow of virginity. Then, it makes perfect sense.

Error #2: Mr. White claimed, “…it was obvious that the angel was speaking about an immediate conception.” And, closely related to this, Mr. White then claimed Mary asked the question, “How shall this happen…?” because she knew “at that time she could not conceive in a natural manner?”

Really? It was obvious?

There is not a single word in this text or anywhere else in Scripture that indicates Mary knew her conception was going to be immediate and via supernatural means. That’s why she asked the question, “How shall this happen…?” It appears she did not know the answer. How could she? Why would it ever enter into her mind? There would be no way apart from a revelation from God that she could have known. And most importantly, according to the text, the angel did not reveal the fact that Mary would conceive immediately and supernaturally until after Mary asked the question.

But let’s suppose Mary was “engaged” as Mr. White claims. There would be even less reason to believe the conception would be immediate and somehow supernatural then there would be if Mary had a vow of virginity (though there’s really no reason to think this in either scenario). An “engaged” woman would have naturally assumed that when she and St. Joseph would later consummate their marriage, they could expect a very special surprise from God. They were going to conceive the Messiah. There would be no reason to think anything else. And there would be no reason to ask the question.

One final thought: When Mary asked the question, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man,” the verb to be (Gr.-estai) is in the future tense. There is nothing here that would indicate she was thinking of the immediate. The future tense here most likely refers to… the future. The question was not how she could conceive immediately. The question was how she could conceive ever. The angel answered that question for her.

If you enjoyed this post, click here to dive deeper and learn more.

Is Hell Really Real?

It has become fashionable in some Catholic quarters these days to question where there are now or will ever be any souls populating hell. Hell, it is taught, is a “real possibility,” but whether there are any souls actually there, or whether there will ever be any souls there, is unknown to us.

It is, of course, true that hell is a “real possibility” for each of us. And that is a sobering thought. But it is also true that souls are actually in hell now, and will be for all eternity. This is a teaching of our Catholic Faith.

Au Contraire!

No less of a luminary than Fr. Robert Barron, following the great Hans Urs von Balthasar, from his famous book on the topic, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, writes in his book, Catholicism, on pages 257-258:

If there are any human beings in hell, they are there because they absolutely insist on it. The conditional clause with which the last sentence began honors the church’s conviction that, though we must accept the possibility of hell (due to the play between divine love and human freedom), we are not committed doctrinally to saying that anyone is actually “in” such a place. We can’t see fully to the depths of anyone’s heart; only God can. Accordingly, we can’t declare with utter certitude that anyone—even Judas, even Hitler—has chosen definitively to lock the door against the divine love. Indeed, the liturgy compels us to pray for all of the dead, and since the law of prayer is the law of belief, we must hold out at least the hope that all people will be saved. Furthermore, since Christ went to the very limits of godforsakenness in order to establish solidarity even with those who are furthest from grace, we may, as Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted, reasonably hope that all will find salvation…

Let me just say at the outset here that neither Hans Urs von Balthasar nor Fr. Robert Barron are “universalists,” as they are sometimes accused of being. Both taught hell as a “real possibility” emphasizing the fact that we just can’t know with “utter certitude”—to use Fr. Barron’s words—whether anyone is in hell. Neither ever taught we can know with that same “utter certitude” that everyone is going to be saved either. For an excellent defense of von Balthasar’s teaching, I recommend Mark Brumley’s article, “Did Hans Urs von Balthasar Teach that Everyone Will Certainly Be Saved?” found in The Catholic World Report, November 21, 2013.

Having said that, this does not mean there are not problems with both von Balthasar and Fr. Barron’s teaching. There are. We’ll focus now on Fr. Barron’s above-quoted statement.

The central problem comes from the statement, “If there are any human beings in hell…” And then also with the claim that “the church’s conviction” is that we are not committed “doctrinally” to saying anyone is “in” such a place (hell). These are problematic. There are four points that I think we need to consider:

1. The First Constitution of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 at the very least alludes to the fact that folks then living in AD 1215 would be in hell. This was the opening statement of the Council and its “Profession of the Faith.” The implication is that people from every generation would finally be eternally separated from God, not just people from the 13th century. But, at the very least, for the strict interpreter of the words of the Council, it seems inescapable that the Council taught souls are in hell now:

Indeed, having suffered and died on the wood of the cross for the salvation of the human race, he descended to the underworld, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He descended in the soul, rose in the flesh, and ascended in both. He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, (Latin text reads quae nunc gestant—which they are now bearing or wearing) so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ.

The present tense indicates that some folks then living—now wearing their bodies—would go to hell. Thus, the Church is here teaching there are souls “in” hell.

2. We have a more recent magisterial statement from Pope St. John Paul II with, shall we say, an interesting history. It was originally recorded in the L’Osservatore Romano, August 4, 1999, and it read:

Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.

This sounds like it agrees with Fr. Barron and von Balthasar, doesn’t it? However, when this statement was placed in the AAS (Acta Apostolicae Sedis—all of the official statements of our Popes are placed there in their official form), “whether or” was edited out. This is most significant. The Pope’s original statement seemed to lend itself to Fr. Barron’s position. At the time, it was met with serious blow-back. But it was purposely amended, it appears, to eliminate those two problematic words. Thus, the official statement of the Pope reads:

Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of which human beings are effectively involved in it.

The official statement of the Pope indicates the traditional Catholic teaching that there are human beings in hell, but that we just do not know “which human beings” they are. This is contrary to Fr. Barron’s position.

3. Pope John Paul II, in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, provides:

Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:46). Who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement…” (pg. 185)

Though not a magisterial document, this does give us some insight into the mind of our former Pope. The unresolved question for John Paul was not whether folks are in hell or not, but who they will be individually. That is what the Church has not defined or taught officially. In other words, there is no “anti-canonization” process where someone is declared to be in hell infallibly.

Thus, it seems the Church’s Magisterium has, in fact, taught that there are souls in hell now, and that there will be for all eternity. “Which human beings” we do not know without special divine revelation. With all due respect to von Balthazar’s “Dare We Hope,” I would say that kind of “hope” would be to hope against the sensus ecclesiae, if by that he meant, or if by that Fr. Barron means, that there could even be a possibility that no one is or ever will be in hell. Jesus’ words are, as Pope John Paul II said, “unequivocal.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matt. 25:46).

Jesus seemed as certain that there will be souls in hell as he was that there will be souls in heaven.

Thus, in Fr. Barron’s statement, “If there are any human beings in hell…” he seems to be confusing the idea that we don’t have definitive knowledge of an individual soul being in hell by name, and our not knowing whether there are any souls in hell. We don’t know the former; we do know the latter as a matter of Church teaching.

Dare We Hope?

Finally, I want to consider Fr. Barron’s argument that the Church’s prayer for all of the dead means “we must hold out at least the hope that all people will be saved,” based upon the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi. This seems to be a non sequitur. Because we cannot know who will be saved, and who will be lost (apart from a private revelation, as Pope John Paul II said), it stands to reason we would pray for all. In other words, we would not pray: “Lord, because we know some will end up in hell, I pray Eggbert McGillicutty will be one of them.” Absolutely not! Just as God “wills all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4), so must we. But a hope or desire does not necessitate even the possibility of a strict fulfillment.

As an analogy, because I know my six children either have sinned (those over the age of accountability), or will sin (those under the age of accountability), that does not mean my prayer, “Dear Lord, keep my children from the ‘sin which clings so closely…’” is somehow void of hope. My desire, my hope, is that they never sin, but there is nothing in that desire, or hope, that means I must then hold to the possibility that all of my children will actually be sinless.

Neither is there anything in the Church’s prayer for all souls that necessitates a doctrinal stand of the Church that says we “must” hold out hope that we will discover “hell” empty in the afterlife. In fact, that would contradict both the words of our Lord I cited above and the teaching of the Church in CCC 1034:

Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather… all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41)!

Notice, the Church declares that “Jesus solemnly proclaims” and “pronounce[s]” that some will indeed be lost.

What Do We Conclude?

While we did not broach the topic of “how many” will be saved; that is for another time, our focus here has been on the question of whether there are and whether there will be souls in hell for all eternity. Greater minds than mine, like the aforementioned Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Fr. Robert Barron, have posited the possibility that all men could well be saved. Indeed, Fr. Barron even claims that as Catholics we “must” hold this to be a real possibility.

In a word, both of these great men are wrong. The teaching of the Church is clear. CCC 1034 teaches us that Jesus “solemnly proclaim[ed]” that Christ will, in fact, “pronounce the condemnation: ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!’” And the Church can do nothing but repeat her Lord’s solemn words.

For more information on this and related topics, click here.