First, though, a comment on terminology. Fr. Gaine uses the label “infernalism” for the view that at least some human beings will in fact be damned, and “universalism” for the view that all human beings will ultimately be saved, or at least may be. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this usage, but it seems to me that it does not correspond exactly to the way others have used these labels in recent online discussion of the topic of hell. My impression is that “infernalism” is usually used in a broader way today, to include even the view that some might be damned, and that “universalism” is often used in a narrower way, for the view that all must be saved. The view that we can reasonably hope that all human beings are saved but that it is nevertheless possible that some are damned – commonly associated with Hans Urs von Balthasar – would in that case count as a (more optimistic) version of infernalism. The way Fr. Gaine uses the terms, though, it would count instead as a (more pessimistic) version of universalism.
The issue is perhaps essentially semantic, but the differences in usage are worth calling attention to so that the listener does not misunderstand what Fr. Gaine is saying. Hence, when Fr. Gaine suggests that the scriptural passages he refers to leave the debate between infernalism and universalism open, this does not entail that scripture is compatible with the view (put forward by David Bentley Hart and others) that the damnation of anyone is impossible, so that all must be saved. Fr. Gaine is claiming only that these passages are compatible with the weaker thesis that it might be that all are saved, even if they also teach that at least some might be damned.
Where the scriptural evidence is concerned, Fr. Gaine’s focus is on Christ’s prophecies about the Last Judgment, such as his famous statement in Matthew 25:31-46 about separating the sheep from the goats and consigning the latter to eternal punishment. Don’t such prophecies show that some will in fact be damned?
Fr. Gaine notes that there are two kinds of prophecy in scripture. First, there is what he calls “Mosaic prophecy,” which flatly and unconditionally foretells that a certain event will occur. He gives the example of Christ’s prophecy that Peter will deny him three times. Second, there is what Fr. Gaine calls “Jeremianic prophecy,” which states only that a certain event will occur if certain conditions are met. For example, in Isaiah 38 it is prophesied that King Hezekiah will die imminently. But Hezekiah repents, and God adds fifteen years to his life. Another example is the repentance of the Ninevites in response to Jonah’s prophecy of the destruction of their city. As Aquinas notes (in Summa Theologiae II-II.171.6), prophecies of this kind are not false even though the predicted event does not come to pass, precisely because they are conditional. Had Hezekiah not repented, he would have died very soon, and had the Ninevites not repented, their city would have been destroyed.
Fr. Gaine proposes that prophecies like Christ’s statement about the sheep and the goats can reasonably be read as Jeremianic in character. If that is so, then while they certainly teach that it might turn out that some are damned, they do not flatly and unconditionally teach that some will in fact be damned. They teach only that some will be damned if they do not repent – just as the prophecy about Hezekiah is to be understood as saying only that he would die if he did not repent, and the prophecy about Nineveh is to be understood as saying that the city would be destroyed if its citizens did not repent. Fr. Gaine also acknowledges that one could instead argue for reading prophecies like the one about the sheep and the goats as Mosaic prophecies. But his point is that either interpretation is compatible with orthodoxy, so that such passages cannot be said to settle the dispute between infernalism and universalism (again, as he is using those terms).
What should we think about this argument? Since Fr. Gaine does not discuss most of the scriptural passages relevant to the issue, I am not certain that he is claiming that scripture as a whole is compatible with either infernalism or universalism, or only that certain specific scriptural passages are. But even if we were to grant for the sake of argument that a passage like Matthew 25:31-46 might be Jeremianic or conditional in character, I think that that cannot plausibly be said of all the relevant scriptural passages. And thus I think that, taken as a whole, scripture clearly favors infernalism over universalism.
I have assembled and discussed the main relevant scriptural passages in another article. Here I will focus on a few of them to show how Fr. Gaine’s argument is problematic. First, there are a handful of cases where scripture seems clearly to teach that certain specific people will in fact be damned, not merely that among people in general, some might be damned.
For example, consider Judas, of whom Christ says: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24). It is hard to see how it could be better for Judas not to have been born if this were a conditional prophecy. For if Christ knew that Judas would in fact repent (which, being omniscient, he would have known if that is in fact what Judas ended up doing) wouldn’t it obviously be good that Judas was born?
But even if someone were to claim that Christ was here merely trying to prod Judas to repent by way of an especially frightful conditional prophecy, that cannot be said of John 17: 11-12, where, praying to the Father, Christ says: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me… I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition.” Notice that Christ not only flatly states that Judas is lost, but says this to the Father, and not to Judas or any other human being. Now, the point of conditional prophecies, like the ones made to Hezekiah and the Ninevites, is to encourage repentance. And that requires that those in need of repentance hear the prophecy. But in this passage, it is the Father alone who is addressed, and needless to say, he needn’t have been warned about the need for repentance!
This brings us to a second problem, which is that a prophecy can plausibly be read as conditional only when it is addressed to listeners who might benefit from it. And as we’ve just seen, this is not the case of all the relevant scriptural passages. For another example, consider Revelation 20:10, which states that the beast and the false prophet of the end times will, together with the devil, be tormented day and night forever and ever. Not only does this name specific people, but it does so in the context of a book addressed, not to those particular people, but rather to Christians who are being persecuted by those people, to reassure them in the face of the persecution. Hence it cannot plausibly be said that this passage is meant as a conditional warning to the persecutors, the way that the prophecies to Hezekiah and the Ninevites were intended as conditional warnings to them (and thus were addressed directly to them).
A third problem is that in at least one case, people who were already dead at the time the passage was written (unlike the case of Judas or that of the beast and false prophet) are said to be damned. Hence it cannot be characterized as a prophecy at all, let alone a conditional one. Jude 7 states that “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” It can hardly be said that this was meant to prod the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah to repentance (as in the cases of Hezekiah and Nineveh), since those inhabitants were long dead when Jude’s epistle was written. To be sure, the larger context of this passage plausibly contains a conditionally prophetic element, insofar as Jude’s readers are being warned what will happen to them if they follow the example of Sodom and Gomorrah. All the same, the statement that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah suffered “a punishment of eternal fire” is not itself a prophecy but the assertion of a fait accompli.
A fourth problem is that even in the case of conditional prophecies concerning hell, we can reasonably hope that the people in question are not damned only if we can reasonably hope that they repented (as we know that Hezekiah and the Ninevites repented). That means that we can reasonably hope that all are saved only if it is reasonable to think that every single person who has died so far in human history repented before death. But it is not reasonable to think this. There are simply too many people who have died in what to all appearances is a state of grave sin unrepented of. True, of any particular person, no matter how apparently hardened in evil to the bitter end, we cannot be absolutely certain that he did not somehow find repentance in the nick of time. It is, considered in the abstract, theoretically possible. But it simply doesn’t follow that it is remotely plausible that every single person who seems to have died unrepentant really repented in an unseen way.
Now, if we’re going to use uncontroversially conditional prophecies as our model for interpreting prophecies concerning damnation, then we should note, first, that the cases where the prophecy did not come to pass are cases where the people to whom the prophecy was directed clearly and explicitly repented (as with Hezekiah and the Ninevites). Meanwhile, cases where such prophecies did come to pass (as with predictions about the punishment of the Israelites by way of foreign aggressors) are cases where the people, to all appearances, did not repent. Therefore, where conditional prophecies concerning damnation are concerned, the reasonable interpretation is that, with people who to all appearances did not repent before death, it is highly probable that at least some of them are damned.
All told, then, Fr. Gaine does not seem to me to have made a plausible case that the view that all human beings might be saved can be reconciled with the scriptural evidence. At the very least, the totality of the scriptural evidence clearly more strongly favors infernalism.