How Many Souls will be Saved?

“Christ the Consolator” – by Carl Bloch

Lord, will those who are saved be few?

I once heard a comment from a friend who was preparing a homily. He was finding it difficult to preach on the “fact” that there will be so few in heaven. He has no problem on preaching about death, judgment, Heaven and Hell; but, he is sad that 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 considering 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

“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 appearances, 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 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’.”

From the General to the Particular and Practical – What’s it mean to me?

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…


Deacon Mike Bickerstaff, Editor-in-Chief for The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization at his parish and a deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.


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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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11 Comments

  1. In September, of 1995, my wife, my daughter and I went to a Marian conference in Chicago. While we there listening to the speakers, a thought came to my mind about how souls go to hell. Now no one was talking about this subject, for some reason I just started thinking about it. Before I go on, I must tell you that I have read several messages that state that God does not send souls to hell, that the soul sends itself to hell, and I had wondered how this could happen. Well as I said, I was thinking about this, and it is like this, darkness is sin and light is God. Now if a person lives in a room or cave of compete darkness and has been there for along time, when that person comes into the light, he or she can not stand the light so the person goes back in to the dark room. This is like a soul that has lived in sin, when the soul dies, it cannot stand to look at God, Who is pure Light, so the soul drives itself into hell. Now the next day I was praying before Jesus in the blessed sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, when I began to think of this again and it was like this, a soul who lives in sin lives in darkness, but if the soul, while still living would let some light in, then when the soul died it would be like a person, who was in a dark room but let some light in. So then when the person went into the Light, he or she would be able to squint their eyes and look at the light and eventually be able to open their eyes all the way. This would be a soul that, when it died was not pure enough to go to heaven, so it went to purgatory. All souls are different some have to squint harder then others and some can adjust faster to the light and some live always in the light, their eyes are wide open, these go straight to heaven.
    Also I recommend everyone to read The Testimony of Gloria Polo at http://english.gloriapolo.net/ & STANLEY VILLAVICENCIO

  2. A problem: “First – Hell is real and it is everlasting.”
    Rev 20:13 ff. (Douay)”And the sea gave up the dead that were in it: and death and hell gave up their dead that were in them. And they were judged, every one according to their works. And hell and death were cast into the pool of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the pool of fire.
    Baltimore Catechism 2:
    413. Q. What is Hell? A. Hell is a state to which the wicked are condemned, and in which they are deprived of the sight of God for all eternity, and are in dreadful torments.
    417. Q. Will our bodies share in the reward or punishment of our souls? A. Our bodies will share in the reward or punishment of our souls, because through the resurrection they will again be united to them.
    So: How can anything- especially a human body- keep on living in a “pool of fire”?
    Ro 6:23, ibid. “For the wages of sin is death.”
    If it doesn’t keep on living, how can it be “punished”, by torture or any other agency?
    Ec 9:5,10, ibid. “For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing more, neither have they a reward any more: for the memory of them is forgotten. Whatsoever your hand is able to do, do it earnestly: for neither work, nor reason, nor wisdom, nor knowledge shall be in hell, whither you are hastening.”
    If it can be punished, does not this violate the principle of double jeopardy, considered a good thing in “civilized” countries?
    Ro 6:23, ibid. “For the wages of sin is death. [not ‘death, then torture’]” and Ro 6:7 “For he that is dead is justified from sin.”

  3. We should always head with greatest reverence and turn to the saints for information.

    They will have the answers to not only this question but so many priceless others, and guide through all times of confusion with a clear light.

    What is their consensus?

    ‘So vast a number of miserable souls perish, and so comparatively few are saved!’

    St. Philip Neri

    ‘The majority of men shall not see God, excepting those who live justly, purified by righteousness and by every other virtue.’

    St. Justin Martyr

    ‘It is certain that few are saved.’

    St. Augustine, Doctor and Father of the Church

    ‘Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!’

    Matthew 7:13-14

    ‘Poor Judas! Above seventeen hundred years have elapsed since he has been in Hell, and his Hell is still only beginning.’

    St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori

    http://saintsquotes.net/Selection%20-%20Fewness.html

  4. Saints had consensus because they copied each others’ opinions at times. For example, Augustine said it was venial sin to ask for the marriage debt beyond begetting but innocent to pay the marriage debt. Aquinas copies him exactly 700 years later. The Church in accepting the use of the infertile times implicitly rejects their belief.

    Better to put the Word of God first before Saints. Go to Rev.7:9: ” After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches* in their hands.”

    So many will be there in Heaven, they will be uncountable according to God. You’ll notice that Christ as to the narrow way passage is talking about living people not people in their last seconds before death. God can save many fools in the last seconds if He wills it. Christ is not excluding this.

  5. ‘Not all, nor even a majority, are saved. . . They are indeed many, if regarded by themselves, but they are few in comparison with the far larger number of those who shall be punished with the devil.’

    St. Augustine, Doctor and Father of the Church

  6. My feeling is that it doesn’t affect my life here on earth. That it is not ours to know. I feel it is not necessary for us to know this in order to live the Catholic life we know we are called to live. Who’s where in eternity does not in any way change the Gospel message for me. Whether certain people are in heaven or hell in no way changes what Jesus has told me to do. I enjoyed the article. I think this article makes the point that when all is said and done it is still just speculation on our part and that we must strive toward Heaven at all times and encourage others to as well. And the leave the judgement of humanity to God.

  7. While I believe that most souls are lost, much can be done to improve this sad situation. God’s love is inexhaustible; He desires the salvation of all men, and we can be instrumental in leading souls to God:

    “To pick up a pin for Love can convert a soul.” – St. Therese (words echoed by Sr. Josefa, St. Faustina etc.)

    A holy fear of God is necessary, but we must balance God’s justice with His mercy. The number of souls lost, according to certain saints- even if true (though they cannot all be true, as there are discrepancies)- does not reflect God’s goodness; rather, it reveals our sinfulnes and self-will.

    We must be careful not to give souls the wrong impression about God’s goodness. This does not mean watering down the truth; the path that leads to life remains narrow, and we can reasonably (though without certainty) say that few take it. But to place a great emphasis on God’s justice is likely to sow doubt, excessive fear and misunderstanding.

    Rev. Reginal Garrigou Lagrange comments: The number of the elect is known only by God. “The Lord knoweth who are His.” [665] The liturgy says that this number is known to Him alone. [666] This is reaffirmed also by St. Thomas. [667] The end of the world will come when the number of the elect is complete, when the succession of human generations has reached its goal.

    Sinful souls are saved by the mercy of God. It is our duty, therefore, as Christians, to inspire others with love of God (insofar as we are capable) and with trust in His mercy. St. Faustina is an excellent role model in this regard. She affirmed the existence of Hell (and wrote about her visions etc.), yet she imparts to us a knowledge of God’s love that acts as a type of lense through which we can better grasp the nature of Hell, which is a consequence of rejected divine love. God’s threats serve to humble us and lead us to Himself. If we do not attain divine love, salvation will be terribly difficult, as St. Alphonsus tells us.

    Many saints, such as St. Alphonsus (what a great man!), inspired souls with holy fear; this was a powerful means of converting sinners. Yet they did not stop there. They also revealed the excessive love of God, and sought to encourage even the greatest of sinners to trust in God’s love:

    “Oh how easily we could win Heaven – day by day – just by doing what we have to do, but doing it for God.” – St. John Vianney

    What harm is there in inspiring sinners with holy fear, while also speaking of the immense love of God?

    Jesus to Servant of God, Sr. Josefa: “Should it happen that you have spent the greater part of your life in impiety and indifference, and that the sudden approach of the hour of death fills you with blinding despair.. Oh! do not let yourself be deceived, for there is still time for pardon. If only one second of life remains to you, in that one second you can buy back eternal life!”

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