On hope, heaven and hell

by Nick Jr. Healy

At the end of the final volume of his Theological Dramatics, Hans Urs von Balthasar tentatively proposes that we consider the question of eternal damnation not so much from the perspective of man (“What does man lose if he loses God?”), as from the standpoint of God: (“What does God lose if he loses man?”). What would it mean for God to have to condemn one of His creatures? According to Balthasar, we have become too accustomed to posing the question of eternal damnation abstractly, as though the outcome were a matter of indifference. In Jesus Christ, God has revealed his desire to save all of mankind. As absolute love, God has involved Himself in the drama of our salvation precisely to the point of being abandoned and dying the death of a sinner “in our place.” The loss of a portion of mankind, although a real possibility, would be an unspeakable tragedy for God and likewise for the Christian who is united in Christ to each member of humanity. Christians, who by baptism are given a share in the mission of Christ, are called to hope and pray for the salvation of all men.

In defending this thesis Hans Urs von Balthasar was confronted with considerable resistance and even accusations of heresy. In a series of articles published in The Wanderer in 1987, John Mulloy attacked Balthasar’s theology as “contradicting the teaching of Jesus” and “contradicting 19 centuries of Catholic teaching.”1 While a student at Franciscan Univeristy, I often found myself defending Balthasar against similar accusations.

Because the issue is of such fundamental importance for what it means to be a Christian in the world, I would like to offer a defense of Balthasar’s position. In the limited space available here I propose to consider two questions: (1) What does Balthasar teach about hell? What does he mean by ‘hope for all men’ and what are the grounds for this hope? (2) Is Balthasar’s theology of hope consistent with the teaching of the Church?

Balthasar’s position may be briefly summarized as follows: Both Scripture and Tradition testify to God’s desire to save all mankind. The gift of salvation, accomplished in Jesus Christ, is freely offered to each creature. As a gift of love, salvation must be freely accepted. God refuses to overrule or violate human freedom. As Scripture attests, the consequence of a rejection of God’s offer of love is eternal separation from God, i.e. hell. We do not know that any man or woman has in fact finally rejected God. Thus, while recognizing the real possibility of hell, we are called to hope that all men attain salvation. Balthasar repeatedly distances himself from a theory of the apokatastasis panton, or final restoration of all things, a theory attributed to Origen and condemned by the Church. He is careful to distinguish hope from knowledge: “Brothers and sisters of Christ, created by the Father for Christ, who died for them in atonement, may fail to reach their final destination in God and may instead suffer eternal damnation with its everlasting pain—which, in fact, would frustrate God’s universal plan of salvation. If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility, our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding.”2 Again he writes, “It is therefore indispensable that every individual Christian be confronted, in the greatest seriousness, with the possibility of his becoming lost.”3

In his book Dare We Hope “That all Men be Saved”? Balthasar draws attention to two series of passages in the New Testament that pertain to judgment and damnation. The first series speaks of individuals being condemned to eternal torment. Those who have rejected Christ are accountable for their actions and they will be cast into “the outer darkness,” or “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:30ff.; see also Mt 5:22,29; 8:12; 10:28; 2 Pet 2:4-10; 3:7; Rev 19:20f.). The second series of texts speaks of God’s desire, and ability, to save all mankind. “God our Savior…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Anticipating his suffering and death, Jesus proclaims, “Now is the judgment of this world,...when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:31). “God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32; see also 2 Pet 3:9; Titus 2:11; Rom 5:14-21; Eph 1:10; Col 1:20).

A harmonious synthesis between these two series of texts is not possible. A universalist theology, which knows with certainty that all will be saved, invalidates the numerous passages in Scripture which speak of judgment and eternal damnation as the consequence of sin. Likewise a theology which knows in advance a double outcome of judgment cannot take seriously the universal salvific will of God as expressed in 1 Timothy 2:4 and elsewhere. Against those theologies which claim to know in advance and with certainty the final outcome of God’s judgement, Balthasar defends the mystery of hope. The same God who reserves judgment for himself has placed himself in solidarity with the sinner even to the point of death and God-forsakenness. Balthasar cites approvingly the following text from Hermann-Josef Lauter: “Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question. But love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from the Christian standpoint, not only permitted but commanded.”4

This command to hope for all is not without its difficulties. Confronted with drastic misuses of human freedom and evil in all its forms, how can such a hope take seriously the realities of sin, justice and human freedom? It should be emphasized that Balthasar does not downplay the biblical themes of justice and the wrath of God in favor of a philosophical doctrine that holds damnation to be somehow incompatible with God’s nature as love. By situating creation, judgment, and even the mystery of hell, within the reciprocal trinitarian relations, Balthasar gives the whole problematic a new seriousness. The true nature of sin as an affront to God and the extent to which God promotes human freedom is not fully revealed until the Son stands exposed and abandoned by the Father for the sake of the sinner.

Balthasar’s meditations on the passion of Christ are deeply indebted to the mystic Adrienne von Speyr. Beginning on Good Friday of each year from 1941 until her death in 1967 Adrienne was initiated in the mystery of Christ’s trinitarian abandonment. Balthasar summarizes her theological contribution as follows:

“Adrienne unlocks a hitherto scarcely developed part of the theology of redemption. On Good Friday the Son’s love renounces all sensible contact with the Father, so that he can experience in himself the sinner’s distance from God. (No one can be more abandoned by the Father than the Son, because no one knows him and depends on him as much as the Son.) But then, after Good Friday, comes the final, the most paradoxical and most mysterious stage of this loving obedience: the descent into hell. In Adrienne’s new experience and interpretation of hell, this means descent into that reality of sin which the Cross has separated from man and humanity, the thing God has eternally and finally cast out of the world, the thing in which God never, ever, can be. The Son has to go through this in order to return to the Father in the ultimate obedience of death.”5

Out of love for the world, God takes upon himself the burden and consequence of sin. Thus while the sinner remains free to reject God’s offer of love, God accompanies the sinner in his rejection and abandonment.

Before turning to consider the Church’s teaching on hell, it may be helpful to examine the idea of predestination. Although often implicit, the idea of a limited predestination is one of the main reasons Balthasar’s understanding of hope has met such formidable resistance. If God, “before the foundation of the world,” has chosen only a limited number of individuals for salvation, then it would indeed be presumptuous and contrary to Revelation to hope that all mankind might be saved. A longstanding theological tradition within the Church has defended this idea of a limited predestination. Consider for example the statement of St. Thomas, “God loves all men and all creatures, inasmuch as he wishes them all some good, but he does not wish every good to them all. So far, therefore, as He does not wish this particular good—namely, eternal life—He is said to hate, that is to reprobate some men” (ST I q 23 a 3 ad 1). Despite its having deep roots in the Catholic tradition, this idea has never been officially sanctioned by the Church, who has consistently affirmed the universal salvific will of God.6 The mystery of predestination as expressed by St. Paul is clearly part of the deposit of faith, but a careful reading of Paul’s epistles shows that the limiting of predestination to only part of humanity is unwarranted. According to St. Paul all of humanity, indeed the whole cosmos, is predestined in Christ, the Firstborn of all creation.

At the Second Vatican Council renewed attention was given to the christocentric character of both redemption and creation. In a text that has been cited in virtually every one of John Paul II’s encyclicals the Council Fathers wrote, “It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear…Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22). An essential part of this christocentric renewal is the Council’s clear teaching on the universal salvific will of God. Ad Gentes Divinitus declares, “The reason for missionary activity lies in the will of God, ‘who wishes all men to be saved’ ...[I]n ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him” (n. 7). John Paul II has taken up and deepened this same theme. In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio he writes:

“While acknowledging that God loves all people and grants them the possibility of being saved (cf. 1 Tm 2:4), the Church believes that God has established Christ as the one mediator and that she herself has been established as the universal sacrament of salvation….It is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all humanity and the necessity of the Church for salvation….The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation (n, 9-10).”

This passage expresses forcefully the same position defended by Balthasar. If Christ desires the salvation of all and if there is a “real possibility of salvation in Christ for all humanity,” hope for all is simply part of what it means to follow Christ.

An argument which claims to know with certainty that some men will suffer damnation would clearly attenuate the force of the whole passage. The Church’s affirmations of the existence of hell “are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny” (CCC, n. 1036). The Church has never taught that any man or woman actually is or will end up in hell.7 Finally, the Church’s understanding of hope is fittingly reflected in her liturgical prayers: “Lord, accept the offering of your Church; and may what each individual offers up to the honor of your name lead to the salvation of all. For this we pray to you through Christ our Lord” (Weekday Mass I, Tuesday, Offertory Prayer). “Father, you sent your angel to Cornelius, to show him the way of salvation. Help us to work generously for the salvation of the world so that your Church may bring us and all mankind into your presence” (Liturgy of the Hours, Tuesday, Midafternoon Prayer).

In his anguish over the Israelites’ rejection of Christ St. Paul writes, “I wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren” (Rom 9:3). The hope for the salvation of all as defended by Hans Urs von Balthasar does not entail laxity or presumption in the face of judgment. At its deepest level to hope with Christ means to share in the life of Christ who offers himself eucharistically for the salvation of the world. “You do not save your soul as you save a treasure,” writes Charles Peguy, “You save it as you lose a treasure, by squandering it. We must save ourselves together. We must arrive together before the good Lord. What would he say if we arrived before him alone, if we came home to him without the others?” (The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc).

Nicholas Healy (son of Nicholas Healy, Jr., Vice President for University Relations) graduated from FUS in 1992, and then received his MA in philosophy in 1994. He is currently studying for a doctorate in theology at Oxford University in England.

  1. John Mulloy, ‘A Sharp Departure From Catholic Tradition’ The Wanderer, March 19, 1987: See also ‘Origen, Fr. von Balthasar, and Adrienne von Speyr’ Feb 5th & Feb 12th, 1987. ↑
  2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? with A Short Discourse on Hell, tr. by Dr. David Kipp and Rev. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 237. It should be noted that Balthasar does not extend the virtue of hope to the fallen angels. In a chapter entitled “Satan” in Dare We Hope he writes, “Let it be said at the outset that theological hope can by no means apply to this power” p. 144. ↑
  3. Ibid., p. 85. ↑
  4. Hermann-Josef Lauter, Pastoralblatt; cited in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Epilog (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1987), p. 98. ↑
  5. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Our Task (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), p. 65; See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981), pp. 64-68. ↑
  6. See Margaret Harper McCarthy, Recent Developments in the Theology of Predestination (Ph.D diss. Instituto Giovanni Paolo II per studi su Matrimonio e Famiglia, 1994); “Only twice was the doctrine of predestination an object of the Church’s formal teaching, and this at the Councils of Quiercy (853) and Valence (855), when, in opposition to the notion of a positive predestination to damnation before the foreknowledge of demerits (reprobatio positiva ante praevisa demerita), predestination was limited to the elect (a group of which the Church said nothing). The Church’s unfaltering affirmation of the universal salvific will, furthermore, would appear to take a certain distance from the doctrine as Augustine formulated it.” p. 2. ↑
  7. In 1985 the German Bishops Conference published a Catechism with the approval of Rome which states the following: “Neither Holy Scripture nor the Church’s Tradition of faith asserts with certainty of any man that he is actually in hell. Hell is always held before our eyes as a real possibility, one connected with the offers of conversion and life.” The Church’s Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults, tr. Stephen Wentworth Arndt (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 346. ↑