Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Dare we Hope “That All Men be Saved”? Trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.
Why an otherwise conservative Jesuit press like Ignatius would publish Von Balthasar’s most controversial book is one of life’s little mysteries. According to the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar (1905-1988), so is whether or not anyone is going to hell. The basic argument of this book is that Christians have absolutely no evidence that anyone is actually in hell and that therefore it is reasonable to hope that all people shall be saved. Whatever one thinks about the doctrine of universal reconciliation (apokatastasis), it clearly emerges from a profound respect for God and a high view of the resurrection. At the heart of Von Balthasar’s message is the idea that God’s love and mercy is greater than man’s sinfulness, and ultimately “mercy triumphs over judgement.” This sort of hopeful universalism has been expounded in various forms not only by leading Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, or Hans Küng, but also by prominent Protestants, including Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and J. A. T. Robinson (see the comments section).
The first and most obvious objection to apokatastasis is the fact that Jesus spoke so frequently about hell. Von Balthasar responds that all of these sayings come from the “pre-Easter Jesus.” This means that “the pre-Easter Jesus lives toward his “hour”, when his earthly downfall will be transformed into the full “overcoming of the world” (Jn 16:33) and when, for the first time, through the Passion and Resurrection of the Son, the Father will have spoken all of his Word to the end, which only then, through the Holy Spirit, will become understandable to the disciples, and subsequently to the entire believing Church.” Von Balthasar never really explains how hell nonetheless became such an integral part of the Church’s kerygma (preaching) long after Jesus had ascended into heaven. Moreover, Jesus seems to have been quite serious when he spoke about wise and foolish virgins and sheep and goats. Von Balthasar does’t really explain Jesus’ teaching on hell so much as he dismisses those passages as irrelevant to his argument. He insists that he isn’t talking about whether hell exists but about whether it is populated.
After concluding the the New Testament passages are contradictory and open to interpretation, Von Balthasar looks to the early Church. He finds that early formulations of standard doctrine mentioned Christ’s judgement but that the idea that there are two options in the afterlife – heaven or hell – did not enter statements of faith until the Pseudo-Athanasianum in the year 430. While Tertullian believed that “all the sages and philosophers with their schools … are roasted,” most other speculative thinkers in the centuries after Christ argued that sinners created their own hells as they rejected God. Origen (182-254) suggested that “at a certain point, in a soul that has accumulated all sorts of evil deeds and sins, this mixture catches fire and begins, in punishment of the soul, to burn.” Others preferred to think of hell simply as a self-imposed separation from God. Thus Ambrose (340-397): “What is the outer darkness? Does a prison exist there, minelike excavations in which the offender is locked away? No; but rather, those who persist in remaining outside of God’s promise and order are in the outer darkness.” Augustine (354-430): “He who has begun to sense, to any extent at all, the sweetness of wisdom and truth understands what a punishment it would be just to be banished as far from God’s countenance.” Or John Chrysostom (347-407): “Many tremble at the mere mention of gehenna, but for me the loss of this higher glory is more terrible than the tortures of hell.” In Von Balthasar’s words, “by him who irrevocably rejects the fire of God’s love that fire can experienced only as a consuming one.”
In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued that we cannot hope for someone else to be saved because hope applies “only to such good things as affect the one who hopes for them.” At the same time, Aquinas was happy to pray for everyone to be saved on the grounds that God loves everyone. Von Balthasar pushes him on this point: “The question that hovers in the background, and remains unstated, is how far this love extends. If one believes in the twofold predestination advocated by Augustine and adheres, on the basis of that, to the certainty that a number of people will be damned, one might object that love would have to stop at this barrier. But we are not forced by Scripture to make such an assumption.”
Drawing on C. S. Lewis and others, Von Balthasar then argues that the choice to embrace God’s mercy is a personal one and that salvation can be rejected. God is both judgement and mercy, Von Balthasar claims, and unmerciful humans bring judgement upon themselves while the merciful in turn receive God’s mercy. Mystics who have meditated extensively on the love of God repeatedly arrive at the idea that God’s love will ultimately save all of mankind. Von Balthasar quotes Mechtilde of Hackeborn, Angela of Foligno, Julian of Norwich, and Thérèse of Lisieux among others, all of whom had visions, prophecies and revelations involving universal reconciliation. He follows them with a chapter devoted to Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), who wrestled with the problem of hell for over ten years before deciding that “the Father is strict and threatening beforehand, so that he will have to be less punishing later on.”
When he attends to Paul’s idea in 1 Cor 15:54 and 2 Cor 5:4 that death is “swallowed up” (katapinein) by life and victory, Von Balthasar argues that it “implies an overcoming of such a kind that … everything negative inherent in death and infernum is taken up into the pure positivity of what is victorious over it.” God does overcome evil and He restores sinners before pardoning them, so to suggest that emphasizing God’s mercy diminishes the importance of His justice is to fail to appreciate the power of the resurrection. For this reason, Von Balthasar concludes that “one ought to stay well away from so systematic a statement [that hell exists] and limit oneself to that Christian hope that does not mask a concealed knowing but rests essentially content with the Church’s prayer, as called for in 1 Timothy 2:4, that God wills that all men be saved.”
For those intrigued by the list of universalists, I quote here in full a footnote from J. I. Packer, “Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?” in Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson eds., Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004) p. 173. The snide remarks about each author are, of course, Packer’s:
Barth holds that through and in Jesus Christ all humankind has been and now actually is redeemed, and faith is simply believing this to be the truth about oneself. But, fearing it would infringe upon God’s freedom should he speak of the destiny of unbelievers, Barth takes “no position for or against” universalism – no dogmatic position, that is (The Humanity of God [Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1960], 61). Wishfully, however, he says: “Universal salvation remains an open possibility for which we may hope” (Church Dogmatics IV.3 [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961], 478). His unwillingness to embrace dogmatic universalism is deeply problematical, for his insistence on the factuality of every person’s actual redemption makes it seem as if the divine freedom he wants to safeguard is simply God’s freedom to not take his own achievement in Christ seriously – which is, of course, unthinkable.
Brunner states: “We teach … the Last Judgment … and universal salvation” (understanding biblical statements about both as having an invitational rather than informational logic, and insisting that so understood the former does not cancel out the latter). “We must hearken to the voice that speaks of world judgment as God’s voice, that we may fear Him, and we must hearken to the voice that speaks of the reconciliation of all as God’s voice, that we may love him” (The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation: Dogmatics, vol. 3 [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962], 421-22, 424). Brunner is ruling out any Bible-based denial of universalism as exegetically wrong-headed, in accordance with his control belief that truth from God is met as we move dialectically between mutually exclusive poles of thought that Scripture sets before us. Brunner’s control belief, however, seems to have died with him.
Kung sounds like Barth as he declares: “Christian faith represents radical universalism, but one grounded and made concrete in, and centered upon, Jesus Christ. … Every human being can be saved, and we may hope that everyone is…” And then, not so Barth-like: “Every religion can be a way of salvation, and we may hope that every one is.” (“The Freedom of Religions”  in Owen C. Thomas, ed., Attitudes Toward Other Religions [London: SCM, 1969], 216). Kung here develops further Vatican II’s development of a qualified affirmation of non-Christian religions.
MacQuarrie writes: “A doctrine of conditional immortality is at least preferable to the barbarous doctrine of an eternal hell. … But perhaps the Christian hope can carry us further even than a belief in conditional immortality … we prefer a doctrine of ‘universalism’ to one of ‘conditional immortality.’ …” (Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd ed. [New York: Scribner’s, 1977], 361). Whether questions of objective divine fact should be decided by subjective personal preference is, of course, a question in itself.