In Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?, Hans Urs Von Balthasar takes as his starting point that the Bible contains “irreconcilable” statements on the ultimate destiny of humanity. There are passages that hold out the threat of everlasting punishment, but there are others that speak hopefully about the ultimate reconciliation or restoration of all things. Von Balthasar says that there are a variety of responses that have been made to this, but what we can’t do is simply write off either set of statements.
And all of [these responses], indeed, must come to terms with the notion of a primarily cyclical apokatastasis, without, arrogant or unconcerned, simply dismissing the horrifying thought that 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. We may not simply ignore such a threat; we may not easily dismiss it, neither for ourselves nor for any of our brothers and sisters in Christ. (p. 237)
In general, Von Balthasar sees damnation as something self-inflicted. God’s will to save is universal, and he rejects any doctrine of double predestination. But the possibility remains that some will reject God’s love. This possibility–enunciated in many places in the Bible–must be taken seriously. At one point, Von Balthasar refers approvingly to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which imaginatively portrays the self-damnation of those who won’t (can’t?) accept God’s love.
Yet Von Baltahasar believes that hope can have still have the last word. Not as a theoretical or speculative matter: we don’t know that everyone will be saved. Nor, for that matter, do we know that anyone will be damned. He is a staunch foe of presumptuous certainty on either side of this question.
But given God’s desire that all will be saved, we can hope that, somehow, the divine love will ultimately win over even the most recalcitrant heart. This doesn’t mean there will be no punishment–there may be a penultimate “purifying fire” necessary to purge those parts of us which are incompatible with God’s Kingdom. But we can–and should–hope that God’s mercy will prevail. For Von Balthasar, this is an existential not a theoretical or dogmatic stance: we should treat each person we encounter as someone who is destined for eternal life.
I was already largely convinced of something like Von Balthasar’s position before I read this. Though I’m definitely sympathetic to universalism, on balance I think it’s better to let the scriptural warnings stand and avoid dogmatism on this. As Von Balthasar likes to put it, we are under judgment, but our judge is Christ, who is the merciful Savior.