Von Balthasar’s hopeful almost-universalism

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.

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9 thoughts on “Von Balthasar’s hopeful almost-universalism

  1. I long held a position like that of von Balthasar’s. It is of course important to remember that von Balthasar was bound by the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium; hence he probably could not have taken a step further toward a more confident hope without being accused of heresy.

    In the past year I have taken the step from a modest hope to a confident hope. The homilies of St Isaac the Syrian have been very influential. (See my series on St Isaac’s eschatological views: http://goo.gl/eDDQt.) Once one has abandoned a retributive understanding of eternal the punishment of hell, it becomes increasingly difficult to entertain the possibility of any rational being holding out forever against the infinite mercy and love of the One who is their supreme Good.

  2. Von Balthasar’s (almost) fellow Jesuit Avery Dulles wrote a summery of the Catholic thought on hell and mentions that Karl Rahner also believed there was no guarantee anyone was there …

    “While allowing for the real possibility of eternal damnation, says Rahner, we must simultaneously maintain “the truth of the omnipotence of the universal salvific will of God, the redemption of all by Christ, the duty of men to hope for salvation.” Rahner therefore believes that universal salvation is a possibility.”

    Then he goes into much more detail about Von Balthasar’s ideas on hell …
    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/the-population-of-hell-23

  3. A movement away from Balthasar’s qualified hopefulness seems to be occurring in the Catholic Church: see, e.g., Ralph Martin’s book *How Many Will Be Saved?* (http://goo.gl/emzeT). They would describe Balthasar’s position as both naive and destructive to evangelization. Also see *Light in Darkness* by Alyssa Pitstick. It will be interesting to see how things shake out on this question in the next decade or two. My guess is that confidence that hell is populated will grow. Even Pope Benedict, as sympathetic as he is to Balthasarian theology, seems to be confident that at least some will be damned. But if some, why not many?

    • I remember reading Alyssa Pitstick’s criticisms of HuvB in (I think) First Things several years back. If this is a trend in R.C. theology, it’s an unfortunate one (IMO).

      p.s. I’ve been reading through your series on St. Isaac and enjoying it very much. Is there a relatively accessible collection of his writings that you’d recommend?

      • Lee, regarding St Isaac’s writings, there really is only two books to get, both very expensive (they are both cited in my articles). I strongly recommend Hilarion Alfeyev’s introduction to St Isaac: http://goo.gl/6BE1s.

  4. Pingback: Kimel and Hart on universalism | A Thinking Reed

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