Hans Urs Von Balthasar: the Rob Bell of his day

I started reading the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?”, and right off the bat what struck me is how similar the public controversy over Von Balthasar’s views was to the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”

Obviously there are vast differences here. Von Balthasar was a brilliant (and at times obscure) theologian; Bell is an evangelical preacher whose talents lie more in communicating his message than theological originality. But the controversy, at least based on Von Balthasar’s account here, was drawn along remarkably similar lines.

Here’s Von Balthasar on the criticisms leveled at him by some of his contemporaries (this all took place in the mid-80s). The question at hand is “whether one who is under judgment, as a Christian, can have hope for all men”:

I have ventured to answer this affirmatively and was, as a result, called to order rather brusquely by the editor of Fels (G. Hermes); in Theologisches, Heribert Schauf and Johannes Bokmann added their voices to this reprimand. . . . At a press conference in Rome, besieged about the question of hell, I had made known my views, which had led to gross distortions in newspapers (“L’inferno e vuoto“), whereupon I published, in Il Sabato, that Kleine Katechese über die Hölle (Short Discourse on Hell), which was reprinted in L’Osservatore Romano without my knowledge and aroused the ire of the right-wing papers.

Bokmann is perfectly correct: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.” However, I never spoke of certainty but rather of hope. The three critics, by contrast, possess a certainty, and G. Hermes expresses it with matchless force: “Such a hope does not exist, because we cannot hope in opposition to certain knowledge and the avowed will of God.” It is impossible that “we can hope for something about which we know that it will certainly not come about.” Therefore, the closing sentence of the essay declares tersely: “There is no hope for the salvation of all.” If I speak “no less than five times” of the fully real possibility, which confronts every person, of forfeiting salvation, the retort I get is that the matter is “not” treated “seriously by putting on a stern face but by stating the entire and full truth. And the full truth about hell is not stated if one only speaks of its possibility . . . and not its reality.” At this point, a first paradoxical statement occurs: “If we once admit that it is really and seriously possible, even considering all the opposing arguments, that men are damned, then there is also no convincing argument against men’s really being damned.” This is not comprehensible to me: if God sets the “two ways” before Israel, does it necessarily follow that Israel will choose the way of ruin? There was certainly no lack of seriousness behind the presentation of the two ways. But G. Hermes, of course, knows that the possibility is reality; he is not the only one, as we will see, who knows this. Just how will become evident from what follows here.

But first one other regrettable thing: as a consequence of not sharing in this secure knowledge–and R. Schnackenberg, for instance, does not share it when he says of Judas Iscariot that it “is not certain that he is damned for all eternity”–one is then numbered among those “average Catholics” who veil the hereafter in a “rose-red fog” and “wishful fancies”, participate “irresponsibly and cruelly” in “operation mollification” through their “salvation-optimism”, adopt the “dull and colorless garrulousness of present-day Church discourse”, practice “modernistic theology” and call for “presumptuous trust in God’s mercifulness.” So be it; if I have been cast aside as a hopeless conservative by the tribe of the left, then I now know what sort of dung-heap I have been dumped upon by the Right. (pp. 16-20, footnotes omitted).

Change a few names, and lower the general level of erudition all around, and you’ve essentially got the debate between Bell and many of his evangelical critics.

Rob Bell’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About God”

I think the book suffered a bit from not being as tightly focused as “Love Wins.” The earlier book could assume a fair bit of common ground, as it was tackling what is mainly an intra-Christian debate, but here Bell’s target audience seems to more explicitly be the skeptic, the seeker, and the “spiritual but not religious,” as well as the disaffected evangelical.

The results are mixed. We get an overstuffed yet not-fully-persuasive chapter on science and faith. At the same time, the chapter on religious language does little more than make the point that language about God is symbolic. (This is a bit ironic given the book’s title.)

On the other hand, the three central chapters on God “with,” “for,” and “ahead” of us were golden. Chapter 5 (“For”) in particular is pure gospel. Bell doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve (or in his (largely nonexistent) footnotes), but it’s not hard to detect a little Tillich here, a dash of Moltmann there, and a dollop of process theology. But he’s really at his best in expounding the story of Jesus and his love–once again giving the lie to critics who’d like to brand him as some kind of heretic or post-Christian.

Throughout, Bell amply justifies his reputation as a first-class communicator. Reading this book brought home to me how much even the most “accessible” religious books tend to be steeped in theological jargon. It wasn’t a life-changing book for me by any means, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the first book I’d recommend on the topic. Many mainliners in particular, I imagine, would regard a lot of what Bell writes as old hat to some extent.

But Bell is doing something that hardly anyone else is doing: delivering (more-or-less) solid, progressive-leaning Christian theology in a way that (apparently) communicates far beyond the frontiers of the church. That seems like something mainline Protestants in particular could learn from these days.

Some extremely belated observations on Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

With my unerring penchant for striking while the iron is stone cold, I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins over the weekend. I liked it–Bell has a knack for getting theological concepts across in friendly conversational prose without dumbing them down. He homes in on the heart of the Christian gospel–God’s abundant, overflowing love–and conveys it in a way that, I suspect, non-Christians might find quite appealing. It is, in short, “good news.”

But what struck me most was the orthodoxy of Bell’s views. Given all the hubbub surrounding the book, I was expecting something a little more envelope-pushing. But Bell, notably, does not deny the existence of hell, doesn’t say that everyone will be saved, and doesn’t deny the unique, salvific importance of Jesus.

I’d call Bell’s view “hopeful universalism.” He thinks that God leaves us free to reject God’s love but hopes that ultimately the persistence of that love will reconcile everyone. His understanding of heaven and hell and the cosmic scope of redemption is drawn from such radical theological sources as C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. His understanding of the work of Christ seems fully orthodox, even though he (rightly, in my view) sees different theories of Atonement as mutually complementary metaphors for that work.

As I suspected, in fact, the controversy over Bell’s book says a lot more about the self-appointed heresy-hunters and boundary-enforcers in contemporary evangelicalism than it does about him. There is a vocal minority that wants to define a simplistic version of Reformed evangelicalism as constitutive of the gospel–complete with insisting on “conscious eternal torment” for unbelievers and the monstrous doctrine of double predestination. And they have, unfortunately, had some success. But the Christian tradition is far wider than that. And while I don’t agree with everything he says, Bell’s book fits comfortably within the mainstream of that tradition.