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Catholic Culture Dedication

Von Balthasar and Salvation

by James T. O'Connor


Analysis of the late Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar's last book, "Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?".

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Catholic Polls, Inc., July 1989

The Ignatius Press edition of Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? is in translation of two small works originally published in German in 1986 and 1987. The first was entitled For What May We Hope?; the second A Short Discussion On Hell. Both books by the justly renowned Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, are quite clearly works born out of pain and of mercy.

The pain involved in the writing of these works reveals itself in the unusual amount of sharp polemic which the author directs against those whose views are at variance with his own, and in the manner in which he describes (at times, almost parodies) the convictions opposed to his. Thus, for example, he characterizes his opponents (i.e., those who maintain that there are, de facto, humans who are or will be eternally damned (as "infernalists,"[1] even while recognizing that some of the Church's greatest saints and theologians (he cites Augustine, Gregory the Great, Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, John Henry Newman, etc.) belong to this category.[2] Fr. von Balthasar finds St. Augustine "whose opinion (whether traceable back to his ten years of Manichaeism may be left open here) has cast an enormous shadow over the history of Western Theology,"[3] especially worthy of criticism. While praising Augustine for his ardent charity and as being the "Father of the Western World," von Balthasar charges that. when writing and speaking of hell "the great man, to whom posterity owes so much, did not do that within the limits laid down by the Gospel."[4] Not only has the great saint left with "the boulder of the Augustinian hell,"[5] but:

It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a massa damnata of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side.

We might ask the great Augustine. . .whether— with his hand on his heart—he ever worried, after his conversion, about his eternal salvation.[6]

What makes the harsh implications of the statement and that rhetorical question more astounding is that it is spoken of the man who, as Possidius, eye-witness and biographer, tells us, spent his last days alone reciting the Penitential Psalms.

Nor is Aquinas who "does not draw back from even the thorniest of questions" spared.[7] He is cited, from his Commentary On the Sentences of Peter Lombard, as having the saints rejoice "not per se, but still "per accidens' " over the fate of the damned.[8]

It may be left to the more diligent to plow through the hundreds upon hundreds of commentaries on the Sentences. . . and to investigate the positions of countless theologians on this embarrassing —1 would rather say instead shameful—problem. But can it be completely avoided under the assumption of a hell that we know with certainty to be full—for instance, if I were to see, from my position in heaven, my mother or my best friend undergoing eternal torture?[9]

Many others receive their share of this polemic, one modern theologian even being described as "a traditionalist, scarcely recognized outsider, but in Germany discovered by right-wingers as a theological luminary."[10]

Such remarks, so untypical of Fr. von Balthasar, arise, we have speculated, from pain. He may give some indication of the cause of that pain when he speaks of his thesis as being "cut to pieces, almost interminably" in certain theological journals in Germany.[11] He goes on to write: "before me lies a related heap of angry letters, entreaties to return to the true Faith and so on. . .I am a heretic for refusing to accept a Church doctrine."[12]

If indeed the harshness of the polemic and of the various judgements is a response to pain, it can be recognized as such and laid aside. It has no direct relevance to the issue, save perhaps to indicate how intensely von Balthasar felt about his thesis.

The thesis itself is prompted, we believe, by mercy. An what is that thesis? Although it is expressed in various ways, it can be found most clearly in the second of two works.

There he writes:

I claim nothing more than this: that these statements [i.e., those of the New Testament which speak of hell] give us a right to have hope for all men, which simultaneously implies that I see no need to take the step from the threats to the positing of a hell occupied by our brothers and sisters, through which our hopes would come to naught.

I do not wish to contradict anyone who, as a Christian, cannot be happy without denying the universality of hope to us so that he can be certain of his full hell: that is, after all, the view of a large number of important theologians, especially among the followers of Augustine. But, in return, I would like to request that one be permitted to hope that God's redemptive work for his creation might succeed. Certainty cannot be attained, but hope can be justified.[13]

We are allowed to hope that no human is eternally damned. This is a founded theological hope, says von Balthasar: it is not a certitude. Indeed each person must existentially live with the real possibility that he or she might be doomed.

It is indispensable that every individual Christian be confronted, in the greatest seriousness, with the possibility of his becoming lost.[14]

If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility, our feelings or 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.[15]

He explicitly and repeatedly denies that he is proposing the theory of apokatastasis, the idea (usually attributed, perhaps erroneously, to Origen) that eventually all, including the devils, will be restored to God's favor and saved. And, although the similarity of his own view with that earlier held by Karl Barth is recognizable, von Balthasar also rejects the Barthian thesis as being too "systematic," going beyond a founded Christian hope.[16]

Nevertheless, although he rejects the theory of apokatastasis, von Balthasar is so categorical in denying that we know that there are or will be humans who are to be eternally damned, and so forceful in defense of a hope for the salvation of all that he appears to be saying that, in fact, no one will be eternally lost.

The certainty that a number of men, especially unbelievers, must end in hell we can leave to Islam, but we must likewise contrast Christian 'universality of redemption to Jewish salvation-particularism'.[17]

Hermann-Josef Lauter poses the uneasy question: '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 (I 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.'[18]

He cites with approval the words of Edith Stein:

All merciful love can thus descend to everyone. We believe that it does so. And now, can we assume that there are souls that remain perpetually closed to such love? As a possibility in principle, this cannot be rejected. In reality, it can become infinitely improbable—precisely through what preparatory grace is capable of effecting in the soul.[19]

The words "infinitely improbable" capture, I think, the tenor of the work as distinguished from its explicit thesis. The thesis states: we may hope that all are saved. We must all live with the real possibility of damnation. However, it is "infinitely improbable" that anyone is damned. And it is this tenor that accounts for the appearance that von Balthasar is saying that in fact no one is doomed. While explicitly and repeatedly stating that a synthesis cannot be made which will give us certitude on this matter, he appears to make one in practice, not in theory.

The Swiss theologian defends his thesis with arguments and indications which, by necessity, are of unequal theological significance. They may be enumerated as follows:

1. The testimony of the "mystics" who indicate that "hope for all men is permitted."[20] Among these testimonies the following are cited: a) Mechtilde of Hackeborn, b) Julianna of Norwich, c) Angela of Foligno, d) Mechtilde of Magdeburg, and e) Adrienne von Speyer, whom the author cites several times[21] and whose writings (based on her mystical experiences) on Christ's descent into hell he strongly defends while indicating that his own thoughts on the matter at hand preceded his meeting with her.[22]

How is one to evaluate such testimonies? At worst they can be dismissed as the illusory fruits of an over-active but pious imagination; at best they would fall under the category of what is called "private revelation," the true content of which must always be carefully separated from the subjective elements (personality, age, mode of expression, etc.) of the "seer."[23] In addition to the general observation, it is clear that such "mystical" experiences can contradict one another. Von Balthasar himself writes:

Catherine [of Sienna] herself and many other mystics who, in their imitation of Christ, had experiences of eternal-seeming damnation and godforsakenness. . . were all convinced, despite everything, that the damnation of many was a fact.[24]

Von Balthasar attempts to evaluate the testimony of those mystics who were convinced that damnation was a fact by presenting it as the mystic's share in the suffering of Christ, which indicates (despite their subjective conviction concerning the damnation of some) their wish to negate what was seen by a suffering hope for the salvation of all. In this way even these mystics testify to the hope for the salvation of all.[25] It does not appear to me to be a particularly successful effort, for, by his own admission, it still leaves us with some mystics subjectively convinced that some humans were lost (although they regretted that fact and prayed against it) while others would appear to have the subjective conviction that God's love will ultimately save all. Such contradictions, as well as the general caution to be applied to private revelations, only serve to remind us that it is to the Scriptures and Tradition, viewed within the context of the Church's teaching, that one must look for reliable guidance when speculating on this issue.

Von Balthasar mentions as well theologians and other Christian writers who, he maintains, agree with what he is saying.[26] In all cases these men speak of hell as being a "real possibility" but, with the exception of Martelet and Leon Bloy, the tenor of their remarks is not the same and few ask the specific question about whether any humans are actually damned. The positions of each cannot be considered here, and little is gained from a citation of authorities since, by his own admission, the number of theologians and saints who held the opposite view is formidable.

2. The New Testament Evidence. In examining the biblical testimony concerning damnation, Fr. von Balthasar confines himself to the New Testament and concludes that there we are faced with two sets of apparently contradictory statements which we, from our limited perspective, are unable to synthesize.

It is generally known that, in the New Testament, two series of statements run along side by side in such a way that a synthesis of both is neither permissible nor achievable: the first series speaks of being lost for all eternity; the second, of God's will, and ability, to save all man.[27]

In attempting to weigh the two series of statements, von Balthasar — with many qualifications—notes a difference between pre- and post-resurrection statements.

I have (as every reader can establish) brought out that the threatening remarks are made predominantly by the pre-Easter Jesus, and the universalist statements (above all in Paul and John) with the view to the redemption that has occurred on the Cross (that there are post-Easter remarks of a threatening nature—for example, 2 Th. 1:6ff; Heb. 4:5ff; 10:26ff; and so forth—is not surprising: the "two ways" are always before man). . .what is at issue here is. . . 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. In no way does this mean that the words and deeds of the pre-Easter Jesus are devalued, but rather that they are given their proper place within the totality and unity of the Word of God.[28]

It would be facile to draw from the distinction the idea that, after his death and resurrection, Jesus would have expressed his earlier remarks about hell differently and then go on to note that, after death, Augustine, Origen, von Balthasar himself and we ourselves could do the same with much more reason than had the Eternal Wisdom of God who, becoming man, was, even during his ministry, the Teacher. However, von Balthasar attempts, in his qualifications, to make clear that, in respect to Jesus, such was not what he intended to say. Nonetheless it is a distinction for which he was much criticized (as he notes),[29] and which he so carefully qualifies in the first of the two booklets. For What May We Hope?, that there would appear to be very little, if anything, to be gained from making it. It raises a multitude of problems (e.g., the question of a "canon within the canon," the knowledge which the "pre-Easter Jesus" possessed, the seriousness with which one is to receive the words of the same "pre-Easter" Jesus, etc.) that, interesting as they may be in themselves, little light is cast on the matter at hand. It may be worth mentioning that, in the second work, A Short Discussion of Hell, he makes no reference to such a distinction when he treats of the New Testament evidence. Whether this omission indicates that he had re-thought the matter and abandoned the position one cannot ascertain from the work. It is sufficient to observe that he is on stronger ground when he remains with what, in both booklets, is his main point concerning the New Testament, viz., two apparently different sets of evidence, one threatening a path to hell (with its "wide the gate which leads to destruction and many enter through it" of Matt. 7:13), the other indicating God's will to save all (with its typical text in I Tim. 2:4: "God our Savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth").

Without conceding that the two series of statements are equal in number or clarity or significance, one must grant that they exist and then look to see how they have been understood within the Church.

3. Historical Development, Tradition and Magisterium. Writing of the Fathers of the Church, von Balthasar states that "the reality of hell is adhered to without exception.[30] As evidence for this he cites the writing beginning with the Martyrdom of Polycarp (dated c. 156 A.D.). In fact, the explicit evidence may be earlier. The so-called Second Epistle of Clement which is actually an anonymous and the oldest extant Christian homily (dated "before the middle of the second century"[31] reads:

For in reference to those who have not guarded the seal [i.e., the seal of Baptism], it says, "Their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be a spectacle to all flesh." So while we are on earth, let us repent. . . For once we have departed this world we can no longer confess there or repent any more.[32]

Von Balthasar goes on to state: . . .

let us return to the Fathers. At first, the view still existed among them that no Christians, even if they had sinned grievously, end up in hell. Cyprian already seems to suggest this, Hilary as well; Ambrose remains formal on the matter, and Jerome no less so.[33]

The statement is disappointingly inaccurate. There is no Father of the Church, up to the time of Cyprian, who says that all Christians, even grievous sinners, will be saved. The quotation above from 2 Clement is typical and it is evident that the speaker of that homily presumes that Christians who do not repent in this life will be eternally lost.

As for Cyprian who is said to "suggest" the salvation of all Christians "even if they had sinned grievously," this is what he says in the text cited by von Balthasar.

Do not suppose, dearest brother, that for the future either the courage of the brethren will be lessened, or that martyrdom will fail, because repentance is made easier for the lapsed and because a hope of peace is offered to the penitent. Indeed, the strength of the faithful will remain unshaken and the integrity of those who fear and love God with their whole heart will continue firm and strong. We allow a time of penance even to adulterers, and peace is given them. Even so, virginity does not on that account fail in the Church, nor does the noble resolve of continence weaken because of the sins of others. The Church flourishes, crowned as it is with so many virgins; and chastity and modesty retain their noble attraction. The vigor of continence, then, is not broken down by making penance and pardon easier for the adulterer.[34]

"A hope of peace is offered to the penitent." If anything is suggested in this passage it is surely not that the unrepentant can be saved. And the texts cited from Hilary and Ambrose are in the same vein, although Ambrose, commenting on the statement that we and all our work will be tested by fire [cf. I Cor. 3:13] states that some will remain in the fire.[35] As for Jerome, it is true that in his earlier writings he followed the opinion usually attributed to Origen, but, as von Balthasar admits, he later changed his mind. In short: contrary to von Balthasar's assertion, there is no Father of the Church, up to the time of Origen, who teaches that all Christians, even those who sinned grievously, are saved. What Augustine will explicitly teach in regard to the actual existence of people in hell, including the possibility of Christians being there, is the implied or explicit doctrine of all the previous orthodox Fathers. In this regard Augustine is no innovator.

From the time of Origen[36] it is true that some of the Fathers of the Church, including possibly Didymus the Blind and certainly St. Gregory of Nyssa, held for the theory of apokatastasis (i.e., the universal restoration and salvation of all). Ultimately the Church was compelled to respond to this teaching through her magisterial office.

It is in his treatment of the statements of the Magisterium that I find von Balthasar's book most disappointing. He gives brief references to most of the crucial teaching,[37] referring twice to the "machinations" of the Emperor Justinian who provoked the condemnations of Origen.[38] One would have wished to see him devote to the Magisterial statements at least some part of the space he gave to the mystics, but perhaps he calculated that the various teachings were already well-known to all, and especially to his critics. Nonetheless, a review of them may be in order.

a) If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of the devils and of evil men is for a time and that there will be an end of it at some time, or that there will be a restoration [Gk. apokatastasis] of the devils and evil men, anathema sit. [DS 411]

This condemnation, directed at those labeled "Origenists" and moved at the initiation of the Emperor Justinian, was adopted by a provincial Synod in Constantinople in 543. Its dogmatic weight is not absolutely clear, although, according to the testimony of Cassiodorus,[39] it was approved by Pope Vigilius during his detention in Constantinople in the years 547-555. Augustine appears to have considered what was taught in this canon to have been, even in his time, a matter of a binding decision of the Church.[40]

It should be clear that this condemnation is not directly contrary to Fr. von Balthasar's thesis. He does not teach that the damned will be eventually restored. He proposes the hope that no humans are or will be actually damned. Furthermore, he teaches, along with this canon and all other pertinent teaching of the Magisterium, that the devil(s) are eternally damned.

Let it be said at the outset that theological hope can by no means apply to this power. . . . From this perspective, the doctrine of a fall of the angels, which is deeply rooted in the whole of Tradition, becomes not only plausible but even, if the satanic is accepted as existent, inescapable.

A totally different question is that of to what extent the concept "person" can still be applied to the satanic being. For being a person always presupposes a positive relation to some fellow person, a form of sympathy or at least natural inclination and involvement. Precisely this, however, would no longer be predicable of a being that had, in its entirety, made a radical decision against God, or absolute love: thus, we would have to join J. Ratzinger in speaking of an "un-person," of the "decomposition, the disintegration of being a person," for which reason it is characteristic of the devil "that he appears without a face, that unrecognizableness is his real strength."[41]

Von Balthasar's own remarks and those of Ratzinger concerning the "non-person-hood" of the devil must be understood in the light of a philosophical approach which correctly stresses the notions of (at least possible) love and relationship as necessary for the definition of a "person" in the full sense. This possibility the devil does not have. Perhaps for this very reason, Pope Paul VI, in his famous catechesis on the devil, refers to the spirits of evil as a "spiritual being" and not a person. This spiritual being exists, however, as having the "personal" characteristics of intelligence and will; in becoming a "nonperson" by rejecting Love the evil spirits are still creatures of intelligence and will.

Evil is not merely an absence of something but an active force, a living, spiritual being that is perverted and that perverts others. It is a terrible reality, mysterious and frightening.[42]

The Devil is the number one enemy, the preeminent tempter. So we know that this dark, disturbing being exists and that he is still at work . . . he is the hidden enemy who sows errors and misfortunes in human history—he is the malign, clever seducer. . .[43]

b) The Quicumque

At Christ's coming, all must rise in their bodies and give an account of their own deeds. Those who have done good will go to eternal life, those who done evil to eternal fire. [DS 76]

The Quicumque, the so-called Athanasian Creed, although composed by a disciple of Augustine, has long been prayed and accepted in both the East and West as a faithful expression of the Church's faith. The first definition of Faith, however, on the existence of hell and eternal damnation belongs to the following document.

c) The Firmiter, Creed of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215:

Christ will come at the end of the ages to judge the living and the dead and to render to each, both damned and elect, according to their works. All of these will rise with their own bodies which they now possess in order to receive according to their works, whether good or bad. The evil will receive perpetual punishment with the devil, the good eternal glory with Christ. [DS 801]

Along with the Firmiter as an infallible expression of the Church's faith one must include as definitive teaching

d) The Benedictus Deus of Benedict XII, January of 1336:

Furthermore we define that, according to the general plan of God, the souls of those dying in actual mortal sin descend to hell soon after death. There they are afflicted with the pains of hell, but nonetheless on the day of judgment all men will appear with their bodies before the tribunal of Christ to render an account of their own deeds so that each one may receive according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10). [DS 1002]

In our own day the doctrines of hell and damnation have been repeated by Paul VI and the Constitution On The Church of Vatican Council II.

e) The Creed of Paul VI, June 30, 1968:

He ascended into heaven, whence He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, each receiving according to his own merits. Those who have responded to the Love and Mercy of God will go to eternal life; those who have rejected that Love and Mercy to the end will go to the fire which will have no end."[44]

f) Lumen Gentium of Vatican II:

#48 Indeed since we know neither the day nor the hour it is necessary to keep vigil constantly, as the Lord warned us, so that, having completed the one course of our earthly life we may merit to enter the marriage banquet with Him and be numbered among the blessed (cf. Matt. 25:31-46) and so that we not be commanded, like evil and lazy servants, to descend to eternal fire (cf. Matt. 25:41) in the exterior darkness where there will be 'weeping and the gnashing of teeth' (Matt. 22:13 and 25:30). For, before we reign gloriously with Christ, all of us will stand before the "tribunal of Christ, so that each may give an account of what he has done in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10) and at the end of the world "those who have done good will go to the resurrection of life, those indeed who have done evil will go to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:29; cf. Matt. 25:46).

In reference to the text from Vatican II it is to be noted that initially there was no reference to the "eternal fire." The reference was explicitly inserted at the request of many bishops. We know as well, from the official Relatio, that the text was not intended to speak of the salvation of all men.[45] From the same source we learned that "one bishop wanted a sentence to be included in which it would be clear that there are damned defacto, lest damnation remain as a mere hypothesis." The request was refused by the Theological Commission responsible for drafting the document, with the comment that "In no. 48 there are cited the words of the Gospel in which the Lord Himself speaks about the damned in a form which is grammatically future."[46] The significance of that remark is that when the Church speaks of damnation of humans she speaks, as Christ himself did, not in a form of grammar which is conditional (i.e., speaking about something which might happen), but in the grammatical future (i.e., about something which will happen). And it was with this understanding that the bishops of Vatican II voted upon and accepted Lumen Gentium.

It has been said that the words of Jesus [and of the Church], future as they are and not conditional, "cannot be considered as absolutely probative" since the words are not intended to give us "a description of the future, a 'futurology', but rather a knowledge of the future which is able to clarify our present."[47] It is true indeed that the future has not been described for us. Only enough has been revealed to stimulate our hope and desire, and to warn us that not all will share what is to be hoped for and desired. But the indications of what is to be hoped for, and the indications that not all will share those wonderful realities must be taken with equal seriousness.

The same grammatical usage about the future of the evil is found in the most recent teaching of the Magisterium on this matter.

g) Instruction Concerning Eschatology, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May, 1979:

The Church, faithful to the New Testament and Tradition, believes in the happiness of the elect who will one day be with Christ. She believes that there will be eternal punishment for the sinner who will be denied the vision of God, and that this punishment will affect the whole being of the sinner."[48]

4. Von Balthasar's theological argumentation for his position. Having looked at the pertinent teaching of the Church, we may now consider, more briefly, von Balthasar's argumentation in defense of his position that we may have theological hope for the salvation of all humans.

a) The Church has never taught that any individual human is damned.

I would like to request that one be permitted to hope that God's redemptive work for his creation might succeed. Certainty cannot be attained, but hope can be justified.

That is probably the reason why the Church which has sanctified so many men, has never said anything about the damnation of any individual.[49]

It is undeniably true that the Church has never done the opposite of canonization and consigned any individual human to hell. This is a fact. Whether this fact has any significance in the present discussion, however, is doubtful. The Church's mission is to teach the truth, preach salvation, propose models for living the Christian life well, and warn against those actions and forms of living which will lead to eternal loss. It is to be questioned whether she has been given the knowledge of power to determine and proclaim the negative results of any individual human life. As a community, that knowledge is reserved for the final judgment. On the other hand, although she does not mention any individual as being among the damned, she, like her Master, does not use the conditional but the future indicative mode when speaking of the outcome of human history in respect to the damnation of some.

b) God's loving mercy and his justice are not equally balanced[50] and we must give full scope to the nature of Christ's sacrificial death and redemption.

One of the many enriching aspects of von Balthasar's book is what he himself writes about the relationship of God's mercy and justice, and what he quotes the various mystics and theologians as saying.

One pauses again and again to ask oneself: do we really have any nearly sufficient appreciation of how much the Lord loves us and gives of himself for our benefit? The answer, of course, must be that we do not. It is an appreciation which has to be constantly deepened, and men like von Balthasar help us do just that. But the question still remains: does God love us so much and will our good in such a way that he leaves us free to reject that love? Von Balthasar's answer is "Yes, we must accept that possibility, but we must hope that it does not happen." To substantiate that hope, however, he must not only ignore the significance of the future mode of speaking in the teaching of Christ and the Church when speaking of humans being damned, he must also (and does) call into question traditional and important theological categories, namely those concerning God's will. In regard to the traditional distinction which says that God's will to save all men is not absolute but conditioned on their free cooperation, he writes:

The question is whether God, with respect to his plan of salvation, ultimately depends, and wants to depend, upon man's choice; or whether his freedom, which wills only salvation and is absolute, might not remain above things human, created, and therefore relative.[51]

To the question he gives no direct answer, although he uses irony against the notion of a conditional will in God.[52] Nor does he deal with what it would mean to remove from theology the notion of a "conditional" aspect to God's Will, even though such a removal would touch upon the manner in which God (absolutely?) wills (permits?) sin, human and natural catastrophes and the like. Furthermore, to make a fitting appreciation of God's mercy (and indeed it is true that his justice serves his mercy) dependent upon our ability to have theological hope about his absolute will to save his creatures is, ultimately, self-deception or a denial that he is Mercy above all since, in fact, God has not absolutely willed to save all his creatures, as von Balthasar himself admits. We can see this as we consider the next point in his argumentation.

c) Love and hope are not unreserved love and hope if we have accepted as certain that all are not saved. Von Balthasar writes:

Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person's being lost besides himself is hardly able to love unreservedly.[53]

He admits that such a thesis is "practical-prescriptive and not theoretical-cognitive," but is it really true? If love is to be truly unreserved, why confine it to humans? Long ago Augustine saw the inherent difficulty in such a position and wrote:

Now if this opinion is good and true because it is merciful, then it will be the better and the truer the more merciful it is. Then let the fountain of mercy be deepened and enlarged until it reaches as far as the damned angels. . . Why should this fountain flow as far as the whole of human nature, and then dry up as soon as it reaches the angels?"[54]

Admitting our very limited knowledge about the history of the angelic order, we know, nevertheless, that some of them rejected God in such a form as to incur eternal damnation. Von Balthasar himself, as we have seen above, admits this. Yet those spiritual beings were, like us, the work of his creative love. Creatures of an intelligence and will greater than our own, they too were beings of beauty and, what is more, recipients of divine grace, subjects of his love. Yet, because of their sin, their loving Creator left them to eternal damnation, loving them still—at least to the extent of preserving them in being. Is our love and compassion not to be extended to all those intelligent beings who inhabit this universe with us? Is our love not unreserved because we know that some of them are eternally lost to God and to us? And is it not presumptuous to imagine that we are more worthy of his compassion than they? For one who takes the existence of angels and their history seriously (as von Balthasar does), the damnation of some of them must be a sobering reminder that the all-merciful and just God remains for us beyond our understanding.

When he made his own reflections on the awesome questions raised by Fr. von Balthasar in his little book, the Doctor of grace and charity said:

I am aware that I now have to engage in a peaceful dispute with the merciful among us who are unwilling to believe that the punishment of gehenna will be eternal either in the case of all those, or at least some of those, whom the completely just Judge accounts deserving of that punishment.[55]

Augustine admired the merciful intent, but as teacher and pastor rejected the truth and the consequences of the position put forth by the merciful. Indeed, pastorally speaking, it could prove to be, as he saw, a deceptive mercy, one which would lead to a presumption of salvation for all.

In the light of what it has been given us to know, we must presume that (in numbers completely unknown to us) humans will be included in "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41), and that we ourselves could be among that number. It is such a presumption that the words of Jesus and the teaching of the Church would appear to have as their own, and better guides in this matter we cannot have. Against such a presumption one cannot have what is properly defined as theological hope, but one can and must have a human hope, a wish which expresses itself in prayer and zealous efforts, for the salvation of all. For we do and must pray: "Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy."


1 op. cit., p. 178.

2 op. cit., pp. 65, 75, 25.

3 op. cit., p. 165.

4 op. cit., p. 71. To buttress his judgment, von Balthasar cites passages from Henri Rondet and Andre Manaranche who speak, respectively, of Augustine as "the theologian of grace (who) was vanquished by the theologian of original sin" and as one who on this point "throws sacred history out of balance by centering it on Adam instead of Christ" (idem, footnote 55).

5 op. cit., p. 150.

6 op. cit., p. 191.

7 op. cit. , p. 201.

8 op. cit. , p. 201

9 idem., pp. 201-202.

10 idem., p. 170, note 19.

11 idem., p. 163.

12 idem., p. 163.

13 idem., p. 187.

14 idem., p. 85.

15 idem., p. 237.

16 idem., p. 44-45. Cf., also, p. 154.

17 idem., p. 213.

18 idem.. p. 213.

19 idem., p. 219.

20 idem., p. 97. It must be noted, as von Balthasar himself admits (p. 217), that not all the persons he cites are in full harmony with his position. Some of them held that there were human beings eternally damned.

21 idem., cf. p. 70, note 54; p. 99, pp. 140-142; p. 162: p. 217.

22 idem., pp. 167-168.

23 Concerning private revelations, Karl Rahner wisely observed: "For any given private revelation is always. . .a synthesis in which the character of the recipient, as determined historically (theologically, culturally, etc.) and psychologically (or para-psychologically), is fused with the mystical or normal grace given to him in the depths of his existence. Hence one cannot exclude the possibility of illusions, misinterpretations and distortions even where there is genuine private revelation according to the ordinary criteria by which mystical phenomena are judged. . . .The 'genuineness' of a private revelation is a very variable quantity." ("Private Revelations " Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 5, p. 358.)

24 Von Balthasar, op. cit., pp. 215-216.

25 idem, pp. 216-217.

26 Von Balthasar, idem, pp. 168-169. He includes such famous names are Erich Przywara, de Lubac, Rondet, Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Rahner.

27 idem, p. 29.

28 idem, pp. 21-22.

29 ibid.

30 idem, p. 49.

31 C. Richardson. Early Christian Fathers, Macmillan Co., 1970, p. 189. J. Quasten, Patrology, I, p. 54 dates it around 150.

32 2 Clement, 7:6 to 8:4. Trans. in Richardson op cit., p. 196.

33 Von Balthasar, op. cit., p. 58.

34 Cyprian, Epistle 55:20. The translation is from Wm. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1970), I, p. 230, no 576a. The Latin is found in the CSEL, vol. 3, 2.

35 Von Balthasar cites Hilary's In Ps. 57:7. It can be read in the CSEL, vol. 22, pp. 180-181. The citation from Ambrose in his In Ps. 36:26 which can be read in the CSEL, vol. 64, p. 92.

36 Von Balthasar spends a good deal of time explaining the exact teaching of Origen himself on the theory of universal restoration. His historical conclusions—and he was a recognized expert in the field—do not touch directly on his own thesis and we will not consider them here.

37 Cf., von Balthasar, op. cit., pp. 24, 47, and 183.

38 idem. pp. 59 and 245.

39 Cassiodorum, De institut., PL 70, 1111.

40 St. Augustine, City of God, Book XXI, ch. 17, CCL, 48, p. 783.

41 Von Balthasar, op. cit., pp. 144-146.

42 Paul VI, Wednesday Catechesis of Nov. 15, 1972, The Pope Speaks, vol. 17, no. 4, p. 316.

43 Paul VI, idem, pp 317-318.

44 Paul VI, Credo, AAS, 60 (1968), p. 438.

45 Acta Synodalia, vol. 3, part 8, p. 140.

46 Acta Synodalia, vol. 3, part 8, pp. 144-145.

47 Jean Herve Nicolas, O.P., Synthese dogmalique, Edicions Universitaires Firbourg Suisse, Beauchesne, Paris, 1986, p. 619.

48 AAS, vol. 71 (1979), pp. 941-942.

49 Von Balthasar, op. cit., p. 187.

50 Von Balthasar, op. cit., pp. 148ff and p. 53, note 10.

51 Von Balthasar, op. cit., p. 15.

52 Cf. von Balthasar, idem, pp. 183-184.

53 Von Balthasar, idem, p. 211 and following.

54 St. Augustine, City of God, Book XXI, ch. 17, CCL, 48, p. 783.

55 St. Augustine, City of God. Book XXI, ch. 17, p. 783.

Reverend James T. O'Connor is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A member of the faculty of St. Joseph's Seminary, Yonkers, New York since 1972, he is currently chairman of the dogma department.

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