Hans Urs Von Balthasar was a Swiss Catholic theologian, enormously influential for the 20th century Church along with the likes of Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger. His writings have a massive breadth both topically and considering the amount of books (nearly 100) he wrote during his lifetime. He was to be consecrated a cardinal of the Catholic Church, but died shortly before the ceremony.
This small book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? is more like a brief treatise on eschatological hope. Balthasar writes with great clarity and grace, and upon the magnitude of his significance alone, this book is worth reading.
He begins by framing the question in the form of a hope, not a certainty. The title of the book implies that Balthasar investigates whether it is acceptable to hope that all humans will eventually be saved. Of course, Balthasar thinks it perfectly acceptable to hope that all people will be saved, even later going as far as positing this hope as an obligation born out of Christian love for others. Balthasar’s opponents are adamant that one cannot hope for all because we are certain that some (often many) will be in hell. Many have gone as far as questioning Balthasar’s Christianity for espousing his hopeful attitude. Usually these people, Balthasar names them the “crowded hell” camp, refer to scriptures that point toward a two-fold outcome of the final judgement – some to heaven, others to hell. He asks whether or not their certainty that people will be damned actually hinders Christ’s work upon the cross, and that it implies hell is stronger than Christ.
In face of the many quotable passages of scripture that are levied against him, Balthasar is quick to point out the equally numerous and clear passages that teach universal salvation in the New Testament. Christ says he will draw all men to himself (John 12:32), Paul writes on the universal extensiveness of God’s mercy in Christ (Romans 5, using “all” an extraordinary amount of times), and 1 Timothy expresses God’s desire for the salvation of all. Add to that Paul’s theology of the salvation of the Cosmos in Ephesians and Colossians, as well as arguing for the present-oriented nature of texts like Matthew 25 and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the New Testament seems equally clear that all people will experience salvation. It is not enough, therefore, to point out texts that portray a two-fold outcome of a future judgment because they do not invalidate these other, equally clear texts of hope for all.
Balthasar takes some time to reflect on the nature of Christian prayer for all people, whether God hears and celebrates the prayers (both liturgically formulated and those in private devotion) that have historically petitioned God to save all people. His footnote quotations of various prayers from the Catholic liturgical year are well worth a quick perusal. After these interpretative remarks on the New Testament and Christian prayer, Balthasar goes through a few periods of Church history examining the doctrines held by theologians such as Origen, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. He insightfully determines that the Church, up until Augustine (for the most part) was unwilling to pronounce the certainty that people would in fact be in hell. Until then, the Church only expressed the reality of the judgment, and did not go as far as to proclaiming the two possible outcomes of that judgment with certainty that some will be judged and sent to Hell.
For Balthasar, these historical investigations are tied to his overall project of demonstrating why it is unhealthy to proclaim certainty that people are going to, or are already in, hell. He has a wonderful section outlining the testimony of notable saints such as Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux, whom all, to one degree or another, witnessed to the incompatibility of love and damnation by doing everything they could in life to block off the possibility of hell for humans.
Julian writes that it is God’s desire to save all because God has “turned the greatest possible harm into good [the cross]…so [God] will turn all lesser evil into good.” For Therese, hell “is overcome in the Passion and descent of the Lord, and we overcome it somehow together with him by having compassion.”
Moving forward, Balthasar has some really profound things to say about the personal character of hell. He argues that the possibility of hell (real as it is) is directed towards individuals. Not to “other” individuals, but to myself. It is my own worry, and not for me to make the fate of others. Balthasar writes, “It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell, one also places oneself on the other side.” It’s always “others” that are going to hell, not me. Balthasar argues that this is the exact attitude of the pharisee who said, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” in the profound parable of Jesus. Hell, for Balthasar, is a personal possibility. He cites Kierkegaard in this regard who famously wrote in his Fear and Trembling, “I am literally quite certain that everyone else will easily attain the bliss of heaven, and only I shall not… Telling other people ‘You are eternally lost’ is something I cannot do. As far as I am concerned, the situation is that all the others will, of course, go to heaven; the only doubt is whether I shall get there.” And with these sentiments, Balthasar proves relevant to those who are quick to condemn others to hell, but do not recognize the personal character of its possibility for themselves, instead lavishing it upon anyone “other” than them. In fact, the proclamation that others will certainly be in hell is incompatible, for Balthasar, with the Christian obligation to love their neighbors. How could one truly love another whom they think will be in an eternal inferno? This, for Balthasar, is partly why it is our duty, out of love, for hope for the salvation of all.
After a few intermittent chapters, Balthasar concludes by reflecting on the nature of love and justice. Often in the present day, people will express the vastness of God’s love only to the extent that they are willing to chime in “we cannot forget about God’s justice!” Yet Balthasar doesn’t think the two can be opposed to one another as if they were contrasting attributes of God (as many today seem to think). He writes that God’s justice is incomplete without mercy and love. Without mercy, justice is actually injustice. Justice, for Balthasar, is part of God’s goodness and mercy, subordinate under the fundamental description of God as love.
To conclude, Balthasar does not attempt to offer a synthesis from the two ways of talking about the judgment – a prediction that some will be in hell, and another that expresses the reality of the salvation of all. He doesn’t think such a synthesis is possible. I suspect, on my reading, that this book would be wonderful for anyone who questions the tradition of a “crowded hell” or who wants to research for themselves theologies that hold out hope for all people. I also suspect that those unwilling to admit to multiple threads within the New Testament that express different desires and realities will be unconvinced by this book due to an erroneously flat reading of the New Testament. This book was of immense help to myself in thinking through these issues, yet the reader must approach the book with charity, looking to learn from Balthasar, and not merely to critique him before one reads the words on the page.