The Swiss Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1909-1988) was one of the most erudite theologians of the twentieth century. He was first a Jesuit priest whose prolific writings, numbering over 100 books and articles, had a significant impact on the Catholic Church. His 1952 book, Razing the Bastions, helped to set the tone for the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII in calling the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Love Alone: the Way of Revelation was published in 1968, followed by Convergences: To the Source of the Christian Mystery in 1969. Considered his most important work, he wrote a spiritual trilogy from 1961–1987, published in fifteen volumes: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. Other noted works include Prayer, Mary for Today, and Credo:Meditations on the Apostles' Creed. He founded the theological journal Communio in 1972, along with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac. Called by Pope John Paul II to become a Cardinal, he died the day before the ceremony.
His book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved (With A Short Discourse On Hell) was published in Germany in 1986, and in English in 1988 by Ignatius Press. It is an excellent introduction into the question of Salvation. Balthasar accepted the "Exegetical Problem" - that some Biblical references speak of salvation for all, while other references refer to eternal fire and damnation. Balthasar concluded we cannot solve this dilemma, for we are under judgement and, given our free will, must choose one of two ways on our pilgrimage in life here on earth. Hell is a real possibility, but we can Hope that all are saved. He made the important point that Hell is not for us to judge someone else, but for us to reflect on Hell for ourselves, to avoid going there! Here are a few excerpts from the book.
Balthasar begins the Chapter on the New Testament: "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 or achievable: the first series speaks of being lost for all eternity; the second of God's will, and ability, to save all men" (page 29, 1988 Edition; 18, 2014 Edition). After reflecting on the life of Jesus, his Cross and Resurrection, he contrasts the two ways - heaven or hell - found in Matthew 25:31-46; and then follows with references for universal salvation in John 12:32, Acts 3:21 apokatastasis panton - universal restoration, Romans 5:17-21, the Resurrection of Christ in First Corinthians 15; Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:19-20, and First Timothy 2:3-6.
In Chapter 3 on Origen and Augustine, he begins "in the early centuries, Church documents "are nothing but the abbreviated formulations of the Parable of Judgement in Matthew 25, with its separation of the sheep from the goats, after which the former are admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven while the latter are dispatched to the eternal fire. Every Christian creed can take no other position than that under the judgement of Christ, and therefore must confront the believer with "both ways," the two possible outcomes of his destiny" (page 48, 1988; 33, 2014).
Balthasar raises questions with the idea that God created hell. He references Origen, who referred to the Servant Song of Isaiah 50:11, that men create their own hell. "But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment."
This idea met with approval and frequent emulation, such as St. Ambrose: "Those who persist in remaining outside of God's promises and order are in the outer darkness." St. Jerome always speaks only of a spiritual fire, since the spiritual soul cannot be touched at all by a material fire. Balthasar comments: "From all this it is clear, for one thing, that we cannot say that God has 'created hell'; no one but man can be blamed for its existence." Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said, "Christ allocates ruin to no one: he himself is pure salvation. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation." The Frenchman George Bernanos, in his Diary of A Country Priest, has the country parson inform the countess, "Hell, my dear lady, is not loving anymore." Balthasar continues to reference Fyodor Dostoevski of Russia in The Brothers Karamazov on his Parable The Little Onion: "the wicked old woman, clinging to the onion she had once given to a beggar - the only good deed she had ever done in her whole life - is being drawn up out of the Lake of Fire by the angel holding the onion; noticing this, other sinners take hold of her so that they can be pulled out along with her. But the woman was wicked, very wicked, and kicked them away, screaming, 'Only I am to be pulled out, not you; it is my onion, not yours.' As soon as she had said that, the little plant broke in two, and the woman fell back into the lake, and remains there burning to this very day" (pages 51-56, 1988; 37-40, 2014).
In Chapter 4, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas raises the question on hope: "Can someone hope for the eternal life of someone else?" He answers that in cases where love prevails, extending directly to one's neighbor and valuing him as one's own self, "one can wish and hope the same thing for another that one desires and hopes for oneself. And as it is the same virtue of love through which one loves God, oneself and one's neighbor, so, too, it is the same virtue of hope through which one hopes for oneself and for the other" (pages 74-75, 1988; 55-56, 2014).
In Chapter 5, The Personal Character, Balthasar notes: "It is therefore indispensable that every individual Christian be confronted, in the greatest seriousness, with the possibility of his becoming lost. For, on the one hand, he would certainly have been lost if redemption through Christ's Cross had not rescued him from this perdition - the whole world may be held accountable to God...since "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:19, 23) - and on the other hand, according to Christian belief, no one can be so sure of his standing in grace that he cannot be mistaken about it... That, however, means that there is, in the final criterion, something like a self-judgement. The individual suddenly realizes what he really is. We can characterize this recognition that one's own person harbors guilt and imperfection as a self-judgement" (pages 85-86, 90, 1988; 64, 2014).
In Chapter 6, Testimonies, he relates writings of Christians who, through "insight and meditation, springing from the love of God in Christ, that this love is stronger than any resistance that it encounters and that, from the Christian standpoint, hope for all men is thereby permitted." For example, he references St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower (1873-1897): "And this is to be done through an act of unbounded trust in God, which she characterizes as 'blind hope in his mercy.' I believe, she says of God and the saints, "they want to know how far I will push my trust. We can never place too must trust in God, who is so powerful and merciful! We receive from him as much as we hope from him" (pages 97, 103, 1988; 74, 79, 2014).
In Chapter 11, Justice and Mercy, the final chapter in Dare We Hope, Balthasar cites St. Augustine: "Attend to mercy and justice. Do not imagine that these two can be separated in God in any way. They may at first seem mutually opposed, so that whatever is merciful would not uphold justice and whatever adheres unconditionally to justice would forget about mercy. But God is omnipotent: he neither lets go of justice in showing mercy nor of mercy in judging justly." He refers to St. Thomas Aquinas and others in their meditation on St. Anselm's sentence in Proslogion 10: "If you punish the evildoers, you are just because that befits their misdeeds; but if you spare the evildoers, you are likewise just because that corresponds to your goodness" (pages 148-154, 1988; 116-121, 2014).
Balthasar begins the second vignette by citing his colleague Adrienne von Speyr.
In The Directives of Scripture, he concludes the chapter: "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. Not even about that of Judas, who became in a way the representative example for something of which all sinners are also guilty. Who can know the nature of the remorse that seized Judas when he saw that Jesus had been condemned (Matthew 27:3)" (page 187, 1988; 149, 2014).
In the Chapter on The Obligation to Hope For All, he references St. Paul: "But love hopes all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ" (page 213, 1988; 170, 2014 ).
Balthasar quotes the Mystic St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), the Patron Saint of Italy and Europe: "Fired by the hope that all people might be saved, Catherine said to Jesus, "How could I ever reconcile myself, Lord, to the prospect that a single one of those whom you have created in your image and likeness should become lost and slip from your hands?" The answer that the Lord gives her, confided to her spiritual director Raymond of Capua, is breathtaking: "Love cannot be contained in Hell; it would totally annihilate Hell." In other words, the love that Catherine is exhibiting, precisely through her hope that all be saved, functions as an antidote to the poison, or according to her own metaphor, an obstacle to the entrance of Hell. She tells her Lord, "If I could remain united with you in love while, at the same time, placing myself before the entrance of Hell and blocking it off in such a way that no one could enter, that would be the greatest of joys for me" (pages 214-215, 1988; 172, 2014). It was the Church Doctor St. Catherine of Siena that said, "All the Way to Heaven is Heaven, because Christ is the Way."
Balthasar concludes the book: "Let us cast aside what leads to such dead-ends and limit ourselves to the truth that we all stand under God’s absolute judgment. "I do not even pass judgment on myself," as St. Paul says. "The Lord is the one to judge me. So stop passing judgment before the time of his return. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness" (1 Corinthians 4:3f.). Not forgetting Saint John: "We should have confidence on the day of judgment" (1 John 4:17).
1 Hans Urs von Balthazar. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved (With A Short Discourse on Hell). Original Publication, 1986. Translated by Dr. David Kipp and Rev. Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.
Second Edition, Foreword by Fr. Robert Barron, 2014.
2 Navarre Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Dublin Ireland: Four Courts Press, 1999.
3 The Confessions of St. Augustine. Totowa, New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1997.
4 Origen of Alexandria. On First Principles - Peri Archon. Translated by G. W. Butterworth. Introduction by Henri de Lubac. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2013.
5 Joseph Ratzinger. Eschatology. Regensburg, Germany: Friedrich Pustet Verlag, 1977. (Washington, D. C: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 205-206.
6 George Bernanos. Diary of A Country Priest (1936).Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1983.
7 Fyodor Dostoevsky. Brothers Karamazov (1880). Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
8 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, II II, Q 17 Article 3. Translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1911. (Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1981), 1238.
9 Thomas L. Humphries, Jr. Who is Chosen? Four Theories About Christian Salvation. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2017.
10 St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Story of A Soul. Charlotte, North Carolina: St. Benedict Press, 2010.
11 St. Anselm of Canterbury. Proslogion. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Banning Press, 1986.
12 St. Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue. Charlotte, North Carolina: Tan Classics, 1974.