Let me cut to the theological chase: the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wasn’t a universalist. Not if a universalist is one who claims for certain all men will be saved. Or, to put it differently, that no one—including ourselves—will be lost. This side of eternity, according to Balthasar, we simply can’t know, either way, whether all people will be saved or whether “two eternal outcomes”—one of salvation and one of damnation—will be realized. Whatever Balthasar’s position is, and whether or not it is correct, it isn’t universalism.
“All of us who practice the Christian faith and, to the extent that its nature as a mystery permits, would also like to understand it are under judgment,” Balthasar wrote at the beginning of his book Dare We “That Hope All Men Be Saved”? Note the words “under judgment.” These are not the words of confident universalism. He continued:
By no means are we above [judgment], so that we might know its outcome in advance and could proceed from that knowledge to further speculation. The apostle, who is conscious of having no guilt, does not therefore regard himself as already acquitted: “It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:4).
Balthasar went on to speak of Paul’s exhortations to confidence and hope in Christ, the judge who “has borne the sins of everyone,” yet he insisted that we can’t for that reason be “quite untroubled in the certainty of our salvation.” Later Balthasar declared that “we stand completely and utterly under judgment, and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards. How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this?” (p. 166).
Writing of theologians contemplating that people for whom Christ died “may fail to reach their final destination in God, and may instead suffer eternal damnation with its everlasting pain,” Balthasar maintained:
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” (Dare We Hope, p. 237).
Right now, we stand under judgment; the outcome isn’t determined and there is the real possibility of damnation, not just for others but for ourselves as well. We have hope, not certainty, of salvation for all, Balthasar maintained. Nor did he see such hope as inconsistent with missionary work—just the opposite. The Christian must care about the salvation of others as well as his own salvation; he must be an agent, by grace, of salvation for others and in this way for himself as well.
Not everyone shares Balthasar’s uncertainty, of course. Some people are confident at least some people will be damned or are damned right now, even if no one would not hazard a guess as to how many or who. Nevertheless, those confident of others’ damnation shouldn’t describe Balthasar’s position as universalism—at least not in the conventional sense of the term. To claim not to know which outcome will finally come to pass, but to hope for the salvation of all, is not the same as universalism.
True, Balthasar tried to demonstrate from Scripture the real possibility of universal salvation—something that could happen. Yet he also contended damnation is a real possibility—likewise something that could happen. (His description of Hell is among the most chilling, by the way.) Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? focuses on the possibility all will be saved, rather than on the danger of damnation, a danger both Balthasar and his critics accepted.
Balthasar unhesitatingly affirmed the Bible’s warning about damnation. But he saw two sets of biblical texts: (1) the two outcomes passages (Heaven and Hell) and (2) the salvation of all passages. Theologians often try to synthesize these passages, usually seeing the “salvation of all” texts as referring, in one way or another, to God’s offer of salvation to all and the “two outcomes” texts as proof that only some people will accept the offer. Balthasar rejected combining the two kinds of texts. This he saw as making one or the other set subordinate in order to say for certain which way things will turn out. He saw serious and insoluble theological problems resulting from the effort. He even spoke of the two sets of texts as “contradictory.” Why? Because they speak of irreconcilable possible outcomes—either some will be saved and others lost or all will be saved.
In Balthasar’s view, which set of biblical texts will ultimately be realized depends on how, exactly, human history plays out. Because we can’t be certain which way things will turn out, Balthasar argued, we shouldn’t write off anybody as inevitably damned, nor should we presume everybody will be saved (including ourselves). We must heed the warning of the “two outcome” set of texts while hoping (and working) for the goal of the “salvation of all” texts.
Thus, to sum up Balthasar’s controlling principles, we see: (1) there are two sets of texts outlining two irreconcilable final scenarios, a two-outcome scenario of salvation and damnation, and a single-outcome scenario of salvation for all men; and (2) we may and should hope for the realization of the latter, while we must take seriously the real possibility of the former, including the threat of our own damnation.
Was Balthasar clear about these controlling principles? Yes. In my view, people who seem—pardon the expression—hell-bent on characterizing Balthasar as a died-in-the-wool universalist often take relatively subtle points of Balthasar’s deep theological speculation and try to present him as something he avowedly wasn’t. Sometimes critics use passages (usually from Theodrama, Volume V: The Last Act) in which Balthasar hypothesized about how seemingly damned people might, in the end, wind up saved by Christ. Overlooked or minimized is the fact that Balthasar underscored the speculative-hypothetical nature of what he considered and presented his speculation in the context of his taking seriously the biblical warnings about damnation.
Of course just because Balthasar was no universalist doesn’t mean he is beyond criticism or his exegesis is correct. All theologians are subject to critique; that’s part of the theology business. But many of Balthasar’s critics, in order to portray him as a universalist, simply neglect or minimize, or paint as disingenuous, the repeated and clear statements he made about the real possibility of damnation. They also often fail to appreciate the severe, unfair attacks he encountered and they don’t take these into proper consideration when reading his responses.
Some critics raise the practical concern that misuse of Balthasar’s position, or the position itself, undercuts the missionary impulse. “If we can hope all will be saved, what’s the point of evangelizing?” Concerning misuse of Balthasar I have little to say. Tetzel misused the doctrine of indulgences and created a mess, but the Church has not abandoned the doctrine of indulgences. Abusus non tollit usum. If Balthasar is being misused, then people worried about the harmful effects of such misuse should set the record straight, not add to the criticism of Balthasar.
Does Balthasar’s view itself undercut the missionary impulse? I don’t see how it must. How are hoping and working for the salvation of everyone necessarily contrary to the missionary spirit? Is the missionary spirit aided by the settled conviction that some people will be damned? Balthasar did not title his book We Must Presume All Men Will be Saved and Not Preach the Gospel. Nor did he, alongside of affirming hope for all, warn of possible damnation in order to quell evangelization.
The fact is, Balthasar didn’t say we’re all guaranteed heaven. Hoping for all to be saved certainly doesn’t excuse anyone from evangelizing. When we ask Jesus to “lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of” his mercy, as we pray at the end of each decade of the Rosary, do we exempt ourselves and others from evangelizing? Why shouldn’t hoping, praying, and working for the salvation of all be among the means by which God realizes such universal salvation?
Recently, some who think Vatican II’s teaching regarding the possibility of salvation for the non-Christians has been misunderstood have criticized Balthasar. Lumen Gentium no. 16, it has rightly been said, is no blank check when it comes to salvation for non-Christians, even though the Church’s teaching affirms such a possibility. According to this passage, “often” non-Christians are at risk of damnation because they do not respond to the saving grace of Christ mysteriously available to them apart from missionary efforts. “Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these,” the passage declares, “and mindful of the command of the Lord, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mk 16:16), the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.”
We could have an interesting discussion of how much factual weight the Council intends us to put on the word “often.” But, in any case, it is hard to see how Lumen Gentium no. 16’s teaching contradicts Balthasar’s views. Contrary to what some suggest, the text doesn’t assert that non-Christians are “often” damned. It says that they “often” turn away from the various mysterious ways saving grace is present and therefore by implication they often risk damnation. The Church’s missionary efforts, the Council goes on to say, seek to procure the salvation of these “at-risk” non-Christians, through an explicit presentation of the Gospel. They would seem to be included among the “all men” for whom Balthasar holds out hope, but not the certainty, of salvation; and the Church’s missionary efforts seem to be the means by which they may be included in the realization of that hope.
Of course, some such non-Christians may seem to have altogether rejected the Gospel before passing from this life. But how do we know what seems to be the case is the case? Perhaps, in the age to come, we shall discover things were other than they appeared, that in fact these seemingly non-responsive people in the end did respond to grace, however mysteriously. Who can say for certain, this side of eternity? Since we don’t know, shouldn’t we pray and hope for their salvation? Does this possibility imply that the Church shouldn’t do all she can to evangelize here and now, given that such hope doesn’t contradict the possibility of damnation?
Balthasar concluded his “Short Discourse on Hell” (published in English along with his Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?) with the following summary, which also concludes this article:
Let us cast aside what leads to such dead-ends [theologians trying to make sense of things beyond what revelation allows regarding divine judgment and mercy] and limit ourselves to the truth that we all stand under God’s absolute judgment. “I do not even pass judgment on myself”, as Saint 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 Cor 4:3f.). Not forgetting Saint John: “We should have confidence on the day of judgment” (1 Jn 4:17).
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on November 21, 2013.)