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Fidelity logosHell? No. We Won't Go

by James G. Bruen, Jr.


Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? with a Short Discourse On Hell by Hans Urs von Balthasar (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1988), 254 pp., ISBN 0-89870-207-0

Will Many Be Saved? by Ralph C. Martin (Ann Arbor, Servant Books, 1988), 47pp., ISBN 0-89283-392-0


Shortly after he decided to make Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar a cardinal, the pope was overruled. Fr. von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? with a Short Discourse On Hell shows why.

I don’t claim inerrancy for that statement. Indeed, I make it only for effect: Fr. von Balthasar’s book is polemic. He labels his critics as “infernalists” on the “right wing” who ensure that the “eye of the Inquisition remains fixed on me.” He is delighted he has “aroused” their “ire,” causing them to call him “to order rather brusquely” in “reprimand.” He taunts: if they had “given any attention to my lengthier publications, ... they could surely have long since found hundreds of pieces of fire wood for my stake.” He revels in their labeling him “a heretic” and berates them because they “cut to pieces, almost interminably,” the views expressed in the book: “I now know that sort of dung-heap I have been dumped upon by the right.” Indeed, the structure of the book makes it particularly easy for him to assail his critics: the book comprises translation of his original volume, plus his rejoinder to those who criticized it, plus an epilogue.

The dates Fr. von Balthasar gives for these criticisms of his work run from 1984 through April 1987. His admirer and the man most responsible for the availability of his works in English, Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., director of Ignatius Press, nevertheless blasted John J. Malloy in an exchange in The Wanderer in 1987, when this book was unavailable in English translation, for being “the first to discover serious, fundamental, and central heterodoxy” in Fr. von Balthasar’s works. Apparently the line of critics formed long before Mr. Malloy joined it.

The point of the von Balthasar book is simple: although we cannot know that hell is empty or be certain that all gain heaven, we are obligated to hope that all people reach heaven, that none are in hell.

Fr. von Balthasar writes that “theologians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, admittedly on the basis of a certain Tradition,” that “has long thought itself to know too much about the outcome of judgement,” taught that there actually are people in hell although we do not now know which people. He labels their view “outrageous,” and so he dismisses St. Augustine “and all those bowing to his authority, from Gregory the Great through the early and High Middle Ages — Anselm, Bonaventure, and Thomas not excepted,” but he does later nod to St. Thomas Aquinas who, he says, “opened the gateway to hope for others.” Although he lived in the nineteenth century, the “great and estimable” but “tragic” Cardinal Newman, “too, stands in the Tradition.”

Fr. von Balthasar’s opinion of those who disagree with him is clear. Yet when he lapses from polemic to theology, his clarity often lapses too. His style often is convoluted (at least in translation) and frequently causes confusion. When Fr. von Balthasar discusses the views of others to support his point, he is wont to obscure whether he agrees with those views. And he employs rhetorical questions and devices without indicating explicitly that he adopts the answers they suggest. Thus he remains able to claim that his words are “continually twisted” by those who assert he “advocates the ‘universal redemption’ (apokatastasis) condemned by the Church — something that I have expressly rejected.”

To support himself, Fr. von Balthasar leans heavily on Origen (who, like Fr. von Balthasar, approached questions “with prudence” and spoke “largely hypothetically,” “tentatively,” and with “great reserve,” but who nevertheless was condemned “because later members of his school indiscreetly spread his alleged doctrine of the ‘restoration of all things’”) and on Adrienne von Speyr, Fr. von Balthasar’s mentor and mystic. He also claims Cardinal Ratzinger shares the “limbo” to which “my critics banish me.”

“With caution, and not categorically,” Fr. von Balthasar attributes particular words of Jesus “to the pre-Easter Jesus” and others to “a post-Easter perspective.” Man cannot reconcile the two: “the predominantly pre-Easter aspects cannot be merged with the post-Easter ones into a readily comprehensible system.”

He thus divides relevant New Testament passages into two types. The pre-Easter Jesus says that judgement will result in the damnation of some people while the post-Easter perspective recognizes that God “desires all men to be saved.”

Fr. von Balthasar rejects — indeed, late in the book, he ridicules — the distinction between an absolute and a conditional will for salvation on God’s part and the distinction between an objective redemption through Christ and its subjective acceptance by us: “at least two texts remain above and beyond such distinction.”

The first text is Romans 5:12-21 in which the “word ‘all’ is repeated nine times”:

And is it not all but embarrassing when the same Paul, in Romans 5, hammers home to us that in Adam (the principle of natural man) “all died”, “but God’s gift of grace, thanks to the one man Jesus Christ, abounded for all in much greater measure”? That is stressed seven times in a row, with the culmination being that “through the trespass of all (for all share the responsibility for Christ’s condemnation) ‘justification and life came for all.’ The repeatedly stressed words “much more” and “abounding” cannot be ignored (Rom 5: 15-21). All just pious exaggeration?

There are obvious rejoinders. Most significantly, the passage in Romans is susceptible to the distinctions Fr. von Balthasar rejects: Christ’s death offers life to all men, but each man must accept it. Another rejoinder is highlighted by a translator’s footnote: “the German biblical versions used by von Balthasar are translated directly. The Revised Standard Version often contains the word ‘many’ where the German has ‘all.’” Dare we suggest the embarrassing possibility that the limitations of Fr. von Balthasar’s vernacular have influenced his theology?

The second text that is above and beyond distinctions is John: “If one casts a glance over to John from here, what dominates for him is the ring of the universal words.” Fr. von Balthasar then presents a jumble of quotations from John’s first epistle and his gospel to support his belief that John’s view is not subject to the distinctions others have made between absolute and conditional will and between objective and subjective redemption. To demonstrate his inability to reconcile John’s pre-Easter Jesus, with his own, Fr. von Balthasar has to rationalize that John’s “separation ... between those belonging to love and the antichrists who have renounced love (1 Jn. 2:18f.) is only an obedient perpetration, within the Johanine community, of the attitude of Jesus.” Fr. von Balthasar’s presentation fails, seemingly endorsing the very distinction he says cannot be made: “Certainly man’s believing response ... is always tied [in John] into this universality of the divine will for salvation.”

The key to Fr. von Balthasar’s presentation is the “attitude of Jesus” that John’s community was “only” obediently perpetrating. Fr. von Balthasar acknowledges many biblical passages, including some that contain the words of Jesus, that say people will be damned. “But why should God’s words not be mere threats?” is his rejoinder. So much, then, for questions about the morality of nuclear deterrence: God Himself uses the ultimate destruction, eternal death, as a mere threat. He would never condemn people to hell, but the possibility must be there to deter people from serious sin.

The existence of these “biblically irreconcilable passages” does require Fr. von Balthasar to acknowledge “feelings of revulsion notwithstanding,” that “we may not simply ignore such a threat” that people “may suffer eternal damnation with its everlasting pain — which, in fact, would frustrate God’s universal plan of salvation.” His argumentation, however, is designed to demonstrate that the threat (like hell) is empty and that universal salvation cannot be “frustrated.”

Fr. von Balthasar protests that it is inaccurate to characterize him as saying that “since God, after all, is Love, everything will be well in the end.” He continues:  “My work as a whole (for anyone who knows it) certainly has nothing to do with this sort of thoughtlessness.”

I readily admit that I am not familiar with his work as a whole, and after reading this book, I have no desire to become familiar with more of it. (Those who desire to become familiar with his work might also wish to obtain the booklet Did Jesus Teach Universal Salvation? The Case of Origen, Fr. von Balthasar, and Adrienne von Speyr by John J. Mulloy, The Society for Christian Culture, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702.) And I concede that, despite his talk of man’s inability to resist God’s love or frustrate His will, Fr. von Balthasar never does say simply or directly that “everything will be well in the end,” although he comes close when he quotes another to whom “It would be rewarding here to listen a bit:” “If God is love, as the New Testament teaches us, hell must be impossible. At least, it represents a supreme anomaly.” Instead, for example, he asks questions: “Can human defiance really resist to the end the representative assumption of its sins by the incarnate God?” And he attacks answers he believes inappropriate: “If one replies to this confidently and flatly: ‘Yes, man can do that’ and thereby fills hell with naysayers, then the theologians will again have to set up strange distinctions within God’s will for grace.” But he refuses to articulate the answers his presentation suggests. Instead, he begs off: “Here we come to deep waters, in which every human mind begins to flounder. ... To push on any farther into these deep waters is not permitted us.” He, therefore, never explains how a “no” in answer to his question could be reconciled with the concept of free will, suggesting only that perhaps God will outwit men.

Unsurprisingly, he never addresses how God’s mercy, love, will, and plan could allow damnation for the devil, but preclude it for men. He does tell us why we cannot hope for the devil’s eternal salvation, though. With regard to the “mysterious”, “more-than-human, contradivine,” or “satanic” power, “theological hope can by no means apply to this power [because] the sphere to which redemption by the Son who became man applies is unequivocally that of mankind.” Indeed, because an angel has freedom of choice (don’t we?) “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.”

Although Fr. von Balthasar says we are obligated to hope no one else ever goes to hell, it is “indispensable” that each person fears his own damnation. Otherwise, says Fr. von Balthasar, “hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls ‘the others,’ while I, praise God, have escaped it.”

Then one goes on to populate hell, according to one’s own taste, with all sorts of monsters: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin the Horrible, Hitler the Madman and all his cronies, which certainly results, as well, in an imposing company that one would prefer not to encounter in heaven.


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

I don’t know if any of those men are in hell. But if I live as if all other men go to heaven, why should I seriously fear that I alone may be heading to hell? Wouldn’t the “universal words” necessarily include me too?

Fr. von Balthasar drives home his point near the end of the book: “Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person’s being lost besides himself is hardly able to love unreservedly.” His logic escapes me. Can Jesus, Who definitely holds out the “possibility” that some will be lost, be accused of being “hardly able to love unreservedly”?

Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? adopts the distinction that Fr. von Balthasar ridicules: “God ... offered and still offers the whole world salvation through Jesus: as many as are willing to receive it can be saved.” Relying heavily on scripture, and on the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Cardinal Newman, and on the statements of the seers of Fatima, Mr. Martin teaches: “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to salvation, and those who find it are few.” Mr. Martin’s pamphlet, however, does not tell us which sorts of monsters populate hell nor does it place Mr. Martin or the reader among those who will not go there. Rather, it exhorts each reader to accept God’s offer and then “to persevere in following the narrow road all the way to the end!” Mr. Martin’s pamphlet fits within the tradition that Fr. von Balthasar disparages.Fidelity

James G. Bruen, Jr. is an attorney.

This review was published in the September 1989 issue of Fidelity magazine.

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