Balthasar’s Delirious Hope that All be Saved

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work has been gaining steady influence in the Church. Whoever reads his work must be impressed by his erudition and the vast sweep of his vision. And indeed he has many insights and has pioneered a way of doing theology that ought to be taken up in many of its respects, the criticisms here notwithstanding.

However, his work smacks of contradiction to the faith of the Church on a number of key points. And in other matters he has been wildly reckless. One topic on which he has been both utterly reckless and also – by any sober estimation – at odds with elements of the faith of the Church is on his hope that all may be saved.

I must summarize his argument and position here. The presentation could of course be developed more fully – but then again, so could the criticisms to follow.

Balthasar argues, to begin, that since we may hope – regarding each person – that he may be saved, we may hope that all persons may be saved. The argument seems logical (unless you have studied logic): If I may hope for each man that he can be saved, I may hope that the whole lot of men can be saved.

He further contends that this hope is not contradicted by any teaching of revelation or the Magisterium, for, he contends, the Magisterium has never declared that anyone is in hell, much less pronounced on any individual.

Of course, the ready critic will immediately bring up a terrible text such as Matthew 25 – where the sheep go off to eternal life and the goats are sent into the fires of hell. Balthasar has a quick response (Dare We Hope, 21ff; Theo-Drama V, 316ff). First, he allies himself with a favorite theological antagonist of his – Karl Rahner. Rahner found a way to “demythologize” such plain texts by way of Heideggerian existentials. (Too bad for the chaps who can’t read Being and Time – they wear themselves out to no purpose. Poor Francis Xavier. Perhaps he could have enjoyed some espresso on the beach.) Back to Balthasar – who, after all, did chastise Rahner, and quite rightly, for his undue optimism and the mechanical automatism of the supernatural existential. [For a more scholarly analysis of Rahner’s existential, see this article.] Yes, back to Balthasar. He calls on Rahner’s “demythologizing” or rather “de-apocalypticizing”, according to which texts such as Mt 25 are not at all predictive. The texts are not “advanced reports,” they cynically maintain. The texts are only warnings.

Second, Balthasar counters texts such as Mt 25 with texts such as 1 Tim 2:3f which indicate God’s will that all be saved. Thus, there are, he observes, two sets of texts. Balthasar then takes shelter behind some historical critical work. (Once again, since the conclusion favors him on this occasion, he makes friends with those whom he often elsewhere lambasts.) That work, Balthasar contends, suggests that the two sets of texts cluster in two different phases of the Christian self-understanding. The harsh set of texts (Mt 25) clusters around the pre-Easter message of Jesus. The texts regarding God’s universal mercy cluster around the post-Easter Jesus. Hence, Balthasar contends, the harsh set does not adequately represent the scope of hope we may place in Christ’s redeeming act. But the second set does.

At this point, the facile critic denounces Balthasar as a “universalist”. That is like Anakin charging the Sith when too young. Balthasar is not so foolish – at least on this point. Or, at least not on this score! For other lines of his thought do entail universalism, despite his pleas that he is no universalist. (He pleas, that is, that he is unsure of the outcome, which hangs in the balance.) Here, Balthasar simply contends that the two sets of texts cannot be gathered into a higher “system” of unity. Thus, we are left to submit ourselves to the two sets, recognizing that we are all “under judgment”. We cannot know the outcome of our own lives, let alone that of any other person. But we know we are threatened with judgment and promised mercy. How will we live in response? Thus, Balthasar says that he is not pronouncing any certain outcome. Rather, he is holding out the “hope” that all might be saved at last.

We ought, next, take a look at what he understands to be the mechanism of salvation. For Balthasar, that mechanism is this: Jesus Christ takes on our sins. Not just our punishment for sin but our waywardness, our very sins. Balthasar tries to walk as far with Luther and Calvin – with Barth! – as he thinks he can. To be sure, he does part with Luther, who claimed that Christ became sin itself. However, Balthasar mirrors Luther in a number of respects in this regard. He holds with Barth and Calvin, and seemingly Luther, that Jesus experienced damnation on our behalf. The manifold agony on the Cross was apparently not enough, though our Lord said it was enough. No, our Lord had to suffer damnation on top of what he said was enough. Be that as it may, Christ accomplishes our redemption by “removing” our sin from us and “letting it be” by itself. How can “sin” be “removed” from a man and “let be”? What is sin, such that it can be removed? Balthasar submits, sin is “a reality” (Dare We Hope, 137; Mysterium Paschale, 173; Theo-Drama V, 314). Balthasar thereby collides with the traditional notion of sin as a privation of a due good in human action, as this privation regards what is owed to God. Not enough for Balthasar. Rather, for him, sin is a reality! I.e., a really existing thing? Well, it must be, since, Balthasar alleges, Christ removes this reality from the sinner and “lets it be” by itself. What remains from the sinner from whom sin has been dislodged is saved. If there is any ounce of good will in you, then you will be saved. If you love puppies in New York, and rescue them from harsh masters, you have something non-malicious about you. Clearly, he who loves puppies, or daffodils, in New York, must not be perfectly malicious. The only way that you the sinner can be damned is if you identify yourself with that horrific, malicious sin that is the pure “Non Serviam”. (And even then…, but stay tuned.) Only if you identify yourself with that shrieking horror of sin can you be damned. (I am reminded of Munch’s The Scream.) And if you do not manage this act of total identification with your absolute “no”, then you will be saved. (Poor St. Monica, worrying herself for nothing about the eternal loss of Augustine. Surely he had some affection for his lover? And for Adeodatus? What tenderness Augustine already had. Monica could have saved those copious tears.)

And what is hell, for Balthasar? It is just that “sin itself, existing in its own, the pure ‘Non Serviam.’” Pure Evil, as it were, released by Christ’s redeeming act.

In his many horned (ten horned?) approach to this issue, Balthasar also examines what it means for hell to be without end. He allows himself to contradict himself – in the same text. For at one point he says that we must admit that hell is eternal. But at another point considers the idea that its eternity is one of intensity and not necessarily one of duration. The pain seems like it shall be without end but it may actually come to an end. Is this to liken hell to Purgatory? Seems so: TD V, 314. It is unlikely, he adds, that anyone will forever choose to be isolated from Christ’s redeeming act. After all, Christ went down to the damned, he says (Theological Explorations IV, 421f, 462f; DWH 26, 178; Wainrwright, Cambridge Companion, 124). And Christ cannot allow the damned sinner to remain forever unrepentant (TD V, 277, 284, 303f, 307, 311-13). At some point, the (damned) sinner will crack open, capitulate. If this happens, his past hell shall have been of infinite intensity, but not of infinite duration (See TD V, 298-314).

Finally, Balthasar examines the infinite love of God. If God infinitely loves man, then what would He do were man not to repent? What would God do? His love would have been thwarted, frustrated, in vain. Can God allow this? Would God allow this? Away with the thought, cries Balthasar. With these lines of thought, Balthasar retracts his earlier avowal that the outcome is not certain.

Alright – so much for the summary. There are some positive aspects to his thought. For one, unlike the optimists who follow Rahner, he takes hell as a threat rather seriously. Second, he encourages the Christian to enter into redemptive suffering as much and as deeply as possible for others. (This is the single greatest point in his reflections – and one worth taking home. We are called as Christians to pray for one another, to intercede for one another, to take on suffering that grace may fall from heaven on a hardened sinner. Personal holiness and concern for neighbor – for every neighbor – go hand in hand. This call is evident in Balthasar’s work, and it is one good reason that good people find his theology attractive. However, it should be noted that this good encouragement is not something that requires one to hold Balthasar’s thesis. Rather, it is separable and already taught by the Tradition. Indeed, Catherine of Sienna, rightly fearing many going to hell, begs God imploringly for the soul of a man sentenced to death. And she won!) Third, he states that God predestines no one to go to hell. This is a truism, but in some contexts (Calvinism) it is important to remind people of this.


But on so many issues regarding his “hope,” Balthasar is misleading, in error, and reckless. First, the fact is that any unrepented mortal sin entails of its nature eternal damnation. We are not damned only for sheer malice. We are not damned only for identifying ourselves with a “no” as necessary condition. If someone simply wants to have one romping time in fornication, and forgets about John the Baptist, and dies, one has merited eternal damnation in hell. In rejecting optimistic fundamental option theories, John Paul II rejected (wittingly or no) Balthasar’s notion of the necessary condition for damnation (see Veritatis splendor, art. 68; Note: this teaching belongs to the entire tradition).

Second, the Rahnerian reduction of the texts regarding the future, like Rahner’s reduction of the texts regarding the origins of the human race, are a species of modernism. Compare Rahner’s reading of the future and the past as solely a reflection on present religious experience (i.e., that of the sacred writer) with the holy teaching of Pope St. Pius X in Pascendi, a text well worth re-reading. We might add: These texts are “minatory” (i.e. warnings) because they are predictive. Just read the Epistle of Jude. The men of Sodom serve as a warning presently by undergoing torment of eternal punishment.

What of those universalist texts? The tradition – from Damascene to Aquinas to the 1950’s – read these texts according to the distinction between God’s will antecedently considered and consequently considered. We can consider what God wills to man as object of his love – salvation. We can consider what God wills to man as having responded or not responded to his love – salvation or damnation. The distinction is no doubt subtle, but it does not play fast and loose with either set of texts. Rather, it recognizes that God wills that all be saved and supplies the grace sufficient to realize this outcome, and it recognizes that not all will in fact avail themselves of this grace. There are many Catholic views on predestination, but these basics are accepted by all. Peer into the matter more deeply, and one discovers that the Magisterium accepts that God reprobates some: He permits some to fall. (Some is a logical category, meaning there are some – not necessarily, and probably not, few – that God permits to fall.)

Third, sin is not “a reality” as Balthasar makes out. It is not a “thing” that can “exist by itself as a pure negation”. That is simply nonsense. Take any sinful action and examine it: You will find that it has positive physical aspects (a knife, blood, a hand, etc.) but that it lacks due order (the man was innocent, the one who killed was not appointed by lawful authority, simply speaking we like blood inside the veins and not outside them etc.). It is the lack of due order or reference to a due end that constitutes the evil.

Also note that God creates all things or he does not. To say he does not is false, heretical, and blasphemous. But if evil is an “existing thing,” then God creates it. And this is abhorrent. Ergo, evil is not a thing, even an accidental thing, that exists.

Finally, we simply note that what exists, insofar as it exists, is good.

If Balthasar was speaking “phenomenologically,” why did he stress that sin is a reality? It’s kind of like his saying that God changes but doesn’t change, that he is in time but not in time. Which is it? (How long will you hobble on one leg, and then the other? You cannot serve two masters. Metaphor is not proper analogy. Let your yes be yes. Anything more….)

And as for the related claim that Jesus took on our sins themselves – not simply the punishment due to them – here we have Balthasar coming very close to supporting, if not outright supporting, the notion of penal substitution. Perhaps Balthasar avoids claiming the Christ truly became guilty, thus freeing himself from Luther’s blasphemy on this matter. But his assertion that Christ takes on damnation itself cannot square with the truth of hell. Hell is a place of sinful alienation, a place of aversion from the divine good. But Christ cannot become averse to the divine good. (On this topic, see Thomas Joseph White, “Jesus’ Cry on the Cross and His Beatific Vision” Nova et Vetera 5 (2007): 573-581.) The Catholic view regarding Christ’s act is that it was atonement, a vicarious act of satisfaction. By his loving obedience, Christ offered the Father a satisfaction sufficient for the forgiveness of infinitely many persons. Thus, he died for all. However, one must receive the fruit of this redemption by being justified in order to benefit from it.

Fourth, Balthasar’s logical inference is invalid. We cannot put more in the conclusion than is present in the premises. We cannot argue from a particular statement (each man) to a universal statement (all men). It is true that every man in Dallas has a chance of going to the season opener next Fall. But not all can go. The stadium has limited seating! Thus, Balthasar’s logic is flawed. But someone will object that God’s stadium has unlimited seating. How true! But the logic was flawed nonetheless. That is the precise point being made here. The earlier point about the God’s will considered antecedently and consequently addresses this issue of the stadium: God permits some to fall.

But what of the fact that the Magisterium has not declared any particular human person to be in hell? The Magisterium has no business making such a declaration. Yet, ignorance regarding specific individuals is not tantamount to ignorance regarding hell’s population.

So, what of the alleged fact that the Magisterium has not declared whether or not “anyone” is in hell? This fact is fiction. The Church teaches that demons are in hell. And demons are persons too! All of Balthasar’s fretting about what God is going to do if a single person is recalcitrant and won’t go to heaven should be applied to his relation to these demons also. For the fact is, they are damned. Nor does the Church pray for them. Her prayer is opposed to them, casts them out of our lives and down into hell. Nor should anyone pray for them. It would be contrary to God’s will, a sign of a deeply mistaken mind or of a rebellious will. Truth says, “Let the dead bury their dead.” A fortiori the spiritually double dead – the demonic agents.

But what about human persons? Well, on this point, there are some considerations that may well yield the conclusion that Balthasar overreached in claiming that revelation and the Magisterium have never asserted that human persons are in hell. Exegesis is of course fraught with contention. However, we could point to Jude, as I indicated above:

“Now I desire to remind you, though you were once for all fully informed, that he who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling have been kept by him in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day; just as Sodom and Gomor’rah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example (πρόκεινται δει̃γμα) by undergoing a punishment (πυρὸς αι̉ωνίου δίκην ύπέχουσαι) of eternal fire.”

The men of Sodom are serving as an example, undergoing punishment of hell.

Again, there is the frequently cited text regarding Judas: better had he not been born. As Ralph Martin asks, in his excellent book Will Many Be Saved?, how can the text be true unless Judas is damned?

But let us move on to the Magisterium. Consider this text:

“Omnipotent God wishes all men without exception to be saved [1 Tim 2:4] although not all will be saved. However, that certain ones are saved, is the gift of the one who saves; that certain ones perish, however, is the deserved punishment of those who perish” (Quiersy Council, A.D. 853, see DS 623).

Again, consider this text:

“But although Christ died for all, yet not all receive the benefit of His death, but those only to whom the merit of his passion is communicated” (Trent, VI, chap. 3; DS 1523). See also D # 717b.

Again, consider this text, happily relevant again in the new English Translation of the Novus Ordo:

“The additional words for you and for many are taken, some from Matthew, some from Luke, but were joined together by the Catholic church under the guidance of the Spirit of God. They serve to declare the fruit and advantage of His Passion. For if we look to its value, we must confess that the Redeemer shed His blood for the salvation of all; but if we look to the fruit which mankind have received from it, we shall easily find that it pertains not unto all, but to many of the human race. When therefore (our Lord) said: For you, he meant either those who were present, or those chosen from among the Jewish people , such as were, with the exception of Judas, the disciples with whom He was speaking. When He added, And for many, He wished to be understood to mean the remainder of the elect from among the Jews or Gentiles. With reason, therefore, were the words for all not used, as in this place the fruits of the Passion are alone spoken of, and to the elect only did His Passion bring the fruit of salvation.” Catechism of the Council of Trent, Section on the Eucharist

The glorious 1962 Missal of the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church — always teaching us — also has this prayer, relevant for the fate of Judas:

Collect for Good Friday Office (Also said on Maundy Thursday, as Collect at the Mass):

“O God, from whom Judas received the punishment of his guilt, and the thief the reward of his confession: grant unto us the full fruit of Thy clemency; that even as in His Passion our Lord Jesus Christ gave to each retribution according to his merits, so having cleared away our former guilt, He may bestow on us the grace of his Resurrection, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.”

Consider this as well: The following is a proposition of Zanini de Solcia which was rejected by Pius II in 1459: “That all Christians are to be saved”. D – only found in old edition # 717b.

These texts appear – on all counts – to indicate that there will be a twofold division of mankind, the saved and the damned. And, as Ralph Martin contends, the constant Tradition understands the Scriptures and these creedal formulations to indicate a twofold outcome, and one in which the damned will be many in number.

As for Balthasar’s hope that God’s love will undercut the ability of the sinner to persevere in sin (TD V, 284), the Magisterium in the person of Clement XI rejects the following proposition of Paschasius Quesnel:

“When God wishes to save a soul, at whatever time and at whatever place, the undoubted effect follows the Will of God”. And “When God wishes to save a soul and touches it with the interior hand of His grace, no human will resists him” (DS 2412f). We could add Trent’s condemnation of irresistible grace as well. (But of course, Balthasar will contend that the grace is resistible, just that it won’t be resisted, that it is practically impossible for it to be resisted, that Christ will wait until the rebel gets tired of rebellion, etc.

On these issues, see Thomas Joseph White, “Von Balthasar and Journet on the Universal Possibility of Salvation and the Twofold Will of God,” Nova et Vetera 4 [2006]: 633-666.)

Finally, I add a proposition condemned by Bl. Pius IX: “Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ” (Condemned proposition #17).

We could add, in this regard, that the unspeakably vast majority of saints, indeed the chorus is practically unanimous, concur with these statements. That Origen seems to have gone astray on this issue is a different matter. He wrote before the Church taught. And he took some subtle positions – he debated with himself. Gregory of Nyssa is one of the few who explicitly held the hope that all men might eventually convert to God. But Augustine, Thomas, Bonaventure, Catherine, Teresa, Damascene, Chrysostom, Anselm, Don Bosco, et alia, all considered that hell will be packed with human beings.

And what about the children at Fatima?

Or what about this momentous quote from St. Faustina:

“These are the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of the sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout eternity, in those senses which he made use of to sin. I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell. How terribly souls suffer there! Consequently, I pray even more fervently for the conversion of sinners” (Diary of St. Faustina, 741)?

Fifth, Balthasar paints a false notion of hell’s infinite duration. Essentially, he morphs its infinity of duration into an infinity of intensity. Thereby, he hopes to release some who are already in hell. This is like converting it into Purgatory. In some texts, he seems to want to unchain the demons too. But as I have stated, hell is already populated with demons, and these are damned forever. I conclude with Canon 9 of II Constantinople: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.”

3 thoughts on “Balthasar’s Delirious Hope that All be Saved

  1. Hello Dr. Malloy,

    I am interested in reading your thoughts because I am a person considering conversion to Catholicism. One important reason for which I am so attracted to the Roman Catholic Church is that it seemed to me to allow room for the hope that all men may be saved; in this respect, von Balthasar’s book _Dare We Hope_ was very illuminating for me, as well as Joseph Ratzinger’s _Eschatology_ and of course the Catechism.

    The position of the Catechism especially seems to me a nuanced one. The section on hell affirms the reality and eternity of hell, of course, but it also leaves room for the hope that no one will be lost:

    “The Church prays that no one should be lost. … If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26).” (CCC 1058)

    Of course, having had this impression in my mind before, reading your post here was a bit disappointing. 😉

    Leaving aside all peculiarities and idiosyncracies of von Balthasar’s own theological position, how do you understand the Catechism’s position? To my mind it seems to suggest — in spite of all the Church’s teaching about hell — that there is a certain “nevertheless”, which is grounded in the practice of the Church’s prayer for all mankind. Von Balthasar cites numerous such prayers in _Dare We Hope_ (2014), p. 23, n. 3. Also, there is the Catechism’s teaching on prayer, in which it affirms that Jesus teaches us to pray with filial boldness (2609-10). Pairing the two teachings together, you arguably get something like at least a *hope* that all persons might be saved in the end.

    How do you understand the position of the Catechism on this question? What authority does the Catechism have?

    1. I think the CCC stays clear of anything like Balthasar’s thesis. It affirms the existence and eternity of hell and the condition for damnation. We do hope for any pilgrim that he die in grace and for anyone in purgatory, that they be purified quickly. We never pray for the “faithless departed” but only for the “faithful departed.” This is crucial. A number of Balthasarian arguments skirt the boarder of this parameter, to say the least.

      Regarding Balthasar, the first and most important thing is to take stock of the symphony of arguments he orchestrates for his thesis. My article is chiefly a set of objections to each of these arguments.

      That leaves the question remaining: But what about this hope? Well, in part it has been answered. The demons are in hell, and they are people too. This is a very significant fact, and one must meditate upon it. Persons whom God willed to achieve Beatitude are actually maliciously opposed to him and all that he created. The second is the overwhelming – and that is a light word – consensus of doctors and saints. Such a consensus makes ridicule of the possibility that every human be saved. Finally, there is the practical use to which his thesis is put in the pastoral sphere. M. Vorris has rightly placed his face, like a wall of brass, against such use. I believe it is an insane thesis. I believe we are all very sleepy insofar as we no longer really – or many of us, that is – think of eternal damnation as a real possibility for us. Balthasar can apply all the Kierkegaardian drama he wants personally; as a matter of fact, the culture cannot and does not sustain such tension. Rather, it says to itself, “Thank God! Now, what channel should I watch tonight?” That is, it gets on with its real love, self.

      No one is preaching the balance of God’s ever-being-offered mercy and the ubiquitous reality of grave sins all over. All are asleep, every one. No one seeks repentance, no not one. All have gone astray. I too. Which of us is evangelizing? God help us. Let us work that Love be Loved.

      Back to the spirit of your question. A conversion to Catholicism should be based in a basic sense of what Catholicism is. That sense is gotten through deep immersion in the Tradition, not in reading contemporaries. Not to say no contemporaries should be read by anyone. But I would instead recommend such as Alphonsus, “Heresies” or Bellarmine, anything in fact; Aquinas, Summa theo; Bonaventure, Breviloquium; Augustine, City of God and On Christian Doctrine; Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith; all the Christological Councils; Trent and Vatican I and Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum concillium; etc. The Spanish bishops had some absolutely amazing documents in the 5th-7th centuries.

    2. The most important point I neglected. It is a Catholic doctrine that God gives sufficient grace to every freely acting person. That means, God truly wills that each person be saved and communicates the grace whereby this is made possible.

      There are different schools of thought as to what this sufficient grace is and how free will is connected to predestination to glory. Grace is totally free, not offered in light of foreseen merits. But whether the predestination to glory considers or does not consider free acts is debated by Catholic scholars in good standing.

      Here, we actually find a touchstone with a certain thing Luther tried to inculcate in his hearers. Namely this: LOOK TO GOD WHO LOVES YOU. He sent his son FOR ME. He wants to look past my past and transform my present into the future.

      Where the Catholic Church cannot go is this: That his transformation is not thorough enough for me actually to obey the law in a manner adequate to merit eternal life. It is Catholic Dogma that God’s transformation of the sinner is thorough enough to equip him adequately to obey the law so as to merit eternal life, for which man has anteriorly been made worthy (passive voice key) by God.

      Hence, the paired prayers: ut digni efficiamur and ut mereamur.

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