Balthasar: The Hopeful Non-Universalist

by Henry C. Karlson, III

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s hope that all could be saved has led many people to condemn him as a heretic, claiming that such hope is a weak form of universalism. Many who support Balthasar likewise think that Balthasar was a universalist and employ his work for the sake of universalism. Whether or not all forms of universalism are equally heretical, or some forms are acceptable because they do not fall under the confines of what has been officially condemned, to argue for or against Balthasar’s theology based upon the assumption that he is a universalist is to misunderstand his hope and what he thought Christians could believe.

I wrote my book, The Eschatological Judgment of Christ: The Hope of Universal Salvation and the Fear of Eternal Perdition in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, with the desire to serve as a corrective for all those who viewed Balthasar as a universalist. It is true that his hope that all will be saved was so strong he thought all Christians should hold onto that hope with him. Nonetheless, he wanted to be honest with the Christian tradition and teach that there was the possibility that some, if not many, will not be saved but will suffer some form of perdition. He tried to hold onto a very delicate balance, but he thought that this balance was the necessary consequence of what he found in Scripture and the Christian tradition. By looking throughout his works, both his major works such as his theological trilogy of the Theological Aesthetics, Theo-Drama and Theo-Logic, as well as many of his minor works which are often overlooked, I explored not only what his hope entailed, but also what he said about the possibility of perdition, including the state of the person who could be said to among the damned. I was interested in presenting his position more than my own. I wanted to give an honest presentation of his thought so that when his thoughts on perdition were collected together, it would no longer be possible to call him a universalist.1 For a thorough investigation of his work, in a way which a short summary of his thought cannot do justice, I recommend my book. What follows is only a small glimpse into his thought. It is not intended to answer objections which universalists or their detractors could give to his claims.

Scripture, Balthasar believed, gives us a paradox. God desires for and hopes for the salvation of all. God works for the salvation of all; he is willing to do all he can to encourage everyone to come, follow him, and be saved. But God also warns, throughout Scripture, that some might resist his saving grace, and if they do, so long as they do, they will suffer the consequences of their own freely made decision.

God hates sin, and when God sees sin, his wrath comes to it, causing the one who is attached to that sin to experience the fire of God’s wrath. God also loves his creation and he wants to free it from the bondage of sin. Jesus, as mediator, provided the means of doing just that: in the incarnation, God became man, taking upon himself the sin of the world upon himself, disposing it at the edge of creation. In throwing off sin in this fashion, he established as a place where all the residue and waste of sin finds it place, a place which is conventionally called hell. Jesus, having circumnavigated the whole of creation, establishes the new order which finds itself separated from sin. Likewise, he is the judge of all things, not just based upon the authority of his divinity, but from his experience as man. Thus, Jesus’ journey into the realm of the dead, going forth beyond all others to the edge of existence and back, is what establishes him as the judge over all:

In rising from the dead, Christ leaves behind him Hades, that is the state in which humanity is cut off from access to God. But, by virtue of his deepest Trinitarian experience, he takes ‘Hell’ with him, as the expression of his power to dispose, as judge, the everlasting salvation or the everlasting loss of man.2

Death takes us all out of time. When we die, we find ourselves in a state which is between time and eternity. Because of this, Jesus is able to meet us in our death through his death. He comes to us both as savior and as judge. He judges sin and condemns it, but he also is willing to take that sin away from us, to cast it away, to heal us from its harmful effects with his grace, and to take us with him to eternity. The state of that encounter is timeless, so that when we encounter Jesus in his role as judge, we are not yet experiencing eternity.

Balthasar stressed that our encounter with Jesus in our death would be one of judgment and mercy. Jesus not only judges and condemns our sin, but he asks us to do so with him, to condemn our sin and cast it away upon him. So long as we resist and remain attached to the sin, we experience his judgement and wrath of sin; when we accept the condemnation and cast the sin away, we die to the self and find ourselves blessed by grace. The judgment is painful, but it is purificatory if we allow it to be. If we do not, then we just experience the continuous state of judgment, which is what those who are said to be lost will experience. Perdition is to be understood as perpetual judgment; those who are lost will never come out of it, and so will never being saved. They will not enter into eternity, and so in that sense, hell is not eternal but it is perpetual.

What Balthasar found to be important about judgment is that Jesus is there with us with his love; even as he judges us, he tries to entice our acceptance of his judgment so we can let go of our sin and be transformed in Christ. Balthasar believed Jesus would do everything he could to make us accept his decision that would keep our freedom intact: he will not force us to accept our salvation. It is up to us to act with the freedom which he has given us and decide to either to denounce ourselves and our sin, thereby finding ourselves with grace and with God, or else, denying that grace, and having only what we have made of ourselves for ourselves for eternity. “It arises from the inner reality of the grace flowing from the Cross: once a person has refused to accept the gift of this grace there is nothing left “behind” the Cross but the specter of judgment.”3

God is a God of love, a fiery love; the drama of history, for Balthasar, entails the revelation of what happens between God and his creation. Only in the eschaton can history itself be properly understood; it will end in fire, but what kind of fire it will be we do not yet know:

This drama, in which God’s absoluteness (understood as power of as love) touches the sphere of the fragile creatures, can only be a fiery event, a history of fire, made up either of devouring or of healing flames; and everyone who looks back from the vantage of the Apocalypse, having heard the account of the entire action, is bound to sense this, in some fashion at least. 4

Balthasar was interested in preserving our freedom, our ability to act in history and have an effect in it, a freedom which included the possibility of resisting God and his grace. What happens in the judgment is the revelation of history as well as the revelation of what we have made ourselves to be with our free will. It is both a universal and a particular judgment. It is particular in that we experience the judgment in isolation with Jesus, but it is universal in that all those particular judgments come together and reveal through them a revelation about history and God’s judgment of history. What we do in relation to Jesus’ judgment of sin comes out of our lived experience and what we have made for ourselves. Balthasar wanted it to be clear that we do not save ourselves after our death, but only reveal in that judgment what our lived history has made of ourselves in relation to God’s grace. And yet he believed we should be cautious. Until the eschaton which is revealed in the judgement, we should never presume the outcome of that judgment, either for others, or especially, for ourselves. We must wrestle against sin and open ourselves out of love to God, hoping for our salvation, knowing the reason why we can hope is because God loves us and freely offers us his grace. But we must not assume that our piety and devotion is true. We might think we are accepting God’s judgment of sin and his grace but we could be denying it in our interior life. We might employ the shadow of the truth to hide from ourselves our attachment to sin. Likewise, we might think others are denying Jesus and his grace, because in all appearances, this is the case. However, in their own interiority, they are opening themselves to God unaware, and will find themselves welcomed by him in the judgment. This is what Jesus implied with his parable of the last judgment: it is possible we will be surprised about the true status of our relationship with Jesus. The Christian life is important because it disposes us to that grace, shows us and tells us the truth of God and his way with humanity, but Balthasar understood all the reasons why someone could nominally be a Christian and deny grace, or all the reasons why someone could reject the Christian faith with no fault of their own and so be receptive of grace and find themselves transformed by Christ at the judgment. Presumption of salvation, he feared, could cause us to distance ourselves from the good which God seeks out of us, to build up a resistance to grace, and so end up perishing; it is why he said that we should primarily be concerned about the possibility of hell for ourselves and not for others.

Despite his agnostic eschatology, it is also apparent that Balthasar focused more on the hope that all will be reconciled with God, that all will be saved, than he did on perdition. He found it very difficult to describe how and why someone would ultimately reject God’s grace. He could, and did, give an objective discussion of the possibility, but he could not truly describe what would lead to a person rejecting salvation. His focus was on the hope which he understood, and this focus explains why many, if not most readers, assume him to be a universalist. Nonetheless, he believed universalism to be faulty because it ended up undermining human freedom, he is best viewed as being a person who is friendly to universalists but yet counters them with questions which he thinks cannot be answered without ignoring what is found in Scripture. The Christian tradition, he believed, offered the possibility of both all being saved and some being lost. He believed that is all God wanted us to know at this side of the eschaton, so that we should not presume to read into history and its judgment which lies beyond history and therefore outside of our experience. What we know is that when we come to the eschaton, we come to the dread tribunal of Christ. There all shall be revealed. There, the full offering of grace will be made known, but it will be made known in unison with the judgment of all that is sin. If some end up wanting to hold on to that sin, they will find themselves placed where sin is placed, staying with all that is sin; but if they freely cast away their sin, then they can rise up with Christ, move outside of hell and into eternal beatitude. That is Balthasar’s final theological position, and why, though it is filled with hope, it is one which cannot be seen as taking the leap towards actual universalism.

Footnotes

[1] That is, while my own eschatological views are shaped, in part, from Balthasar’s work, it diverges from his in many ways as it borrows from many other theological traditions, such as the more universalistic approach find in the writings of Sergius Bulgakov.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale. Trans. Aidan Nichols (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1993), 177.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar. Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him? Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1983), 81.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar. Theo-Drama. Volume IV: The Action. Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 59.

* * *

Henry C. Anthony Karlson III is a Byzantine Catholic and independent scholar who writes on his blog, A Little Bit of Nothing. He holds a M.A. in Theology from Xavier University, and did doctoral studies at the Catholic University of America. His book The Eschatological Judgment of Christ came out of the research and writing he did while at the Catholic University of America. 

 

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25 Responses to Balthasar: The Hopeful Non-Universalist

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I confess, Henry, that I was disappointed to learn that Balthasar’s understanding was not as confident as I thought. But better to be well informed than not! Thank you for writing this article for Eclectic Orthodoxy!

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    • You are more than welcome. I think, even if he is not a universalist, he has much to say which can answer objections often given to them

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      • I would also say Balthasar is very much like C.S. Lewis (who he quotes) in the Great Divorce. Lewis, influenced by MacDonald, shows his sympathies to universalism, but he basically says the same thing as Balthasasar, with I think the same hope with Balthasar that all will be saved. The hope is not universalism but it certainly is open to and attracted to the position.

        To quote Lewis (for those who have not read the Great Divorce) talking to MacDonald:

        “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

        “And some hear him?”

        “Aye.”

        “In your own books, Sir,” said I, “you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved.And St. Paul too.”

        “Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”

        “Because they are too terrible, Sir?”

        “No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal tears. Time is the very lens through which ye see
        -small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope -something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity exce
        pt through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?” .

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  2. alienus dilectus says:

    “Perdition is to be understood as perpetual judgment; those who are lost will never come out of it, and so will never being saved. They will not enter into eternity, and so in that sense, hell is not eternal but it is perpetual.”

    Not eternal but perpetual. What’s the difference?

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    • This can get complicated. We can think of it in the way there are many forms of infinity; some are limited (such as found in various forms of infinite regress or so-called negative infinity), while others have no such limits. Eternity would be see as the infinite freedom outside of limits, while those who do not open themselves to infinity would be in a form of infinite regress so long as they remain closed.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Like the movie “Groundhog Day”? 🙂

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        • Yes, like that (which of course can set the stage for a more hopeful end as well). Or another analogy which is useful is that of how time is experienced in dreams, which is not the same thing as real time and yet as we experience it, it feels and seems to be temporal.

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  3. Mike H says:

    Thanks for writing.

    Two questions:

    1) —But we must not assume that our piety and devotion is true. We might think we are accepting God’s judgment of sin and his grace but we could be denying it in our interior life.

    In the thought of Balthasar, how does a person know if they are really “accepting”? I mean…really accepting. How much acceptance is “necessary” to be really accepting? Or does he believe that all will go through this same fiery judgment-as-purgation….”salted with fire”.

    2) If I follow properly, it seems that Balthasar’s construal of freedom is such that there is a dialectical battle of wills between God and man; (God-willed) salvation, if construed as certain actually takes away from human freedom. It seems to follow that it is just as possible that none could be saved as some or all. What is it that allows him to hope, to see “some” with a hope for all as more likely than all being saved OR none being saved?

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    • 1) According to Balthasar, this is why we hope for the salvation of all, including ourselves, but we do not know, especially in relation to ourselves. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling,
      2) There are many aspects to this question which makes it too hard to answer in any short form. But in part, the saints, and their salvation, revealed to us by God, shows us some are saved. Also his understanding of beauty, the good, the attractive nature of beauty and the good, plays a part in his hope. This, of course, is a very short reply to this question, with all the problems that come from such a reply.

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  4. David Kontur says:

    Henry,
    Thank you for the article! The only work that I have read by Balthasar is his book on St. Maximos the Confessor – which I found amazing and a great introduction for the West. I was a little puzzled by the way that you had discussed sin in the article. I may be misunderstanding it, but it seems as if sin has its own existence when you discuss God removing it from the person and putting it “somewhere else.” Is not our understanding of sin that it in fact has no ontological reality (not of course saying that it has no effects)?
    Thank you in advance for considering this question and I look forward to your response.

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    • David, you are right in this being a serious question (which I reflect upon a lot, borrowing much from Balthasar in my own thought).

      I agree with you that the best, and most authentic ontological discussion of sin sees it as privation, and Balthasar’s approach seems contrary to this tradition. And yet I think he is working with the general, conventional, approach to sin which also recognizes sin not only as an absence but the structure or form contaminated by it. It This is how evil can be said not to exist but it still has influence so it is not nothing in the conventional form but rather, a concept which we develop based upon experience of the effects of that privation. And it is that which is being excised but not destroyed (annihilated) because that which remains is still of the good, and has its place in the grand scheme of things, for the good which remains, but since it is disordered, it is taken out of the place it is found so that order and healing can then take place.

      I think Proclus and his notions of evil in someway relate here (which you can read here: http://ufar.ff.cuni.cz/sites/default/files/imce/Radek/proclus_theory_of_evil.pdf )

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      • brian says:

        Nice discussion, fellas. Regarding David’s question. One might bring in Pavel Florensky’s discussion of Gehenna here. Florensky opines something like what C. S. Lewis in the Great Divorce might signify as “remains” rather than persons as the end point of the trajectory of sin — without, this is crucial, determining that a person could ever be utterly coincident with such a state. Divine Judgment heals by separating off what is not ontologically rooted in God (the real person that is “always already” and continuously gifted by Agape) from the illusory distortions of sin which constitute a “false self.” The false self “burns in Gehenna,” whilst the actual person is the subject of theosis. Anyway, I read Balthasar’s reflections as akin to that sort of thinking.

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        • You are right in drawing the connection to St. Pavel Florensky; Balthasar talks about the notion of “effigies in hell,” especially in relation to what visionaries/mystics see in their visions of hell. They are not the actual persons but what is made up from them and their sins. This is also how he is able to interpret Dante and the Inferno and still allow for his hope.

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        • Well said. This understanding of the “false self” being thrown into Hell forever would be consistent with St. John’s imagery in the book of Revelation wherein St. John states that “death” will be thrown into the Lake of Fire.

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  5. John H says:

    You undoubtedly did not intend the following but wouldn’t a ” hopeful non- universalist’ actually wish for the perdition of some souls? It is a strange phrase to say the least which is why I would still classify von Bathasaar as a hopeful universalist.

    Besides, hopeful universalism is basically watered down, wishy washy universalism. It is sort of like saying: I can see no reason why it wouldn’t be Russia (I can see no reason why all will not be saved) as opposed to the strong emphatic universalism of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Bulgakov or David Bentley Hart who would unequivocally say, It most certainly was Russia or God cannot fail to save all and still be the God of classical theism..

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    • Saying he is a hopeful non-universalist is to say he hopes that all will be saved, but he thinks universalism assumes too much this side of the eschaton. For him, history needs to play out.

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  6. Ed says:

    From what you’ve written Henry, I get the impression that Von Balthasar believed that judgment is a redemptive process. Through His judgment, God tries to get the sinner to become aware of his own sinfulness and need for repentance. If this is so, what then would be the point of a perpetual judgment (i.e., hell) other than, to ensure that, at some point, the sinner will come to repentance? If, on the other hand, even God loses hope in the sinner’s repentance, what would be the use of continued judgment?

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    • For Balthasar, judgment is both a time of condemnation of the sin but also a time of mercy. It is presented to the person, so that he is freely offering mercy but that requires acceptance of it and so turning the will away from the self and over to God (which then becomes an act of love). Balthasar does not know if it will be perpetual for anyone, but only it will last so long as the will to the self keeps one away from willing for God and love. So for Balthasar there is a redemptive opportunity with the judgment so long as it remains but it still requires a free will acceptance of that redemptive mercy. For Balthasar, the affirmation of freedom is important, though for him, it also becomes greater once we join in union with God’s will in the judgment not less.

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  7. pcm2fchris says:

    I’m not sure how Balthasar could be a hopeful universalist and take the traditional catholic reading on final judgment seriously. If Jesus said some would be damned, then hoping for an outcome that contradicts this is impossible, or at least disobedient insofar as it shows a resistance to God’s revealed will. On the other hand if Balthasar thought those passages didn’t teach final damnation, then why can’t universalism be a plausible reading of Scripture?

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    • Balthasar has much to say about what is found in Scripture in relation to the judgment, and while there are nuances he brings out (such as when certain statements are made), his main point is such passages are not absolute predictions of what will be but what might be (think Christmas Carol and Scrooge). Balthasar says there are passages in Scripture which are universalistic and others which suggest some will be lost and he thinks we must accept both. Universalism suggests all will necessarily be saved while Balthasar points out that Scripture suggests some, if not many, might be lost. He says we have hope because those texts are best seen as a possibility and so long as we are this side of the eschaton, we do not know what the outcome of the judgment will be. Think, for example, of Jonah and Nineveh: Jonah was a true prophet, he predicted the end of Nineveh, and yet it was saved; what Jonah gave was what would happen if there had been no change to the people of Nineveh, but since there was a universal repentance, they were saved. So likewise, we are warned that perdition is possible, but we have hope in salvation.

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  8. Paz says:

    I think universalism challenges our notion of the nature of God’s love by continuously reminding us to see others as also children of God.

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  9. John H says:

    Henry you stated that freedom becomes greater not less when a person’s will joins with the Will of God throughout the process of divine judgment. So it is fair to say then that von Balthasar does not accept the pure voluntaristic notion of freedom that is so in vogue among contemporary libertarians. God’s will cannot properly be viewed as being in competition with a person’s freedom since an individual is most free when the Good is chosen. So how can the process of divine judgement truly be perpetual? Will there not inevitably come a time when all rational agents will freely choose the Good because they were created for It and It is their true Home? Or to view the matter negatively, if a person stubbornly continues to will the phantasms of the false self over the Divine Good, won’t that individual eventually experience what George MacDonald referred to as the Outer Darkness.? Won’t that experience of utter privation from the love of God be sufficient to induce even the most hardened sinner to repent?

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    • Balthasar would suggest we do not know the answer, and this is one of the reasons why his explanation for perdition has issues with it. He sees the hope that this is actually going to be the case. And yet, there are elements of his attempt to explain the possibility that some would continue to resits. In a way, it is the paradox. Freedom is given, the freedom to be a person, by God, but through sin, evil, our personhood and freedom is threatened; if someone ends up in perpetual judgment, it can be seen as the loss of personhood into an objectified form.God wants to grant freedom, but sin objectifies and removes freedom. If someone were to perpetually resist it could be compared to one person putting up a wall and the other removing it at the same time. God is working to remove that wall of sin while the one who denies God constantly reifies it through a turn to themselves instead of God.. Balthasar has many elements in relation to his discussion of freedom that it is not easy to discuss it in a concise manner (and I go into many more of them in my book), but it is key to him that freedom is understood in relation to a stage of play and so it is not an absolute self-given freedom but one given to us by God which does make it different from pure voluntarism.

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  10. The Scriptures coming from “The Word of God” Trump’s over all of ‘theolgians’ speculations and assumptions. James 2:13 “(God’s) *mercy triumphs* over His judgements”! Too many Scriptures prove that God’s will is infinitely greater than His rational creatures’ will! 1 Timothy 2:4 “God *wills* (‘thelei’)–not wishes wants, etc.-as some faulty translations have it–*all* mankind to be saved and come to the full knowledge of the *Truth*, 4:10-11…….”God is the Savior of *all* mankind, especially of those who believe. These things proclaim and teach”! Ephesians 1:9-10 “And He made *known* to us the mystery of His *will* according to His good pleasure, which He *purposed* in Christ: to be put into effect when the Times will have reached their fulfillment–to recapitulate *all things* in heaven and on earth together under one Head, even Christ.” Colossians 1:16, 19 “Because in Christ were created *the all Things*: in the heavens and on the earth, *visible and invisible*, whether thrones, dominions, principalities, or powers; *the all things* were created by Him and for Him……’And through Him to *reconcile the all things* to Himself making peace through through the blood of the cross of Him, whether the things on earth or the things in the heavens.’ See also the universal hop and scope of the Gospel in other passages such as: 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, and many passages in the O.T. such as Isaiah 45:21-25. There are many more and you can read them in a chapter of the book, ‘Hope Beyond Hell’, by Gerry Beauchemin. (It can be read free online at

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  11. Interesting. Compelled to look further into Balthasar, if nothing else.

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