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.
 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.
￼ Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale. Trans. Aidan Nichols (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1993), 177.
￼ Hans Urs von Balthasar. Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him? Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1983), 81.
￼ Hans Urs von Balthasar. Theo-Drama. Volume IV: The Action. Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 59.
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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. ￼