by Richard John Neuhaus
The question of universalism—whether all will, in the end, be saved—is perennially agitated in the Christian tradition. A notable proponent of that view was the great Origen, who, in the third century, set forth a theologically and philosophically complex doctrine of “Apocatastasis” according to which all creatures, including the devil, will be saved. “Origenism”—which is not necessarily the same thing as Origen taught—has been condemned from time to time, with the Emperor Justinian trying, unsuccessfully, to get a total condemnation at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. Among theologians and church historians, there has been something of a rediscovery and reappreciation of Origen in recent decades, helped along in significant part by the voluminous writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. The universalism question came in for broader discussion with the publication of Balthasar’s little book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? (1988). Balthasar’s is a very careful argument, clearly distinguishing between universal salvation as a hopeand universal salvation as a doctrine. He supports the former and rejects the latter. In sum: we do not know; only God knows; but we may hope.
While my book Death on a Friday Afternoon, published last year, is intended not as an exercise in systematic theology but as a poetic-devotional reflection on the seven last words from the cross, I do indicate there my essential agreement with Balthasar’s position. I confess to being caught off guard by the vehemence of some criticisms on that score, and not only from putative defenders of orthodoxy who have personal axes to grind. Let me not exaggerate the problem: the book has been marvelously well received, for which I am grateful, and many people have expressed their disagreement with the published criticisms, for which I am also grateful. Nonetheless, when some people whose judgment you generally respect have misunderstood what you wrote, a clarifying word may be in order. Of course, I also hope that people will go back and read what I actually wrote in Death on a Friday Afternoon.
The hope that all will be saved is precisely that, a hope. It is not a doctrine, never mind a dogma. But some respond that we cannot even hold the hope, since it clearly contradicts the revealed truth that many, if not most, will be eternally damned. A different and much more troubling objection is that it makes no sense to be a Christian if, in fact, one can be saved without being a Christian. In this view, the damnation of others, maybe of most others, is essentially related to the reason for being a Christian. The joy of our salvation is contingent upon the misery of their damnation. If it is possible that all will be saved, it is asked, why not eat, drink, and be merry?
One critic goes so far as to write about all the wrong things that he would really like to do, that he would prefer to do over what he is doing, and that he would do, were it not for the fear of eternity in hell. It follows, he contends, that, without the damnation of many, perhaps of most, there is no point in being a Christian. This, I suggest, is profoundly wrongheaded and spiritually perverse. For one thing, one cannot rationally and knowingly choose to live contrary to God’s will, since to do so is contrary to one’s own nature, which nature is to live in accord with God’s will. One avoids sin because to sin is to act against God and against oneself, not because, or not chiefly because, of the threat of future punishment. More precisely, punishment, understood as damnation, is the culmination of having lived against one’s highest good, namely, God. It is doubtful that one could really want life with God forever if one does not want life with God here and now.
The Generosity of God
Such a perverse view is also more than a little like that of the laborers in the vineyard who complained that those who came at the last hour received the same reward as those who had worked all day. The master replies, “Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20). Some of the critics of the hope for universal salvation do indeed seem to begrudge the generosity of God entailed in that outcome. Theirs is a position of resentment dressed up as a claim of justice. “What was the point of my working so hard and so long if God is going to let in the riffraff on equal terms? It’s unfair!” The eschatological upsetting of such attitudes (the last will be first and first last) is a constant in the teaching of Jesus.
Others, however, raise questions that should be taken very seriously. It would be absolutely wonderful, they say, if all were to be saved, but the Bible is very clear that that is not the case. There is no denying the powerful presence of passages suggesting a destiny of separation from God (e.g., Matthew 7:13ff., 25:31-46; Mark 9:45-48; Luke 16:23; John 3:36.) As there is also no denying the New Testament passages suggesting the redemption of the entire cosmos (e.g., Colossians 1:19-20; 1 Corinthians 15:22,28; Romans 5:18, 11:33-36; Philippians 2:10-11). If one gives priority to the latter passages, then the former may be understood as admonitory and cautionary, solemn warnings of a terrible possibility. If one gives priority to the former passages, it is not clear how we are to understand the latter. The passages cited in support of universal redemption can and often have been interpreted in other ways, as have the passages cited in support of the damnation of some or many. The Church in her wisdom has not definitively settled these exegetical disputes.
It is objected that Matthew 25, for instance, is “predictive.” The outcome is certain: “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Yes, certainly, people who live that way until the very end will go to hell. But what if, having lived that way, they at the very end repent? Recall the thief on the cross. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want ‘any to perish, but all to come to repentance’“ (1037). How can we know that anyone persists in mortal sin until the end? We cannot. Must we not hope that, according to God’s desire (2 Peter 3:9), all will repent? If not, how can we pray that that is the case? Is it possible to pray for an outcome without hoping for it? Is it possible to pray and hope for something that you know cannot be?
In Death on a Friday Afternoon, I write: “From the cross Christ has already counted them all. And he assures us that none of them will be lost. He also sends out those whom we call missionaries to let them know they have been found.” The second sentence is susceptible of misunderstanding, and some have done their best to misunderstand it. The point of the sentence is not that everyone will be saved. The point, repeatedly underscored elsewhere in the book, is that absolutely no one is beyond the reach of God’s love in Christ. All are found, and therefore are not lost. That some may choose not to accept the gift of being found is quite another matter. We pray and hope that all will accept the gift of salvation that is most surely available to all. At least for Catholics, the teaching is definitive: God denies no one the grace necessary for salvation.
A Sordid Reality
Make no mistake: Hell is real. Eternal separation from God is a distinct possibility to be feared, and to be feared first of all for ourselves. The passages of warning are to be taken with utmost, indeed ultimate, seriousness. God only knows who, if any, are damned. Our unqualified prayer is that God’s will be done. Do I know beyond a possibility of doubt that I will not be damned? Of course not. To answer otherwise is the sin of presumption. I believe, I have a confident faith, that I will be saved because of the mercy of God in Christ. It is sometimes said that Protestants, who subscribe to “justification by faith,” know they will be saved, while Catholics only hope they will be saved. That is a distinction without a difference. Faith is hope anticipated, and hope is faith disposed toward the future.
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is the prayer that is absolutely without qualification. Only God knows God’s will completely, and it is enough that God knows. In the splendid notes to the new translation of Dante’s Inferno by Robert and Jean Hollander (Doubleday) we are told:
Beatrice’s insistence [in Canto II] that she is not “touchable” by the grim powers of the pains of hell underlines the marginality of sin for the saved. Hell is simply not of concern to them. It is important to know, as one begins reading the poem, what one can only know once one has finished it: no soul in purgation or in grace in heaven has a thought for the condition of the damned (only the damned themselves do). Their concern for those who do not share their redeeming penitence or bliss is reserved for those still alive on earth, who have at least the hope of salvation. Hell, for the saved, is a sordid reality of which it is better not to speak.
We know that some are saved. At least Catholics know, on the basis of infallible teaching, that Mary, the mother of the Lord, is saved. And, although theologians are not of one mind on this, it is commonly accepted that those who are formally canonized are definitively declared to be in heaven. With respect to all the faithful departed, we are invited to have a generous expectation, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Moreover, there is plenty of room for the saved in the New Jerusalem, which we are told is approximately fifteen hundred miles in height, breadth, and length (Revelation 21:16). That’s a city of a size that would cover more than half the continental U.S., and it will be more than a thousand miles high. It would seem there is ample space for everybody to be saved. (Where people who don’t like cities will go, I don’t know.) The details may not be meant literally, of course, but the picture of a well-populated heaven can, I think, be trusted.
How About Judas?
By way of contrast, we do not know who, if any one, is in hell. As John Paul II points out in his remarkable little book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Church has never taught that even Judas Iscariot is damned. A critic writes me that he will not be satisfied until I publicly declare my certain belief in a “populated hell.” I am afraid that he will have to remain dissatisfied. How on earth (emphasizing on earth) can I know for sure that hell is populated? One day we will know even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13), and presumably the saints in glory know now (although, as Dante suggests, they’re not much interested), but we—here on earth and now—simply do not know.
There is that enigmatic statement of Jesus about Judas, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24, Mark 14:21). He does not explicitly say that Judas is in hell but, on the other hand, it would seem that he cannot be in heaven. Were he in heaven—or in purgatory on his way to heaven—how could one say that it would have been better for him if he had not been born? Some theologians have speculated about another possibility. Since evil does not have independent ontological status but is the absence of good, perhaps the fate of Judas is that of total annihilation. Such a fate, joined to his terrible betrayal, would seem to warrant saying of him that it would have been better had he not been born. In any event, as John Paul II notes, the Church does not teach that even Judas is in hell. That does not mean he is not in hell; only that we cannot teach what we do not know.
The Demands of Justice
Here enters another consideration that is commonly expressed: our sense of justice requires that we believe some people are eternally punished. It seems the favorite candidate here is Adolf Hitler. As one critic writes, “If Hitler is not in hell, there is little reason why I, with my much lesser sins, should be in fear of going there.” There are all kinds of things wrong with that argument. Hitler may have repented, turning to the mercy of God, even as his finger pressed the trigger. Plus, rating “big” and “little” sinners is a very dubious business. I expect there are many petty tyrants in homes and offices who are every bit as disposed to evil as was Hitler, but who have a more restricted range of opportunity for acting on that disposition. Moreover, consider the Apostle who writes, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16), and so should we all say of ourselves, since, when it comes to sinners, we know chiefly about ourselves. Further, it is not our sense of justice but God’s perfect justice that is to be satisfied. And, be it noted, that perfect justice is satisfied by the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Then, too, there is the matter of purgatory. Not only Catholics, but thinkers such as C. S. Lewis and the contemporary Methodist theologian Jerry Walls suggest it is only fitting that there be an experience, and perhaps a long and painful experience, of purgation before we are ready for the beatific vision. The master’s reproach to the disgruntled laborers in the vineyard (“Do you begrudge my generosity?”) notwithstanding, there is something that seems not right about the idea that Hitler or Chairman Mao or (enter your favorite villain here) should get to heaven without paying a steep price for their crimes here on earth. Are they finally to be treated the same as, say, Mother Teresa? That too seems not right. So maybe they have thousands of years (as we reckon time) in purgatory. And maybe, as one friend whimsically suggests, Hitler in heaven will be forever a little dog to whom we will benignly condescend. But he will be grateful for being there, and for not having received what he deserved. (As will we all be grateful for being there and not receiving what we deserve.) But with such thoughts we are in a realm of speculation and whimsy far beyond things on which we have a certain word from God, and far beyond our capacity to understand.
So may we hope that all will be saved? Answering that question in the affirmative, some contend, undercuts the rationale of Christian evangelization. I respond to that objection in Death on a Friday Afternoonand in an extended commentary on John Paul’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer) (FT, October 1991). I will not expand on that response here, but the gist of the argument is that the command and impulse to evangelize is premised not on the bad news that we do not know but on the good news (i.e., “gospel”) that we do know. To be sure, good news may be good in relation to the bad, but there is enough bad news that we know for sure that we do not need to pretend to know more bad news than we do in order to make the good news good. We know about God’s saving work in Christ, and that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). As both Redemptoris Missio and the year 2000 statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, make clear, everyone who is saved is saved because of Christ, even if they have never heard the gospel. If they are in heaven, they will certainly know then that it is because of God’s reconciling work in Christ. As it is usually put, faith’s response to the gospel proclaimed and enacted in word and sacrament is the “ordinary means” of salvation. That is exactly right. At the same time, God is not limited to the ordinary. Why evangelize? Evangelization is most importantly driven by the means of salvation revealed, by Christ’s clear command, and by the sharing of fellowship so that “our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4). We know what we are to do, and why. But the fullness of what God can and will do for the world that He loves is not limited to what we do.
We may come at our question in a different way by trying this thought experiment: Do you know anyone of whom you would not say that you hope he or she is saved? Imagine that you could know everyone who now lives, who has ever lived, or will ever live in the future. Of whom could you say that you hope they are eternally damned? Perhaps in a fit of anger—or in an act of presumption in which you identified your moral indignation with God’s perfect justice—you have said that you hope somebody is eternally damned, but you know you were wrong in saying or thinking that. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Is it possible to forgive someone and, at the same time, hope he goes to hell? I think not. After you have, in this thought experiment, said to absolutely everybody, “I hope you will be saved,” have you not declared your hope that all will be saved?
Quite apart from such a thought experiment, the fact is that we all pray that all may be saved. Is it possible to pray for that without hoping for that? I think not. It follows that we pray, and therefore we hope, that all will be saved. Catholics by the millions pray the rosary every day, adding at the end of each decade, O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.
We pray and we hope, but we do not know that that will be the case. I have a terrible fear that it will not be the case. If all are not saved, if many or most are lost, I do not know-despite the many elegant explanations that have been proposed-how to square that with biblical passages and the theo-logic that suggest universal redemption. But God knows, and that is enough. We know that we are to proclaim the saving gospel, we know what we hope will be the case, but we know these things in the full recognition that the ultimate working out of God’s mercy and justice eludes our certain grasp.
How to Disagree
Nevertheless, I expect that I may not have convinced everyone that we can and should hope that all will be saved. In that event, I hope we can disagree without quarreling, remembering Chesterton’s observation that the problem with a quarrel is that it spoils an argument. And, as in all such disagreements, we do well to keep in mind the rule of Richard Baxter (famously reiterated by John XXIII), “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”
To which one need only add this necessary thing: all our puzzling, disputing, and speculating must finally give way to the most pure act of faith, which is doxology. So it was with St. Paul in his perplexity at the end of Romans 11, and so it must be with us. At the end of all our trying to understand, we join in declaring:
For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.