by Jordan Daniel Wood, Ph.D.
Many a wrong, and its curing song;
Many a road, and many an inn;
Room to roam, but only one home
For all the world to win.
(Eve, in MacDonald’s Lilith)
I want to put two eschatologies in conversation, that of Hans Urs von Balthasar and that of George MacDonald. The former, because I consider his the most interesting and potent eschatology on offer in modern Catholic theology. His defense of a “hopeful universalism,” which does not claim to know that all will be saved but insists it’s a Christian duty to hope that all will, has become fairly popular in many quarters. Not all, of course; not for the Thomists or the Neo-Augustinians or even, sadly, many contemporary Orthodox theologians. A keen sense of “the dramatic” in God’s dealings with humanity throughout history along with an ostensibly modest claim to epistemic humility about matters eschatological—this is the near irresistible concoction the great von Balthasar offers as antidote to the poison Augustine has injected into most of the Western tradition.
An essential though far less treated feature of von Balthasar’s polemic is his self-distancing from and criticisms of the certainty assumed not just in Augustine, but also in Origen’s view of universal salvation. I’ll consider two of his preferred allegations:
- That the dramatic character of creation’s history demands that both divine and human freedom undermine any surety about final resolutions;
- That the theological virtue of hope properly precludes any presumption of eschatological certainty.
I summon George MacDonald to respond to and meet Balthasar’s criticisms. MacDonald was at once a staunch Christian universalist (though he never claims the label)—a position carefully hewn from the hard ore of Scottish Presbyterian Calvinism—and a renowned dramatist: one of the pioneers of the fantasy genre in literature, author of numerous short stories and fairytales and novels, and frequent lecturer in theology and poetry. He was also an avid preacher. I make no pretensions here: I will not simply detail each’s eschatology. I intend to use MacDonald against von Balthasar. As such my description of the former will conform to my criticism of the latter.
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Some of Christ’s parables, a few of St. Paul’s statements, and certainly St. John’s Apocalypse all indulge the same images for God’s judgment of evil as are commonly found in the Old Testament; harsher, in fact. Von Balthasar warns that this can mislead. Under the common veneer lies a deep and significant shift: in the Old Testament God judges, in the New it is precisely Jesus the Crucified and Risen Lord who will judge the world (Acts 3, 17; Rev. 1, 5, 19, 20). Before Christ divine righteousness stood “behind” the judgment of reward and punishment. Now it is realized in the very person of Christ the Judge: divine justice is “in the judgment,” not behind it. Christ is “the Covenant personified,” party to no single side but the fulfillment of the whole by His oneness with both parties, God and humanity. More, the Son’s obedience to death, His becoming sin itself, and especially His descent into Hell have made of every distance forged by human rebellion a distance still infinitely more proximate than that of Son’s godforsakeness in dereliction. Christ’s radical kenosis even to the depths of the pit has brought the great cleft wrought by the wicked into the heart of the trinitarian relations—particularly the total self-giving between Father and Son—so that no sinner can wander where the Son is not. Von Speyr says: “even when a sinner turns to run from the Father, he will only run into the Son.” Christ’s cross and descent have made of every prodigal child God’s neighbor. Hence von Balthasar insists that while God’s judgment appears “symmetrical” in the ancient covenant, it is “asymmetrical” in the New with an evident penchant toward grace, salvation, restoration. Even so, von Balthasar refuses, from Theodrama V to his final writings, to brave the more confident claim that all indeed will be saved. Here I sketch his main reasons for hesitancy.
1. The mystery of freedom
In the Theodrama, von Balthasar’s principal approach to this question is, perhaps unsurprisingly, to locate it in the context of the dramatic interplay between God and humanity. These are the primary actors because both enjoy freedom and agency. In the second volume von Balthasar defines human freedom in fairly unremarkable terms: there are two pillars which constitute it: the autonomy of self-motion and the “freedom to consent.” Both elements are (mostly) classical. The first amounts to the simple observation that rational beings are self-moved, that is, are reduced to neither mechanical nor merely organic processes for the “mental events” that lead to action; they really can call their acts theirs. They act out of no obligation and only of their own election. The second provides the “teleological valence” of human freedom: the very power to act from oneself comes from a still greater power with still greater freedom, the infinite freedom of the Creator. As such human freedom is also oriented or tends toward its source as ultimate end. It’s not pure libertine freedom, which, von Balthasar notes, is what separates it from many modern accounts of liberty.
So we have two actors in the drama of created being, divine and human (demons and angels also play important roles, but I leave them aside for now). The dénouement, as with the play itself, consists in the tangled and at times impenetrable actions of bothactors. There is no easy or guaranteed resolution in a good drama. This is what, incidentally, makes Christian history and eschatology something resistant to Hegelian “epic,” where, supposedly, the Absolute Spirit will eventually accomplish the pre-disclosed goal of history, will attain, that’s to say, its total self-realization in the whole of what is. The Spirit’s self-consciousness is present in history not only as the terrible engine of its progressive march, but as the inevitable goal of all human science and striving. True, von Balthasar does not make explicit mention of Hegel in the relevant texts here. But so much of his language is haunted by the latter’s specter. We’ll see how especially in the next section.
For now I note only that even the End must come about as the conjoined actions of both actors, and that this seems a radical rebuff of any sort of Hegelian resolution posited beforehand as the inevitable goal. And so von Balthasar constructs, as it were, two sorts of “theory” concerning universal salvation. First he delimits what he thinks we can say with certitude; then he offers something like a “hypothetical approach,” at least in Theodrama V. The first part details what we can say of the two agents’ action. “Man judges himself,” says von Balthasar. He means much the same as what C.S. Lewis meant about locking the door from the inside: God casts no one into the Lake of Fire against her will. Each person has the “capacity” to so cauterize her own heart, so despoil her soul of love, that she might will her own persistent and torturous separation from the sole source of her life, love, and bliss. Von Balthasar speaks of “The Serious Possibility of Rejection,” which, in the gloomy abyss of the human person, might indeed come to pass. Then there’s God’s final act as the judge of such persons—always the final action. He will certainly spare no means to save such a person since the one who judges is the very one who came to save. But again, in the face of that black hole called the human heart—which God created, recall—God himself might fail to bring that heart to rest in Him. Apparently the index of a decidedly anti-epic view of history is the real potential of final tragedy: “This possibility once again raises the idea of a tragedy, not only for man, but also for God himself” (TD V, p. 299).
Personhood resists all calculation. The final judgment of persons therefore resists all speculation, all systems, all confident or absolute verdicts doled out prematurely. We must then “proceed by way of hypothesis,” von Balthasar cautions. He does so in four points. First, he registers doubt that human freedom has the capacity after all to reject God finally or permanently. This is because the person who demands, in her autonomous self-motion, to be utterly independent and cut off from God can only do so in a perpetual state of formal contradiction, since the freedom by which she requisites total freedom must itself be exercised precisely in a state of being given to her. You can’t logically atomize yourself without depending on God in the very act of “autonomous” rebellion. Put otherwise, human nature is irreducibly dependent and so can’t act in freedom without God (indeed, von Balthasar further specifies that this “nature” actually bears the indelible mark of Christ’s own eternal relation to the Father, which makes a finer point here). Second, the timelessness Christ experienced in His descent to Hell far exceeds any “timelessness” of Hell itself. The sinner’s atemporal state is the very state of self-elected separation, and it expresses only that rebellion. Christ’s pure obedience to the Father unto cross and descent is actually an expression of His own eternal and immanent mode of possessing divine being; it enjoys all the infinity of divinity itself rather than just the near-indeterminate “nothingness” of hardened hatred. Third, this excess of Christ’s obedience is what allows Him to “accompany” any and every sinner to whatever depths of depravity into which they plunge. Here we have “the ineluctable presence of Another,” which is the condition of the possibility of anyone’s eventual repentance. Fourth and last, all this grounds the real Christian duty to hope for the salvation of all. Hope, as we’ll see presently, is not the presumptuous certitude of either Augustine or Origen, but is most properly the “blind hope” of St. Thérèse de Lisieux (though, it must be admitted that Thérèse’s expressions, especially in Récréations pieuses, blind or not, are hardly lacking in absolute confidence that “every soul will find forgiveness”).
2. Hope against certainty
I discern a clear shift—not so much in logical content as in polemical form—between TD V (1983) and Dare We Hope ‘That All Men be Saved’? (1986), A Short Discourse on Hell (1987), and “Apokatastasis: Universal Reconciliation” (1988). If in the Theodrama von Balthasar emphasized the final indeterminacy of human freedom, now he wishes to brandish God’s absolute prerogative to exercise free and final judgment. From 1986 onward this becomes the refrain: “we stand under judgment,” we’re not spectators to the Final Act of this judgment. So a new charge, or at least a new urgency of an old charge, emerges: the charge of double presumption. Von Balthasar argues that Origen and Augustine share a common presumption. Both had the audacity to presume to know the final outcome, though, of course, each elected opposite certainties—but certainties nonetheless. Behold von Balthasar’s great and shrewd polemic: everyone who disagrees with him are “knowers,” from Origen to Augustine to Aquinas to Bonaventure to von Balthasar’s own right-wing critics. Only he and his like practice and properly maintain the theological virtue of hope. This obviously courts enormous rhetorical power. It amounts to saying that whoever claims to know whether anyone is in Hell—an affirmation conspicuously absent in magisterial teaching—is not only wrong but sinful, since such a claim betrays the vice of presumption. Hope opposes such illicit certainty, and “hope” happens to name von Balthasar’s view.
So now we find at least two reasons you must not claim to know whether all will be saved. For one thing, such certainty evacuates human freedom of meaning. If I know that no matter what I do, I’ll still end up at the same destination, how can my particular choices bear ultimate significance? If the final word of my own existence falls not to me, then do any of my words matter? The realization of every personal destiny is as impenetrable to the intellect as a personis to herself. This much already surfaced in Theodrama, and it’s still operative here. But, second, the principal problem with eschatological certainty is that it dares too much. Such audacity undermines the other great factor in the Final Act—that Christ alone gives the last word. Once again this is a fundamentally anti-Hegelian affirmation. Christ the Logos does indeed stand at the ultimate precipice of history, but not as some discernible principle realized at last. He stands as a free actor, the free Actor, whose judgment is his alone to deliver. Because He is the slain lamb (Rev 5) we can certainly “have confidence” (1 Jn 4.17). But we cannot have certainty. A proper hope repels the presumption of every certitude. This is the one merit von Balthasar can credit to Augustine: at least his presumption was a pastoral attempt to curb the “presumptuous hope” of other Church Fathers such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and other misericordes. These apparently succumbed to the temptation of constructing great “syntheses” and engaged in illicit “system-building” at the expense of genuine hope. “We stand completely under judgment and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards. How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this?” (Dare We Hope, p.131).
There lurks in fact a corollary reason why no one can know the final outcome. Near the end of Dare We Hope, von Balthasar admits that what comes along with the divine prerogative to judge, what makes it still more impossible to know the verdict here and now, is that God does have the power, after all, to save all. The grace that flows from the Son’s self-sacrifice into the world (2 Cor 5.19) could “grow powerful enough to become his ‘efficacious’ grace for all sinners.” “But,” he quickly adds, “this is something for which we can only hope” (Dare We Hope, p.167). He agrees with St. Edith Stein that God can indeed “outwit” even the very worst antics of human freedom, and that there are “no limits” to how far He can descend into the human heart. We’re just to be positively unsure as to whether He’ll really take the trouble.
Von Balthasar’s last writing, to my knowledge, was a talk he gave in 1988 on “Apokatastasis.” In it he takes his familiar line. Now, though, he appears even more sure about scripture’s indeterminacy on the question, alleging that anyone who claims eschatological certainty takes neither scripture nor faith seriously. Alas, “we must resign ourselves” to the possibility of ultimate tragedy, “our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding.” He calls his position of hope “the existential posture,” that is, the only perspective capable of holding in tension the ambiguities not just of scripture but of this our wrecked existence. He places himself between Paul, who says, “It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” (1 Cor 4:3-5), and John, who assures that “we may have confidence on the day of judgment” (1 Jn 4.17). Here below we live between fear and hope, though we must somehow gather ourselves to hope with daring. It is our duty to pray for all to be saved; we know not whether He will deliver.
For MacDonald we certainly do know. Now his is no easy universalism. He neither evacuates meaning from the drama of human existence nor wavers about creation’s final outcome. This alone ought to give the Balthasarian pause, since, along with Dostoevsky, MacDonald was himself a universalist and a dramatist. He’s likely to know the stuff of the dramatic. And he’s just as likely to know what he rejects when he defects from Scottish Calvinism: “From every portrait of the God of Jonathan Edwards, however faded by time, softened by whatever less stark pigments, I turn away with loathing” (“Justice,” Unspoken Sermons). In the same sermon: “I know the root of all that can be said on the subject; the notion is imbedded in the gray matter of my Scotch brains; and if I reject it, I know what I reject.” In this work (and elsewhere) MacDonald articulates his own eschatological view: “God is not bound to punish sin; He is bound to destroy it.” He goes on to say that were God not the creator, perhaps He would not be so bound. But since He is, and since He made creatures who introduced the sin which devastated the world, and since, therefore, sin is at least indirectly the result of God’s own free creation, then He is, “in His own righteousness, bound to destroy sin.” The Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the Devil (1 Jn 3.8), not simply to make sinners suffer for their sin. Such suffering, however many ages it endure, would never fundamentally rectify the offense of sin itself. Sin only suffers true defeat, MacDonald’s Adam-character tells Mr. Vane in Lilith, “when good is where evil was.” Anything less is not yet the “slaying of evil” that God, by the very act of creating anything at all, has obliged Himself to execute. I here note two striking features of MacDonald’s sure universalism. Each addresses von Balthasar’s objections.
1. The mystery of judgment
MacDonald agrees with Balthasar that the very character of personhood resists any generic account of how a person will arrive at her final destiny. Nearly all of his fairytales contain three main actors: typically at least two wayfarers in and out of Fairy Land, often children, and one “divine” guide who is also a sort of pedagogue or judge, often an “old wise woman.” The plot’s essential animus, its “dramatic” dynamism, is not so much an indeterminacy of the end as it is that of the way to the end (indeed sometimes the end of a character is not only presaged but openly predicted). What imbues the characters with the full latitude of dramatic possibility is not that they may or may not arrive at a reconciling end; it’s rather how they will manage to reach the end which is totally individual, totally personal, totally resistant to any generic synthesis or account. In his first novel, Phantastes, MacDonald’s protagonist is called “Anodos,” which, as those familiar with Greek will perceive, means “without a way.” The entire fantasy genre seems especially fit to display the point: Fairy Land overlays the “real” world, though it is itself more vivid and more real than anything in our own phenomenal “world.” It is only properly perceived and entered upon by those who are such as to be able to perceive and enter it. Ins and outs, byways and inroads and exits are all alike as individual as each person concerned. This often frustrates the main characters. They come and go they know not how, and when they inquire of their divine guide to show them the way, the guide usually says what Mr. Raven (Adam) says to Mr. Vane in Lilith: “To go back, you must go through yourself, and that way no man can show another.”
The mystery of personhood does not, however, finally subsume the mystery of God’s own judgment as it threatens to do in von Balthasar. This judgment, it needs to be said over and over, is not some easy resolution or blithe acquittal. As MacDonald says in his sermon “The Consuming Fire,” it’s precisely because God’s judgment must destroy every trace of sin and evil in every soul that it promises to be indescribably painful. “Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable.” Again, in “Justice”: “A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing.”
Nothing within Dante’s infernal circles can approach the horror of the judgment scene of Lilith, the Queen of Hell in that novel. Lilith is said to have been Adam’s first wife (as some actual but obscure Jewish lore has it). She bore him a child but soon grew weary of carrying out the will of her creator, and became quite enraptured by the power she experienced in having a child of her own. Envy and pride incited her to leave Adam and become a tyrant-queen over all the lesser creatures of Fairy Land, killing and terrorizing thousands for many, many ages. A prophecy was propagated alongside her reign that she would one day fall to her own child, whom she had abandoned for power. At length, through various wiles and ways, the protagonist, Mr. Vane, comes to lead an ebullient group of forest children called “The Little Ones”—the head of which, no one knew, was Lilith’s daughter Lona—into battle against the oppressive Queen Lilith. At the decisive moment when Lona learns that Lilith is actually her mother, Lona tries to appeal to her by familial love. Lilith slays Lona in cold blood. Soon after, Lilith is captured and brought to the House of Adam and Eve. There her judgment commences.
The whole masterful scene never fully turns on whether or not Lilith will ultimately be saved. We’ve already been told she eventually will be. What seizes the reader is the intensity of the judgment itself, its inscrutable and indescribable nature. Lilith sits before Mara, daughter of Eve, who conducts the judgment, as it were. The Little Ones ask whether it must be painful. Mara says indeed it must, and that it would be “cruel” if it were not painful enough; for it would then have to be done all over, and would be much worse. Two features of the scene are palpable.
First, the inflexibly individual or personal character of the judgment. So much of it is horrifying not because of what is described but because of what is not described, or what is not able to be described. The “process of torture,” as MacDonald puts it in one sermon, is essentially a process of coming to know the true self that you, through your ignorant rebellion, have never known, and then to compare God’s idea of you with what you’ve made of yourself. We do meet some descriptions: Lilith’s eyes are closed, sweat pouring off her brow; at one moment a “worm-thing” slithers out of the fireplace, “white-hot, as incandescent as silver,” and penetrates Lilith’s bosom in order to separate by excruciating fire, we’re told, bone from marrow and even deeper subtleties of the soul from one another. There’s very little else. Lilith slips into “the Hell of her self-consciousness,” somewhere “afar” from here. Long periods of silence. Shrieks, curses, silence again. She grips something in her right hand so tightly that her fingernails sink into her palms. We’re never told what. It is an image and a result of her insatiable acquisitiveness. When she’s finally destroyed so that she appears to the narrator as “death living,” a positive negation, an absolutely artificial embodiment of Nothingness, she is taken to the House of the Dead where countless others yet sleep their judgment sleep. She is placed upon a cold bed of white sheets, and her gripping hand is severed off clean. Adam and Eve assure us that it will, in ages to come, grow back once more. We hear nothing more of Lilith’s judgment.
Second, the total, mysterious power of the divine over judgment. Terse though it is, much of the intense dialogue between Mara and Lilith is consumed with Lilith’s protests against relinquishing her complete autonomy. She insists that she’d rather make herself, even if it means endless suffering. She accuses Mara of being a slave to “Him.” Come what may, she asserts, at least she will act in accordance with her own nature. “You do not know your nature,” retorts Mara. “You are not the Self you imagine.” When, by ineffable judgment, Lilith is “compelled” to admit that she is not her own creator—when, that is, she finally glimpses her “true self”—she clings still tighter to the sheer power of her will: “You might be able to torture me, I don’t know, but you will never compel me to do anything against my will!” Mara’s response is a thoroughly dyothelitist one:
Such a compulsion would be without value. But there is a light that goes deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it: that light can change your will, can make it truly yours and not another’s—not the Shadow’s. Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!
At length, Lilith softens ever so slightly, and Mara demands that she release what she’s clutching in her hand. “You think so,” returns Lilith, “but I know I cannot open my hand!” Mara returns: “I know you better than you know yourself, and I know you can.”
This whole harrowing exchange illustrates not merely that an author can attain dramatic tension even when the end is known; though it shows that too. What’s most striking is that the end is known because the “divine” character or guide is never simply a character among other characters. The divine is at once actor and author, character and stage, and so always knows more than any individual character presumes to know. That, I think, is the mystery of judgment in MacDonald. Von Balthasar, for all his affront against presumption, courts a presumption as old as Augustine himself: he presumes to know, time and again, that the bare fact that human persons rebel against and reject God now somehow gives us privileged access to the fundamental nature of human freedom itself. But why should we presume that our current state is really revelatory of the basic, perhaps undetectable structures and subtleties of human nature, or especially of the human person as such? Whence comes this unassailable insight into the abyss of the human soul? Did we create it? Divine judgment, says MacDonald, is exactly God’s destruction of “what we call our ‘selves’.” It is His perfection of every human individual qua individual. We do not, in fact, know enough of ourselves to know we cannot fully trust the power of His inscrutable judgment to save all.
At the end of “The Wise Woman,” another of his fairytales, MacDonald’s narrator admits he cannot say how any of the tale occurred. He says “it was a result of the interaction of things outside and things inside, of the wise woman’s skill, and the silly child’s folly.” And if “this does not satisfy my questioner,” he concludes, “I can only add, that the wise woman was able to do far more wonderful things than this.” For the Wise Woman, God, there are no limits, Edith Stein might say, to Her infinite resourcefulness over all She has made. Or, as Adam says near the end of Lilith, “He can save even the rich!”
2. Presumption of incertitude
Von Balthasar judged it presumptuous to maintain any sort of certainty about the Final Act. About this, scriptural revelation rebuffs every forceful attempt at “system-building,” every speculative storming of the gates of Heaven in order to attain an objective vantage from which to deliver some grand synthesis of all things in the end. It might seem that MacDonald falls right in line on this crucial point. He too has little patience for rigid dogmatic pronouncements (more so, indeed, than von Balthasar would generally). He even claims that his own “sequences” are not aimed “at logical certainty”; that is, he is not interested in “proving” his view as much as he is in “showing” it forth. Now, his point is importantly different from von Balthasar’s: MacDonald believes that truth can be properly discerned only by a true person. So “to see a truth, to know what it is, to understand it, and to love it are all one thing.” It’s a fairly Platonic idea. Like knows like, and you cannot know truth—especially divine truth—without being the sort of person, having the sort of character, that knows itself, as it were, in knowing truth (MacDonald thinks the further Christian idea that Truth is divine-human person only exacerbates the irreducibly personal character of perceiving truth). You must be kin to have ken.
That the truth revealed resists any easy speculative synthesis, though, does not lead MacDonald where it leads von Balthasar, and certainly not about matters eschatological. Quite the opposite. Since knowing the truth must always, for MacDonald, mean knowing the truth for oneself—seeing that it is so—then when you come to so perceive it, you do so in the most intimate sense imaginable. Particularly when it has to do with the Father revealed in and as the face of Jesus Christ, you come to know the truth like you know a brother (the Son) and a Father, and through their common Spirit in you (1 Cor 1–2). This means that when statements about God take an absolute form, they need not be the result of speculative, scientific theology (as von Balthasar presumes). They might rather be like saying, “I know my father, and I know he would never do that.” Did you arrive at that kind of certainty by some speculative enterprise? Is it not something still more subtle, something yet un-systematic exactly because it is intensely personal? Don’t you know absolutes about those closest to you because you know their character, you know them? The degree to which you do not is the degree to which you might have trust issues.
This is why MacDonald prefers to characterize both us and God in terms of “childlikeness.” In his sermon, “The Child in the Midst” (on Mk 9.33-7), he asserts that Jesus tells us to become like a child not because children blindly obey parents, but because God himself is like a child. “God never tells us to become what He Himself is not first.” Rather literally, of course, God became a child in Christ’s birth. But that He did so, and that he commends to us childlikeness as what ought to be imitated, means He too is essentially childlike. We have here two immediate reasons MacDonald chides anyone who considers God overly preoccupied with our alleged presumption. First, we are to be like children, and children often show the least apprehension by boldly (we might say “with confidence,” per John) posing questions or proffering answers, especially when it has to do with the people they know best. A child so trusts her parent that even if she utters some hyperbole, she knows this would constitute no offense to the “dignity” or propriety of her mother. Particularly if she knows her mother is good. Second, since God himself is childlike, He does not worry himself over His royal majesty like a petty monarch. “We are careful, in our unbelief, over the divine dignity, of which he is too grand to think.” It is not God who is afraid of our presumption. We are ones cowering, afraid of being sent away just as the children were barred from Jesus by his disciples.
But notice: when we fear that our imagination of God’s goodness might be too good, too presumptuous for God, we are guilty of imagining Christ in the figure of his ignorant disciples. We are guilty, that is, of rendering a rather unfavorable judgment on His character such that He could never abide little children. We could leger many objections to von Balthasar’s view that hope must exclude certainty. We might point out, for instance, that this is in fact not true of dynamics of theological hope. Hope need not preclude certainty of outcomes. I know that every dead body will one day be raised, and I know that the unjust shall suffer punishment for sin—are these then no longer objects of hope? Of course they are. As Hebrews 11.1 teaches, hope is grounded in faith, and “faith is assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Again, as Paul says in Romans 8.24–5, hope is not opposed to being certain that something will occur; it opposes only the realization of that something here and now. You don’t have hope if the object of hope stands before your eyes; but if it does not, and if you do not know how it will come to pass, then it remains a proper object of hope. But that is quite different from saying you don’t know what it is that will somehow come to be.
I could continue with several other points in criticism of von Balthasar’s position. But really, I think MacDonald has hit on the most basic issue in von Balthasar when he defends the “imaginative, hope-filled child” in the face of the “dull disciple” and his protests that no one can know what is not explicitly revealed. “What should I think of my child, if I found that he limited his faith in me and hope from me to the few promises he had heard me utter!” (“The Higher Faith,” Unspoken Sermons). In other words, the very refusal to claim certainty, especially when it implicates the moral integrity of the Father, is itself a rather staggering judgment against the Father. In the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25.14ff.), the sin of the wicked servant is precisely that he presumed to know the character of the Master, and so refrained from action: “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” “Oh, you knew, did you, that I was that way?” Whatever you think the Father might do reveals what you think the Father is like. We know this too from experience of personal intimacy. If someone told me that my father might have killed a man, and I say, “Well, I don’t know that he did, but he might well have”—then what does that say about my opinion of my own father? If you think someone capable of doing some evil, or at least something less than the best, you are, despite your intentions, judging the moral nature of that person. This is what MacDonald thinks we do even if we merely think God might not save everything He chose freely to create. That very suspension of judgment judges God, especially if we affirm openly, as von Balthasar does, that God has the power to save all. Von Balthasar can protest all he likes that everyone else is a “knower” while he alone resides within the bounds of proper hope, but his too is a presumptuous judgment. He is not neutral; he has claimed to know what is possible of God, what is within his power, what constitute real possibilities for God. And this position seems to me, at least, all the more disingenuous and deceptive, even, in that it renders its judgments under the pretense of pious restraint.
MacDonald gives the lie to Balthasar’s claim. No one truly refrains from intruding upon God. And why should they? As MacDonald has it in “The Higher Faith”: “To say that we must wait for the other world, to know the mind of him who came to this world to give himself to us, seems to me the foolishness of a worldly and lazy spirit.”
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Jordan Daniel Wood is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College. He wrote and defended his doctoral dissertation on the christological metaphysics of Maximus Confessor at Boston College. Most importantly, he’s the husband of an ICU nurse and father to three daughters under age 5.