May we hope—as opposed to dogmatically affirming in pesky universalist fashion—that all will be saved? The fact that so many Orthodox and Catholic Christians (though no doubt representing a minority within their respective traditions) would now say yes demonstrates that a dramatic development of doctrine is taking place within the two ancient Churches. Who before the 20th century taught the possibility that hell will ultimately prove empty on the last day? If there were such hopeful universalists in the second millennium, I’m sure it’s a short list.
But all changed in the 20th century. In France, Orthodox theologians like Paul Evdokimov and Olivier Clément began to publicly entertain the possibility, though not certainty, of universal salvation.2 Their hopeful universalism then began to circulate through the rest of the Orthodox world via the influential essay by Met Kallistos Ware: “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” (1998). He concludes his essay with these words:
Our belief in human freedom means that we have no right to categorically affirm, “All must be saved.” But our faith in God’s love makes us dare to hope that all will be saved.
“Is there anybody there? said the traveler,
Knocking on the moonlit door.”
Hell exists as a possibility because free will exists. Yet, trusting in the inexhaustible attractiveness of God’s love, we venture to express the hope—it is no more than a hope—that in’the end, like Walter de la Mare’s Traveller, we shall find that there is nobody there. Let us leave the last word, then, with St Silouan of Mount Athos: “Love could not bear that… We must pray for all.”
Note the Metropolitan’s insistence that all expressions of a strong universalism remain dogmatically excluded in Orthodoxy. We cannot be 100% certain that all will be reconciled to God. Freedom of choice remains in the way. Yet still we may hope, the good bishop contends. God’s love and resources are infinite. I am confident, though, that pre-20th century Orthodox bishops and theologians would have condemned Ware’s hopeful universalism as heresy.3 They would have judged it a spiritually dangerous innovation and departure from the catholic faith. Yet today even traditionalists like Dr David Ford of St Tikhon’s Seminary have adopted a hopeful universalism and regard it as compatible with the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Even in Orthodoxy, apparently, doctrine develops.
In Catholicism the figure of the great Hans Urs von Balthasar stands as the preeminent theologian of hopeful universalism. His first book on the topic, Was dürfen wir hoffen? (1987), received vigorous criticism, which he answered in Diskurs über die Hölle (1988) and “Apokatastasis” (1989). These writings were then translated into English and published in a single volume Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” With a Short Discourse on Hell. Balthasar identifies within Scripture two sets of seemingly contradictory statements:
- God wills the salvation of every human being.
- Human beings may definitively and irrevocably reject the infinitely loving God, thereby condeming themselves to everlasting separation (i.e., hell).
We should not attempt an artificial reconciliation of these statements. The shadow of the cross envelops us. “We stand completely and utterly under judgment,” Balthasar comments, “and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards.”4 We cannot know that anyone (whether one, some, or many) will be damned, but our freedom for sin compels us to acknowledge this terrible possibility; nonetheless, God’s universal salvific will encourages us to fervently pray for apokatastasis. Yet we must not presume. Balthasar leaves us with this solemn warning:
If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility [i.e., eternal damnation], our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding. We may not simply ignore such a threat; we may not easily dismiss it, neither for ourselves nor for any of our brothers and sisters in Christ.5
Balthasar’s position continues to be attacked today, perhaps most aggressively by Ralph Martin in his books Will Many Be Saved? and A Church in Crisis. I have not read these titles, but Martin has summarized his criticisms of hopeful universalism in his 2014 essay “Balthasar and Salvation.” He zeroes in on Balthasar’s approbation of Edith Stein’s early speculations on divine grace and human freedom. It’s probably best to cite the entire passage which Balthasar approvingly quotes:
We attempted to understand what part freedom plays in the work of redemption. For this it is not adequate if one focuses on freedom alone. One must investigate as well what grace can do and whether even for it there is an absolute limit. This we have already seen: grace must come to man. By its own power, it can, at best, come up to his door but never force its way inside. And further: it can come to him without his seeking it, without his desiring it. The question is whether it can complete its work without his cooperation. It seemed to us that this question had to be answered negatively. That is a weighty thing to say. For it obviously implies that God’s freedom, which we call omnipotence, meets with a limit in human freedom. Grace is the Spirit of God, who descends to the soul of man. It can find no abode there if it is not freely taken in. That is a hard truth. It implies—besides the aforementioned limit to divine omnipotence—the possibility, in principle, of excluding oneself from redemption and the kingdom of grace. It does not imply a limit to divine mercy. For even if we cannot close our minds to the fact that temporal death comes for countless men without their ever having looked eternity in the eye and without salvation’s ever having become a problem for them; that, furthermore, many men occupy themselves with salvation for a lifetime without responding to grace—we still do not know whether the decisive hour might not come for all of these somewhere in the next world, and faith can tell us that this is the case.
All-merciful love can thus descend to everyone. We believe that it does so. And now, can we assume that there are souls that remain perpetually closed to such love? As a possibility in principle, this cannot be rejected. In reality, it can become infinitely improbable—precisely through what preparatory grace is capable of effecting in the soul. It can do no more than knock at the door, and there are souls that already open themselves to it upon hearing this unobtrusive call. Others allow it to go unheeded. Then it can steal its way into souls and begin to spread itself out there more and more. The greater the area becomes that grace thus occupies in an illegitimate way, the more improbable it becomes that the soul will remain closed to it. For now the soul already sees the world in the light of grace. It perceives the holy whenever it encounters this and feels itself attracted by it. Likewise, it notices the unholy and is repulsed by it; and everything else pales before these qualities. To this corresponds a tendency within itself to behave according to its own reason and no longer to that of nature or the evil one. If it follows this inner prompting, then it subjects itself implicitly to the rule of grace. It is possible that it will not do this. Then it has need of an activity of its own that is directed against the influence of grace. And this engaging of freedom implies a tension that increases proportionately the more that preparatory grace has spread itself through the soul. This defensive activity is based—like all free acts—on a foundation that differs in nature from itself, such as natural impulses that are still effective in the soul alongside of grace.
The more that grace wins ground from the things that had filled the soul before it, the more it repels the effects of the acts directed against it. And to this process of displacement there are, in principle, no limits. If all the impulses opposed to the spirit of light have been expelled from the soul, then any free decision against this has become infinitely improbable. Then faith in the unboundedness of divine love and grace also justifies hope for the universality of redemption, although, through the possibility of resistance to grace that remains open in principle, the possibility of eternal damnation also persists. Seen in this way, what were described earlier as limits to divine omnipotence are also canceled out again. They exist only as long as we oppose divine and human freedom to each other and fail to consider the sphere that forms the basis of human freedom. Human freedom can be neither broken nor neutralized by divine freedom, but it may well be, so to speak, outwitted. The descent of grace to the human soul is a free act of divine love. And there are no limits to how far it may extend. Which particular means it chooses for effecting itself, why it strives to win one soul and lets another strive to win it, whether and how and when it is also active in places where our eyes perceive no effects—those are all questions that escape rational penetration. For us, there is only knowledge of the possibilities in principle and, on the basis of those possibilities in principle, an understanding of the facts that are accessible to us.6
This is a insightful passage and would be profitably read alongside David Bentley Hart’s meditation on human freedom in That All Shall Be Saved. We may wonder how Stein can declare that eternal damnation remains a genuine possibility when irrevocable human rejection of grace is “infinitely improbable.” Martin too shares our perplexity, but his chief concern lies with Stein’s assertion of the possibility of post-mortem salvation. He reminds us that according to the formal teaching of the Catholic Church divine judgment occurs precisely at the moment of death: anyone who dies in a state of mortal sin is immediately condemned to eternal damnation. The possibility of repentance after death, therefore, is definitively excluded. In support he quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (CCC 1035)
Q.E.D., I suppose. Balthasar and his supporters would no doubt reply that the Church has never definitively declared that anybody has died in mortal sin. Martin would likely rejoin that given everything we know about the history of human beings, the possibility that at least one person if not billions have died in a condition of spiritual death is infinitely probable. Let’s not indulge in perverse fantasy. After witnessing the horrors of Nazism, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (aka Edith Stein) appears to have come around to this more pessimistic view: “The possibility of some final loss appears more real and pressing than one which would seem infinitely improbable.”
Which finally brings me to the occasion of this article. Dr Larry Chapp, one of the foremost American scholars on Balthasarian theology, has just published a blog article on hell and hopeful universalism in response to Ralph Martin: “Universalism, Balthasar, the Massa Damnata, and the Question of Evangelization.” Stay tuned for part 2.
 Kallistos Ware, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?”, The Inner Kingdom, p. 215.
 Paul Evdokimov, “Eschatology,” In the World, Of the Church, pp. 11-35; Orthodoxy, pp. 330-340; Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 296-307. Also see Alexandre Turincev, “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology,” Greek Orthodox Theologial Review 58 (2013): 57-77. I have not included the great Sergius Bulgakov in this list because he was a vigorous proponent of what we might call dogmatic universalism. But his influence upon Evdokimov, Clément, and others of the Paris school is palpable.
 I cannot, of course, prove this claim, given the absence of Eastern hopeful universalists during the second millennium and therefore the absence of theological controversy; but I deem it reasonable nonetheless. Second millennium doctrinal statements on the last things are clear and leave no room for even the slimmest hope for apokatastasis. See, e.g., The Confession of Dositheus, decree 18: “We believe that the souls of those that have fallen asleep are either at rest or in torment, according to what each has done;–for when they are separated from their bodies, they depart immediately either to joy, or to sorrow and lamentation; though confessedly neither their enjoyment nor condemnation are complete. For after the common resurrection, when the soul shall be united with the body, with which it had behaved itself well or ill, each shall receive the completion of either enjoyment or of condemnation.” Again I ask, Who are the pre-20th century hopeful universalists?
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” With a Short Discourse on Hell, p. 166.
 Ibid., p. 235.
 Ibid., pp. 218-221; emphasis mine.