Book Review Wednesday: von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?”

13 December 2006

On the recommendation of Fr. Stephanos, I picked up this book to help me in my wonderings about Hell, universalism, and orthodoxy. A review follows.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?, with a Short Discourse on Hell. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988. 254 pp.

From the first, Hans Urs von Balthasar emphasizes that we are “under judgment (italics his),” in an attempt to fend off critics who accuse him of arguing for the αποκατασταις παντον, the “reconciliation of all,” a universalist heresy often identified with Origen.

This is an interesting rhetorical tactic; most of this book has, as its backdrop, several articles criticizing von Balthasar’s position. These critics hold to the Augustinian position that Hell is necessarily occupied, and that one cannot hope for the salvation of all. These critics —von Balthasar calls them infernalists, as will I— cite Scriptural passages like Matthew’s sheep-and-goats Last Judgment. The infernalists argue that to hope for the salvation of all is to disregard God’s judgment in scripture and nullify God’s justice.

Von Balthasar makes the shrewd argument that precisely because we are all under judgment, can God be merciful. He goes on, citing numerous theologians (notably one J. Ratzinger with great frequency), to demonstrate that God’s justice/judgment and God’s mercy are simply two sides of the same divine coin.

A particularly interesting moment comes with a quote from Anslem’s Monologion:

If you are merciful because most good, but are most good only because you are most just, then you are really merciful because you are most just. . . . Is it the case that your mercy is born of your justice? Do you then spare the evildoers out of justice? (quoted by von Balthasar on p. 150)

The book is full of these moment when surprising citations of various theologians are provided supporting the unity of divine justice and mercy and strengthening von Balthasar’s universalist argument.

The book’s argument has a lot more to it, and my purpose here is not to summarize it. To fully understand von Balthasar’s argument, you must pick up this short and inexpensive book and read it for yourself.

For me, it’s a nice piece of theological ammunition the next time someone claims the necessity of people in Hell, or that Christianity is a faith of judgment and damnation. It is one thing to find Scripture that supports your position, because just as often you can find a piece of Scripture, often out of context, that undermines your argument. It’s quite another to find a respected theologian who does so.

Theologically, it is Scripture that is the source and foundation, but in terms of argument, it is useful to have a theologian or three on your side. As Huw Raphael points out, sometimes to understand Scripture, we must rely on those who have come before, on Tradition in some sense, to give us either support or guidance in our quest to understand God and God’s word. In this book, von Balthasar provides that support and guidance admirably.

This book, from Ignatius Press, is not perfect. The translation is a bit stilted and opaque at times; as a veteran of philosophy texts, I can say that it might not be the translator’s fault. Unfortunately, in modern academia lack of clarity is often equated with profundity or erudition, as if someone who is very well read and sophisticated in their thinking cannot express themselves clearly. I cannot read von Balthasar in the original, but in any case the English is sometimes difficult to read, in the way that much academic prose can be.

This one caveat aside, the book is an interesting and quick read. I recommend it to all those out there struggling with universalist leanings in an infernalist church-world.


7 Responses to “Book Review Wednesday: von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?””

  1. 1 Tim 2:3-4
    “… God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

    Hans Urs von Balthasar’s piece is entitled as a question.

    “DARE WE HOPE…?” Do we dare to hope for what God desires, that all men be saved?

    It is certainly valid to hope for that.

    However, such hope is not faith or belief that all men will indeed be saved. It is simply hope. Hope in what God desires.

  2. Tripp Says:

    Fr. Stephanos – But is not such hope extant because we believe in the potential of such a thing…in the generosity of God to extremes that we cannot comprehend?

    As vonBalthazar suggests…we can hope for it. In fact, we should actively hope for such a thing because we are under the same judgment that may send many into the abyss…including ourselves. It is the self-reflective piece that begs our hopefulness. Because we will never be worthy. God judges. And thus we are saved.

    Unless this Baptist is missing something important. And, well, there is precedent for that. Ha!

  3. It is simply hope. That quote from First Timothy is central to von Balthasar’s argument.

    For me, it is a fervent hope that all be saved. I think I have made my peace with this particular issue, and do not feel the need to argue for apokatastasis. After all, God’s will be done, not mine; it is not my place to say. But I do hope for the salvation of all.

  4. Tripp Says:

    And there you go, Jorge.

    That tweedish cap will look smashing with the mandolin.

    Pax mandolinum!

  5. Father William J Martin Says:

    Isn’t Cardinal Von Bathasar right in two ways. First, of course, all men shall be saved- that is in the sense that in the end there will be one world only- that of God’s presence. All shall be in his presence. All shall see and know that he is God. Second, all shall experience that He is God. Some shall be “close to the centre” of his Being and know this as joy, bliss, peace, enlightenment. Others will be varyingly distant from the centre. They shall know his Being as they have desired to do so…that is, from varying degrees of distance from it, as their gods have so placed them in the heaven of their choosing. All shall be saved. All shall be in heaven. Heaven is experienced as either gift or rejection of it. But it remains the only Real World, the only permanent place for Living, Knowing and Loving. Third, and perhaps most important for the purposes of one’s own journey into His Presence, it would seem that our belief ought to be that all men shall be close to God “except for myself.” This is a spiritual posture of humility through which the Christian who opens up to God’s ever-needful mercy treats others. “Love your enemies…bless them that curse you, bless and curse not…” I must treat all others as if they will definitely go to heaven, and myself as one who might not, precisely because my sin is greater if I have not embraced and embodied the Light of Christ and so emmanated this reality to those who might technically not get there. Even the devil believes- i.e. knows. It is I who must passively receive the precious balm of Christ’s Real Presence. It is I who must always manifest it in thought, word and deed to all others. All shall be saved. And I had better treat it as certainly true, except for myself.

  6. Thank you, Fr. William.

    I’ve only begun to think about the question of Hell recently, but your ideas here sound good to me.

    Although I don’t think we should teach the certainty of all humanity being saved, we should certainly hope and act as if that were true, treating all with charity and mercy, while holding ourselves accountable for our failings. Many of the apothegmata of the Desert Fathers talk about just this kind of attitude when dealing with others.

    Your account of heaven is certainly interesting, and palatable, but is there any Hell?

  7. Father William Martin Says:

    I guess that technically Hell is an effect of choice. But I think that it must be part of heaven, for there must be some experience of what is lost—something viewed as beautiful and unreachable in the end. By the way, I am still an Episcopalian. Pray for me and my church. We are trying to discern our future in a completely Apostate and Dysfunctional Non Church

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