Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dare we hope "that all men be saved"?

I have recently read Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? With A Short Discourse on Hell, trans. David Kipp and Rev. Lothar Krouth (Ignatius, 2014). I think it is a very fascinating work, and von Balthasar makes a compelling case for the conceptual possibility (indeed, the necessity) of a genuine and sincere and prayerful hope for the salvation of all human persons in Catholic theology. 

In Catholic theology, according to von Balthasar, there has never been an official announcement of the eternal damnation of a single person; the Church has never stated that any person is certainly damned. In spite of this, however, at least since Augustine, many have written as if they knew that hell is populated, perhaps even densely so. This for von Balthasar is claiming too much, and it would seem to introduce unseemly ethical problems: how can such persons exercise true and genuine Christian love for their enemies in keeping with Christ's command? It would seem, further, that this claim to knowledge effectively deflates the numerous texts in the New Testament which speak hopefully of a universal restoration and reconciliation to God of all sinners. It requires the introduction of all sorts of unreasonable and unfounded theological distinctions, e.g. the distinction between God's antecedent will (which desires the salvation of all) and his consequent will (which desires the damnation of some), the horrible notion that God and the elect no longer love nor pity the damned, etc. 

On the contrary, the Christian is commanded to pray for the salvation of all persons (1 Tim 2.1-4). This is grounded in the desire of God for the salvation of every human person, and expressed through the mediation and self-offering of Christ on behalf of all. Moreover, there are prayers of the Church in the liturgy which petition precisely for this universal salvation. This commandment presupposes and entails the reasonable hope that such prayers will be heard and answered. Finally, there is also the testimony of many of the Church's mystics, who have expressed both the hope and the prayer that all will be spared eternal damnation in hell. 

The texts describing the eternal punishments of the damned in scripture should not be approached in a detached, objective way. On the contrary, they ought to be taken as addressed to the individual hearer as warnings about the genuine possibility of damnation. They make no statements of certain fact about an inevitable future; they are warnings and threats about one way in which a person's life may—but need not—end.

In a way, von Balthasar proposes an attitude of utter openness about the future, one with some precedent in Catholic tradition. A person should neither be certain of the damnation of even a single other person, nor of her own salvation. God's justice is not to be over-stressed, and neither can his mercy be presumed upon. It is every individual's responsibility and burden to take responsibility for her own life, and to respond to the salvation which is offered her in Christ, a salvation which demands her free acceptance. 

For von Balthasar, damnation is not something that God or Christ imposes upon any person. Rather, some persons misuse their freedom and utterly shut themselves off from any hope of salvation. Damnation, if it occurs at all, is self-imposed. Yet we must also hold out the hope and always pray that God's grace and omnipotence may save even the dastardliest of sinners.

Christ damns no one himself, but is only ever salvation and grace. Damnation is self-imposed, if it occurs at all, which is not a certainty for any person. Thus, every Christian can and should hope for the salvation of all. The threats of damnation in scripture are only warnings about the possibility of damnation, warnings which every person must take seriously for herself without presuming or expecting the damnation of anyone else. This is an opinion which numerous Catholic thinkers and figures of the 20th century shared, including former pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). 

Von Balthasar is well aware of the philosophical and theological problems which a certain dogmatism about the damnation of some persons raises. At the same time, he doesn't want to theorize or systematize a formal dogmatic universalism. Instead, he takes a non-systematic, non-dogmatic approach to the question of hell: everyone must take seriously the possibility of her own damnation while admitting no dogmatic certainty on the question of the damnation of others; for others, there is hope and fervent prayer for their salvation. 

There is a lot I would want to say in response to von Balthasar's impressive short work, but that will have to wait till another time. The comment box is open for anyone to leave remarks and responses to his thesis and arguments. 

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