This book is not making wild universalist claims that everyone is saved; the author is well aware of the numerous scary warnings about Hell in the scriptures and lists a number of them at the outset. Instead, Hans Urs Von Balthasar is asking the question of the title, may we hope that all men will eventually be saved? He feels there is enough evidence to answer this question ’yes’.
The Philosophical Argument
God is categorically greater than man in all ways; and we know God wills that all men be saved. Is it then possible for humans ultimately to resist the will of God? “The question is whether God, with respect to the plan of salvation, ultimately depends, and wants to depend, upon man’s choice; or whether His freedom, which wills only salvation and is absolute, might not remain above things human, created and, therefore, relative.”
Evidences of the New Covenant
Von Balthazar points out that the warnings about Hell, which are almost entirely pre-Easter, need to be read in the context of numerous triumphal statements made post-Easter:
1 Timothy 2:1-6: I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men--the testimony given in its proper time.
1 Timothy 4:10: (and for this we labour and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, and especially of those who believe.
Colossian 1:20: and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Ephesians 1:10: to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
John 17:2: For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15: For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
John 12:32: But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."
Romans 5:15-19: But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Romans 11:32: For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
Romans 11:26: And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
Romans 14:11: It is written: "As surely as I live'', says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"
2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
(Here, it would not be right to see God’s patience coming to an end with death; why should it? For Christ has overcome death:
Romans 14:7-9: For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
Revelation 1:18: I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.)
The idea of an eternal Hell is also mitigated by the instances in the Gospels where it is seen as a restorative punishment, e. g., Matthew 5:26: Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.
Scripture also never says at any point, of any particular human being, that they are in Hell.
We are cautioned not to presume to know the outcome of God’s judgment; neither to presume our own salvation, nor the damnation of another:
1 Corinthians 4:4-5: My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
Romans 14:10: You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat.
Finally, we are positively commanded to hope and ask for things that are according to God’s will: and God wills that all be saved; so therefore asking for the salvation of others is allowed.
1 John 5:14: This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
Evidences of the Early Church
Numerous early Church fathers taught that it was permissible to hope that all would one day be saved.
St Clement of Alexandria (150-215) taught that all punishments in the afterworld were corrective.
St Ephrem the Syrian (306-373)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-378) was confident that God is infinite, and evil is finite, and suggested that Jesus emptied Hell when he descended there.
St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-390)
Didymus the Blind (313-398)
St Jerome (342-420)
St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662)
And, of course, Origen (184-253), who based his theology of the afterworld on this passage:
1 Corinthians 3:12-15: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
But wait, I hear you say. Wasn’t Origen condemned, among other things, for teaching universalism? Isn’t that why he isn’t “St” Origen? Well, kind of. Origenist writings were condemned – but not until Emperor Justinian’s time, 543-553 : and not apparently for ‘Universalism’ but for wacky things taught by later developers of his theology, particularly an extreme Mormon-style equivalence of Christ and believers. The condemned texts do not contain anything he actually wrote. And there seems to be some confusion as to whether he was condemned at all (according to the Catholic Enyclopaedia, 1913) since the acts of the 553 council approved by the Pope at the time do not mention his name. But any rate, his position that we can dare to hope for the salvation of all men went unchallenged for about 300 years!
Note that only one of these Church fathers is after St Augustine, who was of course immensely influential. He interprets Matthew 25 in the literal way and is confident that the outcome of divine judgment will be a great mass of damned; and from him it rolls on down through the High Middle Ages to the Reformers and Jansenists.
“Augustine solidified into historical opposites something that was, for Paul, a dialectical opposition. The theologian of grace was vanquished by the theologian of original sin. Not until the present day did Catholic theology succeed in finding its way out of this blind alley” (Henri Rondet, L’Esprit saint et l’Eglise, 1969)
Just as Scripture is silent about anyone in particular being in Hell, so is the tradition of the Church.
The Catechism of the Church teaches that we should hope and pray for the salvation of all men, without exception:
In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere “to the end” and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for “all men to be saved.”
Catholic Evidences with an Identitarian Twist (Mea Culpa)
Paul expresses in one place the wish that he would be damned, if it would mean the salvation of others: Romans 9:3: For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race.
Something similar has been said by numerous saints; among them St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897). They hoped that in the end all would be saved, just like at the end of C. S. Lewis’ ‘The Great Divorce’: How can anyone be in heaven without having compassion for the damned? Does not compassion descend to the lowest?
And it is interesting that between Augustine and the 20th Century, the articulation of this ‘Dare We Hope’ position was overwhelmingly a female affair- besides the three Saints above (who happened to be the only three female ‘Doctors of the Church’ up until 2010) among authorities quoted in the book are:
St Mechtilde of Hackeborn (1241- 1299) – It is impossible that someone should not attain what he has believed and hoped for “For I am Deliverer and Saviour of all that is, that was, and that will be”… “heaven and earth and the underworld, for I embrace and contain within me every created being. And if I appear before the Father to praise and give thanks, then it cannot but be that, through me and in me, the shortcomings of all creatures are compensated for in the worthiest way’
St. Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), and
Lady Julian of Norwich (1343-1416)
And in the 20th century, quoted more than any other modern theologian (estimated roughly by me) is Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967). And St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein, 1891-1942) has a long quote in support; and not mentioned in Urs Von Balthasar’s book, but central to my own hope, is the prayer from the Chaplet of Divine Mercy of St. Faustina (1906-1938) “have mercy on us, and on the whole world.”
In ‘Reframation’ Alan Hirsch and Mark Nelson have a footnote where they indulge in ritual 21st century self-criticism for relying so much on male sources. In general, I think this sentiment is nonsense; but in this particular case, I think a more ‘gender-balanced’ theology would have meant that the thesis of ‘Dare We Hope’ would be seen as an uncontroversial mainstream position in the Church.