Bishop recently remarked: “I believe that hell exists.
But let’s face it, we’re not bound to believe that there’s anyone
there.” He was echoing Pope John
Paul, II, who said in 1999: “Eternal damnation remains a possibility, but we
are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.”
It has been said that the only people in hell are the people who would like
other people to be there. The joke
is a profound one. The spirit of
self-righteousness is one in which we set our own souls in mortal jeopardy.
But the debate about hell and whether anyone goes there touches a raw
nerve in modern Catholicism. To many
modern people, the doctrine that God can damn his own creatures to eternal
torment for exercising the freedom he himself gave them is a major reason for
disbelieving the Gospel. In response
to this disgust and scepticism, liberal theologians have tried to soften and
even abolish the clear teaching of the tradition that hell exists as a real and
Some Catholics regard the hope that all may come to repentance as a kind of
heresy, and a few (much more worryingly) seem to gloat over the idea that a vast
multitude will not. Yet the spirit
of self-righteousness that hastens to judge and condemn is more Jansenist than
Catholic. The Catholic faith is not
an ideology, but a mystery – the mystery of redemption, of a love that goes
beyond human imagining. “My
thoughts are not your thoughts.” Hans
Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner – two of the greatest Catholic theologians
of the twentieth century – disagreed on many things, but on hell they agreed
that we may yet hope that all men will be saved.
Richard Neuhaus, a leading Catholic Neoconservative and editor of the
influential First Things magazine,
concurs. Yet all three have been
lumped together with the more extreme liberals and modernists on this point by a
series of savage editorials in
’s New Oxford Review, the voice of
American hardline Catholicism. This
is unfair to the sophistication of their views, and distorts an essential
element of Christianity, as Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out in his review of
the controversy (published in First Things
Let us concentrate on Balthasar, since he is clearly one of the major influences
on Pope John Paul II. His book Dare
We Hope (That All Men Be Saved)?, published by Ignatius Press,
was a book about hope, not certainty. The
Church tells us that many people have attained heaven – the canonized saints
(and these are just the tip of the iceberg, since an untold number of others are
never formally canonized). She
indicates that many are in purgatory – by praying for the dead.
She warns us that many people, perhaps even the majority of people, are
heading towards hell and in the process of falling into it.
But she does not tell us that anyone (except the devil and his angels) is
definitively already there, not even Judas.
The Catechism affirms the
existence of hell as the destination of those who die in a state of mortal sin (para
1035), but immediately adds that this teaching is a “call to repentance” (para
1036), and that “God predestines no one to go to hell,” while the Church
constantly “implores the mercy of God, who does not want ‘any to perish, but
all to come to repentance’ [2 Peter 3:9]” (para 1037).
Balthasar was not one of those who took the teachings on hell lightly.
His close friend, the mystic Adrienne von Speyr, whose views were adopted
into his own theological writing and who has been acknowledged by the undeniably
orthodox Cardinal Ratzinger as one of the great modern mystics, experienced the
agonies of hell with Jesus Christ each Holy Saturday, just as many saints have
similarly experienced the torments of the Cross on Good Friday.
Hell was real enough to her; but it was for both her and Balthasar a Christological
place. The Redeemer had
descended even to hell in his search for the lost sheep.
How was that possible? It was
possible because of the Trinity, which enfolds all of creation, to its
bottommost depths, in the distance between the three Persons.
Jesus confronts the mortal sinner in his last moment of freedom, his very
act of throwing away all traces of love and relationship in his own being, his
very attempt to sever his connection with God.
In this moment, the moment of death, the moment of falling into hell, of
being damned, the sinner is suddenly confronted by the unexpected: God is there
before him. God has abandoned God,
has experienced what it is like for a human being to reject his own maker.
In the depths of hell there is a mirror, in which a sinner will see the
shape of his own sin in its true relationship to God, in what it does to God.
He will see the immense price that his sin has exacted from the one who
loves him more than he does himself.
Balthasar’s critics allege that his arguments tend to the conclusion that we
may be certain that no human being will be eternally damned.
In the second volume of his series Theo-Logic
(Ignatius Press), however, Balthasar writes as follows.
“This whole ‘teaching’ remains in many respects ‘paradoxical,
because at bottom it cannot be taught, it can only, at best, be lived.
Hence the silence of the Church on Holy Saturday.
But this silence ought to bear within itself an inkling of what
tremendous, ineffable things are happening between heaven and hell” (p. 359).
He goes on, “So long as the world endures, there remains for us the
unresolvable contradiction between the atemporality of the Cross, the different
atemporality of hell, and the yet altogether different atemporality of
heaven.” (Interestingly, Cardinal
Newman had tried in his Grammar of Assent
to soften the teaching on hell by suggesting that the actual “experience” of
eternal punishment might not involve a perception of eternal duration.)
Balthasar concludes: “This cannot be neatly calculated, much less be
forced into a theory (of ‘universal redemption’, say).
No one can try to anticipate the judge and look at the cards.”
The latter is, of course, precisely what the critics believe he has done.
Cardinal Dulles, in his cautious way, tries to strike a balance.
“This position of Balthasar seems to me to be orthodox. It does not
contradict any ecumenical councils or definitions of the faith. It can be
reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on
hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive. Balthasar’s position,
moreover, does not undermine a healthy fear of being lost. But the position is
at least adventurous. It runs against the obvious interpretation of the words of
Jesus in the New Testament and against the dominant theological opinion down
through the centuries, which maintains that some, and in fact very many, are
wonderfully orthodox mystic Dame Julian of Norwich inquired of God how it was
that “all would be well” in the end, since (as she believed on the authority
of the Church) many would be eternally damned, she was told of a “Great
Deed” that God would perform at the end of time, but which
neither be known in Heaven nor earth till it is done”. “That
which is impossible to thee is not impossible to me: I shall save my word in all
things and I shall make all things well,” but “the more we busy us to know
His secret counsels in this or any other thing, the farther shall we be from the
Perhaps, then, Balthasar overstepped the mark by prying into a secret that God
does not wish to reveal. In the Old
Testament, the prophet Jonah is told categorically by God to preach to the
that they are to be destroyed by God’s wrath.
He does so, they repent, God spares them, and Jonah is furious with God
for changing his mind. Yet they
would not have repented without the warning of a very real threat.
The process of salvation is a dynamic one, in which we who are embedded
in time cannot see how things turn out, even for those who have already died.
Yet as Balthasar shows in his book, there are numerous great saints in
the history of the Church (most recently St Edith Stein) who have been granted a
glimpse of some immense and consoling reality beyond the veil of time.
Balthasar and Rahner agreed on one more thing, that the Christian of the future,
if he existed at all, would be a mystic. The
people of the Middle Ages, for whom the great paintings of the last Judgement
functioned as an image leading to repentance, understood the Christian life as a
drama of freedom. We, who have lost
that sense somewhere in the age of rationalism, need to rediscover it.
When we talk about the end of time or the world beyond death, we make a
great mistake if we think that these things can be grasped in the categories of
everyday life. Hellfire is a literal
reality, but the only way to describe that which is literally true yet outside
time is by means of the imaginative method (Tolkien would say the mythopoeic
method) that paints symbolic pictures for the eye of the heart.
Modern men and women cannot be so easily called to repentance by threats
of hell, because they do not understand the language of symbolism, nor the
relationship between time and eternity. They
do not realize that when God speaks to us he tends to reveal the truth only as
it applies to us in the present moment. They
cannot allow a God of surprises.
The little visionaries of
saw the souls of the damned roasting in hell.
Yet perhaps we should continue to pray the
prayer that hints at a hope this vision appears to deny: “Save us from the
fires of hell. Lead all souls to
heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.”
It is awareness of the incredible outreach on the part of God – through
the incarnation, death and resurrection of his Son – that gives souls the
courage to turn from their sins and throw themselves into his arms.