Balthasar and the Problem of Hell
Stratford and Léonie Caldecott

An English 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 present danger. 

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 California ’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 (May 2002).

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 lost.”

When the 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 shall 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 knowing thereof.”

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 people of Nineveh 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 Fatima saw the souls of the damned roasting in hell.  Yet perhaps we should continue to pray the Fatima 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.