The book consists of two main parts: Balthasar’s original 1986 essay on the “universal hope”, Was dürfen wir hoffen, and his “Short Discourse on Hell”, written a year later in response to various scholarly criticisms (not to mention a “heap of angry letters, entreaties to return to the True Faith and so on”).
Balthasar’s book is dense, subtle and carefully argued. In this post I will attempt to sketch out a brief summary of the central thread of his argument, but at the risk of oversimplifying it. I can highly recommend reading the whole book if you are interested in pursuing (or critiquing) Balthasar’s case further.
The best starting point for understanding Balthasar’s argument is the tension found in the New Testament between texts which appear to speak of a universal hope, and texts which warn of the dire, eternal consequences of rejecting Christ. As Balthasar puts it:
in the New Testament there are two series of statements that we cannot bring together into an overall synthesis. The first throws open a seemingly unbounded prospect for our hope; but we cannot separate this series from the second one, which prohibits any quick and easy conclusions (“Everything is sure to turn out all right”) and confronts us relentlessly with the most serious possibility of our damnation. (loc. 1389)
The fundamental point Balthasar makes is that we cannot resolve that tension in this life: we cannot choose one set of texts at the expense of the other. He quotes Karl Rahner in support of this:
We have to preserve alongside one another, without balancing them up, the principle of the power of God’s general will for salvation, the redemption of all men through Christ, the duty to hope for the salvation of all men and the principle of the real possibility of becoming eternally lost. (loc. 1714)
Balthasar’s argument then has two main elements: the difference between hoping and knowing, and the existential challenge that the gospel presents to each of us.
Hoping vs knowing
Balthasar is insistent that we cannot know the outcome for humanity of God’s judgment. The Christian message is addressed to us as sinners under judgment, as a call for repentance and faith, and not as secret knowledge of the future:
[W]e stand completely and utterly under judgment, and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards. (loc. 1294)
Balthasar is therefore highly critical of what he calls “the Augustinian knowing too much about hell” (loc. 723). He sees St Augustine as marking a “turning point in Church history” when Augustine “interprets the relevant texts in such a way as to show that he plainly and simply knows about the outcome of divine judgment” – namely, that those who do not accept Christ in this life are lost eternally.
In contrast, Balthasar quotes (on more than one occasion) Walter Kasper’s words from a German catechism “which was discussed sentence by sentence in Rome”:
Neither Holy Scripture nor the Church’s Tradition of faith asserts with certainty of any man that he is actually in hell. Hell is always held before our eyes as a real possibility, one connected with the offer of conversion and life. (loc. 1280)
Equally, though, Balthasar excludes the opposite form of “knowing”, the apokatastasis panton of what is sometimes called (though not by Balthasar) “dogmatic universalism”. Balthasar criticises Karl Barth for tending too far in this direction, and for making only “rhetorical” qualifications to his universalist logic.
The point is that we do not know either way:
If someone asks us, “Will all men be saved?” we answer in line with the Gospel: I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever. That means just as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. (loc. 865)
This leaves it open to us to hope:
The question, to which no final answer is given or can be given, is this: Will he who refuses it now refuse it to the last? To this there are two possible answers: the first says simply “Yes”. It is the answer of the infernalists. The second says: I do not know, but I think it permissible to hope (on the basis of the first series of statements from Scripture) that the light of divine love will ultimately be able to penetrate every human darkness and refusal. (loc. 1401)
Later, Balthasar goes even further, quoting Hermann-Josef Lauter’s “uneasy question” (and answer) with clear approval:
Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question. But love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from the Christian standpoint, not only permitted but commanded. (loc. 1721)
So what about the texts – such as last Sunday’s gospel lesson – that threaten the direst consequences for us if we fail to believe in Christ and to do God’s will in this life? Balthasar turns again to Karl Rahner, who says we:
must leave open the possibility of a radical, subjective, and definitive “No” to God … as the “mystery of evil” (loc. 570)
The texts threatening damnation must be read as presenting an existential challenge to me personally, rather than giving us a sneak preview of what is to happen to other people:
I am obliged to hear, in a thoroughly existential way, the threat of possibly becoming lost as something directed in each case to me in particular. (loc. 577)
To quote Karl Rahner again:
[The Christian message] says to each one of us, not to the other, but in each case to me: You can, through yourself, through the one that you are in your innermost center and irrevocably wish to be, also be the one who shuts himself off from God in the absolute, lifeless, irrevocable desolation of the “No”. (loc. 579)
Or to turn to another German Catholic theologian (who went on to even greater things), “all New Testament and theological talk about hell has but one point”:
To bring man to come to grips with his life in view of the real possibility of eternal ruin and to understand revelation as a demand of the utmost seriousness. (J. Ratzinger). (loc. 1595)
“Only with me may there be difficulties”
That’s probably enough to be going on with, but the last word in this post should go to “the splendid statement by Kierkegaard” which Balthasar quotes in each part of his book:
I have never been so far in my life, and am never likely to get farther than to the point of “fear and trembling”, where I find it literally quite certain, that every other person will easily be blessed — only I will not. To say to the others: you are eternally lost — that I cannot do. For me, the situation remains constantly this: all the others will be blessed, that is certain enough — only with me may there be difficulties. (loc. 640)