- Balthasar's Eschatology on the Intermediate State:The Question of Knowability
In Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI devotes several paragraphs to the intermediate state before concluding his encyclical with attention to Mary, Star of Hope.1 First, Benedict interprets the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31) as referring to "an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced."2 According to the Pope, this early Jewish idea of an intermediate state contains the view that souls are already being punished or are experiencing provisional bliss. It also means that souls are being purified, which enables them to mature for their communion with God. Benedict notes that the early Church adopted these concepts.3 He then considers what this intermediate state may hold for the supposed great majority of people who neither go to hell nor at their moment of death are already utterly pure.4 Throughout his treatment, the Pope speaks of the intermediate state as something with various interpretations. For example, he writes, "The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and suffering in the intermediate state."5 The Pope avoids the more trenchant recent theological controversy [End Page 148] in the West on whether an intermediate state can even be thought to exist.
As shown below, this subject was the matter of fierce contention in some theological quarters in the twentieth century. In a brief note to the Theo-Drama's volume The Last Act, Hans Urs von Balthasar intimates the controversy and emphasizes the limits of knowing in eschatology. He writes,
We have tried to go as far as revelation permits—some may feel we have gone one step too far—resolutely stopping at the point where pseudo-logical speculations have been shown to lead only into an abstract void or to superfluous lists of what is forbidden. There is nothing 'scientific'—and this applies equally to theology—about speaking with 'exact' precision about things that are unknowable(for example, the 'intermediate state') [Über Dinge, die man nicht wissen kann, "exakt" zu reden (zum Beispiel über den "Zwischenzustand")].6
I wish to consider the question of the intermediate state's knowability in Balthasar's theology. In doing so, I address concerns in Balthasar's consistency in theological language for his reader's understanding. While one could take Balthasar's expression about things that one cannot know to connote a great mystery beyond our knowledge in this life, Balthasar seems to mean something different from that here, as will be discussed in this article.7 For as much as this controversy on the intermediate state rages, it seems odd that various studies of Balthasar's eschatology have not highlighted the way Balthasar approaches the topic.8 Attending to this neglected aspect of Balthasar's eschatology may help his readers assess tensions of novelty and tradition, of coherence and confusion, of intelligibility and obscurity in this brilliant and challenging writer.9 Moreover, since there are certain affinities between Benedict and Balthasar in their descriptions of purgatory, but divergences in their language about the intermediate state, there is an added interest to engaging Balthasar on this matter. [End Page 149]
Before examining Balthasar's eschatology, I first note the position of Joseph Ratzinger and the International Theological Commission's "Some Current Questions in Eschatology." I then consider four aspects pertinent to questioning the intermediate state's knowability in Balthasar's eschatology: (1) the witness of the New Testament and the early Church on the Christian's intermediate state; (2) Balthasar's emphasis on the "one judgment" as it relates to anthropology and time; (3) the descriptions of purgatory, heavily indebted to Adrienne von Speyr; and (4) Christ's own intermediate state in the mystery of Holy Saturday. By raising the question of the intermediate state's knowability, the article gives a critical appreciation for not only what Balthasar believed in his eschatology but also his theological style in articulating that belief. I will show that Balthasar's treatment of the intermediate state, by formally denying its...