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  • Hope and Hell:The Balthasarian Suspension of Judgment
  • Joshua R. Brotherton

THROUGHOUT HIS much-disputed and revered Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?, Hans Urs von Balthasar criticizes as "knowing too much" Augustine's restriction of the object of theological hope to the elect, whom he deems to be only a few.1 Some argue that the same kind of criticism may be directed toward Balthasar: not only does he seem to know too much about the inner workings of the Trinity,2 but he also seems to know how best to reconcile two apparently conflicting affirmations, namely, that God loves every human being infinitely and that free creatures may be permitted to refuse his grace in a definitive manner.3 Others [End Page 75] maintain that Balthasar does not even covertly suggest a resolution to the so-called tension in divine revelation between the possibility of universal salvation and the possibility of eternal condemnation for some human beings.

I will seek to mediate between scholars who defend Balthasar and those who critique him, arguing that the solution to the problem that so plagued Balthasar is neither a covert (or subjunctive) universalism nor the more "traditional" view that few will be saved,4 but rather a suspension of judgment regarding the number of the saved, even if this coexists with a justified presumption that some may very well be condemned.

Robert Barron, in a foreword to the new edition of Dare We Hope?, puts Balthasar's claim in very mild terms: "we are permitted to hope that hell might be empty of men."5 While rightly insisting that the magisterium of the Church has recently [End Page 76] distanced itself emphatically from Augustine's massa damnata perspective on salvation, thanks perhaps in part to Balthasar's efforts,6 he implies that because "all men stand under divine judgment" it is a mistake to characterize Balthasar's argument as "advocating an easy 'universalism' in regard to salvation."7 Indeed, his is not an easy universalism—it is a subjunctive and somewhat covert universalism.8 Barron, while desiring to protect Balthasar from the specter of universalism, agrees with his fundamental arguments, namely: (1) that there are two sets of texts in Scripture, some that affirm the reality of hell and some that "evoke" universal salvation;9 (2) that some of the Church Fathers "taught universalism, or something quite close to it";10 and (3) as several of the Church's mystics and St. Paul himself attest with their desire to be "accursed for the sake of the brethren" (Rom 9:3), Christ's love for mankind is so profound that he plumbed the depths of sin and death in such a way that "we may reasonably hope that even those who have wandered farthest away from God will be drawn into the dynamics of the divine life."11 I have argued elsewhere that the self-sacrificial love of the God-man for sinners does not by itself [End Page 77] provide adequate foundation for a theological hope that all men might convert; such a hope requires a particular understanding of grace in terms of competition with freedom.12 Here I will focus upon the debate concerning the first claim, not so much from the perspective of scriptural exegesis as from that of theological hermeneutics.

Clearly alluding to Ralph Martin's recent critique of Balthasarian universalism, Barron says: "In very recent times, certain theologians have opined that Balthasar's 'universalism' has contributed mightily to the decline of the Church's influence in the West and to an attenuating of her missionary impulse."13 Barron rightly insists that "the God of the Bible delights in working through secondary causes" and, therefore, "the hope for the salvation of all ought not to dampen the missionary spirit but, rather, to stir it up."14 Yet Martin certainly makes a compelling case that the universalist speculations of theologians like Balthasar and Rahner have contributed to the missionary complacency that followed the Second Vatican Council.15 His argument was further strengthened in a recent New Blackfriars article by Germain Grisez and Peter F. Ryan, S.J. Nonetheless, Balthasar requires a more precise hearing on the question...


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