Balthasar and Universal Salvation

This is a summary from his comments on Theodrama V – the Last Act (Section II. B)

VonBalthasar2The Problem

The idea of an apokatastasis[1] seem to be counterintuitive to a number of biblical passages, and yet there are many that seem to suggest it. As Schleiermacher demands, we should give it at least equal weight to other views. As Gaston Fessard has said, “A la question: Enfer éternel OU Salut universel? je réponds donc: Enfer éternel ET Salut universel!”[2]

First we have to take into account the change from the Old Covenant era to the New: in the Old, it is the God of covenant justice who rules over the nations and over Israel, whereas, in the New Covenant, judgment is primarily the Cross of the Mediator (John 12:31).

Not surprisingly, rejecting the reconciliation of the world wrought by Crist is regarded as much graver than infringing the Law. Here we find again the dramatic core of the theo-drama: the heightened revelation of divine love produces a heightened rejection, a deeper hatred. There is a paradox in which Jesus has come not to judge but to save, and yet, one who rejects him and his command has a judge, namely “the word that I have spoken (John 12:47-48).

Only after we have pursued this dialectic of grace and judgment into its inner depths can we tentatively approach the question of whether there is a convergence between the two poles that seem to be mutually exclusive.

 From the Old Aeon to the New

The imagery of judgment in the Old Testament is largely identical to that in the New, and taken in isolation it can obscure the qualitative difference between them. The Old Covenant is a fleshly, earthly anticipation or pre-image of the New, which is the pneumatic, eschatological truth. The Old Covenant has validity insofar as it shares in the truth to which it points. This is demonstrated by the fact that Abraham’s faith is given priority over the Law.

The Old Covenant presented the faithfulness of God and required the faithfulness of the covenant partner – Israel. The covenant stipulations were blessings for obedience and judgment for disobedience. On the one hand, God reveals that he does not take pleasure in punishment, but on the other hand he does punish according to Israel’s sins. He uses the nations “outside” as instruments of punishment, and then punishes them for their own sins.

At bottom Israel’s sin is always the same: opposing its covenant Lord with its own will, a will that primarily expresses itself in running after foreign gods of its own invention (thus transgressing against the first tablet of the Commandments) or failing to treat his fellow man as prescribed by YHWH (and thus transgressing against the second tablet).

The New Covenant was a complete re-creation of the covenant itself. For in Jesus we have, not one party in a pact, but someone who, in his Person, has be come the unity of God and man. He is the covenant personified; he is the fully realized truth and faithfulness of God, which no longer lie behind his righteousness of reward and punishment, but in it.

God’s whole righteousness (in meeting out punishment) attains its expression and its term in the death of Jesus; in breathing forth his Spirit, Jesus creates the conditions necessary so that the divine Spirit may be put into our hearts and we may be incorporated into the new, eternal and unforgettable covenant, which in Christ has become a Person. Christ fulfills the prophecies that look toward the abolition of the purely external relationship between the covenant partners.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah 33:8
I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me.

There is then a shift in the New Covenant, where the Law is removed from its old place, and “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). The conclusive judgment has taken place in the Cross of Jesus and in Christ’s death and Resurrection the bonds of death have been burst and eternity stands before us as our reward; accordingly, the Old Covenant’s this-worldly, symmetrical doctrine of retribution collapses. Now there is a fundamental asymmetry insofar as God’s judgment has been pronounced once and for all in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. The crucified Son does not simply suffer the hell deserved by sinners; he suffers something below and beyond this, namely, being forsaken by God in the pure obedience of love.

The judgment that takes place within the Trinity can be understood only in terms of the suffering love between Father and son in the Spirit; henceforth, therefore, all the Old Testament rejoicing at the punishment of the wicked, all eschatological delight at their torment, must fall silent. The absolute refusal of love (which is hell) exists only in the case of him who eternally acknowledges and affirms no one but himself; and it is inconceivable that God would have anything to do with this grotesque possibility. As Joseph Ratzinger says, “Christ allots perdition to no one . . .  He does not pronounce the fatal verdict. It happens where a person has held aloof from him. It comes about where man clings to his isolation.”

There is now no separation of Israel and the “nations,” for Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan shows that, as a result of the Cross, the least of all the prodigal sons has become Jesus’ and God’s neighbor, and it follows that he must also be a neighbor to the disciple of Christ. This is the change from one aeon to another, abolishing all formal continuity between the ideas of judgment in the Old Covenant and those in the New: an abyss now separates them.

Comprehensive Redemption

All of the Lord’s words that refer to the possibility of eternal perdition are pre-Easter words. After Easter the first words we hear are Paul’s full of certainty that, if God be for us, no earthly power can be against us. The Lord suffers for love of all. Coming as a Second Adam, the Son was certain of victory; he died no only for good persons, who open themselves to him at once, but also for the wicked, who resist him. He has time to wait until even these scattered children of God are touched by his light, for not even the wicked person stands outside of the sphere of his power, and the dispersion of the Lord embraces and overtakes even the dispersion of the sinners. As the Good Shepherd, he has been commissioned by the Father to bring back all the sheep, the whole flock, to him – and when he is lifted up, to draw all men to himself.

Eternal life belongs originally to the Father, but from before all time he has shared it with the Son; into this participation the Son leads all those whom the father has given him, namely, all flesh. His whole mission will be completed only when all will be redeemed from sin and be with the Father. The Cross is the decisive judgment because here the Son undercuts and undergirds the world’s sin, which was deserving of a just condemnation.

When the Father in judgment looks at the Son with the eyes of justice, he sees nothing that would call for judgment, since everything is right and just in him, and there is nothing to be judged. Justice therefore has nothing to look for, and judgment naturally dissolves into love. Since the Father has given all judgment to the Son, and the judgment has already become one of love between Father and Son, the Son also cannot pass judgment, which is already dissolved, on men, except as the judgment of love he himself has experienced and received from the Father. The judgment of the Cross is final, but the Lord waits until the Last Day to reveal its complete result. All sins are undercut and undergirded by God’s infinite love, because sin and evil are finite and must come to an end in the love that envelops it. Men’s freedom is not infinite, for man is free within the greater freedom of God.

The Serious Possibility of Refusal

The central mystery of the theo-drama is the Mysterium iniquitatis: God’s heightened love provokes a heightened hatred that is as bottomless as love itself.

There are several passages in the New Testament that point to judgment.[3] The issue is the deliberated rejection of that grace that was so dearly bought at the Cross. Men are not seized by redemption against their will. The decision to believe is not only God’s gift, it is also their personal act – and this has to be performed again and again. Man is always given the possibility of saying Yes or No to God’s offer.

It may seem as if the Lord and evil face each other equipped with equal power and we always decide the battle in our favor as a result of our constant inclination to evil. We shall not be saved against our will, and Christ’s work must not be turned into some sort of blurred collective redemption. If we refuse to allow Christ to accept us, we remain in our sin, and the separation of us from our sins, which can be performed only in him, becomes impossible. Man can break off his relationship with heaven; if a person withdraws from the Son’s judgment of love, the Father has no other course but to replace love with judgment and sentence.

Here the Savior, the Good Shepherd, is in a difficulty, for the sheep are always free to follow or not to follow. When Jesus says, “He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge: the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day,” it sounds like resignation on his part: in the end we have the judge that we ourselves have chose, choosing justice rather than love. Now the situation is that the outcome of the final act seems uncertain on both sides. “There is a sin unto death;” John says this after the Lord on the Cross has redeemed the sinner and after having instituted the sacrament of penance.

But if man’s destiny is thus in the balance, what of God’s destiny? Does he have, instead of certainty of salvation, a flower of hope?

The Judgment of Christ

The question facing us is this: How do justice and love (or grace) constitute a unity in Christ’s judgment of man in his failure?

Eventually, the individual human being will be confronted, after his death, with the unveiled truth ad demands of God. And this is the frightening part: the greater the love of God offered and demonstrated to man, the greater the expectation of man’s response. Once man is released from the outer hell of present self-illusion, the scales fall from the eyes and it is no longer possible for one to deceive himself.

The theme of the dead being weighed in scales is older than Christianity – it is found, for example, in the Egyptian Judgment of Osiris. In Christian iconography, too, scales are sometimes held by two angels, weighing a whole life, no longer subjectively, but objectively.

This is not done in a simplistic weighing of the amounts of good an evil done. Freedom has an infinite horizon, it is not exhausted and defined by momentary choices. It becomes a question of whether this horizon will be possessed in absolute autonomy, or chosen as given by a superordinate absolute autonomy.

On the one hand, there is weight to repentance, even in the end of life (cf. the thief on the cross). At the same time, what is placed in the scales is not the mere final state of a life but this life in its totality. And this can reverse negative decisions at the end of life as well. The conversion of a sinful man is not so hopeless as the conversion of the devil; earlier workings of grace remain behind him, especially the grace of baptism.

One is commanded to “abide” in Him. But this would have to be absolutely denied in a verifiable way in order for perdition to result. The One who judges us is also the One who came to save, not to judge. He will therefore take every abailable path to bring back the person whose sins he has borne.

We can say nothing categorical. We can proceed by way of hypothesis. Both the uncritical notion of a bipolar outcome of human history and the protest against it want to draw up an eschatology from the point of view of th spectator, not of the man most t intimately involved in it. But Christianity is the Good News of salvation, and we are told that god desires all men to be saved.

In his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? Balthasar stresses that hope in the goodness and mercy of God is the foundation of the Christian life. I make an assessment of his arguments in that book in my article Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope.


[1] The restoration of all things, or universal salvation

[2] To the question: Eternal hell eternal OR universal salvation? I answer thus: Eternal hell AND universal salvation!

[3] These are some of the passages Balthasar cites and quotes:

Luke 19:41-44
41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Hebrews 6:4-6
4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Hebrews 10:26-29
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

Matthew 12:32
32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matthew 11:23-24
23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Matthew 25:41
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Luke 16:23-24
23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’

Revelation 2:11
11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

Revelation 20:6
6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

Revelation 21:8
8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

1 Corinthians 1:18
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Corinthians 11:29
29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

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