Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe

nativity-icon1 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

These were the prophetic words of Zechariah the priest, when his tongue was loosed to praise the Word of God who had become incarnate.

The Word of God who created the world had now entered the world in the womb of a virgin, as the Second Adam became incarnate in the womb of a virgin Second Eve.

Mary, the lowly maidservant from Galilee had conceived in her womb, and she become the Mother of God as the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, filled her, hovered over her in the new creation for the redemption of man and the renewal of all things.

The Theotokos was full of grace, the Lord was with her; blessed is she among all women, because blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. The Fall of men was being reversed, and that lowly maidservant magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior. Now it is time for the Son of God to be born, as the light was to shine ever brighter in the darkness of fallen mankind.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,  to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

As it is characteristic of Luke’s writing, he grounds his narrative in history. This is very important not only for the objective placement of the events he is describing, but also as a reminder that Christianity is not merely an ideology. God has entered time and space, and he has redeemed humanity by changing history. God has not become a Man eternally or timelessly, but he became incarnate in the womb of a Virgin in a particular day of a particular week of a particular month and year. Mary was about to give birth in the year that there was a decree that went out from Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, that all the world should be registered.

Scholars debate precisely when this happened, but evidence points that it was between 6 and 4 BC. Luke tells us that the decree was that “all the world” should be registered, and this immediately sets up the universal significance of Christ’s birth, because Luke is comparing and contrasting the decree of the ruler of the world, the Roman emperor, with the decree of God. Augustus’ decree was to affect the whole world (which is Biblical language referring to their world), but God’s decree was to affect the whole humanity and indeed the whole cosmos. The emperor wants to number the people so he can tax them, but God embodies humanity to give himself to it, as gathers his people to himself.

In order to be registered, Joseph takes his family with him to the designated city. He is taking with him a young teenager to whom he is betrothed, and yet carrying a Child who is not his son. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, had resolved to divorce her quietly, but an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And so Joseph, described as a righteous man, also receives the Word of God by faith and takes Mary to himself trusting in God’s promises – and in this way he was also embracing Mary’s joy as well as the pain that was to come.

Joseph and Mary had to register in the city according to their clan, which was the tribe of Judah, the house of the king David. The legitimate heir to David’s throne was about to be born, and his parents, descendents of David, go to Bethlehem, the city where king David had been born and anointed king 1000 years earlier This is also a fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah, given 700 years before Christ:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

Luke continues,

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Mother of God gives birth to God the Son – and this takes place not in the most glorious royal palace there could be, as it would be fitting, but in the place where the animals were (tradition says it was a cave), because there was no place for them in the guest house in Bethlehem. There was no place in this world for the very creator of the world, for, as John tells us, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”

Now God the Son has been born, and the baby is wrapped in cloths and laid on a manger. The creator and sustainer of the world comes to redeem the world, but he comes not in his unveiled glory, but as a frail baby who needs to be cared for, fed, nourished, protected, and loved. God becomes a Man and so he does not merely relate to humanity externally, as one whom we only encounter only the outside and as one deals with us merely through judicial decrees. No, he also takes humanity upon himself completely, for, as the Fathers remind us, that which he has not taken upon himself, he cannot redeem. The Logos fully assumes a human nature, excepting sin (since sin is not natural or inherent in human nature); as he becomes truly human, he is able then to redeem us entirely.

As the baby is born, he is wrapped in cloths and laid on a manger. Later in Luke’s gospel, he will use the same words to describe a different event: he was also wrapped in cloths and laid in a tomb. It is not by accident that ancient representations of the birth of Jesus depict the baby Jesus being laid on a manger wrapped in linen cloths in the style used for burial – for God was born as a man so that he would die as a man and be resurrected as a man for our redemption. Even from his birth, his path was towards the cross and the grave, so he would destroy death there.

Ironically, the baby is laid on a manger. He is not laid on a royal, golden crib, as it would be fitting for the King of Kings, but on a feeding trough used to feed animals. The one who created all things was indeed to become the slain lamb of God who would give himself for the spiritual food of his people. The bread of heaven has come to feed us, and thus from his birth he is put on a feeding trough. The one who is wrapped in his birth and in his death is also put on the place of feeding because he had also come to be the food of sinners.

The Glory of God

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

As the Son of God is born, the glory of the Lord is shining brighter than ever. It is not shining in the great city of Jerusalem,  on in the great temple there; but in the countryside, because he came not only to save the Jews but the whole world. The glory of the Lord shone with the multitude of his heavenly hosts not before the religious leaders of Israel but before the shepherds, who were considered to be one of the lowest classes in Israel. The angel of God comes to call shepherds to worship the one to become the ultimate Shepherd of our souls.

The glory of the Lord is shining to point to that very glory which is now concealed in a weak and defenseless baby lying in a feeding trough in a cave. The shepherds are told, “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” He is the Savior of mankind, and thus his name is Jesus: Joshua, YHWH saves. He is Christ, because he is the anointed one to be prophet, priest and king for our redemption. And he is Lord, because that defenseless and needy little baby was YHWH himself.

And thus a multitude of the heavenly host praises God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The birth that has just taken place might seem insignificant – in a cave, in a small village, of poor parents, laying on a manger, animals laying around – but that birth is the pivotal point in history, affecting heaven and earth, affecting past, present, and future, affecting God who becomes man and man who is redeemed to be united to God.

The shepherds were keeping guard of their flock by night, and it is in the night that Jesus is born and that the glory of the Lord shines. It is in the darkness of sinful humanity that God sends his own Son to be the light of the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God  . . .  In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And so he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”

Consecration to God

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

Following the Law, Jesus was circumcised on the eight day, and following the Jewish custom (as with John the Baptist), he was officially given the name Jesus on that day. Also according to the Law, a woman who had given birth had to undergo ritual purification for forty days, and then make an offering for her purification. Mary then went to the temple in Jerusalem to make the offering, and the firstborn would also be presented before the Lord according to the Law, as we are told in Exodus 12: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”

The firstborn was to be consecrated and redeemed because God had spared the Israelite firstborn children at the Passover in Egypt, when the angel passed over the Hebrew children because of the blood of the Lamb on the doorpost. Also, God considered all the firstborn to be devoted to him for priesthood, and the non-Levite families were allowed to redeem the firstborn by an offering. Now the ultimate High Priest is consecrated to God.

His Poverty, Our Riches

According to the Law, if the parents cannot afford a lamb, then they could take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. This makes clear that Joseph and Mary were poor, because they could not afford the lamb for the offering. The Son of God was born not in a palace amongst the riches that are befitting him, but in a cave, laid on a manger, born of poor parents that could not afford a lamb, because Jesus came to redeem humanity in all its frailty, including poverty.

Ironically, when Mary was presenting the two turtledoves and the two pigeons, she was also presenting the Lamb of God for the offering that would take away the sins of the world. Mary and Joseph could not afford a lamb, but as with Abraham, the Lord was providing himself a Lamb for the sacrifice.

God humbled himself for the redemption of his people, and he comes into the world as a baby born of poor parents. Contrary to those who would think that poverty is necessarily a sign of sin or of God’s displeasure, God made himself poor in every way so that we might become rich with redemption, spiritual healing, and eternal life.

The Church does function as a vehicle of God’s blessings to alleviate the physical and material needs of God’s people – and we ought to do that always and to the best of our ability, for a faith that sees a brother and a sister in need and neglects their plight is an empty and false faith.

And yet, it is precisely by taking poverty upon himself that Jesus tells us that poverty is not God’s curse. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Sell your possessions,” He says, “and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Poverty and riches are different states of life within God’s providence, but true riches are those given us by God through faith, which are riches and treasures in heaven.

Mary and Joseph were poor and yet they were actually very rich, for they held the very Son of God in their arms, the one who had come to save with his glory concealed in weakness and poverty. The Son of God was rich as he owned the whole universe, and yet he was born in a poor family. We also may be very poor, but whether poor or rich in the world’s standards, we have infinite riches in the grace of God which pardons, heals, transforms, resurrects, and glorifies.

Nunc Dimittis

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Again we have another man introduced in the narrative who is described as righteous and devout. Elizabeth and Zechariah were described and blameless in the commandments of the Lord, Mary was full of grace, Joseph was a righteous man, and now Simeon is a righteous and devout man who through faith was waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. The narrative of the birth of the Son of God involves God working in and through the lives of people who, while not sinless, were devout and holy people who devoted their lives to pleasing God and walking in his commandments.

These were the people who, because of their devotion, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and who had eyes to see and ears to hear that which God was bringing about. They are examples to us in that God’s grace given us requires our cooperation, our synergy with him – which in turn brings about our deification.

They are models for us, who also are called (as Paul says) not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption, but to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being diligent (as Peter says) to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.

Simeon, the righteous and devout man, was thus the friend of God, and God had revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. The same Holy Spirit who will lead John the Baptist – and eventually even Christ – to the desert, here leads Simeon to the temple, where God had promised to manifest his glory.

Simeon the righteous man is looking with faith for the fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem his people, and this is his whole purpose in life. Simeon is also a type of the Old Covenant, which, for those who had faith, was the revelation of God’s holiness and the vehicle of his promises and his grace until that time when the Savior would come. Now he has come, and the Old Covenant is ready to pass away, having fulfilled its purpose to lead the righteous to the grace and coming of Christ.

And so Simeon prays, in what is called the Nunc Dimittis, and says, Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation! I have waited all my life for your promise, and by your grace you gave me such a privilege as to hold the very Creator and Redeemer of the universe in my arms.

And behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed – and Mary, a sword will pierce through your own soul also, for in a very real sense his suffering will be your suffering, and his cross will be your cross.

The narrative concludes in the verses following with the description of Anna, a prophetess, a devout widow advanced in age who did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour, we are told, she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Prophet, Priest and King – Immanuel, God with Us

The beginning of the Gospel of Luke presents us with the Advent of Christ, given us through the historical narrative interwoven in the lives of holy people who pleased God and were looking for his promises. Elizabeth and Zechariah were of the priestly house who were chosen to be the parents of forerunner of the Lord; Mary and Joseph were of the royal house of David chosen to be the parents of the Son of God (Mary receiving the greatest blessing and honor of all as the Theotokos, the Blessed Mother of God); Simeon and Anna were the devout servants of the Lord who prophesied in his temple and saw the fulfillment of this promises.

In this way, these people were all fulfilling the offices of prophets, priests, and kings around the conception and birth of the ultimate Prophet, Priest and King who had finally come to redeem his people from sin and death.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” said Isaiah the prophet, and as that prophecy was partially fulfilled in his immediate context 700 years before Christ, now the ultimate fulfillment has come through a literal Virgin Birth, and a baby who was literally Immanuel, God with us.

Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe

Christmas is a great time to join with family, to give and receive presents and gifts, and everything that goes with that. But most importantly it is a time to remember that commercialism and family functions are not the essence of Advent season. This is the time to consider the great event of God becoming man for our salvation. It is a time to remember that God has taken upon himself our own humanity with all its frailties and limitations to go to the grave with it, and then break the bars of death with it.

Humanity has been redeemed in Christ, death has been conquered, there is a fully human man sitting at the right hand of the Father, a man now glorified and united to God in his humanity, so that he might take us there with him.

He has sanctified birth, and he has sanctified death. He has sanctified riches and poverty, time and space, history and people. The incarnation reminds us that Christianity is not merely a set of timeless ideas, although it includes that. Christianity is not Gnosticism, and so it is not merely a vehicle of salvation through ideas, or through knowledge, or through the right propositional statements and confessions, although it includes those.

Christianity is a faith of flesh and blood that redeems not only the soul and the heart, but also the whole body, the man, the woman, one’s whole life, and the whole cosmos.

The Christian faith is the revelation of God who not only is truth, but also embodies truth, who enters history, enters time and space, enters humanity, is born, lives, eats, cries, dies, is risen from the dead. God knows humanity from inside because he has become man.

God redeems the soul and the body, thoughts and feelings, physical and spiritual ailments and needs. Jesus Christ is the God-man. He sanctifies physical things as holy, because everything he created is good and is worthy to be redeemed. He sanctifies water, bread, and wine as means of grace.

He sanctifies fallible human beings as his Church, the vehicle of His grace to the world. He sanctifies joy and pain, marriage, motherhood and fatherhood, youth and old age, richness and poverty, heath and sickness, the blessing of life and the pain of death.

St. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the church fathers, has written much on implications and the blessings the incarnation has for us. Here’s some of what he has said in his book On the Incarnation:

The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.

But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us . . . pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery  . . .  He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. . . . through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, [all] men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection . . .For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death. . . .

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. . . . such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves.

Christ is born for the redemption of humanity. He was born for our salvation, he has died for our salvation, and he has risen again for our salvation.

Let us, like John the Baptist, be impelled by the Spirit into the wilderness of this world to be Christ’s witnesses there; like Simeon, impelled by the Spirit to his temple, the Church, so that there we may see his glory. Like Mary, let us submit to God, saying, let it be done according to thy will; and as the Spirit abides in the Church, let Christ be continually be formed in us, born in us, as we bring him forth as the life of the world.

Let us come to the Altar, the Manger, to partake of the very flesh and blood of the lamb of God laid for us. Let us partake of his life, for in him light has shone in our darkness.

For unto us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

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Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope – Conclusion

Abandonment, Holy Saturday, and Hell

lastjudgment_5x10One very helpful insight Balthasar emphasizes is that God does not judge his creatures merely from above and merely from outside. Rather, he has lived out in Christ the ultimate experience of this world, the very world that has exercised its given, created, limited freedom to withdraw obedience from God. Christ was abandoned by man and he was abandoned by the Father, and so he is the incarnate one who has experientially known “every dimension of the world’s being down to the abyss of hell.”[1] This he calls the “central issue” of the theo-drama: “that God has made his own the tragic situation of human existence, right down to its ultimate abysses; thus, without drawing its teeth or imposing an extrinsic solution on it, he overcomes it.”[2]

This heightens the drama and brings concrete reality to the meaningful relationship between God and men. Balthasar’s theology at times is subject to the criticism that it is more abstract that concrete; but here, concreteness gains prominence, and fittingly so at the turning point of the drama of redemption. Christ has suffered concretely for the concrete sins that are done individually and corporately; he has suffered for all the suffering and injustice that are experienced in the world individually and corporately. God proves his love and compassion for the world by taking sin and judgment upon himself in Christ. The Mediator is the one who is in a “pact with both warring parties and yet not a traitor to either; epitomizing the living drama in the very ‘composition’ of his being, torn asunder by his tragic situation and yet, thus torn, healing divisions.”[3]

There are two dimensions that open up in the cross of Christ, where “God himself is forsaken by God because of man’s godlessness.”[4] Balthasar develops the theme of the crucifixion and death of Christ as that which will become the locus of the judgment of God for all humanity. But there are some aspects of his development of this theme that seem to be inconsistent both with Scripture and with Tradition, as some scholars have complained.[5] He argues that, as Christ drank the cup of the wrath of God, he was baptized with the baptism which lead down to death and hell, becoming the accursed one (Gal 3:13) who is sin (2 Cor. 5:21) personified.

So far, this seems consistent with the traditional interpretation of the cross of Christ. But Balthasar goes further: for him, Christ goes to the place where “the smoke . . . goes up for ever and ever,” as described in Rev. 19:3 in reference to the eternal destruction of Babylon; Christ is thrown into the lake of fire which is the second death (citing Rev. 20:14).[6] Referring to Christ’s condition, he says, “this is the essence of the second death: that which is cursed by God in his definitive judgment (John 12:31) sinks down to the place where it belongs. In this final state there is no time.”[7] Further, he states that

The real object of a theology of Holy Saturday does not consist in the completed state which follows on the last act of self surrender of the incarnate Son to his Father . . . rather . . . it is something unique . . . all the sins of the world now experienced as agony and a sinking down into the “second death” or “second chaos . . .[8]

Thus, Christ has suffered “not only for the elect but for all human beings  . . . [and he] assumed their eschatological ‘No’” as he experienced the second death.”[9]

There are a number of problems with these statements. First, if Christ has indeed experienced the second death for all humanity indiscriminately, there are only two options available for a consistent soteriology. One is that all the sins of humanity, without discrimination, are punished in Christ, and thereby all human beings ultimately are justified and saved despite their Yes or No to God; they are automatically redeemed because the objective work of Christ is applied to all without qualification. The second option is that, conversely, some will still remain in their conscious, final No to God and be eternally separated from him in hell despite Christ’s work that applies to all indiscriminately. Both options are highly problematic.

In the first option, there is no significant drama left. All evil has been punished in Christ and all humanity has been saved, whether individuals accept that or not. There will never be any other judgment upon murderers, abusers, oppressive governments, liars, and the like. We can know with certainty (despite Balthasar’s desire to remove certainty in order to maintain genuine drama) that all sins that could ever be committed, whether personally or corporately – indeed, all the evil that is daily perpetrated throughout the world, and all injustice – have been already punished.

In that case, hell has already fully and finally appeared under the cross, and it has fulfilled its purpose in the sufferings of Christ. Balthasar indeed has affirmed that “on the basis of this exchange of place, we are already ‘reconciled to God’ (Rom. 5:18) in advance of our own consent, ‘while we were yet sinners’ . . . we are ontologically ‘transferred.’”[10] This would need some serious qualifications to begin with; but here the implications seem to go beyond “in advance of our own consent” into the idea of despite our own consent.

This unlimited and unconditional act of grace might sound like something desirable in the abstract sense, but when one considers individual people (or particular groups or governments) with their concrete sins and concrete expressions of evil, human intuition reacts against unconditional amnesty. Indeed, it would be unjust if an evil person who perpetrates great evil intentionally, unrepentantly, to the end of his or her life, should go unpunished.

Temporal punishments do not solve the problem either, because they often are not experienced by guilty parties. There seems to be a universal intuition that unrepentant criminals who commit vile crimes should not only be deterred, but punished – and that if they are not punishment, justice has not been served. Human nature can appreciate mercy to repentant offenders; but not unqualified mercy and grace to unrepentant, obstinate evil doers. But that is what the concept of Christ’s suffering the second death for all humanity indiscriminately would require. In fact, the main purpose of the book of Revelation – to comfort the faithful who experience pain and persecution in the world in view of the coming deliverance of the righteous and punishment of the evil persecutors – is defeated.

When John says that “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur; this is the second death,” (Rev. 21:8), to take Balthasar’s approach, one cannot take this other than a symbol for what Christ has endured. They do not apply to people in any meaningful way anymore.

The second option would be one in which God would honor a person’s freedom to remain in his or her No to God despite of what Christ has suffered in the second death. This is what is implied by Balthasar when he says, “Man is always situatied between two principles that, depending on his free choice, govern his perdition or salvation.”[11] Aside from the apparently contradiction this creates with his other statements, this would entail (given his apparently purely objective view of the atonement as described above) that Christ’s sacrifice ultimately is not effective, because, in and of itself, it does not atone for anybody – it only makes forgiveness possible.

It does not accomplish any objective punishment in hell for sinners who say No to God, even though it is meant for them. In this way, finite freedom ultimately triumphs over infinite freedom, and all affirmations (made repeatedly by Balthasar) that Christ’s suffering and abandoment is experienced in the place of all human beings needs to be qualified as a mere possibility posited by God that becomes effective only to those who say Yes to God.

Tradition

Beyond the issues of exegetical difficulties and logical inconsistencies that these options entail, there is also the problem of the traditional understanding of the Church in relation to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Of course, one may not take either Scripture or the Tradition of the Church as bearing any ultimate authority on this or any other issue; but they are central to someone like Balthasar who means to submit himself to the authority of both Scripture and Tradition. When it comes, then, to Tradition, it would be almost redundant to cite the overwhelming majority of the historical Church which has denied that Christ has suffered the second death in the lake of fire. Suffice it to quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.

As the Catechism makes clear, Jesus did not go to the lake of fire in a second death to experience there the abandonment and punishment of God. The Church has understood Christ’s “descent into hell” as done in glory, as Christ descends “as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” He went, not to the lake of fire, but to “Abraham’s bosom,” where the righteous awaited the proclamation of the victory of Christ; he did not go to the place of torment where was found the “rich man” who begged Lazarus for a drop of water and was denied because of the “great chasm” that stood between them.

One of Balthasar’s concerns in emphasizing Christ’s descent into hell is to make sense of Holy Saturday. If Christ’s work was finished on the cross, why is there a Saturday before Easter? This is an important question, and, indeed, to affirm that Christ needed a day to proclaim victory to the righteous seem unconvincing as a rationale for Holy Saturday, given that Christ exited the realm of physical time when he gave up his spirit on the cross. Announcing victory to a multitude in Abraham’s bosom would take less than a second – indeed it would take no time at all, because that realm is beyond time.

However, to argue that on that day Christ was in hell finishing his atonement and abandonment for mankind is not something necessary for one to make sense of Holy Saturday; indeed, to deny Christ’s suffering in the second death is not to deny the importance of Holy Saturday. Balthasar himself brilliantly expresses the role and importance of the silence and darkness of that day, which is the time “in between his placing in the grave and the event of the Resurrection” when death calls for this silence. He writes,

Death calls for this silence, not only by reason of the mourning of the survivors, but, even more, because of what we know of the dwelling and condition of the dead . . . death is not a partial event. It is a happening which affects the whole person . . . it is a situation which signifies in the first place the abandonment of all spontaneous activity and so [it is] a passivity . . .  In that same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead.[12]

This is consistent with Christ’s cry on the cross: Τετέλεσται (John 19:30), as he gave up his spirit; the work had been completed then and there. Τετέλεσται is the perfect passive indicative of the verb τελέω which means “to complete an activity or process, bring to an end, finish.”[13] The perfect passive form as found in the gospel indicates that, as Christ gave up his spirit, his work of suffering and atonement was completed.

Thus, Balthasar’s exposition of Christ’ suffering in hell, as a second death effecting atonement for all humanity without qualification, faces great difficulties both with the Scriptural data and with Tradition. Edward Oakes argues that “the antinomies that inevitably result from their juxtaposition [of finite and infinite freedom] can only be resolved by the ‘wondrous exchange’ that took place when Christ was ‘made sin’ for our sake.”[14] Yet, it still remains arguable that, at least in the way Balthasar has conceived Christ’s sacrifice, those antinomies still remain.

Conclusion

Balthasar’s argument that man is destined and chosen “before the foundation of the world” to be “blessed with every spiritual blessing” implies a potential universal redemption, concept which, if not vitiates, at least significantly removes the vitality of the drama. The problem is not that we should not hope for the best; hope is always a virtue if that for which is hoped is a good thing – although even here this hope would be questionable given all the biblical data discussed above.

The problem is that, conceptually, the understanding of Christ’s representation and mediation for all men without qualification, and the application of Christ’s redemption to all men independently of the means faith from which the efficient cause of God’s grace cannot be divorced, actually becomes a comedy in which the script does not matter much apart from the work of Christ. That is, decisions made in people’s lives, and throughout history, whatever they might be, are in principle overwhelmed by the grace of God. An actor can fulfill whatever role he chooses, and regardless of whether he cares or not, the play knows what the end will be for him.

Balthasar would probably object and say that, if one thinks one can know what the end of the drama will be, one has misunderstood both Scripture and Balthasar’s theology. But this is where the difficulty in maintaining tensions becomes more pronounced. If all men are destined and chosen “before the foundation of the world” to be “blessed with every spiritual blessing,” then we do know the final outcome of the play. On the other hand, if the No of man can frustrate the Yes of God in Christ, then we may not “dare hope that all men be saved” in any meaningful sense.

If the Yes of Christ is made on behalf of all men indiscriminately, then it really does not matter what role I choose to play in my life. Scriptural commands to repent and to believe the gospel lose their force. My everyday actions as an individual, in all the spheres of life in which I participate – as a parent, as a friend, as a spouse, as a co-worker, as a laborer, as a law-maker, as a janitor, as a president – they have no ultimate, everlasting significance because they are all swallowed up by the grace of God.

Ethics become severely restricted, since whatever realism there might be in the good, the true and the beautiful, it is swallowed up by the nominalism and voluntarism of God who overthrows evil unqualifiedly at the end. On the other hand, if the No a person chooses to consciously and irrevocably give to God is maintained, as God’s “kenosis” in giving legitimate freedom to his creation would necessarily imply, then Balthasar’s hope is not legitimate; and this brings us to another problematic question in relation to hope.

While it may appear that Balthasar’s hope of an empty hell and universal salvation is a pious attitude that conforms more than any other to a robust, biblical, and faithful trust in the ultimate goodness and grace of God, it is in reality a restriction to what the goodness of God can in principle be. For example, if one chooses to say that creation is good, and therefore the salvation of all creation is in principle the greatest good, and therefore the greatest hope, then this would divorce God’s goodness from his justice.

That is to say, it becomes the case that, even if it is just to punish sins, it is good, and even better, to either leave them unpunished, or to punish them in a way that eternal salvation can be eternally secured. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the second option, for that is precisely what is required of any theology that incorporates Christ as representative. The problem is that this representation, in this case, becomes automatic, which again forces the goodness of God to overwhelm human decision. There is no sublation of God bringing good out of evil, but a mere deletion of evil, by fiat. At the end of the day, anything other than universal salvation, even at the expense of human will, will not be considered as a proper expression of the goodness of God.

Against this, however, one has is good reason to believe, both from the testimony of Scripture and of Tradition (as the vast majority of the Church has believed throughout the ages), that the goodness and mercy of God are indeed given to man in a way that is greater and stronger than man’s revolt and man’s sin: because God becomes incarnate in Christ to mediate for the sins of man, and the Holy Spirit imparts the grace of God in men’s hearts to produce faith and unite them to Christ.[15] This is more then sufficient to safeguard the overabundant goodness and grace of God, without requiring that punishment of sins upon any man other than Christ be precluded.

Moreover, the certainty that judgment will indeed be meted out upon those who irrevocably say No to God is precisely what is needed for the theo-drama. Rather than rendering God’s goodness inferior, it actually enhances it because it highlights his justice, which cannot be separated from his goodness – a justice that is itself declaring the goodness and grace of God when it is meted out upon Christ on behalf of those who are united to him by faith.

Therefore, the theo-drama becomes real dramatic when there is a certainty of outcomes, while at the same time there is genuine freedom for actors to choose one or the other. What Balthasar’s soteriology requires is that there is uncertainty of outcomes (on the one hand) and a hope for only one outcome.

This uncertainty softens both the threats against the actors who badly choose their roles, as well the promises to those who choose them well. On the other hand, certainty of the double outcome of punishment and grace (and this is important – the certainty is of the double outcome, not of who will be included in each irrespective of their actions) is what provides the choices in the play to have eternal meaning, consequence, threat, promise, tragedy, and comedy.

Ultimately, the lack of assurance of salvation for those who trust Christ and seek to do good works is precisely what the New Testament seeks to remedy in many places; conversely, the assurance of perdition to those who say No to God in Christ is precisely what it seeks to preserve.


[1] MP 13-14.

[2] Theo-Drama II, 54.

[3] Ibid., 196.

[4] Ibid., 194.

[5] Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, “Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange” in First Things, Dec. 2006.

[6] Mysterium Paschale, 50.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 172-173.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Theo-Drama II, 241-242; emphasis mine.

[11] Ibid., 188; emphasis mine.

[12] Mysterium Paschale, 148.

[13] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Electronic edition, 2000).

[14] Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption (New York, NY: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), 226.

[15] The many different ways in which this work in the heart has been understood, ranging from a mere suggestion by example, or an assistance, all the way to an effective work that will infallibly change hearts, is immaterial to the argument here.

St John Chrysostom on The Birth of the Church on the Cross

crucifixion-iconThe gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy Eucharist.

The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.

“There flowed from his side water and blood”. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you.

I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit”, and from the holy Eucharist.

Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!”

As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.

Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished.

As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.

– St. John Chrysostom (Cat. 3, 13-19; SC 50, 174-177)

Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope (Part 2 of 3)

Being “Under Judgment,” Presumption and Assurance

dare we hopeBalthasar understands that the passages of Scripture (and particularly of the New Testament) that include threats and descriptions of eternal judgment in hell are “not to be read as anticipatory report[s] about something that will someday come into being,”[i] because there are other statements that indicate they might not. Moreover, he argues, if they are taken as anticipatory reports, they would give certainty of judgment, which would damper Christian hope.

Quoting Karl Rahner, he argues that those statements are to be understood “as a disclosure of the situation in which the person addressed now truly exists.” That is to say, we live in the state of promise and at the same time we are under threat of judgment. “He is the subject who is placed in the position of having to make a decision with irrevocable consequences; he is the one who, by rejecting God’s offer of salvation, can become lost once and for all.”[ii]

The state of being “under judgment” constitutes a cornerstone for Balthasar’s structure of interpretation of the references to judgment and hell. In the opening words of “Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? he says,

All of us who practice the Christian Faith and, to the extent that its nature as a mystery permits, would also like to understand it, are under judgment. But no means are we above it, so that we might know its outcome in advance and could proceed from that knowledge to further speculation . . . Still, in standing trial, we are not left helpless and disheartened; rather, as [Paul] constantly tells us, we can have confidence (parrhesia) and hope, since our judge is he who – as dogma says – has borne the sins of everyone. Are we therefore quite untroubled in the certainty of our salvation? Surely not, for which man knows whether, in the course of his existence, he has lived up to God’s infinite love, which chose to expend itself for him? Must he not, if he is honest and no Pharisee, assume the opposite?  . . . Man is under judgment and must choose.[iii]

It seems almost impossible to read these words and not immediately say, which one is it? Am I under judgment and without the possibility of knowing the outcome of my judgment, or has Christ borne my sins? Am I to have confidence in the outcome of my judgment because Christ has already born my sins, or must I “assume” the opposite, i.e., the certainty of my perdition? One should not deny the mystery involved in Christian revelation and in its paradoxes, but paradoxes can be pressed to the point of self-contradiction.

This is problematic especially because this issue has direct relevance to a person’s spiritual and psychological life (as Balthasar implicitly recognizes). It is one thing to recognize the limits of our understanding when one investigates the Trinity, the hypostatic union, and so forth. But, at the end of the day, am I to have a reverential confidence that, despite my sins, Christ has born the punishment in my place – as long as I don’t say No to God? Or am I to assume the opposite and consider my fear of condemnation as a virtuous antidote to Pharisaic presumption?

Scriptural Foundations

Besides the inherent contradiction in Balthasar’s paradigm here, there is yet another problem with his foundational concept that we are under judgment.[iv] Once again, it is clear that Balthasar wants to take Scripture seriously, and so it is only appropriate that we bring Scripture to bear directly on this discussion.[v]

Paul states in Rom. 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We also read in the gospel of John, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Similarly, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24). John writes in the closing section of this gospel that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).

Therefore, those in whom the gospel fulfills its purpose, i.e., those who do believe, may have that very confidence: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:14). Again, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14a). Far from being presumptuous, confidence and certainty through faith is encouraged in the New Testament:

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.[vi]

The concept of assurance of salvation is explicitly given in many passages of the New Testament for those who (a) believe the message of the gospel and (b) persevere in the faith.[vii] It is always given in the context of assurance that should create a healthy confidence in the reality of adoption. The teaching is also present implicitly in passages too numerous to list (the passages speaking of salvation and adoption as a past, accomplished act of God on our behalf, that provides the basis of our present condition, are of particular notice).

This is not to say that there are not serious threats in Scripture as well; but also the threats are always given either in relation to apostasy, or in relation to those who deny, by their deeds and by their teachings, that they have actually believed the gospel. John speaks in this way when he says of apostate teachers, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19a).

Similarly, the famous warnings of judgment in the epistle to the Hebrews are given to those who, in the face of persecution and suffering, are considering apostasy from the Christian faith. The author often assures his readers of the finished work of Christ on their behalf, and the assurance they might have in entering the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, which way has been opened by Christ on their behalf: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,  . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:19-22). This is coupled with the command to remain in the faith, and the threat towards those who do not:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful . . . For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries . . . It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God . . . But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.[viii]

Therefore, it is clear that the New Testament does not remove the tension of promise/threat to Christians; but this tension is not one in which Christians must consider themselves without confidence of forgiveness so as to remain free from presumption. On the contrary, believing Christians can rejoice precisely because they are not to fear, since they have already received the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). This is very important for an assessment of Balthasar’s soteriology. He is wrong to assume Christians are “under judgment” and therefore should not be presumptuous to trust in salvation.

Therefore, it seems that Balthasar is incorrect in interpreting the threats in Scripture as primarily a means to keep man in this state of reverential fear and tentative hope. The threats are real, and the descriptions of judgment, of the separation of sheep and goats, and of the destruction of God’s enemies (e.g., Mat. 25: 31-46; Phil. 3:19; 1 Thes. 5:3; 2 Thes. 1:9; 2 Pet. 3:7) should not be taken as pictures that do not really describe events; they are indeed to be taken “as anticipatory report[s] about something that will someday come into being.” In fact, Balthasar himself seems to take such threats in a more concrete fashion elsewhere in his works. In volume IV of the Theo-Drama, he states,

[W]hen it comes to concrete mention of the judgment, it is, not God, but the Son of Man who will pronounce it. The verdict will depend on how a man has responded to him . . .  if a man has recognized in him the presence of God’s Holy Spirit and has resisted him, his sin is unforgivable . . . the ‘eternal fire’ has opened up below Sheol . . .  balancing, as it were, the heaven that is no open to all.”[ix]

But then again, elsewhere Balthasar argues that the “threatening remarks are made predominantly by the pre-Easter Jesus, and the universalist statements (above all in Paul and John) [are made] with a view to the redemption that has occurred on the Cross.” [x] The statements of the “pre-Easter Jesus,” he argues, use a language that the Jews of that time were familiar with, “whereas certain reflections by Paul and John clearly look back upon all that happened to Jesus – his life, death on the Cross and Resurrection – and, in so doing, consider and formulate this totality from a post-Easter perspective.”[xi]

In this way, the concreteness of the contents of the threats is again put into question – because they do not apply to people, but only to Christ. But if, as we have seen, Christ’s work does not necessarily apply to all individuals automatically, such threats should be taken seriously as referring to those who reject the faith and say an ultimate No to God. In the same way, the promises are just as serious and just as real; they are to be taken as reports of something that has come into being (“we know that we have passed out of death into life,” “that you may know that you have eternal life,” “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” etc.) and something that will be consummated and ratified at the end of one’s life.

All of this seems to contradict Balthasar’s basic soteriological premises. One could argue that there is a long tradition of those who agree with him. There is no question about that. The same can be also said of those who have argued the foregoing. What I argue here, however, is that, given the seriousness with which Balthasar takes the Scriptural data, it is very difficult to maintain what he does in this issue, given the abundance of Biblical texts that assert the concrete reality of God’s judgment upon those who choose to reject him, as well as the concrete reality of God’s promise of ultimate salvation of those who are united by faith to Christ.

Balthasar seems to be driven by his intention to preserve the dramatic tension that would preclude certainties – because certainties would transform the drama in a tragedy or a comedy from the start. Contrary to what he tells his critics at the beginning of Dare We Hope, he has indeed spoken of certainty, or rather the lack thereof, and he has argued that we may not know the outcome in advance. He has argued that we may not be “untroubled in the certainty of our salvation,” which would be the attitude of a “Pharisee,” but rather that we should “assume the opposite.”[xii]

His intention is to preserve one’s lack of certainty of salvation (which presumably produces reverent fear), while at the same time preserving one’s lack of certainty of damnation, which produces tentative hope. He states, “On this earthly pilgrimage, man is, of course, placed between fear and hope, simply because he is under judgment and does not know . . . but precisely the knowing  . . . renders impossible this sate of suspension of those on pilgrimage.”[xiii] But it is John who says ““that you may know that you have eternal life.” Quoting Joseph Pieper approvingly, Balthasar says, “there are two kinds of hopelessness. One is despair; the other, praesumptio . . . praesumptio is a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope.”[xiv] Balthasar wants to keep Christians from this “double praesumptio.” But the New Testament gives assurance of hope to those who believe.

Click here for Part 1.

In the next and final section of this 3 part assessment I will interact with his arguments on abandonment, Holy Saturday, and hell, and make some concluding remarks.


[i] Dare We Hope, 32; emphasis in the original.

[ii] Ibid., 32.

[iii] Ibid., 13-15.

[iv] I am not so concerned here with the general state of mankind, but with the state of those who explicitly embrace the Christian message of the gospel.

[v] All Scriptures quoted in the rest of this paragraph have my emphasis.

[vi] 1 John 4:15-17.

[vii] In responding to the Tridentine accusation that assurance of salvation is presumption, the Canons of Dordt – which are normative for historical Protestant churches of Dutch, German and French origin and their heirs – state (Fifth Head of Doctrine, article 10):

This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God, but springs from faith in Gods promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:16); and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works. And if the elect of God were deprived of this solid comfort that they shall finally obtain the victory, and of this infallible pledge of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable.

[viii] Heb. 10:26-39.

[ix] Theo-Drama IV, 178.

[x] Dare We Hope, 21.

[xi] Ibid., 29; Balthasar makes clear, however, that he takes this cautiously, and does not want to imply he is arguing for a “progressive revelation even within the New Testament” as some of his critics argue.

[xii] Dare We Hope 13-15.

[xiii] Dare We Hope, 27.

[xiv] Ibid., 27-28.

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.

On the Feast of Pentecost

pentecost2Acts 1:12–2:13

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, . . .  All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

The apostles and the disciples were gathered in the upper room of a building, and no doubt they were experiencing a mixture of joy, apprehension, expectation, and perplexity. The Lord had risen from the dead, he had communed with them for 40 days, and they had witnessed his ascension with their very eyes.

What now? Joyful that our Lord is risen, and he has ascended to the Father; and yet apprehensive because the Jewish and Roman authorities who crucified Christ would likely persecute the disciples – Jesus himself said so, for no servant is greater than his master.

They were also in a state of expectation, for the Lord had told them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father. They were perplexed as to what that meant, and what they were to do now.

But of one thing they were sure: Christ had established his community on earth, headed by the apostles, and now that he had ascended, their communion with him would not diminish in the least: it would be simply of a different kind. Christ would be present with them in the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist; and also he would be in their midst as they were gathering for continuous prayer.

The Fulfillment of the 12 Tribes

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”

There was the need to replace Judas because the apostles, along with the community of faith, had already been taught by Jesus that he was the New Israel, and the New Temple, and therefore by being united to him mystically, through faith, they too were the New Israel that stood in the New Covenant founded on the very blood of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

As such, as the Old Israel had been constituted by the 12 tribes in covenant with YHWH, there was a symbolic significance that the New Israel stood in covenant with the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, as constituted by the 12 apostles, the new tribes of Israel, established in the New Covenant blood of the Lamb.

The Coming of the Spirit at Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

The day of Pentecost had arrived. Pentecost was named after the 50th day after Passover; it was the feast of the Firstfruits, “the feast of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field” (Ex 23:16).

The “Feast of Weeks” (7 weeks after Passover) was an agricultural festival, an occasion on which the community was expected to show gratitude to God for the first fruits, i.e., the early harvest. In Old Testament law, the feast was proclaimed as a “holy convocation” – this is why Jerusalem at this time was filled with people visiting from everywhere.

It is very important to note that during the intertestamental period and later, Pentecost was also regarded as the anniversary of the law-giving at Sinai.

So there are many connections here with the Old Testament redemptive history being fulfillment. Pentecost is

  • The beginning of the gathering of the firstfruits of the Church
  • The giving of the New Law of the New Covenant
  • The consecration of the New Temple in the New Jerusalem and New Covenant.

The Cloud, the Fire, and the New Covenant

The disciples are gathered together, and the promised Holy Spirit comes upon them. This is the fulfillment of many elements present in the history of the people of God in the Old Testament – the qahal (assembly) of Israel, translated in the Septuagint as the ekklesia.

The Law had been given on Mount Sinai, when the LORD manifested himself in the cloud and in the fire. According to the Jewish tradition prevalent at the time when the apostles lived and Luke wrote, the Law was given on the fiftieth day after Passover, i.e., on Pentecost. The Law had been given 50 days after they had been delivered from bondage in Egypt.

Now, 50 days after the Resurrection – our deliverance from the bondage of death – the New Law is given on the mountain of God, in the New Jerusalem, in the “upper room” when tongues as of fire and the sound as of a mighty rushing wind become the manifestations of the presence of God who comes to inscribe that New Law no longer in tablets of stone, but in tablets of the heart.

The Prophet Jeremiah had alluded to this fulfillment when he said that “ the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, . . . 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. (Jer. 31)

The author of Hebrews makes the connection between Mount Sinai and the Holy Mountain in which the Church stands, the New Jerusalem, in this way:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them . . . But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12: 18-24)

The New Covenant established in the blood of Jesus was now also being ratified in the hearts of those who called upon his name, no longer in the terror of Mount Sinai, but with the fire that comes upon his people – not to destroy, but to purify and fill with his presence.

This is the uncreated fire of God which Moses saw on the burning bush – the fire that did not consume it, but sanctified all space around it as sacred ground, as the presence and dwelling of the Lord. That fire that burned on top of Mount Sinai now burns on the Upper Room.

The Consecration of the New Temple

Luke makes another connection here between Pentecost and the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament, when he had mentioned in that there were about 120 persons gathered in the upper room. To those believers familiar with the Old Testament, this was a direct reference to the consecration of the great temple of Solomon:

And King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the Most Holy Place. . . [there were] 120 priests who were trumpeters . . . the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God. (2 Chronicles 5:6–14)

As there were 120 priests consecrating the Temple when the ark of the covenant was brought there, with the tablets of stone engraved with the Law, so now no longer Solomon, but the promised great King, Jesus Christ, consecrates his own Temple by filling it with the glory of God upon his 120 priests, who are also overwhelmed by the presence of the Spirit and the establishment of the Law in the tablets of the heart inside the Temple.

Notice also that our Most Holy Theotokos, Mary the Mother of God, is also the Ark of the New Covenant, who bore in her womb the true Manna from heaven, the true Word, and the true Staff of Aaron that budded.

Now, Jesus Christ, by the will of the Father, and according to his promise, sends the Holy Spirit –who is the glory cloud – to fill the true and ultimate Temple, not made with stones but with people, with his own glory.

Pentecost is thus the giving of the New Covenant and New Law, and the consecration of the New Temple. As Solomon and Moses said, the Lord dwells in the thick cloud, in the sound of the trumpets, in the fire that consecrates and purifies.

That glory cloud that filled Sinai, the Tabernacle, the temple of Solomon, was already seen in the New Testament when Jesus was transfigured before his disciples:

And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light . . . He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:1-5)

That same cloud had also received Jesus in his Ascension 10 days earlier; now it consecrates the new Temple, circumcises hearts, and purifies the firstfruits of the harvest of God.

The Reversal of the Curse of the Tower of Babel

BabelNow there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? [In verses 9-11 Luke gives the equivalent of a table of nations and languages]—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.

As they spoke with other tongues (which were known tongues to those who were visiting Jerusalem) the language barrier was being removed: now every tribe, tongue and nation could praise God and his Anointed in the Holy Spirit, in their own language.

The different languages were coming together to glorify God: this was a reversal of the curse of the tower of Babel, when God scattered the proud peoples who wanted to ascend to heaven on their own. Now God himself comes down from heaven to earth not to judge, but to bless and to gather the people as he dwells in their midst.

As the prophet Isaiah had said,

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2)

73263At Pentecost, the consecration of the new Temple was now complete. The glory of God once again filled his house, now a house made not of gold, marble and stones but of people – the people who are the body of Christ.

The Church is the temple of God because we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2, Exodus 2). Imperfect as we are, we are precious in the sight of God. The Church, the temple of God, is not alwyas outwardly glorious – as Christ did not show his glory until the resurrection. Nonetheless, even in the midst of imperfection, struggle, and disappointment, we know that we are God’s precious possession, and he will not fail to continue to build us up.

The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and who dwells in us individually and corporately will also raise us up as he continues to fill the house of God with glory. We are united to Christ by the Spirit who fills us as his temple, and we are bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.