Abandonment, Holy Saturday, and Hell
One 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.” 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.”
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.”
There are two dimensions that open up in the cross of Christ, where “God himself is forsaken by God because of man’s godlessness.” 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. 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). 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.” 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 . . .
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.”
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.’” 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.” 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.
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.
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.” 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.” Yet, it still remains arguable that, at least in the way Balthasar has conceived Christ’s sacrifice, those antinomies still remain.
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. 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.
 Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, “Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange” in First Things, Dec. 2006.
 Mysterium Paschale, 50.
 Theo-Drama II, 241-242; emphasis mine.
 Ibid., 188; emphasis mine.
 Mysterium Paschale, 148.
 Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Electronic edition, 2000).
 Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption (New York, NY: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), 226.
 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.