Should We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? | Mark Brumley | Catholic World Report
Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar's soteriology has often been misunderstood or misrepresented. Here is a short primer on what he actually wrote.
Let me cut to the theological chase: the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wasn’t a universalist. Not if a universalist is one who claims for certain all men will be saved. Or, to put it differently, that no one—including ourselves—will be lost. This side of eternity, according to Balthasar, we simply can’t know, either way, whether all people will be saved or whether “two eternal outcomes”—one of salvation and one of damnation—will be realized. Whatever Balthasar’s position is, and whether or not it is correct, it isn’t universalism.
“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,” Balthasar wrote at the beginning of his book Dare We “That Hope All Men Be Saved”? (2nd edition, 2014). Note the words “under judgment.” These are not the words of confident universalism. He continued:
By no means are we above [judgment], so that we might know its outcome in advance and could proceed from that knowledge to further speculation. The apostle, who is conscious of having no guilt, does not therefore regard himself as already acquitted: “It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:4).
Balthasar went on to speak of Paul’s exhortations to confidence and hope in Christ, the judge who “has borne the sins of everyone,” yet he insisted that we can’t for that reason be “quite untroubled in the certainty of our salvation.” Later Balthasar declared that “we stand completely and utterly under judgment, and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards. How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this?” (p. 131).
Writing of theologians contemplating that people for whom Christ died “may fail to reach their final destination in God, and may instead suffer eternal damnation with its everlasting pain,” Balthasar maintained:
If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility, our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding. We may not simply ignore such a threat; we may not easily dismiss it, neither for ourselves nor for any of our brothers and sisters in Christ” (Dare We Hope, p. 191).
Right now, we stand under judgment; the outcome isn’t determined and there is the real possibility of damnation, not just for others but for ourselves as well. We have hope, not certainty, of salvation for all, Balthasar maintained. Nor did he see such hope as inconsistent with missionary work—just the opposite. The Christian must care about the salvation of others as well as his own salvation; he must be an agent, by grace, of salvation for others and in this way for himself as well.
Not everyone shares Balthasar’s uncertainty, of course.