Nevertheless: universal hope

“Nevertheless: universal hope.” (G. Greshake, as quoted by Hans Urs von Balthasar)

I really appreciated Jürgen Moltmann’s thoughtful comments to me on the subject of universalism, especially this bit: “The destiny of unbelievers we should leave to God and hope and pray for them – There is for us a universalism of hope and prayer, I would say.” (to read the lest of the letter see this post).

I’ve read enough Moltmann to feel pretty comfortable calling him a Christian universalist (a fairly nuanced universalist within the Reformed tradition, but universalist nonetheless!). But what he offered to me in that letter was a toned-down hopeful (not dogmatic) universalism. We can (and perhaps must!) hold on to hope that all be saved, and pray that all be saved. But this is ultimately something that only God knows.

I recently finished reading an excellent short book on this subject by Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, titled Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell. Here von Balthasar argues that Scripture and tradition neither gives us the assurance that all will be saved, nor the certainty that any will be damned. Though this is a very accessible and readable book, it quotes widely from a variety of sources from the early church to modern theology (both Catholic and Protestant). I highly recommend it! Below are some short selections.

Cardinal Ratzinger: “Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation”

Though he holds out hope that all may be saved, von Balthasar rejects dogmatic universalism (apokatastasis), which the church has historically condemned. He believes that Karl Barth’s doctrine of election comes too close to this:

Karl Barth… declared that Jesus Christ died for us sinners, as the only one rejected by God, in order that we might all become chosen ones in him: a doctrine that, as I have shown elsewhere, comes too close to the doctrine of apokatastasis. What remains for me an object of hope becomes for him practically a certainty.

However, von Balthasar’s hope for the future is decidedly optimistic, even though he doesn’t want to turn it into a dogma:

Human freedom can be neither broken nor neutralized by divine freedom, but it may well be, so to speak, outwitted. The descent of grace to the human soul is a free act of divine love. And there are no limits to how far it may extend.

And finally:

Hermann-Josef Lauter poses the uneasy question: “Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question. But love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ.”


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