Monday, 28 January 2013

Hope in hell?

In The Catholic Herald dated 25 January I published a letter in response to an article by Piers Paul Read, a Catholic novelist I admire very much. The text of the letter follows.

The article by Piers Paul Read drawing attention to a recent book by Ralph Martin (Charterhouse, 18 January) requires a response. He may be right in saying that seriousness of the call to repentance and the need to save have been downplayed in recent Catholic teaching. The result was a faith that challenged no one, and quickly lost its grip on the conscience, destroying the raison d’etre of the missions. Martin blames all this on the teaching of two twentieth-century theologians, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, that God will not in the end let anyone enter a state of eternal damnation. Read concludes, "A riddle remains. Why, if Martin's critique is correct, has the teaching on salvation of Rahner and Balthasar not been condemned by the Church?"

The answer to this riddle is simple. Martin’s critique is not correct. I will focus mainly on Hans Urs von Balthasar, though it is worth noting that Rahner and Balthasar were by no means saying the same thing, and should not be lumped together. Balthasar made a strenuous critique of Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian”.

For his own part, Balthasar definitely does not say that we should assume that no one is in hell. In fact he argues against that position. He does argue – citing an enormous range of supporting texts from the magisterium, the Church fathers, the saints and doctors of the Church – that we must hope for the salvation of all. But this is exactly what the Catechism says. Right after affirming the existence of hell (as Balthasar does), in the words, “Hell’s principle punishment consists of eternal separation from God” (1057), the Catechism adds: “The Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26)” (1058).

There are certainly many who are heading towards hell. Many of us experience this in life, and for them the Church offers the hand of salvation. We will not be saved unless we grasp that hand with our own will. But the moment of death is a mysterious thing. Which of us can claim to understand what may happen when time comes to an end and we are gathered up into eternity, seeing for the first time clearly the reality of our sins? Then at the uttermost limits of our own despair, we shall see God crucified by those sins, but we must surely hope that especially then we will be supported by the prayers of the saints – including those who refuse to give up on us just because our name was Genghis Khan or Mrs Thatcher (names proposed by Mr Read)?

Piers Paul Read asks for clear statement on what we must do, or not do, to be saved. Balthasar’s answer fills many heavy tomes, it is true, but it all boils down to the faith of a child – that we must love God with all our strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. As for evangelization, the teaching on hell and the teaching on hope belong together, and to lose one or the other is to dissolve the Gospel.

For those who want to pursue this topic further there were some earlier discussions in our Forum pages, here, here, and here. See also an earlier article by Stratford and Leonie Caldecott called "Balthasar and the Problem of Hell".


  1. I tend to agree with Stratford' interpretation regarding the dark "side" of unseen world: Hell. And his statement about evangelization - "the teaching on hell and the teaching on hope belong together, and to lose one or the other is to dissolve the Gospel" - is a real and valuable warning. At the same time I would like to understand better why there are so many (hundreds and hundreds!) passages where different Saints and Doctors of the Church emphasize the small number of the elect and the huge number of the damned.

    (For instance, on this French website are a lot of quotations and different studies and essays on this important topic:

    So, is this common teaching - from Saint Augustine to Saint Jean Marie Vianney - just a matter of "theological fashion" related with a specific age? From a more pedagogical (i.e. "paideumatic") point of view, if "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10), how can anyone to fear God without a vivid conscience of the reality of Hell? Isn't this the main and deep reason for which Our Lord himself, Jesus Christ, warns us: "be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Hell" (Matthew 10: 28)?

  2. I don't think it is just a matter of fashion. But we cannot decide what is true on the basis of a numerical count. Also I would argue that the "fear" of God is not necessarily a fear of being punished, but simply an overwhelming awe and awareness of one's own imperfection.

    Hell must be a real possibility in some sense - the question is, what sense?

    1. Definitively, I would like very much to learn as much as possible about "the real possibility of hell". At the same time I have to admit that I would rather prefer a different expression: "the reality of hell". As about the interpretation of this verse - "be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Hell" (Matthew 10: 28); it seems to establishes a direct connection between the fear of God and the hell.

      And an interesting quotation from an article ( written by Father Jame Schall S.J. (a different approach in comparison with von Balthasar theological opinion on hell):

      "Any threat of Hell causes us all sorts of discomfort, especially now that many of what were formerly called 'sins' are now called 'human rights.' We presume to define what was evil to be good. We actually legislate what is good and evil. The list gets longer daily. Surely, we think, the Divinity could have figured out a better way? God seems to have had limited imagination not to have created a world in which Hell was no possibility for anyone actually existing in it."

  3. Robert,

    To the question of the supposed unanimity of the "massa damnata" perspective, I would suggest the healthy balance of the Eastern saints - St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Ephrem the Syrian, and St. Isaac of Nineveh.

    First, I have read that some Eastern Orthodox theologians and Fathers (and Peter Kreeft) suggest that Hell is the same existence as Heaven but with sinners experiencing the overwhelming power and love of God as painful to their sins (no one can see God and live). I would recommend (anti-Catholic polemics and generalizations aside) "The River of Fire" by Fr. Kalomiros.

    Second, I have a question for Stratford Caldecott. I have read Bishop Alfeyev's essay on Christ's preaching and descent into Hell - offering salvation both to the righteous of Abraham (the Thomistic perspective) "and" those Gentile righteous and those who would repent. Is it definitive Western teaching that the Descent into Hell could not be for the damned in addition for the righteous, especially since there is substantial evidence in the Fathers and the Apocrypha that such was a valid interpretation?

    I must add that, at least from my perspective, Balthasar's novel twist on the Descent into Hell seems so intent on making Christ less "a conqueror" (though I personally do not have such an issue with the idea of Christus Victor destroying death in such a dramatic fashion) in his opinion that he severs the Trinity by making Christ so abandoned so as to experience the losses of Hell. Furthermore, it seems to me to almost have echoes of Calvinistic substitutionary atonement.

    Thank you.

  4. Oops. I just realized by reading your forum that you already had followed up with my first question regarding that eschatological idea with St. Maximos the Confessor's quote.

  5. I hate these little boxes - just wrote a long reply that got deleted. Bear in mind the Church teaches that the soul cannot be destroyed, even by God once he has created it - which illustrates how difficult it sometimes is to translate such passages. But I admit the passage seems to link fear of God to what he can do to you, even if there is more to it than that. Another passage that caused me confusion at one time is when Jesus says of Judas that it would have been better if he had never been born. But in fact the word means "good" not "better", and it is almost certainly referring NOT to the alternative of not having existed, but of having been stillborn, so that he would not have had the opportunity to commit the sin of betrayal. His despair, by the way, sounds to me very like an expression of repentance. As for preaching to the souls in hell, that these were NOT the righteous of the Old Testament, who had simply not had the benefit of meeting Christ, is clear from 1 Peter 3:20. These were the wicked, condemned by God in Genesis. What is the point of preaching to them if they could not be saved? I suspect in this whole area including the teaching on limbo, the Church's doctrine is still in a state of development. The Holy Spirit has still not led us into the complete truth. I simply object to the attitude which seems to gloat over the possibility that some or many will go to hell. We are not told this for certain of anyone in particular - and its there anyone we would refuse to pray for?

  6. In reading through my question, I can see where "soul death" can be implied - something which I had not intended. I was unclear. I did not mean to take that the passage that people physically die when seeing God in glory "face to face" to mean that souls die. Rather, that the glory of God is the everlasting fire as well as our salvation - that seeing God is destructive, like nuclear radiation or staring directly into the sun (as like what happened to Uzzah and the sons of Aaron).

    As for the second point, I agree entirely. In the Jewish Apocalypses I have read, the patriarchs and other righteous like Ezra always seem to plead and intercede for mercy on damned even to the point of challenging God's authority. Clearly, that seems a virtue that the authors extol and not "gloating."

    1. The Greek adjective in the New Testament, aiônion, which we translate as "eternal", is actually derived from the Greek noun aiôn, and in the earliest Greek authors the word has the sense of a "life", "lifetime", or "period". Just as with the English cognate aeon, an aiôn meant a long, indefinite period of time. But by the third century B.C. it came to take on the additional meaning of everlasting. Both senses are used in the NT. In Romans 16:25, where Saint Paul speaks of the mystery of the gospel, kept secret for "long ages, but is now disclosed", he must obviously be using the adjective in its older sense, even as in other contexts it's clear he is using the newer sense. Thus, we may hope that passages such as Matthew 25 and Matthew 18, which describe a final separation between the blessed and the damned, have the older sense of the word aiônion--a very, very long time, as opposed to eternity.