One of the best known features of Balthasar's populist theology, if only because it has become something of a lightning rod of late, is his dogged defense of universalism. For him, the possibility that all are saved is not something that we can know to be a fact but it is certainly something that we can hope for. This much seems both reasonable and true. Reasonable, on the one hand, because hope differs from mere desire in that we can desire literally anything, even things that are impossible, but it is rational to hope only for those things that are possible, and it does seem at least possible that all will be saved even if it is extremely unlikely. If it were literally impossible that all be saved, then the most we could do would be to desire that all be saved while regretting that all will not be saved. True, on the other hand, because the Church has always prayed for the salvation of all, and the Church has always believed that Christ's sacrifice was sufficient for the salvation of all. The Church also encourages such acts of popular piety as the so-called Fatima prayer that is sometimes added at the end of each decade of the Rosary ("O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy") actively interceding for a realization of our universalist hopes.
Balthasar famously noted that "the dogma of the Church is that hell exists, not that people are in it", and referred to those who rejected universalism as the "populators of hell". One of his favorite arguments in defense of universalism was that if even one person winds up in hell at the eschaton then God has lost the wager he made with himself at the beginning of creation when he made a kosmos in which free will was to be the mechanism by which his love would be propagated to his creatures. And yet it seems as if free will is itself the greatest obstacle to genuine universalism, a universalism that is universal in reality rather than merely in theory. Of course in theory it is possible that all be saved, yet if it is true in reality that all will be saved then Wittgenstein was right when he remarked that "if what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with."
In other words, suppose that universalism is more than just a hope, suppose that it is the case that, in the end, all will be saved. If that is a truth, if it is a fact about the created order, then we are free to do literally anything we like, for in the end we will be saved. And this is true regardless of the theory one happens to have about how that salvation will occur. Perhaps we will all freely, at the last day, truly repent of all our sins, turn lovingly towards Christ, inviting him into our hearts as our personal savior, and then drop dead and go straight to heaven. Those who would attempt to dissuade us from living our lives over the top may cite the words of St. Paul: if the Gospel message is not true then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die, and yet it turns out that even if the Gospel message is true we may eat and drink as much as we like, even if we're going to die tomorrow, because if universalism is a fact rather than merely a hope it won't matter what we do, because we know that we will repent on the last day, just in the nick of time.
This raises an interesting question. It seems that there is a big difference, in terms of how we actually live our lives, between universalism being a hope and universalism being a truth about how things are going to turn out. Yet Jesus preached as though it really matters how one lives one's life on a day-to-day basis. Maybe he thought that it would be more difficult to "truly" repent at the end of one's life if one were to live a debauched life for thirty or forty years, but it seems nearer to the truth of the Gospel to say that he thought that we should live virtuous lives in the here and now because that's what it takes to draw closer to God. Salvation, in short, is not an instantaneous event for most people, but a process that is lived out over a lifetime. If so, then what is it, exactly, that we are hoping for if we hope for universalism? Are we hoping that, in the end, everyone will repent of their sins and be with God, or are we hoping that, as a matter of fact, everyone does truly repent of their sins at the very least by the end of their life? There is a slight difference here. If we are hoping that everyone will repent in the end, we are at least open to the possibility that some people may not. If we are hoping that it is a fact that everyone does repent, we are hoping that the created order have a certain metaphysics true of it that it might not have. It is like the difference between hoping that your son hit a grand-slam home run in his baseball game, and hoping that the laws of physics temporarily be canceled out when your son comes up to bat.
Genuine freedom just means that it is a very real possibility that some people, in the end, will not be saved. We may hope against that possibility, for of course the contrary is also possible: it may be that, in the end, everyone will freely and truly repent of all their sins. But it seems to me that we have to be careful about what, exactly, it is that we think we are hoping for, for surely it would be presumptuous to hope that the created order be other than how God made it.