Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Freedom and Universalism

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.


Chris Burgwald said...

Thanks for another interesting post, Dr. Carson. One clarification: is it possible to refer to von B's thesis as "universalism"? From what I know of universalism, it posits the salvation of all as a *fact*, not as something to be hoped for. As such, von B's position would not be properly termed universalism.

In any case, your thoughts on the consequences of actual universalism are intriguing.

Jeff said...

I am a great lover of Hans U. von B., but I draw the line at this theory of his. To the question, "Dare We Hope that All Men are Saved?", I must reply, "No, We Dassn't".

In order to answer Balthasar's question properly, one really has to address it as he puts it: Dare We? What that boils down to in the end is: Are we Allowed To? I don't think we are.

I THINK (<= N. B.) that it's heresy. One has to be allowed to say that--politely--because that's the threshold question one must ask in one's own mind: Is this a settled question in the Tradition of the Church; may *I* believe it as a Catholic? One has to be able to discuss this question in terms of WHETHER OR NOT it is heresy and people have to be able to take both sides of the question. The trick that too many von Balthasarians have pulled off is taking that constitutive question off the table and acting as though the question of whether one is free to believe it is already settled. It isn't settled one way any more than it is settled the other.

I think that part of the meaning of the Christian doctrine of Hell is that men go there. It remains to be fleshed out magisterially, but it isn't true that heresy springs from the head of Zeus with all its armor on at an ecumenical council. No, St. Athanasius and St. Cyril pointed at yet-to-be-defined heresy and cried "Heresy!" at the tops of their voices. That's HOW heresy usually gets to be defined as such. Before John Paul's definitive ruling, Catholics said to other Catholics who believed in the ordination of women, "No, you can't. It's heresy." And of course, they were right before as well as after.

And I think the real danger of this heresy is that it makes people not fear damnation. In fact, in my experience, this idea ends up being treated not as a distant possibility but as part of the very idea of hell--one can't get past the four letters of the word without the caveat being immediately thrown in that "no one may in fact go there."

Well, No. People do. We look for excuses all the time for ourselves and others and that looking for excuses takes a good deal of the urgency out of the motivation to save souls. After all, it's much easier just to "trust in God's mercy."

I don't think the meaning of any of the prayers for "all" has ever been a sort of quasi-universalism. They are simply prayers for "all" those whose salvation is not a settled matter. That's how they were interpreted before Balthasarian universalism and that's what they still mean.

The very least I would say is that if you are going to have a lively Hope that All May be Saved, you should couple it with an equally lively Fear that Many--even Most--May be Damned. I see the lively Hope; I rarely encounter the lively Fear. What would the Jesuit Martyrs of North America have said?

Scott Carson said...


If I were anything like a real writer my editors would be all over me all the time for my many errors caused by exuberance or whatever it's called. What I wrote was inaccurate because it implies that Balthasar defended universalism in that technical sense when, as you rightly point out, he didn't. I'm not sure how different what he defended is from that technical sense, however, which was partly the point of my post.

Scott Carson said...


You may be right that it would be heretical to claim that all are saved, but I'm not really sure I see why we ought not to hope that all might be saved if all we mean by that is that it is both logically and metaphysically possible that every sinner in history so far has had a moment-of-death conversion experience. How can we know that this has not happened and thus rule out the very possibility?

I'm not sure that I would agree that the point of the doctrine of hell is that men go there; I would say rather that the point of it is that men can go there. Whether they do or not seems to me something that is beyond our epistemological access. True, the Scriptures say that Judas went to his "appointed place" and one has to wonder what that might mean, if not a place of punishment. But the verse may reflect nothing more than the received opinion of the community that produced that text. In a certain sense it has to be true: whether he went to hell or to heaven, it was God's decision, and so no matter where he wound up he did indeed go to his "appointed place".

I think it's important to note that hoping that all be saved does not let people off the hook, because of course you can't be saved if you are an unrepentant sinner. The whole thing is predicated on the possibility that everyone has a moment of conversion, whether or not that moment is empirically available to the rest of us.

Whether or not it's likely that people like Stalin or Hitler had such moments is another question.

Jeff said...

Well, this is precisely the point of contention, Scott. And I'm not insisting that you agree, merely pointing out that it is a point of contention.

I don't know that the Catholic doctrine of Hell has been clearly defined anywhere, so we are in the same position Christians were on Christology before the early councils or on invocation of the saints or the canon of scripture or the sacraments before Trent.

I think that the Catholic doctrine of Hell is not just about a potentiality but about a reality. The Catholic doctrine of Hell is that some people are damned and others are saved. Not that some people MIGHT be damned, but maybe not.

Now you will have to concede that if that is in fact the substance of the doctrine, then we canNOT "hope" that all men are saved, any more than we can "hope" that Satan is saved.

I would challenge you to find any treatise on Hell from before about 1960 that treats the subject as one of potentiality rather than actuality. This is what the damned suffer, is what you find, not this is what those who might conceivably be damned suffer.

Von Balthasar posed a question and an interesting one. But there are two possible answers to the question, not one. And too many Balthasarians seem to say, "Well, no, there is only one possible answer to the question: Balthasar's."

Do all the traditional texts of the Church speak of damnation as an actuality simply because they had not thought to ask Balthasar's question? That's possible. But it's also possible that they do so because that's part of the doctrine.

Do Christ's words about some departing to damnation and some to salvation imply only a warning? Or are they a prediction and an oracular utterance about the present? Obviously there are two possible answers to this question. And it seems to me that the whole weight of Catholic tradition is crushingly on the side of the second option, not Balthasar's reading.

And this is my primary problem with Balthasarians. Not that they couldn't possibly be right on this point and I be wrong. But that they frame the debate in such a way that they win by default.

Yes, it's predicated on the hope that all have a moment of conversion offered to them which they CAN in principle reject, but which they DON'T in fact reject. I understand.

I'm talking about the psychology of the belief, not the abstract version of it. I think that if you really believe that in the sense of HOPE it, you will come willy nilly to treat damnation as something that has an escape clause. "Sure God will damn the unrepentant, but in His Mercy I hope He will offer me a last chance that I won't refuse." We are frightened of damnation and tempted to argue ourselves out of it as a real possibility--that's the danger.

Show me a person who thinks like Balthasar and who treats the possiblity of damnation as a fearsome likelihood for many people...which is also possible and even on Balthasar's terms possible. IN PRACTICE, people have become very relaxed about the possibility of Hell...they believe in it abstractly, but they don't smell the sulphur.

No, I think Balthasar's idea is an escape hatch from an unpalatable doctrine and one which both leaves the doctrine behind despite its pretentions and which is very dangerous in practice.

Jeff said...

And of course, even on Balthasar's terms, we must give due weight to the opinion of the Fathers and Doctors and Scholars of the Church which are nearly uninimously (apart from a couple of scraps of ambigous statments from St. Gregory of Nyssa etc.)not only that damnation is actual not just potential but that most men are damned:

"It is certain that few are saved.

- St. Augustine

The greater part of men choose to be damned rather than to love almighty God.

- St. Alphonsus Liguori

The majority of men shall not see God.

- St. Julian the Martyr

So vast a number of miserable souls perish, and so comparatively few are saved.

- St. Philip Neri

Among adults there are few saved because of the sins of the flesh....With exception of those who die in childhood, most men will be damned.

- St. Remigius of Rheims

Out of 100,000 sinners who continue in sin until death, scarcely ONE will be saved.

- St Jerome

The greater number of Christians today are damned. The destiny of those dying on one day is that very few - not as many as ten - went straight to Heaven; many remained in Purgatory; and those cast into Hell were numerous as snowflakes in mid-winter.

Bl. Anna Maria Taigi

Most priest are lost and few bishops are saved, not because of what they do, so much as what they fail to do.

- St. John Chrysotom

They who are to be saved as Saints, and wish to be saved as imperfect souls, shall not be saved.

- Pope St. Gregory the Great

"What I am about to say is very terrible, yet I will not conceal it from you. Out of this thickly populated city with it's thousands of inhabitants, not 100 people will be saved. I even doubt whether there will be as many as that!"

- St. John Chrysostom

Yes indeed, many will be damned; few will be saved.

- St. Benedict Joseph Labre

If you only knew the women who will go to Hell because they did not bring into the world the children they should have given to it.

- St. John Vianney

He who goes to Hell, goes of his own accord. Everyone who is damned, is damned because he wills his own damnation.

- St. Alphonsus Liguori"

No hedging here and no shifting about and speaking uncomfortably about "ahem, my personal thoughts on the matter." No: "it is certain" says Augustine.

Why do they speak this way? Because they believe they are enunciating the clear and universal teaching of the Catholic Church, not just giving an interpretation. Clearly, these saints do not believe that one can be a Christian and "hope" that all may be saved. For them, the reality of damnation is a clear and obvious and unavoidable.

Combine that with the many visions of Hell (never described in the visions as potentialities but as actualities) of the saints and what possible excuse can we have if we approach the judgment seat and God asks us why we misled people into not taking damnation seriously by getting into their heads that the don't really have to believe that people will be damned?

No, as Augustine points out in The City of God, Christians have always been subject to the temptation to modify or vitiate the doctrine of hell in one way or another, always under the cover of appealing to the mercy of God. And he says that they deceive themselves when they do.

People have been damned. Many people. People suffer in Hell right now. They suffer torments of agony from which they will never be released. Nothing can compare to that agony; we cannot even begin to imagine it. People we have loved have gone there. Others we love are in terrible danger of going there. We ourselves are in grave danger of going there.

Did St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Benedict Joseph Labre really not understand the Mercy of God?

THIS is the way Catholics have traditionally talked and thought. Not in terms of abstract "potentialities" and vague "hopes." This is the motive force for missionary activity and a great wellspring for devotion and interior conversion. We are racing the clock on behalf of our own souls and others... There is terrible urgency and we must be about our Father's business.

"Countless cities have been laid waste by the Mongols! You had better prepare or you will fall too into the same pit of destruction!" That produces urgency.

"It may be that cities have been laid waste by the Mongols. We cannot say for certain. We must hope that none have actually been laid waste and perhaps ours won't be in the end. It's a real possibility, but it may never come to pass." That feeds into the human temptation of complacency.

And you can't have both.

Again, my main concern is to awaken people to the fact that Balthasar's proposition and formulation is CONTROVERSIAL. You cannot take it for granted. And if you really cannot understand the other side of the argument, then you should worry a bit before simply accepting Balthasar's word on this.

Scott Carson said...


The Catholic doctrine of Hell is that some people are damned and others are saved. Not that some people MIGHT be damned, but maybe not.

You may, of course, be right about this--but it is an empirical question, so there are two things I would want to look at and think about before moving on.

First, when you refer to "the Catholic doctrine", this has got to be available in the form of Scriptural proof texts, Conciliar documents, papal or regional conciliar documents, etc. Now, you began by saying that you're not all that sure that the "doctrine" really is a de fide matter, but I think it's still reasonable to ask about what sorts of documents do support the view you're defending. I'm not aware of any such documents that say

[1] (Ex)(Mx & Hx)

(Where I use (Ex) to stand for the existential quantifier, (Mx) to mean "x is a human being" and (Hx) to mean "x is in Hell".)

but the fact that I am not aware of them, obviously, does not entail that they don't exist! So if you could at least show me what sorts of evidence along these lines you have for saying that the Church actually teaches (even if only in a non de fide way) that there is somebody in Hell, then I would be interested in seeing it.

Second, to make any claim of the sort given in [1] above, there would need to be some sort of verification procedure in place that would warrant, epistemologically, the use of the existential quantifier. So I would also be very interested in hearing what sort of verification procedure you think the Church has in place for such warrant.

Having said that, I do, of course, agree with you that if the Church does teach in an authoritative and infallible way that Hell is populated, then it is quite obviously irrational to hope that it not be. That was the point of stating the difference between hope and mere desire at the outset of my original posting. But I wonder how likely it is going to turn out to be that whatever the teaching is, it is so manifestly unambiguous as to render views such as Balthasar's irrational. If the view is unambiguous, then Balthasar and others who are no intellectual slouches must have been asleep at the switch when they endorsed the hope; if the view is ambiguous, one must wonder either how authoritative it is or to what extent it is closed off from further development.

Now, I do agree with you that there are often different ways of interpreting the words of Scripture, and that Balthasar's way is probably in the minority. That does give one pause. But if we allow that doctrine develops then there is a certain limited sense in which numerical majorities and minorities don't enter into the equation. If they did, then we would have to endorse Arianism, which was, at one time, a view that vastly outnumbered orthodoxy in terms of sheer numbers of adherents (including many clergy).

I think it's also important to emphasize that nobody is talking about the pardoning of unrepentant sinners. The view is not that God forgives everyone willy-nilly, but that everyone repents before it is too late. That may be as hard to believe as anything else, but I don't see how we can preclude it as a possibility, since we cannot know that it is not the case.

Scott Carson said...


Wow, it's like you were reading my mind.

Well, you certainly did a good job of drumming up some support for the view that hell is populated, but I think it's still an open question whether these statements of the view are to be taken as "authoritative" in any relevant sense. Now, I myself don't have a dog in this fight, so I'm not going to go out on a limb arguing that none of the sources you cite has any authority at all; I'm just going to wait and see if you can come up with anything conciliar. If these things are just various instances of theologoumenoi, well, obviously there are theologians on the other side as well, and as I mentioned in my last comment, we don't want to get into a sheer numbers game, since truth doesn't work that way.

Also, one thing I would definitely caution against is what I take to be a psychologizing move on your part, that is, trying to explain the view opposed to your own in psychological terms (for example, in saying that universalists just don't want to face up to an unpleasant reality). The main reason to avoid this kind of argument is that it cuts both ways. That is, if you're permitted to say that the view opposed to yours is just grounded in nothing more than a psychological fear, the same could be said of your own view, that is, folks could respond by saying that the doctrine of hell is only propounded by folks who want to scare people into behaving the right way. Such an interpretation reduces our faith to a banal utilitarian calculus according to which our principle reason for acting justly is to avoid punishment when in fact our only reason for doing anything is to draw closer to God, our final cause and highest good.

As I said, though, I don't have a dog in this fight--I'm literally unconcerned about whether hell is populated. All I'm concerned about is doing what pleases God, and it has nothing to do with whether I go to heaven or hell. I agree with St. Thomas More who, famously, said that even if he went to hell, even that would serve to glorify God's justice and, hence, would be a good thing. It takes a saint, I suppose, to believe such a thing, but one can at least hope that one could believe such a thing in good faith!