My Photo
Location: California, United States

Monday, September 25, 2006

Hell and Hans Urs von Balthasar

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

I've been thinking about hell lately. That's what I get for watching the 1998 movie What Dreams May Come. The visual effects are outstanding but I found the storyline disturbing. The basic plot, from Ebert's review ...

... Chris and Annie (Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra) have a Cute Meet when their boats collide on a Swiss lake. They marry. They have two children. They are happy. Then both of the children are killed in an accident. Annie has a breakdown, Chris nurses her through, art works as therapy, they are somehow patching their lives back together--and then Chris is killed. The film follows him into the next world, and creates it with visuals that seem borrowed from his own memories and imagination .... There is a guide in the next world named Albert ..... Heaven, in one sense, means becoming who you want to be. And hell? "Hell is for those who don't know they're dead,'' says Albert .... Many of those in hell are guilty of the greatest sin against God, which is despair: They believe they are beyond hope. After the death of her children and husband, Annie has despaired, killed herself and gone to hell.

I hate the idea that hell may exist, that Jesus mentions it in the Gospels, that being in despair (suicide) can send you there. Most modern theologians and preachers I've read make a case for hell being not God's choice but man's ... that people go to hell of their own volition, following a desire to be apart from God. This explinarion doesn't work for me, though it's preferable to some others ... here's a tidbit from an article cited below by David Watts - ... we can be sure that, even in His righteous hatred, God loves the damned. How is God's love for them shown? In their agony not being even greater. They are not suffering as much as they deserve, according to the saints. And one of the reasons God ended their earthly probation when He did was, no doubt, to stop them from adding sin to sin and hence clocking up more severe punishment. The damned may not thank God for all this, but we can. ... holy mackerel!

A theologian who spent some time thnking about hell was one-time Jesuit, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Let's read some bits from an article in First Things by Avery Cardinal Dulles on Balthasar and Hell ...


As we know from the Gospels, Jesus spoke many times about hell ... He describes the fate of the damned under a great variety of metaphors: everlasting fire, outer darkness, tormenting thirst, a gnawing worm, and weeping and gnashing of teeth ....

Among the Greek Fathers, Irenaeus, Basil, and Cyril of Jerusalem are typical in interpreting passages such as Matthew 22:14 as meaning that the majority will be consigned to hell. St. John Chrysostom, an outstanding doctor of the Eastern tradition, was particularly pessimistic: “Among thousands of people there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.”

Augustine may be taken as representative of the Western Fathers. In his controversy with the Donatist Cresconius, Augustine draws upon Matthew and the Book of Revelation to prove that the number of the elect is large, but he grants that their number is exceeded by that of the lost ....

... Thomas Aquinas, who may stand as the leading representative, teaches clearly in the Summa Theologiae that God reprobates some persons. A little later he declares that only God knows the number of the elect. But Thomas gives reasons for thinking that their number is relatively small ....

About the middle of the twentieth century, there seems to be a break in the tradition. Since then a number of influential theologians have favored the view that all human beings may or do eventually attain salvation ....

Karl Rahner, another representative of the more liberal trend, holds for the possibility that no one ever goes to hell. We have no clear revelation, he says, to the effect that some are actually lost .... Rahner therefore believes that universal salvation is a possibility.

The most sophisticated theological argument against the conviction that some human beings in fact go to hell has been proposed by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” He rejects the ideas that hell will be emptied at the end of time and that the damned souls and demons will be reconciled with God. He also avoids asserting as a fact that everyone will be saved. But he does say that we have a right and even a duty to hope for the salvation of all, because it is not impossible that even the worst sinners may be moved by God’s grace to repent before they die ....

... a number of theologians remain opposed. In a supplement to his book, Balthasar himself reports that one reviewer accused him of supporting “the salvation optimism that is rampant today and is both thoughtless and a temptation to thoughtlessness.” At an international videoconference organized by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy last November, Jean Galot, with an apparent reference to Balthasar, said that the hypothesis of hell as a mere possibility “removes all effectiveness from the warnings issued by Jesus, repeatedly expressed in the Gospels.” At the same conference Father Michael F. Hull of New York contended that Balthasar’s theory is “tantamount to a rejection of the doctrine of hell and a denial of man’s free will.” In this country Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap., accused Balthasar of being a Hegelian relativist who “smuggles into the heart of the Catholic a serious doubt about the truth of the Catholic faith.” Scanlon himself takes it to be Catholic teaching that some persons, at least Judas, are in fact eternally lost. This article set off an epic controversy between two Catholic editors, Richard John Neuhaus and Dale Vree, both of whom came to Catholic Christianity as adults ....

It is unfair and incorrect to accuse either Balthasar or Neuhaus of teaching that no one goes to hell. They grant that it is probable that some or even many do go there, but they assert, on the ground that God is capable of bringing any sinner to repentance, that we have a right to hope and pray that all will be saved ...


It's Balthasar's hope that all might be saved, and I like that ... Origen believed even Satan would be saved (an interesting book on the subject of universal salvation is The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott). But my hope is that we won't need to be saved - that hell does not even exist.


Dulles mentions some of the articles below on the discussion over Balthasar's theory of hell ...

Fr. Regis Scanlon's article, originally in the New Oxford Review, blasting Balthasar's view on hell - The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar

Richard John Neuhaus' article in First Things, defending Balthasar against Scanlon - Will All Be Saved?

Dale Vree's article in the New Oxford Review, answering Neuhaus - If Everyone is Saved ...

There's more of the guys above :-) but perhaps the next one to read would be found in the New Oxford Review by Janet Holl Madigan In Defense of Richard John Neuhaus

And let's not forget David Watt's article, originally in the New Oxford Review, against Balthasar's view - Is Hell Closed Up & Boarded Over?


Blogger victor said...


I probably don't have time to read all the material you suggest in this post but I would certainly find time to read all about your thoughts of Hell or would it be too scary to mention them all? (lol)


6:38 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Victor,

I don't think much about hell becuse it is scary to me. I hope it doesn't exist ... I'm afraid I might end up there. And also I would find it hard to understand a loving God who could send people, even bad ones, to eternal torment.

6:54 PM  
Blogger victor said...

I must reply and say that obviously, I can't speak for God but Jesus said somewhere that there's nothing impossible for His Heavenly Father.

I honestly believe that anyone who ask with a sincere heart for help will make it. I also believe that there probably is a Hell but it will be a Hell that we've created for ourselves because of our free will.

Call me a optimist but I can't see you staying there very long if that's where you honestly believe you're going? (lol)

What else can I say but good luck and God be with you.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Interesting post. I haven’t read all of those articles yet. It might take me a while to get through them. I heard there was some kind of controversy going on over something Dale Vree said. I wan’t sure what it was.

I think the topic of Hell is an interesting one, especially if we go back to our Judaic roots. Looking at scripture critically, a lot of scholars maintain that when the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great released the Israelites from the Babylonian captivity, that certain dualistic elements of Zoroastrianism were brought into Judaism that hadn’t been there in strength before… For example, Satan goes from being the prosecutor in the Book of Job to being the Evil One. Prior to Second Temple Judaism, there was very little reference to an afterlife at all. The Sadducees in the temple sacrifice establishment were the ‘sola scriptura’ people of Jesus’ day. They didn’t see clear references to an afterlife in the Torah at all. Their common belief was that all of the dead went down to Sheol, sort of a dark place of slumber. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in an oral tradition handed down from Moses in addition to the Torah. It was the Pharisees who believed in the Resurrection of the Body, a belief that Jesus and Paul shared with them against the Sadducees. Gehenna was a place outside Jerusalem where trash was burned. The same scholars would likely maintain that “Resurrection of the Body” becoming “Heaven” and “Gehenna” becoming “Hell” was a Hellenistic influence… But that’s just me with my critical hat on instead of my faith hat on.

8:30 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


I like your critical hat :-). I'd heard of Gehenna, but not so much about the earlier idea of bodily resurrection. What disturbs me is reading gospel accounts of Jesus threatening hell for those who don't measure up ... so hard for me to discern among the things he's said - which to accept, whcih to dump.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Jeff's critical hat as well.

I tend to think concepts such as heaven and hell are weak human expressions for something transcendent that we cannot at present fully understand. In that sense hell is a metaphor for the total rejection of God.

Does that mean that it doesn't exist? That people have more than the brief flash of an eye that is a human lifetime to redeem themselves for all eternity? I really have no idea. I believe in a loving God, and I think Jesus' words about hell are what people could understand in his time.

1:23 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I believe in a loving God, and I think Jesus' words about hell are what people could understand in his time.

... that's what I think too, on my good days.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Crystal, I didn't get to the end of your post, but here's my take on hell.

My visions of the Beyond were to a great degree formed by The Great Divorce.

Lewis, an orthodox Christian disclaims any attempt to write theology here. Nevertheless it is the greatest theology I know about the Beyond.

The upshot is the doors of heaven are always open (Cf Revelations 21 or 22), and there's two way traffic. Heaven is solid (reality). Hell is insubstantial (shadows).

Here, just like the Bible, we find metaphors.

3:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Larry - CS Lewis is a great source :-)

3:55 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

I once had some long conversations with God on this very subject; I was quite relieved when he convinced me that he too thought the very idea inconsistent with his intrinsic goodness.

Jesus' basic teaching seems to be that our Father loves us, and sends sun and rain on the good & the less-so. I believe that, not because I'm supposed to but because it sounds right and fits my experience.

Seeking explanations consistent with that position, I am told that what we call "God's wrath" must be the way God's love expresses itself to "the Wicked." Not to say that God is fooled by the human notion that certain actions "deserve" punishment--rather that "evil" acts and states of mind are suffering. What we call "divine punishment" is God's effort towards correcting the problem.

An observer might truthfully say "If you don't stop doing that, you're going to be here forever." But it does not follow that anyone won't eventually stop doing whatever-it-is. It would be absurd to imagine that God's efforts to save us would ultimately fail.

It's time for you to leave the flames of Hell.
You have done well
and been well-done.
Why have you put yourself here?

Can't you forgive yourself
as you'd forgive others
if you dared?

Isn't it time you gave up
trying to prove yourself

Your Daddy's calling;
time to come home
and play.

7:49 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Forrest - thanks for dropping by. I agree with you. Where does that poem come from - I like it :-)

12:42 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I still haven't gotten to all of these articles yet, but I plan to.

I find this passage from author William Herr about Karl Rahner to be interesting,even though it wasn't the way I was taught to look at these things:

"...Salvation, accoding to Rahner, is not a kind of posthumous spiritual reward for good behavior, granted to some and witheld from others; it is simply a continuation of what has taken place during one's life, a sharing in God to the extent that each person has developed a capacity for it through the practice of faith, hope an love. Heaven and hell are, in a sense, the same thing - remaining whatever you have made of yourself, forever.

Even in death, we will not be separate fom our bodies - we will not spend eternity with a group of other immaterial "souls" - but we will in some way become related to all of material reality.

If the idea that eternity will be physical as well as a spiritual experience seems strange, recall that Jesus never said out souls are immortal - that is a Platonic notion. What Jesus said was that our bodies would rise."
--William Herr Catholic Thinkers in the Clear

Well, yes and no. I wish I understood this better...

"On that day Sadducees approached him, saying that there is no resurrection. They put this question to him, saying, "Teacher, Moses said, 'If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.' Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven. Finally the woman died.
Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her." Jesus said to them in reply, "You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching."

8:04 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Jeff, I hadn't read that yet about Rahner but I think it's a sort of gnostic idea (neo-platonism?) that bodies will be left behind at death. Jesus seemed to have a body so physical after death that he ate fish. About the afterlife being a continuation of what is now ... that sounds really interesting! I must read more about that ... and keep flossing! :-)

9:49 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

What disturbs me is reading gospel accounts of Jesus threatening hell for those who don't measure up ... so hard for me to discern among the things he's said - which to accept, whcih to dump.

That's one of my problems with the gospels. I've researched the development of history into legend in case of some French chansons de geste and know how little time it takes to completely distort facts in oral traditon. So, how can we tell, with the gospels written after Jesus' time, what still represents his words somewhat closely, what is more an interpretation of what he may have said, and what goes under the category of: he should have said that because I, the writer, think it is important. After all, the gospels were written by humans, and humans have biases and agendas. The passage about hell you quote looks pretty much the latter to me.

11:48 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Gabriele,

I guess there's a whole branch of scholarly study on how to interpret the Bible from an historical/secular pov (see blogs like Professor Mark Goodacre's).

From a religious pov, I guess one might think that scriptural passages can be evaluated through comparison with religious experience? That would be subjective, of course.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

Nice coincidence, Crystal. I brought with me from home the romanian translation of this work about Hell by Hans Urs von Balthasar.:-).

8:45 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paula - are you back from your vacation? I'll check your blog.

11:31 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home