Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his controversial well-known work called, Dare we hope that all be saved?, espouses a certain type of “Christian hope” for the salvation of all men. In the first two chapters, he covers and rejects Origen’s and Barth’s absolutist universalism, saying that the certainty of all people’s salvation must be rejected. However, Balthasar does espouse a softer position, saying that a Christian can reasonably hope for all men’s salvation.
Now, why can we reasonably hope for this?
Essentially, what Balthasar says is that hope in and of itself demands that all men could be saved. In other words, if we hope for someone’s salvation, what we are saying is that it is at least possible. So then, universalism is at least reasonably possible. And while we can never truly know if all would be saved, we can be equally uncertain that any will be damned.
If someone asks us, “Will all men be saved?” we answer in line with the Gospel: I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever. That means just as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. The whole of Scripture is full of the proclamation of a salvation that binds all men by a Redeemer who gathers together and reconciles the whole universe. That is quite sufficient to enable us to hope for the salvation of all men without thereby coming into contradiction with the Word of God.
So Balthasar cannot definitively know that any will be damned or saved. And while this may seem like a sort of agnostic universalism, what Balthasar argues is that Christian hope cannot and must not limit itself. If we are to hope that anyone would be saved, what we are implicitly saying is that their salvation is at least possible. If God wills that all men be saved, it must be possible, right? For Balthasar, hope demands this possible end.
Citing Aquinas, Balthasar says,
On to the virtue of hope, [Aquinas] establishes that one “has to believe of whatever one hopes that it can be attained; this is what hope adds to mere desire. Man can, namely, also have desire for things that he does not believe he can attain; but hope cannot exist in such circumstances.”
In other words, what is hoped for must at least be possible. Hope “cannot exist” if what is hoped for cannot be attained. To Balthasar, this is simply logical. So then, Balthasar concludes that universalism, while not absolutely certain, is possible.
As a necessary corollary, Balthasar argues that the doctrine of unconditional election limits Christian hope and love. Covering Augustine’s doctrine of the “massa damnata” (mass of the damned = the non-elect), Balthasar says,
[I]f someone thus sees mankind as a massa damnata from the outset, how can he still adhere to the effective truth of Christ’s statement that, on the Cross, he will draw all men to himself? …
… If one believes in the twofold predestination advocated by Augustine and adheres, on the basis of that, to the certainty that a number of people will be damned, one might object that love would have to stop at this barrier.
Balthasar brings in two arguments here: The first is that unconditional election flattens the universal offer of the gospel. How can Christ “draw all men” to himself if he only draws some? How can the invitation of the gospel be liberal if only some are elected? I’ve heard this argument too many times to count.
However, Balthasar brings in a second argument that is novel to me. Balthasar says that if unconditional election is true, then “love would have to stop at this barrier”. Put another way, Christians are responsible to love only those who are elect. Why? Because that is who God has chosen to love. Should the Christian’s love be more liberal than God’s?
Next, Balthasar cites German theologian Verweyen, saying,
Hans-Jürgen Verweyen…puts forward the thesis: “Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person’s being eternally lost besides himself is unable to love unreservedly.” And he stresses here, above all, “the effect of this idea on my practical actions. It seems to me that just the slightest nagging thought of a final hell for others brings on moments in which human togetherness becomes especially difficult, as does leaving the other to himself. If there may, in fact, be people who are absolutely incorrigible, why, then, should not those who make my life on earth a hell perhaps also be of that sort?”
So then, election restricts liberal love. If we are certain that God has not chosen some, or, if we are certain that a mass of sinners will inhabit hell, then for what reason should we love them?
How should we Calvinists answer this question? At this point, it might be helpful to respond to and correct Balthasar’s first point: that election certainly cannot restrict the universal call of the gospel — rather, election limits response to the gospel. In other words, believers preach to every creature, and are sure the elect will say “yes”, but are not sure who they are! With this clarification in view, one should see how universal love plays a part. We love everyone regardless of their election; and pray for their salvation, regardless of their place in God’s salvific plan. Why? Because we don’t know who is who in God’s drama of salvation. We share the gospel, knowing that no one is beyond salvation, and knowing that God will irrevocably draw all whom he wills to himself. This is the part we play in God’s mystery plan of salvation.
With that said, Balthasar’s complaint should be heard. And I’ve seen and known many Calvinists, who seem to struggle to love beyond God’s sovereign choice, which is unacceptable. It assumes a vantage point that is not our own, but only God’s. On the same note, I’ve known many Arminians who feel much of the same, even without the election bit.
Perhaps, ending on this warning by Balthasar (which I agree with) will help in humility for people on either side:
How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this? But: if I hope for you, for others, for everyone, then in the end I am also allowed to include myself. (Not the reverse: I hope for me; but I do not know with certainty whether you are among the chosen.)
[W]oe is me if, looking back, I see how others, who were not so lucky as I, are sinking beneath the waves; if, that is, I objectify hell and turn it into a theological-scientific “object” and begin to ponder on how many perish in this hell and how many escape it. For at that moment everything is transformed: hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls “the others”, while I, praise God, have escaped it…
…And at once the prayer is on [my] lips: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18:11). Then one goes on to populate hell, according to one’s own taste, with all sorts of monsters: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin the Horrible, Hitler the Madman and all his cronies, which certainly results, as well, in an imposing company that one would prefer not to encounter in heaven. It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a massa damnata of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side.
We might ask the great Augustine, the teacher of grace and love who has the greater portion of mankind destined to eternal hell, whether—with his hand on his heart—he ever worried, after his conversion, about his eternal salvation.