One of the most attractive heterodox (or even heretical) positions to which Christian theologians have been attracted is the position of universalism without the denial of the existence of a real eternal Hell. Origen, for instance, who is one of the greatest of the early Church Fathers (and remains one of the greatest theologians of all time), was famously a universalist. This tradition is typically also advanced in other ways today; for instance in John Hick’s Irenaean theodicy (wrongly so-called), and other evolutionary models of theology (anything in the school of the ‘new awareness’ models of revelation, or better called ‘evolutionary’ models). However, what of existential Universalism? Take the popularly misunderstood example of Hans Urs von Balthasar. The position sketched out in his controversial book Dare we hope that all men be saved? is one of a sort of existential universalism. It has been misinterpreted by many, however, to be an actual commitment to universalism, which it is not. The book doesn’t argue for universalism in the strong sense (as, say, Rob Bell would argue), but rather argues that an appropriate religious disposition might be one of an attitude tempered by hope so radically as to qualify as ‘existential universalism’.
In the Catholic tradition there is a definite sin called ‘the sin of presumption’ which involves at least three categories:
- The presumption that one is personally saved in the sense that one cannot doubt one’s actual ‘end’ in heaven and fellowship with God.
- The presumption that one is personally damned despite the Church’s teaching on forgiveness.
- The presumption that others are [or any one is] damned despite the Church’s commitment to trusting in God’s Grace and leaving such Judgment to him alone.
Given such a strong emphasis on the third category, von Balthasar’s position seems deeply consonant with the Church’s teaching. In other words, it is not a Catholic’s place (and indeed is a mortal sin for a Catholic to act or speak otherwise) to presume that such-and-such people are, or so-and-so is, in Hell. This applies to Hitler or Stalin, to Cain, to Judas, and in short, to all individuals as well as to mass groups of people, such as Muslims, Atheists, or Philistines. Thus, since no one person can legitimately be presumed to be damned, it seems as though one might legitimately hope that nobody [i.e. not-anybody] is.
The question becomes this in the abstract: since we have the right to hope in the case of every particular that the particular is saved, do we have the right to dare to hope that ‘all particulars’ are saved?
A look at some arguments against it may be helpful. First, consider that Christ recapitulates in himself the drama of the human story from a cosmic perspective: thus on the Cross Christ confesses the sin of the world to God. Notice also that Christ is recapitulating in himself the story of Israel, so that he is not only a micro-cosmic man, but a micro-Israel (as Israel is a typological micro-cosm, and Israel’s history of struggle with God – which is what the word Israel means – is actually in a sense typifying the human story both for individuals as well as for the human community taken as a whole from the beginning of time to the end of time). Now, in this story, if we take it to climax in Christ, we might be tempted to think that since most of ‘Israel’ rejected Christ, so also most of humanity rejected God, and thus ‘many are called and few are chosen’ and the thesis of the few-ness of the elect seems supported.
A second argument against it would be as follows: Judas himself is characterized as the ‘son of perdition’ which is a Pauline trope for what, in the Johannine tradition, is called the ‘anti-Christ’. Thus, narratively speaking, Judas is damned, and is literally “twice dead” (Jude 12; compare Rev. 21:8). If this is so, then it seems that at least one person must be damned; namely, the eschatological anti-Christ.
I am not persuaded, however, by either of these objections (or at least I am not persuaded that they are good objections). In the first case, the interpretation is too eschatologically simplistic and frankly too ambitious. It is eschatologically simplistic because it ignores such Biblical evidence as the Pauline commitment to ‘all of Israel’ being saved expressed in Romans. It is too ambitious because it presumes too clear an understanding of eschatological implications for the proportion of the saved to the damned. In the second case, it isn’t altogether clear that we can presume that the anti-Christ is damned (after all, where does Scripture say that?).
Finally a third argument against it goes as follows: the disposition represented by both Christ and the authors of Scripture is not existential universalism, but rather one of immanent and impending damnation which ‘cannot be escaped except by the Grace of God through Jesus Christ’ which leads to existential evangelicalism (thus, ‘the end is near, therefore repent’ etc). The authors of Scripture make clear, it seems to me, in terms which cannot be merely figurative and thematic, that:
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
Thus, one might think that it is part of the content of revelation that ‘some’ (anonymous) are in fact damned.
This final argument does compel me, and it seems that, as attractive as von Balthasar’s existential universalism is, the proximately Biblical existential eschatology is to be preferred for moral and pragmatic reasons: namely that it better inculcates an evangelical attitude.