Every year on the first day of Christology class, one of my sophomores raises their hand (usually half way during our fascinating analysis of the syllabus and classroom rules) and asks the following question, “Mr. Avery, who is going to hell?” All the students perk up from their current daze and listen closely for my response. In one sense, I immediately smile because I wonder if my students truly believe I have some bizarre list of those denied full communion with God. In another sense, I find myself perplexed and concerned to find so much focus on hell rather than heaven. In recognition of Vatican II, I respond to the student by stating that Catholics no longer acknowledge those without Christ as automatically condemned nor does the church claim anyone to be in hell. Unfortunately, this always triggers a response from another student demanding Adolf Hitler be placed on the condemned list. It’s always a good first day.
I don’t blame my students for seeking out answers to the afterlife. I, too, struggled greatly with life after death when I was younger because my church community brought a strong focus on the consequences of sins and the reality of hell. Great suffering occurred from trying to avoid sin rather than focusing on the love of God.
Damnation is still preached today in many religious communities (most extreme being the Westboro Baptist Church), on street corners and through all facets of media. It’s a tough topic to dodge or ignore in our modern age. In relation to Halloween, I am not sure what else is scarier than spending all eternity in your own personal hell. Grading the same paper over and over again gives me chills.
In opposition to these condemning voices, I look to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s scholarship on universal salvation to offer a different perspective that isn’t so doom and gloom. To get a sense of Balthasar’s view of the afterlife, it is imperative first to recognize the rejection of popular theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo.
Rejection of Augustine
In his controversial book, Dare We Hope All Men Be Saved, Balthasar takes great lament in Augustine’s heavily theological influence of grace and sin with the Catholic Church:
The great Church father Augustine, whose opinion has cast a shadow over the history of Western theology, to the extent that the biblical warnings against taking our ultimate fate lightly has been transformed—indeed, actually violated—into information about the outcome of the judgment by God that awaits us (165).
Augustine’s overemphasis on Original Sin and the inability to choose the good becomes of great concern to Balthasar (see Stephen Okey’s post to understand Augustine’s theology of predestination). The focus should not be on the fall of Adam but that of the grace of Christ whom opens the door for the salvation of all, not just some. This is the centerpiece of Balthasar’s soteriology.
Christ’s Yes vs. Humanity’s No
In Christ’s acceptance of death on the cross, the chains of Adam’s fall are broken and set free for God’s grace. This, in turn, means no person should be excluded from God’s Kingdom because God’s love, manifested in Christ’s passion, outweighs humanity’s sin. But what about humanity’s ability to reject God’s offer of grace? Does this not erase freedom? Balthasar challenges the free will argument by asking the question, “Does God not reconcile himself in Christ with the world?” (183). If one looks to the Gospel of John, one will see that Christ said “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:31). This brings about a serious question: If people are still condemned, does this mean Christ died in vain?
This follows with the critique of God’s justice being undermined if Christ’s yes does outweigh humanity’s no. In response, Balthasar acknowledges that it is just to punish the wicked, but it is also just to spare the evildoers because it is appropriate to God’s divine goodness.
Fire as Damnation or Cleansing?
The best evidence for hell exists in Matthew 25 with the judgment of the nations. Here the parable of the goats and sheep are separated by their actions towards others in need of clothing, food and shelter. Those whom did not act are considered goats and are thrown into the eternal fire. Standing on the shoulders of the Church Fathers (particularly Origen), Balthasar finds the eternal fire not one as damnation and but that of cleansing:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder, I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Daywill disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work.If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:12).
By going through the fire, a person’s sins against God will be burned, leaving the soul free from the chains of sin and therefore able to be in relationship with God.
The Great Eternal Return of All Things
I find Balthasar’s best argument for universal salvation lies in the foundation of the eternity of God.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away, and that the Lord may grant you times of refreshment and send you the Messiah already appointed to you, Jesus, whom have must receive until the times of universal restoration (Acts 3:19-21).
No matter if there is purgatory or hell itself, in the end, everything must consequently disappear into the incomprehensibility of God where all is restored. God is the Alpha for which humanity came into existence and through death, humanity will return back to God the Omega. If God is the only thing eternal, then all else must be temporal. Humanity is therefore unable to make an eternal no and will eventually be with God.
So Why Hell? Does Hell Exist? What about Freedom?
Balthasar never claimed to be a universalist nor determines all are saved. Nevertheless, one should consider the gravitas of Christ’ sacrifice, the cleansing power of God’s fire and what it means to be eternal. Mary Catherine Hilkert takes this sentiment further in her recent interview with NPR:
“I think that holding on to the concept of hell is a way of trying to protect the notion of freedom. That it is possible for people to definitively choose evil, and I don’t think we can make easy judgments about who has done that, and what happens in the depths of one’s heart when confronted with the utter mercy and love of God.”
Hilkert keeps the integrity of humanity’s free will but doesn’t ignore the complexity of the human experience. The reality of evil makes hell a possibility but one should not underestimate the everlasting power of God’s love and mercy.
Michael L. Avery holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Boston College and currently is a member of the theology faculty at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin, Texas.