Sunday, June 29, 2008

Book Review: Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? With a Short Discourse on Hell, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar

This was a great book which helped me clarify my position on this important doctrine which directly bears on the issue of salvation, eschatology, and the Gospel itself. In this book the notable Catholic theologian Balthasar outlines his position on hell in which he takes issue with much of church tradition, especially Augustine, the Scholastics and Calvin. According to Balthasar their egregious error was their certainity that most or much of humanity was and is damned. How do they know this? Is this the unassailable conclusion received from the Scriptures?

Balthasar argued that it is not. Yes, the Scriptures speak about eternal damnation and Jesus himself gives grave warnings that damnation is a real threat that may befall individuals. It would be improper to try and explain away these passages in scripture with a universalistic picture in mind. Where Balthasar differs from most conservatives (both Protestant and Catholic) is that he also claims that it would be improper to explain away the universalistic texts with an Augustinian view of hell in mind. In the New Testament there are two series of texts which are irreconcilable in one large scale interpretative framework without using one set to undermine what the other is saying. Since the 'hell-fire' texts come more easily to mind to me (and probably many Christians) I will quote below some of the universalistic texts:

"God...desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all." (1st Tim. 2:4)

"[Christ is] the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe." (1st Tim. 4:10)

"Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." (John 12:31)

"The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men." (Titus 2:11)

"God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all..." (Romans 11:32)

I could keep quoting but I think that I communicated the point. Throughout most of Church history this part of Scripture has either been ignored or interpreted through the lens of the 'hell-fire' passages so that they no longer have their true universalistic meaning applied to them. Since Augustine, the threats about hell hardened to actualities about the non-Christian other. An us vs. them mentality was spawned instead of a true Kingdom mentality. The tension between grace and judgment in Augustine (which goes back to Paul) was decided on the side of (punitive) 'judgment.' This tension in the writings of the Apostle Paul was abolished by Augustine and from him through the medieval era, through the Reformation and all the way down to many Christians today, the issue was decided.

The alternative view, embraced by Balthasar (and tentatively, me) is that a Christian can and should hope for the salvation of all, meaning the hope that God's grace reaches even the hardest of hearts in the end. Unlike universalists we do not state this hope as a certain fact. We live under judgment and we do not know. Neither can we state the Augustinian converse. It is not our place to judge but Christ's. The threat of hell is not spoken primarily about others but about me. It is placed to each individual reading Scripture or this blog entry. "...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matt. 25:40)

Balthasar provides this quote from Josef Pieper at the end of his book Dare We Hope:

"In theological hope the 'antitithesis' between divine justice and divine mercy is, as it were, 'removed'- not so much 'theoretically' as existentiall: supernatural hope is man's appropriate, existential answer to the fact that these qualities in God, which to the creature appear contradictory, are actually identical. One who looks only at the justice of God is as little able to hope as is one who sees only the mercy of God. Both fall prey to hopelessness- one to the hopelessness of despair, the other to the hopelessness of presumption. Only hope is able to comprehend the reality of God that surpasses all antititheses, to know that his mercy is identical to his justice and his judtice with his mercy."

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Hell of a Problem: Part 1

I am realizing more now than ever before that my deepest doubts about Christianity revolve around the issue of Hell. It is especially the alleged eternal nature of the torment that is bothersome to me both emotionally and intellectually. As much as I disagree with atheists and the like I can’t bring myself to believe that they will be separated from all that is good for all eternity while experiencing unending torment.

I’ve had many email discussions with friends on this topic and have spoken with many Christians about it, but nothing has been resolved. It never came to a satisfying conclusion where I could honestly say to myself, “So that’s the answer.” So I am hoping against hope that I can resolve this on my blog. :)

Below are ten propositions on Hell from this blog:

I’ll mull these over for the next few days and post my thoughts on them on Saturday.

1. What is hell? Hell cannot be known in and of itself. As a negative to a positive, hell can only be known as the antithesis of heaven. Heaven is life with God, hell is existence without God.

2. Or, again – because God is love – hell is lovelessness. At its centre, hell is not hot; hell (as Dante saw) is cold, ice-cold. Or if, with most of Christian tradition, hell be aflame, “Yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible” (Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.62-63).

3. The opposite of love is not so much hatred as fear. The wilted tree of hatred has terror for its roots. Hell is the war of terror.

4. And hell is despair, utter despair. Dante again: “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.”

5. And hell is power, absolute power – potestas absoluta. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these things I will give you…’” (Matthew 4:8-9).

6. Heaven is communion, hell is isolation. Sartre was wrong: hell is not other people, hell is me, myself and I. Milton’s Satan: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (Paradise Lost, 4.75).

7. But more: “I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely that my own” (Hans Urs von Balthasar). Of one thing we can be sure about anyone who knows the population of hell: he himself will be in the census.

8. Hell is not about what God does, hell is about what we do, about the horrendous evils humans commit. We trivialise these evils and betray the world’s victims if we deny the reality of hell.

9. Yet hell is not a datum of faith in the creeds. “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (Apostles’ Creed). “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed). We do not believe in hell.

10. Therefore while hell is real, we may pray and hope that hell will finally be empty. “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ.” Thus the church will not preach hell – “the gospel at gunpoint” – “it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (Karl Barth). “For the Lord will not reject for ever” (Lamentations 3:31).