Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?
1 Timothy 2:1–4: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
2 Peter 3:8–9: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
These two beautiful passages ground my thoughts in this article, the purpose of which is to argue (from a Catholic perspective1) that Christians can, and indeed should, hope for the salvation of all humanity.2 I will begin by discussing one of Christ’s sayings that evokes eternal damnation. Then, I will provide my exegesis of the two passages quoted above. Finally, I will make some general comments on hell and the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Example of Christ’s Words
Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope that All Men be Saved continues to guide my thinking on this matter in general, and particularly on the subject of hell as depicted in the Bible. Balthasar proposes that Biblical descriptions of hell should be read primarily as personal warnings against the potential consequences of unrepentant sin. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reminds his followers that when we help the hungry and thirsty, the strangers, and those needing care, we do these things to Him.3 Those who fail to act in this way are commanded to “depart from [Christ] into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”4 Reflecting on this central passage, Balthasar comes to understand that its purpose is to bring about a change of mind (metanoia) in the reader. In this change of mind that is also a change of heart, “my seemingly small omissions take on such weight that I no longer have any time at all for glancing left and right in order to see how others are faring.”5 When a person falls at the feet of Christ in broken repentance, he can no longer “contrive his own escape from damnation through a purely individualistic conception of salvation … [and] abandon everyone else to the grinding wheels of hell.”6 Only by listening to Christ’s warnings with humility can believers become convinced that the love we so desperately need is, in fact, so much greater than our sin. This love—by its very nature—must extend to fill the entire universe!7 As Balthasar resoundingly affirms, “The conviction that ‘I am the least of all’ leads to the sudden awareness of my own precarious existential condition: the threat of eternal perdition is addressed, indeed, to me!”8 In another text, Love Alone is Credible, Balthasar clearly summarizes the Christology behind his views on the personal character of hell. Emphasizing the importance of Holy Saturday, he states that in “the God-forsakenness of the Crucified One,” human beings “see what we have been redeemed and saved from: the definitive loss of God, a loss we could never have spared ourselves [of] through any of our own efforts outside of grace.”9 Hence, Scripture passages talking about eternal torment are misused when applied to people other than ourselves, or when taken as primarily ontological (rather than primarily moral or exhortative) statements.
In the 1 Timothy passage (above), the historical leaders in “high positions” were hardly ever amenable to Christianity. In fact, most of them advocated emperor worship. These people were clearly not “on track for heaven.” And yet, Jesus commands us to love our enemies—to pray for those that hate us. If we are to pray for “everyone,” it follows that we should pray for those who have passed out of this world and into the next.10 Hence the Catholic Catechism #1058 states: “The Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible.’ (Mt 19:26)”
Consider the following line of reasoning in light of both Scripture passages quoted above: If God desires something, then that something must be good. If God desires something good, it seems very hard for me, as a human, to say that God can’t have what God wants! God isn’t like a child (or even an adult human), who often wants something that is not truly good. What God wants (or what God “wills”) is only thwarted by the freedom God has granted to rational creatures.11 For example, we know from the Scriptures of an angelic fall, in which some creatures used their freedom to turn against God. Because these beings are outside of time, their choice was single and final. The good angels, then, did not turn away from God. They used their freedom correctly.12 But as humans, we live in time (unlike angels) and we make mistakes continually. The way we desire things cannot really be compared to the “wants” or “wills” of God, or even of angels. What is stopping God from fulfilling God’s desire that all be saved is human interference, human “headbutting” against God’s will.13 If we are too insistent about the power of this disobedience, it would seem as if we are placing the human will to rebel on par with God’s loving will to curb or redirect that rebellion. The situation wherein a person is continually rebelling forever and ever against God’s desire is theoretically possible (again, given human freedom), but highly implausible. Hence my stance on the issue is that we are in no position to go about saying that God can’t get what God wants. In fact, it makes more sense to align our “wants” to God’s “wants,” and pray that all be saved.
The Catholic Church Today
In his General Audience of 28 July 1999, Saint John Paul II stressed that hell is “the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life.” Likewise, CCC 1033 teaches that “to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called hell.” Rather than a place, hell is simply what is experienced by those who condemn themselves, by rejecting God, to separation from God. See footnote 11, below, for arguments against a dualistic universe with heaven on one side and hell on another. Yet despite this line of reasoning (“state not a place”), the Catholic Catechism nonetheless also teaches the following:
The Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.14
If a person dies in a state of mortal sin (i.e. rejecting God, sinning against the Holy Spirit), condemnation to hell follows. Furthermore, Christians traditionally did not pray for the souls of those dead who denied Christ. These facts, however, should not stop us from praying that 1) before death that person repented15, and that 2) God’s mercy will prevail, in a general sense.
In John 12:32, Jesus says that his sacrifice on the cross will “draw all people to himself.” The cross was a universe-changing event. Because of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice, because of God’s overflowing love that provides the offer of salvation to all, it is possible to pray that all will be saved. Indeed, it is an exercise in loving even our worst of enemies to pray for their salvation.
Christ’s command, “do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1) applies, methinks, to us when we are tempted to use those passages in Scripture about eternal punishment against other people. Returning to Von Balthasar, we should really be looking to ourselves. We are the ones who need to repent! So in humility, let us turn to the Lord. In humility, let us consider others better than ourselves. In humility, let us dare to hope that God will save all people—not naively, in the sense of a “blanket” of universal salvation thrown over the recalcitrant—but in the sense that all will eventually come to their senses and stop placing obstacles in the way of God’s love.