Christian TraditionsEschatologyRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

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.

Exegesis

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.

Concluding Remarks

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.


View Sources

14 Comments

  1. January 19, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    One of the most fascinating parts of this article for me was the temporal distinction you highlighted between the angels who rebelled outside of time and the humans who rebel inside of time. Is it a generally accepted conclusion that the human experience of time ceases at the moment of death and whatever state he or she is in then becomes eternal?

    • Benjamin Winter
      January 19, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      Hello Charles. Thanks for the compliment. It is generally accepted that at death humans leave the physical/temporal realm. Time and space still exist, of course, until the final judgment. The passage I quote near the end of my article (CCC 1035) affirms your statement about the moment of death. Yet there is also a great mystery here. None of us, I believe, can definitely say that “x person” died in a state of mortal sin. Perhaps the Church has the power to do so (for example, some Church doctors have said this about Judas), but that is very much debatable and by no means a dogma. Hence, the hope that even Judas, in his final moment, stopped shunning Christ’s offer of forgiveness.

      Another thing to think about is that humans are already and always “eternal” in the sense that we possess an immortal soul. On the other hand, true eternity does not belong to any creature. Participation in the beatific vision is the realization of our entire nature, but when this vision begins after death is a complicated matter, one with which I hope to deal in a future post on Catholic views of the afterlife. Check out footnote 10 in my article above for a preview. Needless to say, there is space for happenings in between death and the final judgment in the Catholic (and Orthodox) view of reality.

  2. George Aldhizer
    January 10, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    This was a very well done article Benjamin, thanks for it. It’s interesting when you ask the question, “Why can’t God get what God wants?” That question features very prominently in Reformed reflection on limited atonement and irresistible grace. It’s interesting to me that the direction you take in answering that question is a universalistic turn, rather than the particularistic turn (is that a word?) that the Reformed answer with.
    It’s always been interesting to me, wrestling with these very important questions. I think I’m always in a state of wrestling, which hopefully is healthy. I wrestle with passages, specifically the two you mentioned, in which God seems to desire each individual to come to repentance. And then I read what seems to me to a be a more overwhelming number of passages that seem to suggest otherwise, particularly in the gospels (Matt. 22:14, “many are called, few are chosen,” Matthew 13 Jesus says he speaks in parables because he has given the secrets of the kingdom to some and not others, Jesus in John 6 lays down his life for his sheep, and they listen to his voice, and will not leave his hand, Jesus in Luke 10:22 says that the only people that know the Father are those whom the Son chooses to reveal himself to). The gospels are what is most convincing to me, not necessarily the epistles (though, interestingly, the epistles seem to be the most used in arguing for either a “God wants everyone” or “God wants his elect”).

    Then again, I’ve never been all too satisfied with Reformed answers to the two passages you suggest. At times, I’m like “well, gee, God must not care too much for doctrinal purity. The Bible doesn’t have to be put into a neat little bow.” Or, “gee, The Scriptures are a mystery, and there are tensions within them that are intentional. Maybe we shouldn’t emphasize these doctrines as much as we tend to.” And then I’m usually like, “I find the Reformed view more persuasive.” Haha, just trying to put some honesty into the conversation.

    I guess I’ll ask a question, Do you think that God wills the salvation of those in hell? Not a leading question, just curious what you think.

  3. George Aldhizer
    January 10, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    This was a very well done article Benjamin, thanks for it. It’s interesting when you ask the question, “Why can’t God get what God wants?” That question features very prominently in Reformed reflection on limited atonement and irresistible grace. It’s interesting to me that the direction you take in answering that question is a universalistic turn, rather than the particularistic turn (is that a word?) that the Reformed answer with.

    It’s always been interesting to me, wrestling with these very important questions. I think I’m always in a state of wrestling, which hopefully is healthy. I wrestle with passages, specifically the two you mentioned, in which God seems to desire each individual to come to repentance. And then I read what seems to me to a be a more overwhelming number of passages that seem to suggest otherwise, particularly in the gospels (Matt. 22:14, “many are called, few are chosen,” Matthew 13 Jesus says he speaks in parables because he has given the secrets of the kingdom to some and not others, Jesus in John 6 lays down his life for his sheep, and they listen to his voice, and will not leave his hand, Jesus in Luke 10:22 says that the only people that know the Father are those whom the Son chooses to reveal himself to). The gospels are what is most convincing to me, not necessarily the epistles (though, interestingly, the epistles seem to be the most used in arguing for either a “God wants everyone” or “God wants his elect”).

    Then again, I’ve never been all too satisfied with Reformed answers to the two passages you suggest. At times, I’m like “well, gee, God must not care too much for doctrinal purity. The Bible doesn’t have to be put into a neat little bow.” Or, “gee, The Scriptures are a mystery, and there are tensions within them that are intentional. Maybe we shouldn’t emphasize these doctrines as much as we tend to.” And then I’m usually like, “I find the Reformed view more persuasive.” Haha, just trying to put some honesty into the conversation (I think it’s easy to not display honesty over these comment messages, to make it sound like I have things figured out when I’m actually wrestling with them. In one way, writing over the internet is good to clarify and expand upon arguments, but I think we sacrifice the honesty during face-to-face conversation)

    I guess I’ll ask a question, Do you think that God wills the salvation of those in hell? Not a leading question, just curious what you think.

    • Benjamin Winter
      January 19, 2015 at 11:43 pm

      Hey George! Fascinating connection with “why can’t God get what God wants” and irresistible grace. Am I correct in thinking that the Reformed view on the latter is that the limited # of those who are atoned experience grace as irresistible? Just a clarification question, not trying to argue for or against the understanding.

      I can identify with your “wrestling” on these texts. Indeed the numerous passages in the Gospels are convicting. I assume, though, that you would like to see these passages in a more expansive light than the hermeneutic Balthasar proposes? (See my first section)

      Your comments about the Bible not being tied up in a neat little bow are spot on. I hope to address some of your thoughts later on when I start a series on Catholicism and Scripture.

      The simple answer to your final question is “yes.” But I would qualify by stating that God will their salvation insofar as they exist.

      Assumption: The further removed a person becomes from God, the less that person truly exists (see Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, Chapter 4). Hence hell is a state, not a place with existence comparable to that of Heaven. Back to your question, I’m willing to consider the idea that a person can willfully reject God to the point of his or her annihilation. After all, human souls did indeed come from nothing, and according to Athanasius we were headed back in that direction before the God-man intervened. So in theory it’s possible that at some point there simply isn’t anything left for God to will to save. I think Lewis’ image in the great divorce is good here, an image of receding further and further into the distance. A big qualification here is that if this is possible it is not something that happens immediately after death, as this would omit the possibility of a final judgment wherein all works are revealed. See my footnote 10 for more on what happens after death. How does that answer your query? I’m glad you brought it up as I had kind of forgotten about this possibility.

  4. Benjamin Winter
    January 9, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Thanks, Ben! I’m glad I was given the grace to write it–I know that when I tried to articulate some of these thoughts in a term paper a few years ago, the result was much more garbled.

    On your comment: I have the Inner Kingdom on my shelf and will check out that chapter asap. Side note–I got to meet him at Villanova two years ago where he gave a brilliant lecture. If you want my notes from that lecture (they are hand-written, but more neat than usual) I actually have a scan of them I could send you electronically.

    On fire, I’ve drawn up a few things from that term paper I mentioned above.

    -God’s love is truly inconceivable; it is a divine gift that is the sole ground of the self-interpreting Word of God in Christ Jesus. Balthasar proposes that God’s judgment can, in a sublime and ecstatic manner, be understood as a mode of this very love. A person “who irrevocably rejects the fire of God’s love” may experience the same fire “only as a consuming one.” (Dare We Hope / Short Discourse on Hell, 147) This is Origen’s sapiential fire.

    -Although Balthasar agrees with church fathers that evil itself is not a substance, he does grant that “the sins committed by men are something real, which, as it were, nourishes and concretizes the deceiving powers” of spiritual darkness “in heavenly places.” It is through humans that devils gain power over God’s creation—a principle that goes back to the actions of the snake in the garden of Eden. In the reverse of this principle, humans are charged to “resist the devil,” to avoid granting the one who has been “rendered powerless” by Christ power over what he can no longer claim as his own. (Dare We Hope, 137)

    • January 9, 2015 at 9:06 pm

      Thanks! I would like to look at the notes I’d you wouldn’t mind! 🙂

  5. January 9, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    Okay the follow up. Again, I love this article. For the Orthodox, though this isn’t dogma, we tend to believe that Heaven and Hell are objectively the “same place”—the presence of God. And the love of God is overflowing, always, to everyone. I understand “eternal separation” as the persons back towards God—not seeing him “face-to-face”.

    2. The fire that burns, we believe, is the love of God. This being the case, in the Tradition of St. Mark of Ephesus, that the “fire that burns” is uncreated, not created. Unless I am mistaken, the Western standing (at least at the time of Florence / Ferrara council) is that the Fire is created. Could you shed some light on this for me? What do you think?

    • Benjamin Winter
      January 19, 2015 at 10:32 pm

      So I will have to study this in greater detail before I can respond, as I’m not too familiar yet with that Council. Was hoping to get time before the semester started, but will probably be able to work it in to my research at some point. Thanks for bringing this up!

  6. C.T. Casberg
    January 9, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    We hope they will come to their senses… but will they? I’ve seen different arguments. NT Wright suggests that those who continue to reject God “pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.” I recently saw a blog (don’t have it handy) where the author believed that Hell was more a school for the damned, and after some period of “instruction” they’d come into communion with God.

    Perhaps it’s better left a mystery, so we’d have no cause to neglect prayers and evangelizing.

    • Benjamin Winter
      January 9, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      I like the conclusion you came to here. It’s the same one I tried to support, above.

      I don’t think the two viewpoints you list, at least in the way you list them, are compatible. Of course, I would lean more towards the latter than the former. The Great Divorce, though, is I think the best narrative exposition of my thoughts on hell and the afterlife. Weren’t you the one who said we always return to Lewis? =)

  7. January 9, 2015 at 11:40 am

    I almost wrote on Balthasar and universal salvation for my article next week, but you definitely articulated it much better than I would have (I ended up writing on Reformation/Early Modern Catholicism/nothing terribly interesting)! Thank you for this wonderfully written and well-informed post. The sentiments expressed by JPII remind me of what some of the Eastern Fathers believed about heaven and hell, that they were the same place, since nowhere is without God’s presence, but for those who reject God and His mercy, God’s love feels like burning fire.

    • LiberalsRCommies
      January 18, 2015 at 3:10 pm

      “Everyone” doesn’t mean everyone. It never meant everyone.

  8. January 9, 2015 at 7:56 am

    Love this article. There is a great chapter in Met Kallistos’ book, The Inner Kingdom, with the same title as this article. I will comment later (this evening, hopefully) with a few more thoughts on: 1. Heaven/hell as the love of God experienced differently by those who love/hate God / Hell being understood as the “back to God” but the uncreated light and love not ceasing to shine upon the unrepentant, and 2. A question concerning the distinction of created/uncreated fire with respect to the council of Florence / Ferrara.

Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. Ben’s life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. His interests outside the Academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

Previous post

Christian Pornography Addiction: A Study In Personhood

Next post

Weekly Reads (January 10)