If it is said of God that: “God our Savior … 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 men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:4-5), then this is the reason for the fact that the Church should make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for all men” (1 Tim 2:1), which could not be asked of her if she were not allowed to have at least the hope that prayers as widely directed as these are sensible and might be heard. If, that is, she knew with certainty that this hope was too widely directed, then what is asked of her would be self-contradictory. (pp. 23-24)
This is the basis for Balthasar’s famous view that we can at least hope for the salvation of all. For if we are commanded to pray, for all, that they will be saved, it must be possible for all to be saved. Otherwise we would be praying for something impossible, which we would never be commanded to do. (Note that Balthasar does not take the universalist view that all must and therefore definitely will in fact be saved, which would be heretical.)
However, the argument is fallacious, as can be seen by comparison with the following examples. Suppose you watch as ten people are asked to draw straws, in order to determine who is going to carry out some unpleasant task. It is reasonable for you, with respect to any one of the ten, to hope that he is not the one to draw the short straw. For there is nothing about any one of the ten that makes it necessary that he will be the one to draw it. But it would not be reasonable to hope that none of the ten draw it. Somebody is going to draw it, even if there is nothing about any one of the ten people that determines that it must be him, specifically, who will do so.
Or suppose a forest fire is raging toward a small town which has a hundred buildings in it. For any one of those buildings, it might be perfectly possible for it to be saved from the fire. There may be nothing special about any one of them that entails that it, specifically, will be destroyed. Hence you could reasonably hope, for any one of the buildings, that it will be saved. But it might at the same time be true of the fire – given its size, speed, the layout of the town and so forth – that it will inevitably destroy at least some of the buildings. Hence it would not be reasonable to hope that none of the buildings is destroyed.
Similarly, from the premise that, for any particular human being, it is reasonable to hope that he will be saved, it doesn’t follow that it is reasonable to hope that all human beings will be saved.
Now, it might be claimed that there is a crucial disanalogy here. In the case of drawing straws, the setup guarantees that not everyone can avoid drawing the short straw. And in the case of the fire, the way I have described the scenario guarantees that not every house can be saved. By contrast, it might be argued, in the case of salvation, there is nothing that guarantees that not everyone will be saved.
There are two things to be said in response to this. First, even if it were true that there is nothing that guarantees that not everyone will be saved, Balthasar’s inference is still fallacious. The fact that, for any man, we should pray (and thus hope) for his salvation, simply does not by itself entail that all might in theory be saved.
But second, in fact it seems we do have a guarantee that not all will be saved. For the clear and consistent implication of both and is that some people will be damned. Christ tells us that few find the way to life and many go the way of destruction (Matthew 7:13-14); he warns that many who seek to enter the Kingdom of God will not be able to (Luke 13:24); and so on. It’s not like we don’t have evidence one way or the other and thus are free to hope. We do have evidence, and it all points in the direction of some being lost. This is true even if we were to concede (as we should not) that we don’t have good reason to think, of any specific person, that he in particular is lost. For the clear implication of the relevant texts (which are set out in the articles just linked to) is that some people are lost, whether or not we know who they are. (The reason we should not concede that we lack such knowledge of any particular person is that scripture and tradition also clearly do imply that certain specific people are lost – Judas, for example, and the beast and false prophet of Revelation, not to mention the demons.)
So, we are in fact in a position analogous to that of someone watching the ten people drawing straws, or someone watching a fire approach the town. You can reasonably hope, of any particular person, that he will not draw the short straw, but not that no one will. You can reasonably hope, of any particular building, that it will not burn down, but not that none of them will. And even if you can reasonably hope, of any particular person, that he will be saved, you can’t reasonably hope that everyone will be. In all three cases, we have positive evidence against there being hope for all, even if we can still reasonably have hope for any particular individual.
What has been said so far shows only that Balthasar’s hope is in vain, but it might otherwise seem harmless. But is it? In , Bl. Pope Pius IX condemned the proposition: “Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ.” To be sure, with blanket condemnations of long lists of propositions (which is what we have in the Syllabus), not all the propositions will necessarily be problematic in the same way or to the same degree. For example, they may not all be heretical, but merely rash, ambiguous, or the like, and thus potentially misleading. Hence the proposition that we can have “good hope” for the salvation of all might be problematic even if it is not strictly heretical.
Why? Well, suppose, in the case of the fire raging toward the town, that someone went around telling all the homeowners that there was good hope that all the buildings would be saved. Suppose that some of them protested that this was unlikely, that it was in any event a waste of time to speculate about such an optimistic scenario, and that what was urgently needed instead was to get busy and do what was necessary to save as many buildings as possible. And suppose the optimist simply doubled down on his happy message, criticizing the skeptics for worrying the other homeowners, and rehearsing for them all the reasons for hope while minimizing the evidence of grave danger. Suppose that some of the homeowners, reassured by the optimist’s message, opted to sit there listening to him in order to calm their nerves, rather than taking urgent action to save their homes.
What would result from this? Obviously, that those who sat around listening to the optimist would be far more likely to end up losing their homes, whereas those who were more pessimistic and took urgent action would be far more likely to save their homes. The optimist would bring about the destruction of many homes, precisely by trying to convince everyone that all of the homes would probably be saved.
I submit that we are in an exactly parallel situation where preaching and theological discussion about hell are concerned, even in otherwise conservative contexts. I once heard a parish priest give a sermon on one of Christ’s dire warnings that many would be lost, on a Sunday when such a Gospel passage was among the lectionary readings for the day. His message was similar to Balthasar’s. Though Christ himself, in the Gospel passage that was read, warned: Be very careful, you could wind up in hell, the pastor, in commenting on the passage, reassured his congregation: Don’t worry, you probably won’t end up in hell.
What the hell?
This sort of thing is extremely common. Conservative Catholic priests, prelates, and theologians are careful not to endorse universalism or otherwise to teach heresy where the doctrine of hell is concerned. They suppose they have thereby done their duty, and then immediately go on to deemphasize the doctrine, treating hell as if it were merely an abstract possibility. This is as delusional and dangerous as reassuring the homeowners in my example that losing their homes is merely an abstract possibility. Scripture and tradition consistently treat hell as far more than that – as a clear and present danger that we must be gravely concerned about. Doing one’s duty vis-à-vis Catholic teaching requires doing the same. There is no surer way to send people to hell than to reassure them that probably no one goes there.
UPDATE 1/22: In the comments section, a couple of readers accuse me of misreading Balthasar, and hold that rightly understood, his argument commits no fallacy. One of them says:
I disagree with Balthasar. Nevertheless, Feser here commits a strawman. This is Balthasar's argument:
P: The Church prays for all to be saved
Q: It must be possible that all will be saved
1. If P, then Q
3. Therefore, Q
In Feser's misrepresentative construal he substitutes an entirely different P, namely, "The Church prays for each one, separately, to be saved." This is clearly not the proposition that Balthasar is concerned with. If Balthasar had been utilizing this strawman then he would indeed have committed a fallacy.
End quote. But this won’t work. The problem is that “all” is ambiguous, and Balthasar reads it in a question-begging way. As the reader implicitly acknowledges, the proposition:
P: The Church prays for all to be saved
will support the proposition:
Q: It must be possible that all will be saved
only if “all” in P means “all, collectively” as opposed to “each one, individually.” But no one who does not already agree with Balthasar would concede that P is true in that sense. All we are entitled to assume, in a non-question begging way, from scripture and tradition, is P interpreted in the weaker, “each one, individually” sense. And then Q won’t follow, for the reason I gave in the original post.
Another reader accuses me of holding a Calvinist view of predestination. But nothing I said presupposes anything about the topic of predestination, and certainly not a Calvinist view. It presupposes only that God knows what will happen in the future, including who will be saved and who will be damned.
I suspect that the reader was thrown off by my reference to a “guarantee” that not all will be saved. He seems to think that I meant “guarantee” in some metaphysical sense. But in fact I meant it in an epistemological sense. I don’t mean that it is guaranteed that some will be damned in the metaphysical sense that God will cause this to happen. I mean that it is guaranteed in the epistemological sense that we can know that some will be damned because it has been revealed that some will be.