We’ve been talking about Balthasar’s view that we may at least hope that all human beings are saved. Now, Balthasar was a Catholic theologian who was careful to try to avoid contradicting definitive Church teaching on the subject. That is why he does not endorse the universalist view that all must and therefore definitely will be saved, which is heretical (as is shown and ). But it is also significant that in the title of , he is careful to frame his question: “Dare we hope ‘that all men be saved’?” In other words, he’s asking about whether all human beings might be saved. He’s not asking whether all creatures with intellect and will, including fallen angels, might be saved. Indeed, in the book he says, of demonic powers:
Let it be said at the outset that theological hope can by no means apply to this power. The sphere to which redemption by the Son who became man applies is unequivocally that of mankind… [O]ne cannot agree with Barth’s claim that the angels had no freedom of choice and that the myth of a “fall of the angels” is thus to be rejected absolutely… [T]he doctrine of a fall of the angels, which is deeply rooted in the whole of Tradition, becomes not only plausible but even, if the satanic is accepted as existent, inescapable. (pp. 113-14)
To be sure, Balthasar then goes on to speculate about whether the concept of “person” would still apply to a fallen angel – on the grounds that persons typically exist in a way that involves relationship with other persons, and those who have permanently opted for evil have thereby locked themselves into a selfishness that prevents a proper relationship with others. Now, this is pretty woolly metaphysics. For one thing, persons fixed on evil cannot enter into healthy relationships to other persons, but that doesn’t mean they cannot enter into any relationships at all. For another thing (and as Balthasar seems not to deny), demons would still retain intellect and will even if they no longer had any relationships even of a defective kind with other persons. That would suffice to make them persons, certainly on a Thomistic analysis. Anyway, however we choose to characterize them, Balthasar does not seem to deny that demons are forever lost, so that we cannot hope for their salvation.
The reason, no doubt, is that that too is something required by Catholic orthodoxy. As the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) teaches:
He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ.
Even if you were to argue that this does not entail that there will in fact be any human being who suffers perpetual punishment (as opposed to entailing the mere possibility of this happening), it cannot reasonably be denied that it entails that the devil suffers perpetual punishment. Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “there is no repentance for the angels after their fall,” so that the demons’ choice against God is “irrevocable” and their sin “unforgivable” (393). This teaching is found also in scripture:
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25: 41, 45-46)
And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Revelation 20:10)
So, no Catholic can, consistent with orthodoxy, claim that hell is empty. At the very least, the fallen angels are in hell and there is no hope whatsoever for their repentance. Even Balthasar admits this. At least for the Catholic, this constitutes an absolute boundary beyond which orthodox speculation on the subject of hell cannot go. It’s not just that it cannot be affirmed that all creatures must and will be saved. It’s that it must be affirmed that some are damned – the demons, at the very least.
What does this tell us about whether any human beings are damned? Quite a lot. For one thing, it undermines the main ground for the Balthasarian hope that at least all human beings might be saved. The argument is that God wills all human beings to be saved, as is affirmed in passages like 1 Timothy 2:3-4. If God wills it, then, it is argued, that gives us good grounds to hope that it will happen. But God also obviously willed that all the angels would be saved, and yet it is certain that some are damned anyway. So, why would God’s willing that all human beings be saved make it any more likely they will all in fact be saved? (In of The City of God, St. Augustine makes the related point that it is absurd to appeal to divine mercy as an argument for the salvation of all human beings, while conceding that the demons are lost forever despite God’s mercy.)
If anything, it is a priori far less likely that all human beings will be saved than that all angels will be. Angels have far more powerful intellects and wills than we do, and being incorporeal, they lack the passions that can blind the intellect and overwhelm the will. They cannot fall into the kind and number of errors that lead human beings into sin, and they cannot be distracted from the good by feelings of anger, lust, craving for alcohol or drugs, etc. So, if even many angels are nevertheless damned, it is a priori extremely improbable at best – and, really, practically impossible – that no human beings are damned.
That much alone should make any Catholic wary of putting much stock in the suggestion that there is any hope that all human beings will be saved. But much more can be said. I noted in my previous post that Bl. Pope Pius IX, in The Syllabus of Errors, condemned the following 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.” But what about those who are in it? Well, Pope Pius II, in 1459, condemned the proposition “that all Christians are to be saved” (cf. Denzinger 717b). Of the human race in general, the Council of Quiersy in 853 taught that “omnipotent God wishes all men without exception to be saved, although not all will be saved” (cf. Denzinger 318). Note that the council explicitly says that in fact not all will be saved even though God desires that they be saved.
Such doctrinal statements are perfectly in line with what scripture clearly teaches, in passages like these:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:23-24)
Many, many more passages could be cited from both The blindingly obvious implication is that some human beings will in fact be damned – indeed, Christ’s own statements, made in response to a direct question about the matter in the case of the passage from Luke’s gospel, imply that most people will be damned. and .
And yet Balthasarians tie themselves in logical knots trying to find loopholes in these various statements by which a hope for the salvation of all might squeak through on a technicality. This is an absolutely bizarre way to do theology. It’s comparable to a doctor who, looking at the grim statistics on pancreatic cancer, notes that it is nevertheless at least possible to survive it, and then chirpily tells his patients: “We can at least hope that all pancreatic cancer patients will survive!” After all, if it is possible for some, isn’t it possible for all?
In the case of pancreatic cancer, though survival is possible, a number of things have to go right in order for this to happen, and because it is in most cases highly improbable that they will all go right, there is simply no realistic hope at all that the possibility of survival will be realized in every case. But the same thing is true with respect to the salvation of souls. It’s not enough to note that, in the abstract, any particular soul could be saved. We also have to ask what, specifically, has to happen in order for the salvation of a soul to occur, and how probable it is that it will occur in every single case. Once we do that, the notion that we can hope for the salvation of all can once again be seen a priori to be laughably unrealistic.
Here’s what the Church says has to go right. If you are a Catholic guilty of mortal sin, you must repent of it with a firm purpose of avoiding such sin in the future, you must have at least imperfect contrition (that is to say, sorrow for sin because you fear divine punishment or abhor the ugliness of sin), and you must in the case of imperfect contrition actually receive absolution in the sacrament of confession. If you have not received such absolution, then you can still be saved if you have perfect contrition (that is to say, sorrow for sin out of love of God) and at least the intention to go to confession and receive absolution. Without meeting these conditions, you cannot be saved. For example, if you lack perfect contrition, never go to confession, and die, you will not be saved. If you are outside the visible boundaries of the Church, then you can still be saved, but only if you have perfect contrition and at least an implicit desire for baptism. If you lack these upon death, you cannot be saved.
Now, there is, of course, more to be said about these criteria, and various qualifications to be made. For example, what counts as perfect contrition, or as an implicit desire for baptism? I would argue for a fairly broad interpretation of these concepts. For instance, I would argue that one might have, through no fault of his own, many false beliefs about the divine nature yet still plausibly be said to have perfect contrition or sorrow for sin out of love for God.
But by no means does anything go. For example, a person whose entire live is devoted to making money and partying, and who treats morality and religion as matters of complete indifference or even scorn, can hardly be said to have perfect contrition even if in some banal sense he’s a “nice guy.” Hence, if he suddenly dies, it is hardly likely that he will be saved. Is it possible, for some particular person like this, that there is a deeper side to him that the world does not see? Sure. Maybe there are recesses of his soul that only God sees, in which perfect contrition is evident, so that his death does not entail his damnation. But is it remotely likely that every single person who lives like this is really perfectly contrite deep down, and thus might be saved – even though not even all the angels are saved? The very idea is preposterous. And here I am talking about immoral lives of just the everyday, ordinary kind. When we factor in far more morally depraved people (murderers, rapists, drug dealers, etc.) it is even more absurd to suppose that every single one of them might die in a state of perfect contrition.
Scripture itself indicates even of some specific human beings that they are lost. Revelation 20:10, quoted above, indicates that the beast and false prophet of the last days will be damned. Jude 7 states that “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” Christ says of Judas that “it would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24) and “I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition” (John 17:12).
Here too some people resort to mental gymnastics to try to get around the clear meaning of these texts. None of these efforts is credible, and there is no point in even attempting such creative reinterpretations unless one is operating with the background assumption that it is plausible that all might be saved. Once we see that (for the reasons I’ve been spelling out) this is not plausible, any residual motivation for straining to see in these texts anything but the implication that the people referred to are damned drops away.
All the same, I expect that many will prefer to cling to false hope. Christ himself could appear to them and say: “Listen very carefully and read my lips: Some people are in hell,” and they would respond: “Lord, you mean that just as a warning that some might go to hell, right? Or maybe you mean ‘people’ in some unusual sense. And what exactly does ‘hell’ mean, anyway? Come to think of it, ‘some,’ ‘are’ and ‘in’ could mean all sorts of things too. Lord, you sure speak in mysteries, but I trust that some day you’ll reveal to us what all this means. Anyway, until then we can hope!”
Or perhaps they would accuse Christ of wanting people to go to hell, as theologians and churchmen who warn about hell are routinely accused of doing. This is as irrational as accusing the doctor who warns of the low survival rate of pancreatic cancer of wanting people to die from it. No Catholic wants anybody to go to hell; certainly I don’t. those who warn of it are more compassionate, not less, than those who preach false hope.