Hopeful Universalism?


-by Trent Horn

“We are talking about universalism, a doctrine that was considered to be a heresy, that is a heresy, something that was condemned in 543 by the church because it teaches that we can know with certainty that every single human being or possibly every creature, including the devil himself, will be saved. It goes all the way back to the ecclesial writer origin of the third century, with his defense of what he called “Apocatastasis,” or universal reconciliation, reconstituting or restoration to God. This idea that all things will be all in God, everyone shall be saved. And so many of these Universalists, you see them pop up throughout church history and there’s a few prominent ones today. I talked about David Bentley Hart in the previous episode, he wrote this book, “That All Shall Be Saved.” He’s an Eastern Orthodox Theologian, there is even some Catholic theologians that lean towards this view, even though they really shouldn’t.

Among evangelicals, probably the most famous evangelical to argue about this is Robin Parry, I believe that’s his real name. He wrote under a pen name, George McDonald, for the longest time because he has a controversial view and he chose to write under a pen name. But Robin Parry I believe is his real name and he shows up in a great anthology put out by Zondervan. If you want to learn more about how people disagree about particular doctrines, which is more common you see in the Protestant world than in the Catholic world, I highly recommend Zondervan’s Counterpoint or Multiple Views series. I have a few of them in my office and they’re great for me to see the different views people have on specific issues and be able to see people’s arguments and counter arguments very quickly and efficiently.

So for example, I’m working on a Trent tracks right now called, “Hell Be Damned,” and it’s about arguments against hell. We’ve covered that a little bit here on the podcast and we’ll cover more of it today because Universalism is a response to the doctrine of hell, the idea that people might be separated from God for all eternity and endure eternal conscious torment because of that. So Zondervan has a really great series on all different kinds of issues, on biblical inspiration, interpretation, moral issues, theological issues. And for example, there is… And Catholics get on the game too. There is an anthology, I’m looking around my office to see if I can find it. I know it’s here. It’s on the role of faith and works. And Michael Barber, friend of the apostolic, great guy, great Catholic scripture scholar, is in that anthology on the role of faith and works and he puts forward the Catholic view about how works integrates with faith along with Protestants who defend the traditional sola fide by faith alone view and some Protestants who take the really radical view that your works have nothing to do with your salvation.

There are Protestants who believe that once you’re saved, you could become an atheistic serial killer and you couldn’t lose your salvation. Now, you may not get a bunch of rewards when you get to heaven. Your tickets to redeem at the heavenly gift shop are going to be pretty zero, but you still won’t be in hell and you’ll still have eternal life with God. So that is one that boggles the mind that I’ve actually covered in length in my book, “The Case for Catholicism,” available through Ignatius Press if you want to check that out.

So when people ask me, “Trent, what do you think about once saved, always saved or eternal security?” I say to them, “What do you mean by that? Because there’s two different ways of looking at it.” You could have, like in my debate with James White back in 2017, the view that you can’t lose your salvation but if you, a Christian, become an atheistic serial killer and never repent, that only proves you weren’t saved in the first place, which I think has a bunch of logical holes in it when you really start to think about it, nobody could ever really know that they’re saved. I don’t understand that view and I think that comes out well and my debate with James White. But then the other view is like what Charles Stanley and I think Robert Wilkins is another person who defends this view among Protestants. They say, “Yeah, once you’re saved, can’t ever be undone,” which really doesn’t make sense to me when you look at what the Bible teaches about the possibility of losing salvation.

I bring that up because it’s great to see in this series and one of them is actually on hell. And so this one has annihilationism, well, has a traditional view of hell that many Protestants and Catholics share, eternal separation from God that a person is aware of. Other views, it has the annihilationist view, the view that I discussed with Randal Rauser several months ago, that hell is real, people go there. It’s forever, but only in the sense that the damned are destroyed in hell.

Then the other view would be Universalism, that would be the idea that, well, some people go to hell, but you don’t stay there forever. We talked about that in the previous episode. I love one of the contributors to that anthology, John Stott, who’s an Annihilationist says that Universalism represents the triumph of hope over exegesis. That you really, really want something good to be true that just flies in the face of all the biblical evidence thrown at you, as well as for Catholics the magisterial evidence where the church teaches, it’s very clear, that hell exists and it is eternal and people who die in a state of mortal sin go there. So where do you go from there with Universalism?

Well, there’s this other view and that would be Hopeful Universalism. What is that? Hopeful Universalism espoused by Bishop Barron, though it draws its roots mostly from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s two books he wrote in the late 1980s that were eventually compiled together into one book that’s called, “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved.” So what do Bishop Barron and von Balthasar believe about Hopeful Universalism and how do we contrast that with regular Universalism that the church condemns? So I’ll fill you in a bit more about von Balthasar then I’ll let Bishop Barron explain it in his own words from a video he posted several years ago.


So basically von Balthasar was a Swiss Theologian and he had a lot of interaction with Protestant Theologians like Carl Bart, who denied some fundamental aspects of Christian belief. And von Balthasar didn’t go that far, but he tried to find a compromise or a halfway ground, especially in understanding the relationship between salvation and hell and whether universal salvation was possible. He’s held in very high standing among Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict the 16th. He was elevated to being a Cardinal, but he died two days before receiving his red hat.

Now some people say, I mean, what does that mean he died two days before getting his red hat? Some people say, “Well, that’s so he couldn’t spread his heretical beliefs as a Cardinal.” Well, if there really were heretical beliefs, I have a hard time thinking Pope Saint John Paul II would have elevated him to being a Prince of the Church if that were the case. Rather, Fr. Hugh Barbour, the chaplain here at Catholic Answers, offers a funny commentary on that, that Hans Urs von Balthasar died just a few days before Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who started the SSPX schism. Not, the schism has been lifted, but the society of Saint Pius the 10th, he illegally consecrated several bishops without the permission of the Pope. And he was planning on doing this and what Fr. Hugh said is that Hans Urs von Balthasar apparently prayed that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre would die before he would engage in a schismatic act, like ordaining bishops without the Pope’s approval.

And so it could just be a kind of divine irony that God says, “You prayed that Archbishop Lefebvre would go to heaven before he would do this. Mr. von Balthasar, maybe you would like to go to heaven instead.” And so he died a few days before that happened.

So the point of von Balthasar’s position is that hell is a real possibility for people. In fact, I’m going to let Bishop Barron explain Carl Bart’s Universalism and then von Balthasar’s Hopeful Universalism and then I’ll extract more of the differences between the two.

Now come up to the 20th century, the great Protestant Theologian, Carl Bart, one of the most influential of the modern theologians. He stakes out a position, not all that dissimilar from Origins or Rob Bell’s. It’s pretty much a Universalist position that in the cross of Jesus, all people are saved and the church’s job is to announce this good news to the world. Now, one of his colleagues, a fellow Swiss and a friend of his was Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Catholic theologian. Balthasar took in a good deal of the Bartian spirit, I think reacted against this Augustinian and Thomistic rather dark view on hell. Balthasar said this, “We may reasonably hope that all people will be saved.” You see, what he’s doing is he’s pulling back from Bart and Origin and from a complete Apocatastasis position that we know all people will be saved. No, no, we don’t know that. But we may reasonably hope that all people will be saved. Why? Because of the dramatic thing that God did through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So to pull this back, to make sure we understand here what Bishop Barron and von Balthasar are saying, you go back to the words of von Balthasar, he does not say everybody’s definitely going to heaven. In his book, he writes, “We stand completely and utterly under judgment and have no right, nor is it possible for us to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards,” i.e., God’s verdict, which is really something that he does per se, but we do through our own freely chosen actions. Whether we choose to spend eternity with God or not. But here’s the thing, if Universalism were true, all of the Judge’s cards, the verdicts of people’s eternal destinies, it would all be the same basically. At the very least, would either be you’re going to haven now or going to haven later after you get purified in hell. That is not what von Balthasar is saying that everybody’s going.

But what he and Bishop Barron seem to be saying, here’s what von Balthasar, how he puts it, “Love hopes all things. It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from the Christian standpoint, not only permitted but commanded.”

And this is how Bishop Barron puts it, he doesn’t go as far as von Balthasar in many respects, this is how he puts it, or at least that’s the FAQ on his website, “Bishop Barron is convinced we have a reasonable hope that all will be saved, but the first step in assessing and critiquing an argument is to understand the terms as its proponent is using them. It’s important to know how he’s using those two words in this context. First, he means reasonable in the sense that we have good reasons to ground our hope, namely the cross and resurrection of Jesus and his divine mercy. Bishop Barron isn’t making any sort of probabilistic judgment as if to say reasonable means, very likely, or quite probable. Second, we should recognize hope to mean a deep desire and longing tied to love for the salvation of all people, but without knowing all will be saved, thinking all we saved or even expecting all will be saved.”

So there is a sense in which I wholeheartedly agree with von Balthasar and Bishop Barron. There is a sense in which we all should, but the key here to make that agreement is making a distinction between two things, it’s very important for you to take away from the discussion of Hopeful Universalism. There is a difference between hoping that anyone will be saved and hoping that everyone will be saved. So it makes sense, everyone should agree with this. I think even someone who thinks that most people are going to hell. The church has a wide variety of views about how many people end up in hell, that hasn’t been clearly defined. It has been clearly defined that there is a hell, it is eternal, but what percentage of the human family will be there? The church hasn’t explicitly said. There has been a tradition what Bishop Barron first tune his video, is the dark view of Thomas and Augustan, that the majority of human beings will end up in hell.

But here’s the funny thing when you think about that, well, it’s actually not funny hell is not a funny thing. Here’s the interesting thing when you think about that, it could be true. Both of these statements could be true that the majority of human beings are in hell and the majority of human beings are not in hell based on the time you make that statement. Because it could be the case, when Augustan was writing or St. Thomas Aquinas was writing, that the vast majority of human beings rejected God, or the world was still shrouded in pagan darkness and they never came to know God regardless of how God revealed himself, even if it wasn’t through the gospel, but it was through nature and through conscience. It could even be the case today, that maybe up to this point, a large percentage or the majority of human beings are damned.

But we have to remember what if the human race continues for another 1,000 years, or 10,000 years, or 30,000 years? We’d not only populate new planets, we’d populate new dimensions. We can travel to parallel universes within what God has created. Who knows what could happen in 10,000 years? You never know. But it could be the case that by that point, let’s say the gospel, we see a surge in Evangelism and a new Renaissance in the church. It could be the case further down in the future that so many people are saved and go to heaven it actually counterbalances this dark age the church dealt with for its first few thousand years of its existence. So I don’t know, I’m always trying to think of the big picture with these things. So sometimes it’s helpful to move our perspective up and remember us in the present, it’s a very, very, very tiny perspective for us to be in.

Now, what do I think though, of Hopeful Universalism as Bishop Barron espouses it and von Balthasar espouses it? Well, I would say I’m not a big fan of the term reasonable hope because even though it’s defined in the FAQ, on Word on Fire website, that’s not really how most people take the term to me. I know it’s how Bishop Barron does, and that’s fine. But if I say, “I have a reasonable hope that I’m going to pass my class,” usually take that to me and I’ve got at least a 50% shot, even a 30% shot. I’ve got something significant, but that’s not what he’s saying about hell. And that’s not what von Balthasar is saying. Well, I don’t know. von Balthasar is pretty strong. He quotes Edith Stein as saying that it’s infinitely improbable that someone would end up in hell. And Bishop Barron says he’s not going to go that far.

So I think a better term to use is not a reasonable hope all men will be saved, but a rational hope all men will be saved. For example, if I buy a lottery ticket, I don’t have a reasonable hope that I’m going to win the lottery. There is a small, tiny, tiny outside chance I could win. I don’t say I have a reasonable hope I’m going to win, but I have a rational hope I’m going to win because I have a ticket and it’s within the realm of possibility. If I said, if I was at home, “Do you think you’re going to win the lottery?” And I said, “Well, I didn’t buy a ticket, but the winning ticket might magically appear on my coffee stand out of thin air. I’m hoping for that,” that would not be a rational hope. That would be an irrational hope.

So I think, to be more charitable to Bishop Barron’s position, to make it more defensible, you could say, “All right, one could have a rational hope that it’s not irrational to believe that God would make it the case that everyone went to heaven.” I don’t think von Balthasar and Bishop Barron would say that the people who go to hell will be purified and end up in heaven. The von Balthasarian position rather is that no one ever ends up dying in a state of mortal sin and so no one ever ends up in hell. Now, when I hear that to me, I say, “Well that sounds incredibly unlikely,” but once again, it’s just the same as me saying, “I could win the lottery.” Yeah, that’s incredibly unlikely, but given that we desire the salvation of all people and if we love all people, is it okay for us to hope for an incredibly unlikely outcome that is for the good of all human beings?

I would say yes provided that we’re not hoping for something that’s impossible. So that’s the trick here. When it comes to Hopeful Universalism, if the church teaches not only that hell exists and that it’s eternal, but that certain individuals are in hell or that the church teaches, it is impossible for it to be the case all people are going to go to heaven. Then we couldn’t have Hopeful Universalism is a viable belief system or a permitted theological opinion any more than you could hope that it turns out original sin was all just a dream and it never really happened, and I wake up and it turns out Patrick Duffy on Dallas was actually alive and the whole thing was a dream. All you TV aficionados, you’ll know what I mean with that terrible retcon on Dallas. You know, Patrick Duffy wakes up like it was all a dream. No, we can’t hope for that because original sin did happen. We have to deal with the consequences of it.

So what does the church teach on this matter? Does the church teach there are individuals in hell and so it’s impossible, even on the remote, crazy outside chance, 10 million to one, it’s impossible for all human beings to have ended up in heaven? Well, Avery Cardinal Dulles, who is a very Orthodox thinker, somebody that I trust, he says, “This Dare We Hope position of Balthasar seems to me to be Orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils or definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive.” So minatory would be that they’re a warning. It’s kind of like when Jonah went to the Nineveh and said, “In three more days, four more days or whatever, 40 days Nineveh shall be destroyed.” But Nineveh ended up not being destroyed. So the prophecy was really more of a warning that if you don’t listen to me, this is what’s going to happen.

So the defenders of the von Balthasarian position would say that Matthew 25, when Jesus is talking about people going to hell, being in hell, that the gate is wide to destruction, the road to life is narrow. That these are warnings rather than predictions. Now you might say, “Well, how can you believe that? That’s got a contradict with what the church teaches because Jesus clearly teaches here in scripture that there are people going to be in hell. It’s just the plain meaning of the passage.” Well, here’s the thing. What we believe as Catholics does not derive directly from what we consider to be the plain meaning of a biblical passage. For example, the church has no official teaching on what hell is like, but Jesus certainly does teach in scripture, he uses analogies or descriptions to talk about hell being a place of fire, being a place where the worms die not. But the church doesn’t have an official position on whether hell is constituted with literal fire or not. The church doesn’t weigh in on it.

That maybe something that’s affirmed in scripture, but just because scripture says something, we always have to go about interpreting it too. And when it comes to interpreting scripture, the church gives us guidance on being able to interpret, especially guardrails of scripture cannot say this, like Jesus is not God. It can say this, Jesus is God, fully man, fully God. And then there are other areas where there can be multiple interpretations of something where the church has not officially weighed in on it, such as the meanings of certain parables or passages. There’s a lot of things in scripture have multiple meanings to them.

Even when Jesus said, which I think is one of the clearest arguments that somebody is in hell in Matthew 26, 24 Jesus said of Judas, “It’s better for him to never been born.” To me, what I take that as just the intuitive reading of that passage is that Judas was lost. He was lost, he is condemned and it’s better for him to have never been born because if he were born, even if he sinned grievously, he would still end up in heaven, but the church doesn’t have an official position on either that passage or the fate of Judas himself.

And there is a possibility, I’ve read some biblical scholarship on this, that when Jesus says, “It would be better for him to have never been born,” he’s using a Hebrew Semitism, an expression or hyperbolic way of speaking saying if you betray the son of man, that’s a terrible thing for you to do. You’re going to be facing a lot of fires of purgatory for what you’re doing here. It’s really, really bad. Just like it would be better for them to have had a millstone tied around their neck than to have caused one these little ones to stumble. Now, as I said, I think that is a minority interpretation of what the passage probably means. But for me, when I look to see what scripture says, I want to go back and see what does the church teach on that. Because 1 Timothy 3:15 says, “The church is the pillar and foundation of truth.”

So in order to answer the question, if von Balthasar and Hopeful Universalism is a permitted theological opinion we’d have to see, has the church ever definitively taught, has it ever taught that there are individuals in hell? Or that universal salvation is an impossibility? And I’ve gone to the citations and I haven’t found them. There’s one from the First Lateran Council that says that, “Jesus 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 the elect, all of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear. So as to receive according to their desserts, whether these be good or bad.” This profession of faith from the First Lateran Council, I would say, it could only allude to maybe the possibility there are definitely people at that time who were in hell. It doesn’t state it explicitly.

The fact that it uses language like there are the reprobate and the elect, and you know the damned or the saved basically, these are two classes of people or sets, but one of the sets could be empty. It’d be like if I was a teacher and I told my class, “Listen to me, tomorrow when we all come to school the punctual will be given their rewards and the truant, i.e. the people who don’t show up, will be punished.” But it could be the case there are no people in the truant class. Now I personally, I don’t think that. I think that even if this is a permitted theological opinion, it’s not one that I endorse because I still think there’s a heavy amount of evidence against it. I think it’s fine, once again, to hope for the salvation of anybody. Even Judas, we should pray that any person, that’s why we always pray for someone who dies. We don’t say, “We know…”

Some people say, “Well, the church prays for the salvation of everyone.” Yeah, in a sense. We always pray for the dead because we don’t have infallible knowledge what the state of their soul is, so we pray for anybody even if they died, apparently, totally unrepentant. The fact is God delights in repentance, he does not delight in the death of the wicked and we’re not privy to that. So we say, “Well, Lord help him. Lord help me at the hour of my death,” and we pray for that. We would want people pray for that for us, we pray for that for others. But once again, hoping for the salvation of anyone is not the same thing as hoping for the salvation of everyone. You definitely should hope for anybody’s salvation, but everyone, that seems to be a very, very distant remote possibility for me. Even if this is a permitted theological opinion.

Now other evidence would be Benedict the 12th, set in the 14th century, “Furthermore, we define that,” which is evidence of infallible teaching, “According to the general plan of God, the souls of those dying in actual mortal sin descend to hell soon after death.” And the defender of the von Balthasarian view could say “Right, but it could be the case that no one ever dies in mortal sin.” Once again, I think that’s unlikely, but we don’t have an explicit teaching from the church saying that there definitely are people who die in mortal sin and go to hell.

So just to summarize, when I look at the magisterial teaching, what we see from the Pope’s and magisterial documents from ecumenical councils, I agree with Avery Cardinal Dulles that the position Bishop Barron holds, it does not contradict what the church teaches because the church has never definitively taught that any particular person, even Judas, is in hell. And so for me, I would take that to show that this Hopeful Universalism he espouses would be a permitted theological opinion. And the church allows for lots of those. For example, let’s take predestination and free will. The church says in paragraph 600 of the catechism, “You got to believe God has a plan for us. He predestine people to salvation,” but we’re not puppets. We can freely choose to reject God’s plan. Predestination and free will, you got to believe in both, but how do they work together?

The church has an answer that question, you can hold the Thomists view of that predestination, the Molinists view of predestination or maybe your own view as long as it holds to the bare minimum standards of what we believe about predestination and free will. So when it comes to hell, you have to believe in the bare minimum that hell exists. It’s a real possibility and it is eternal in nature. It’s not a path to heaven, it’s not a path to annihilation. But aside from that, you could hold the von Balthasar position, as Bishop Barron does, it doesn’t contradict any church teaching. But just because you can hold something, it doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

And as a separate question as they note on the FAQ that there’s a difference between a view being Orthodox and it being prudent. I mean, you can believe that the earth is 6,000 years old. The church doesn’t have a teaching on the age of the earth. I don’t think that you should because that contradicts all the scientific evidence we have. Much the same way, I’m very concerned about the von Balthasar position of Hopeful Universalism, I just don’t see what benefit it holds. I don’t see how it benefits us in Evangelism if we hold out this possibility that all people can be saved.

That’s not the same thing as saying the possibility of non-Christians being saved. I don’t think that hurts Evangelism because if someone believed, if you never heard who Jesus was and you were automatically going to hell because you were born in the wrong century, I think a lot of people would give up their belief in a good God if God would damn someone because that person happened to be born in the wrong time and place, not because the person ever rejected God’s offer of salvation. Even if it was presented to him or her under a very basic, minimal terms such as through nature and through conscience. But this view, I don’t see how it’s that helpful. Some people may say, “Well, it shows God’s love that he’ll go to any length to save us, and he loves us,” and I don’t doubt that. It’s good to show God desires the salvation of anyone, as I’ve mentioned earlier.

But it seems to subtly reinforce the view that it would be unloving of God for him to allow somebody to go to hell. God will be perfectly loving if he offered salvation and there are people who spend eternity with God and people who do not do that. Hell does not contradict the love of God, something we’ll probably have to explore in a future lecture.

So to summarize, I think that the view is a permissible one to hold. It hasn’t been contradicted by the official teaching of the church, but I think the probability of it being true is extremely low. So it’s not one that I want to bank on, I have serious prudential aversions to holding or promoting this view. And that’s something that we, as Catholics, can reasonably disagree about. But people have asked me what do I think about this, that is what I think.”

Love & faith,
Matthew

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