I just finished reading Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? by Hans Urs von Balthasar. The basic thesis of the book is that as Catholics we should hope for universal salvation – that all men be saved from final damnation. This was a controversial viewpoint of von Balthasar’s and got him a good deal of criticism (although, as he notes, others – such as St. Gregory of Nyssa – have held it before and it has never been formally condemned by the Church). At the beginning of the book, he engages some of his critics, and one particular criticism struck me:
Now comes a…paradox from G. Hermes: “We can well…hope for every [!] individual [!] man and pray that he attains salvation, because [?] we do not know what judgment God will pass upon him. But we cannot hope that all men will enter heaven, because that is expressly excluded through revelation”
As is obvious from von Balthasar’s editorial additions of exclamation points, he does not think too highly of Hermes’ argument. However, even after reading “Dare We Hope” I must admit that I agree with Hermes instead of von Balthasar. It is one thing to hope for each individual; after all, the Church has never declared any specific individual to be condemned to Hell, not even Judas. However, to hope for each individual man is different than hoping that all men be saved.
As a (admittedly crude) analogy, let me compare it to my feelings about my favorite baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds. Let’s say they are supposed to be very good this year (yes, I realize that takes a lot of imagination). Before every game, I will hope that they win. However, never would I hope that they win all 162 games, as I know that is a hope for something that is simply not possible. The reality is that they will lose some games no matter how good they are.
The problem with von Balthahasar’s hope for universal salvation is that it effectively negates human freedom. If all men are saved, then in truth there is no human element in the process of salvation, something which goes against Catholic teaching. To return to my analogy, if the Reds did somehow win all 162 games, I (along with everyone else) would suspect that something had been rigged. Likewise, if all men are saved, I would have to suspect that man is not truly free – his salvation is predetermined regardless of the choices he makes. And freedom is a necessary component of love; without freedom, we are simply slaves of a benevolent master, not children of a loving father.