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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

2/17/2014 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (

I want to take a different approach on the question of Hell and whether we may reasonably hope, because of God's express will that all be saved, that it is unpopulated by human souls.

The question of whether we may reasonably hope all men are saved--a theory espoused by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar among others--must be analyzed with reference to the Church's teaching on the particular judgment which occurs immediately upon an individual's death.  It is the Church's teaching that the eternal fate of that soul is then sealed: either Heaven directly (or indirectly via Purgatory) or Hell.  A soul in the state of sanctifying grace obtains the former judgment.  The unfortunate soul who dies in mortal sin obtains the latter.  Von Balthasar's theory, therefore, cannot be applied to souls that have been judged by God in the particular judgment immediately following death without running afoul of the Church's teaching.  Souls condemned to Hell in the particular judgment are past salvation, and it is not reasonable to hope for their salvation.


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

2/17/2014 (1 year ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Hell, von Balthasar, reasonable hope all men are saved, Origen, particular judgment, analogia fidei, Andrew M. Greenwell

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Recently, we have seen revived theological controversy about Hell, more specifically about the certainty as to whether souls of humans beings eternally damned may be found there.  To simplify the issue, there are those, such as the intelligent, popular, and charismatic Father Robert Barron, who advance the theory perhaps most vigorously put forth by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Simply put, the Balthasarian theory is that because of God's mercy and His express will that all men be saved (which no Catholic disputes, see, e.g., 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Pet. 3:9), we may reasonably hope that all men are in fact saved (a conclusion, however, which many Catholics dispute). 

As a general proposition, the Balthasarian teaching is relatively novel, though to be sure it appears to have some tenuous roots in the more speculative thought of a handful of Church Fathers (e.g., St. Gregory of Nyssa).  The same or similar theory, though not announced with the same theological rigor, appears to have taken root in the thought of other recent Catholic thinkers, even Catholic saints, Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), for example.  It is, however, eccentric, at least from a historical point of view, and that is why it rises some of the faithful's suspicions and even in some cases their ire.

Von Balthasar carefully crafts his doctrine to skirt by the express condemnations of the Church of a similar, but not exact doctrine of the apocatastasis or universal redemption (attributed to Origen and advanced by St. Gregory of Nyssa).  This was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D.  The condemned teaching, however, viewed universal salvation as certain and included within its scope also the fallen angels.  Unquestionably, von Balthasar intended to avoid falling into formal heresy on this point, and believed, by his contrivance of attenuating theological certainty into theological hope and including only human beings and excluding the fallen angels, that his theory would be not inconsistent with the Magisterium of the Church.  He thought his teaching orthodox; and I do not impugn von Balthasar's sincerity, nor of those of his advocates.

On the other hand, there are those who, equally sincere and in good faith, take a markedly opposite position.  In this camp, we might mention Ralph Martin, and--rather forcefully (and there is not necessarily anything wrong with that given the importance of this doctrine)--Michael Voris

Generally, these Catholics take the position that to maintain a reasonable hope that Hell is not populated by human souls contradicts the teaching of the Scriptures on the subject, in particular the words of Jesus in the Gospels, but also in the teaching of the Church, the writings of the Saints, almost all of the Church past theological heavies, and myriad private revelations which hold, or at least strongly suggest, Hell populated, even amply so.  For example, one cannot altogether dismiss the pessimistic view of St. Augustine, on the grounds of unpopularity or supposed modern "enlightenment" alone, that the mass of humans are damned (the so-called "massa damnata" or "massa perditionis" view).

The way to perdition--eternal damnation--is broad, says our Lord, and many there are who go down that broad way.  (Matt. 7:13).  This itself lends support, though not perhaps conclusively, to the pessimistic Augustinian theory.  I dare not quibble with the words of our Lord, and certainly dare not entirely ignore them as mere pedagogical threats.  God does not deceive.  He does not issue false threats so as to instill fear.  I therefore am rather diffident in suggesting anything other than what the words plainly mean.  Von Balthasar is braver or perhaps more reckless (only God knows) than I.

There are many articles one can access that address the debate, pro or con.  One need merely Google important terms and thousands of articles and blog postings will be at your disposal.

I don't want to tread on ground already trod.

I want to take a different approach on the question of Hell and whether we may reasonably hope, because of God's express will that all be saved, that it is unpopulated by human souls.  Rather than tackling the teaching head on as others have done, what I would like to do in the next series of articles is to use the principle of analogia fidei in assessing the Balthasarian thesis. 

As understood by the Catholic Church, the principle of analogia fidei refers to the interconnectedness and essential unity of the doctrines and mysteries of the faith (what is called sometimes the nexus mysteriorum fidei), whether those doctrines are found in Scripture, in Tradition, or, more formally, in the teachings of the Church. 

This basic principle of analogia fidei stems from the belief that the faith is one, interconnected, and expresses a real order, an ordo veritatis fidei.  Therefore, the various individual doctrines that make up the body of the Catholic Faith, the corpus fidei catholicae, are mutually supportive, fit into a greater whole, and, though they may be in tension, they cannot contradict or detract from each other or from the entirety of the faith.

Because of this, one can test a thesis--particularly a novel or an eccentric one--by seeing how it might upset other doctrines, especially well-established doctrines.  If holding a certain proposition serves to destabilize other doctrines, it suggests that the proposition is erroneous because it does not fit well into the truths of the faith.

It is my view that the Balthasarian thesis is at least proximate to heresy or erroneous, and is proved false--not only as a result of the direct arguments against it (which I do not address here)--but also as a result of the application of analogia fidei

What I propose to do in a series of articles is to show the effect the Balthasarian thesis has (assuming it to be true) on several other doctrines and long-standing practices of the Church, including her prayers and pious practices (lex orandi, lex credendi). 

The first area I want to explore is the effect of the Balthasarian thesis on the Church's doctrine of the particular judgment.  The Church teaches that immediately following death, a human soul confronts his or her particular judgment.  If the soul died in a state of sanctifying grace, he or she is saved and enters Heaven or Purgatory; on the other hand, if the soul died in a state of mortal sin, he or she is eternally damned in Hell. 

Unquestionably, the Church teaches as part of the faith (de fide) that Hell exists and that it is eternal.  The Church teaches, moreover, that only those that die in a state of sanctifying grace achieve salvation and avoid Hell.  Those who die without sanctifying grace--that is, in a state of mortal sin--are eternally damned in Hell.  This is certain teaching.  To deny it is to be a heretic.

"The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC § 1035).  It continues: "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."

"Mortal sin," the Church teaches, "is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.  It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace.  If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell . . . ."  (CCC § 1861)

Now the most significant problem with the Balthasarian thesis is that under the Church's accepted teaching there is no opportunity for repentance, for justification, and for salvation after death, that is, in eternity.  "Death puts an end to human life as the time to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ," says the Catechism.  (CCC § 1021

It is received and certain teaching that there is no more opportunity for repentance after death.  The time of probation is over.  The time for repentance is over.  The time for obtaining merit or demerit is over.  The particular judgment which follows immediately after death is therefore definitive.

"It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment," says Scripture (Heb. 9:27).  Hence, in conformity with that, the Church teaches: "Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ, either entrance into the blessedness of heaven--through a purification or immediately--or immediate and everlasting damnation." (CCC § 1022

The particular judgment, like all of God's eternal judgments (cf. Heb. 6:2), is certain, definitive, and irreversible.  As the Baltimore Catechism put it, being eternal the sentence of the particular judgment "is final and will not be reversed." (BC, Q. 181(b))

As the old Office of the Dead--the official liturgy of the Church for centuries and prayed by millions of pious lips without qualms--put it tersely: in Inferno nulla est redemptio.  The Church prayed for centuries that there is no redemption from Hell because she believed that there is no redemption from Hell.  Lex orandi, lex credendi.  The law of praying is the law of believing. 

What this means, then, is that it is at least proximate to heresy, and arguably outright heresy itself, to say that we may reasonably hope that men damned to eternal Hell after the particular judgment, which occurs immediately after death, may be saved.  It contradicts the express teaching of the Church.

It also contradicts the practice of the Church.  The Catholic Church does not pray for those in Hell, at least not with the hope of changing their state of damnation.  The damned are beyond the help of prayers because they--by their own decisions during their life on earth--have placed themselves beyond the mercy of God.  That is the price of freedom, and the cost of abusing it.  The mind and will can be changed in time, not in eternity when there is no time.

As an example of the common belief, relying on various authorities including St. Augustine and Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas states the stark truth: suffragia damnatis in Inferno non prosunt.  Prayers for the damned in Hell are of no use.  (Super Sent., lib. 4 d. 45 q. 2 a. 2 qc. 1 s. c. 3

It is quite apparent to me, therefore, that it is unreasonable to have any hope that those damned eternally after the particular judgment will be saved.  So if the Balthasarian theory is that we may reasonably hope that those dying in mortal sin and therefore eternally damned following the particular judgment may be saved, one can show it to be proximate to heresy, erroneous, or even heretical.  In no way is it reasonable to entertain this hope.  It is against the faith of the Church.  It is against God's revealed truth.

Because of the rather clear teaching of the Church above, it seems to me that the only possibility that is arguably open to the we-may-reasonably-hope-all-men-are-saved theorists is that men are saved before death and the particular judgment.  If it is to be saved from heresy, the Balthasarian theory, then, must mean that there is a reasonable hope that all men die in a state of sanctifying grace, and that no man dies in a state of mortal sin.

Is it reasonable to hope that all humans die in a state of sanctifying grace and that none die in a state of mortal sin?  Is this a reasonable Catholic position? 

For a variety of reasons, again based upon the application of the analogia fidei, I think the position is not reasonable.  To hold we may reasonably hope all men die in a state of sanctifying grace and not in a state of mortal sin (or, for that matter, original sin) simply cannot be squared with the Church's teaching on predestination and on the grace of final perseverance.  It cannot be squared with her sacramental doctrines and practices.  It cannot be squared with the reasons for mission and evangelization.  It cannot be squared with the underlying logic of the Church's traditional pious practices (such as prayer for a "good death," prayers to St. Joseph for a "happy death," or even prayers, such the popular Fatima prayer we append to the Rosary, for the conversion of sinners).  Finally, it cannot be squared with the huge inheritance of Catholic culture--the expression of the sensus fidei--which reveals itself in popular devotions, spiritual writing, iconography, visions of the mystics, literature and poetry, and the like.


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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