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Question 6: Should one expect that nobody will go to hell?

We belong to a good parish, and my husband and I generally are pleased with its religious education program. Mrs. Green, who teaches the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine class attended by our daughter, Angela, seems to be a faithful and devout Catholic. But the class last week was on heaven, purgatory, and hell, and Angela told us the teacher said we should suppose that everyone but ourselves will go to heaven. I thought that could not be right, since we learned as children that unrepentant mortal sinners go to hell, and I wondered if Angela had misunderstood. So I went to see Mrs. Green. She showed me the book on which she based the class. It is by Hans Urs von Balthasar, who, she said, “is practically a Doctor of the Church.” It seems he was a famous Swiss theologian much admired by Pope John Paul II. Mrs. Green said the Pope named him a cardinal but that he died before receiving his red hat. She pointed out passages in the book that seem to say we should expect that nobody will go to hell, though he also says no individual should take it for granted he or she will not go there.

I do not see how the two things can fit together. More important, it seems to me wrong not to teach our children to fear hell, both for themselves and for others. I said to Mrs. Green that, if we did not worry about our children’s and other people’s salvation, we would not work to build up their faith or make converts. She said it is selfishness, not real love of God, to want to avoid sin and do what is right out of fear of hell. The really important thing, she said, is to love God just for himself, with no thought of reward and punishment; if people loved God as they should, they would never even think about hell.

I am pulled this way and that. Perhaps I have been teaching my children mistaken ideas. It surely is important to love God unselfishly, and I wonder whether I do that. Yet I feel there is something wrong here. What Mrs. Green says is very different from what we were taught, and I do not see how we could have been taught mistakes about such important things. I need to find out what we ought to think and teach our children—and, above all, how to love God as we should. Since this question is so important, I hope you will not only answer but show that the answer is what the Church teaches us to believe. For I have concluded that we can no longer believe theologians, even those who seem faithful.


Though this question might seem to pertain to dogmatic theology rather than moral theology, at issue here are the true meaning and requirements of Christian hope and love. Having proposed von Balthasar’s theological opinion about hell to the CCD class, the teacher then went beyond that opinion in responding to the mother’s objection. The excessive authority attributed to the theologian must be denied, and both his opinion and the teacher’s further explanation must be criticized and rejected as erroneous on the basis of Scripture and the Church’s teaching. Drawing on the same sources, the real requirements of Christian hope and love should be stated.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Since only what the Church believes and hands on as pertaining to God’s revelation is worthy of belief in the strict sense, I agree that it is a mistake for the faithful to believe theologians, including me (see LCL, 43). Theologians can call attention to truths of faith and provide some insight into their meaning, so that their views often deserve thoughtful consideration. Still, the faithful should evaluate what any theologian says, primarily by the Church’s teaching but also by their own cultivated Christian insight and experience (see LCL, 55–61), and by other appropriate sources to verify historical statements and other claims about matters of fact.

I agree that we should teach our children to fear hell both for themselves and others. If one does not fear hell, heaven seems a sure thing, so that one simply anticipates it rather than hopes for it. Anticipating heaven no matter what one does, a person cannot intend it as an end, since one can intend something as an end only if one thinks acting for it will make a difference. Not intending heaven as an end, however, a person will organize his or her life in view of some other end or ends. Instead of seeking the kingdom first of all, as Jesus told his disciples to do (see Mt 6.33), we will seek the same things nonbelievers do, and our lives will hardly differ from theirs (see LCL, 89–92). Similarly, if one does not fear hell for others but anticipates that they will inherit the kingdom no matter what they do, one will tend to focus on their well-being and happiness in this world, while neglecting catechesis and evangelization.

While John Paul II plainly had a high regard for Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mrs. Green exaggerated this eminent theologian’s status in saying he “is practically a Doctor of the Church.” Only certain saints have been named “Doctors of the Church.” The title is an authoritative commendation of their thought to the faithful (but even this commendation cannot be understood as an unqualified endorsement of everything they held, since sometimes different Church Doctors’ views conflict even on essential questions). By contrast, in appointing someone a cardinal, the pope does not authoritatively commend his thought. Besides, John Paul II’s thought regarding hell seems incompatible with von Balthasar’s view.11 But even if the Pope did personally agree with von Balthasar on this matter, his expression of a personal opinion would not be a teaching act.

Can everyone be saved? Yes, in the sense that God’s saving work in Jesus is meant for everyone and excludes no one: Jesus overcomes original sin by establishing the new covenant (see Rom 5.12–21), calling everyone to enter into it (see Mt 28.19–20, Jn 12.32), and meriting for everyone grace sufficient so that all can answer that call and freely accept God’s mercy (see Rom 11.32, 1 Tm 2.4, 2 Pt 3.9).

But will everyone be saved? The answer is in sacred Scripture, which has been interpreted authoritatively by the Church’s teaching. For example, Vatican II, basing itself on the New Testament, teaches:

Indeed, since we know neither the day nor the hour, it is necessary, as the Lord has warned, to keep watch constantly, so that, having completed the one course of our earthly life (see Heb 9.27), we may merit to enter the marriage banquet with him and be counted among the blessed (see Mt 25.31–46) and not be ordered, as bad and lazy servants (see Mt 25.26), to go down into eternal fire (see Mt 25.41), into the exterior darkness where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 22.13, 25.30). For, before we reign gloriously with Christ, all of us will appear “before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5.10), and at the end of the world “those who have done good will go to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil will go to the resurrection of condemnation” (Jn 5.29; cf. Mt 25.46). (LG 48)
When the bishops of Vatican II approved Lumen gentium, Jesus’ words quoted at the end of this passage had been officially explained to them as meaning that some will be damned—in other words, not all will be saved—so that hell is not a mere possibility that will go unrealized.12 Moreover, previous definitive conciliar and papal teachings already made it clear that, just as the good will enjoy everlasting life with Christ, so unrepentant sinners will receive perpetual punishment (see DS 801/429, 1002/531).13

In the book to which you refer, Hans Urs von Balthasar claims that, while it cannot be theoretically certain that all will be saved, we ought to hope, and so believe it to be possible, that no human being will ever go to hell.14 He appears to endorse the view that it is incompatible with hope and unreserved love of others to consider damnation a real possibility for them.15 Von Balthasar’s position seems close to universalism, the view that every human being will be saved. Yet he seems to avoid universalism, because he also maintains that we should believe that damnation is a possibility whose realization one should fear for oneself.16

Now, von Balthasar certainly is right in insisting that I ought to fear hell for myself. But, as you point out, taking the attitude toward others that he commends is incompatible with holding that each of us should fear hell for ourselves. Consider two persons, Smith and Jones. Smith thinks Smith can be damned but damnation is not a real possibility for Jones; Jones thinks Jones can be damned but damnation is not a real possibility for Smith. Both persons are thinking as they should, according to von Balthasar. But the thoughts of Smith and Jones about Smith’s salvation are contradictory, as are their thoughts about Jones’s salvation. So, von Balthasar’s view implies that different people can rightly think contradictory propositions true.17

Moreover, in calling into question that some will be damned so as to ground hope for universal salvation, von Balthasar offers arguments that prove nothing whatsoever if they fail to show that none will be damned.

He regularly gives a universalist interpretation to those Scripture passages making it clear that God desires and makes possible everyone’s salvation.18 For instance, he repeatedly interprets Jesus’ word, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12.32), as if this drawing were, not the powerful appeal of incarnate divine love that, nevertheless, can be refused, but an irresistible attraction.19 At the same time, von Balthasar claims that it is humanly impossible to synthesize such Scripture passages with those that speak about the damned in a form that is grammatically future.20 However, anybody who accepts both sets of passages as God’s word must try to synthesize them, and von Balthasar himself tries—precisely in a universalist sense.

Von Balthasar also regularly refers to scriptural passages about the damnation of unrepentant sinners as “threats.”21 And he asserts that we cannot know “whether these threats by God, who ‘reconciles himself in Christ with the world’, will be actually realized in the way stated.”22 This claim that the Scripture passages which speak of the future damnation of unrepentant sinners are threats that may not be actually realized in the way stated implies that those making the threats—and, therefore, the Holy Spirit, who asserts whatever the human authors of Scripture assert (see DV 11)—may have been bluffing, that is, may have lied.

Indeed, in suggesting that Jesus’ warnings—for example, those quoted by Vatican II—may have been empty threats, von Balthasar implies that Jesus himself may have misrepresented the Father, making him seem other than Jesus knew him to be. But the Holy Spirit cannot have lied, and Jesus cannot have misrepresented the Father. So, von Balthasar’s attempt to deal with those Scripture passages is unacceptable. Nor does he help matters by suggesting, as he sometimes does, that such Scripture passages can be understood as warnings that tell us nothing about what will actually happen in the future but are meant only to motivate present repentance and fidelity.23 For the very notions of threat and warning imply a reference—truthful or not, accurate or not—to what will happen if a certain condition is fulfilled, in this case if one dies in unrepented mortal sin.24

Still, ought we not hope for the salvation of everyone else as well as of ourselves? Yes, but this hope does not reduce Scripture’s warnings about hell to empty threats.

To see the point, one must distinguish between ordinary human hope and theological hope. Ordinary human hope extends to all sorts of things, including our own future free choices; theological hope bears on God’s promises regarding heaven’s availability by his gift and help. With theological hope, we ought, indeed, to hope for everyone, including ourselves. But theological hope is in God, not in ourselves. By hope we have absolute assurance that God will keep his promises as we seek his kingdom, which by ourselves we are incapable of attaining. But theological hope for our own salvation does not bear on what we ourselves can and must do, considered precisely insofar as that is our own action; hope does not guarantee that we will be faithful (see DS 1541/806; LCL, 84–85). Given God’s grace, for which we confidently hope, we do not theologically hope to do his will; rather, we either freely choose to do it or fail to accept grace and commit sin. Likewise, in theologically hoping for others’ salvation, we rely on God to do everything he has promised. But at the same time we do not theologically hope they will do what they ought. So, we do what we can to teach, admonish, and help others to choose freely to do God’s will. Therefore, theologically hoping for everyone’s salvation is entirely compatible with taking Jesus’ statement that some human beings will end up in hell to mean just that and believing that some will.

But von Balthasar is not satisfied with such hope; rather, extending hope to our own acts and those of others, he repeatedly suggests, either in his own words or by quoting others, that sinful human free choices may in the end prove ineffectual,25 perhaps by being reversed after death.26 This suggestion is incompatible with definitive teachings, already referred to, which are summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’”

Consequently, I share your misgivings about von Balthasar’s view. I also think that, despite his desire to retain the moral impact of the Scripture passages that speak of hell, we cannot accept the arguments he offers and still regard eternal loss as a real possibility either for ourselves or for anyone else.27

In calling it “selfishness, not real love of God, to want to avoid sin and do what is right out of fear of hell,” Mrs. Green went beyond anything von Balthasar says. Indeed, in arguing that if one loved God as one should, one would never even think of hell, she contradicted his explicit position: it is “indispensable that every individual Christian be confronted, in the greatest seriousness, with the possibility of his becoming lost.”28 Some seventeenth century theologians did hold that one should not think of reward or punishment, heaven or hell, death or eternity; the Church rejected that view as erroneous and likewise rejected the notion that real love of God excludes concern about one’s own perfection and happiness (see DS 2207/1227, 2351–52/1327–28, 2354–56/1330–32). Two propositions closely related to those errors had previously been solemnly condemned by the Council of Trent: “If anyone shall say that the fear of hell, whereby by grieving for sins we flee to the mercy of God or refrain from sinning, is a sin or makes sinners worse: let him be anathema” (DS 1558/818); “If anyone shall say that the one justified sins, when he performs good works with a view to an eternal reward: let him be anathema” (DS 1581/841; cf. DS 1576/836).

In this teaching, the Church is true to the New Testament, which repeatedly encourages Jesus’ followers both to love God and hope for happiness with him and to fear separation from him. The Scriptures also make it clear that we should do good works, and repent and avoid sins, both out of love for God and out of concern for ourselves. The two motives are by no means incompatible. In truly loving God one loves whomever he loves, including oneself, and so wills the blessed communion of love—the kingdom of heaven—for which God, generously desiring that there be others to share his happiness, created angels and human persons. So, God does not arbitrarily award heavenly happiness as a prize for living a good life nor withhold it as an arbitrary punishment for dying in sin. Rather, he prepares a unique life of good deeds for each of us to live (see Eph 2.10) so that in living it each may cooperate with him and thus remain his friend.

How, then, do we love God as we should? Love of God is not our work but a gift we receive: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5.5; cf. CMP, 592–94, LCL, 132–33). Yet this gift of love requires good works. Jesus teaches: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15.10; cf. 1 Jn 2.3–6). In revealing himself, God offers a covenant to a group of people—a form of association between them and himself that, like a blood relationship, is meant to be permanent and very close. Those who accept the covenant, trusting God to keep his word, hope to enjoy the blessings he promises. For them, in turn, to love God is faithfully to keep the terms of the covenant to which they have committed themselves. In revealing himself in Jesus, God offers all humankind a new and perfect covenantal communion. Those who believe the gospel and enter Jesus’ covenantal society, which is the Church, are united with God in a bond intimate and unbreakable, like the one-flesh union of indissoluble marriage.

Just as a good bride and groom hope for a happy marriage, relying on each other to be faithful spouses, so Christians hope for blessed intimacy with God in heaven, relying on his grace. But just as spouses know that their own infidelity could prevent them from enjoying a happy marriage, so Christians know that mortal sin could prevent them from sharing in the unending marriage feast of heaven. As fear of offending his or her spouse and spoiling marital happiness helps a husband or wife resist temptations to be unfaithful, so fear of hell helps a Christian resist temptations. And just as that concern on the part of husbands and wives, far from being merely selfish, is consistent with truly loving their spouses and, indeed, is a result of that love, so fear of losing one’s intimacy with God is inseparable from really loving him.

You should speak again with Mrs. Green. Take for granted her desire to be faithful to Jesus’ word and the Church’s teaching and be gentle. Perhaps you should call her attention to the sources I have pointed out, tell her you do not see how what she said can be reconciled with them, and ask her to reconsider. In this way, you can hope to help her purify her own faith and become an even better catechist, as she no doubt wishes to be.

11. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, ed. Vittorio Messori (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 185–86, in a carefully written, brief passage responding to the concern of “great thinkers in the Church,” including von Balthasar, who have been “disturbed” by the problem of hell, refers to Jesus’ “unequivocal” words: “He speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46).” Though the Pope makes it clear that the Church’s teaching provides no basis for identifying these individuals, he ends his remarks on the subject with four rhetorical questions indicating that some sinners will end in hell: “Is not God who is Love also ultimate Justice? Can He tolerate these terrible crimes, can they go unpunished? Isn’t final punishment in some way necessary in order to reestablish moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity? Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man’s moral conscience?”

12. A bishop had suggested that a sentence be added making it clear that some are in fact damned, so as to exclude the view that damnation is a mere possibility. The commission handling proposed amendments set aside the proposal, not as unsound but as unsuited to the context and unnecessary: “What is proposed does not fit in this context. Besides, in n. 48 are cited the words of the gospel in which the Lord himself speaks about the damned in a form that is grammatically future” (Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, 3:8 [Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1976], 144–45); cf. James T. O’Connor, Land of the Living (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1992), 77–80. Thus, while Vatican II does not explicitly teach that some will be damned, its teaching in the quoted passage should be read in the light of the commission’s interpretation of “will go” as excluding the view that damnation is a mere possibility.

13. Cf. DS 76/40, 411/211, 858/464, 1306/693); Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on Certain Questions Pertaining to Eschatology," AAS 71 (1979) 941–42, Flannery, 2:502; see also E. J. Fortman, S.J., Everlasting Life after Death (New York: Alba House, 1976), 157–81; esp. 175: “It may be true enough that the New Testament gives no clear-cut witness to any particular person being in hell. But the clear implication of the biblical statements is that there is a hell and it is not just an abstract threat, an ‘abstract possibility of perdition,’ but a concrete reality with actual occupants.”

14. Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? with a Short Discourse on Hell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 45, 166–67, 187.

15. See ibid., 78–79.

16. See ibid., 13, 25, 32, 80–81, 85–86, 88, 164, 189–91, 211, 248–50; note, however, 166: “But: if I hope for you, for others, for everyone, then in the end I am also allowed to include myself.”

17. Von Balthasar might not be impressed by this argument, for he sometimes explicitly embraces inconsistency, as when he quotes (ibid., 69) Adrienne von Speyr with approval: “The truth is not simply an either-or: either somebody is in hell or nobody is. Both are partial expressions of the whole truth.” Von Balthasar also seems to hold (143–47) as certain the reality and eternal damnation of Satan, which is hardly consistent with his position; yet he seems unaware of the problem.

18. See ibid., 23, 35, 39–40, 183–87, 213.

19. See ibid., esp. 184; also 21, 26, 39–40, 113.

20. See ibid., 23, 29, 44, 177.

21. See ibid., 20, 25, 30, 31, 34, 42, 68–69, 80, 84, 123, 142, 166, 183, 186–87, 211, 237.

22. Ibid., 183.

23. See ibid., 165.

24. Like von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, S.J., “Hell,” in Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, ed. Karl Rahner (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 602–3, assumes that a threat can be meaningful without referring to future reality: “For a proper understanding of the matter, all the rules for the hermeneutics of eschatological assertions are to be observed, as must also be done in all preaching on hell. This means that what Scripture says about hell is to be interpreted in keeping with its literary character of ‘threat-discourse’ and hence not to be read as a preview of something which will exist some day.” Neither von Balthasar nor Rahner offers any explanation of how eschatological discourse would motivate anyone if people read it as they say it should be read.

25. See Von Balthasar, op. cit., 15, 23–24, 184–85, 248.

26. See ibid., 208–9, 218–19.

27. Jan Ambaum, “An Empty Hell? The Restoration of All Things?: Balthasar’s Concept of Hope for Salvation,” Communio (U.S.), 18 (1991): 35–52, briefly puts von Balthasar’s view into its historical and theological context; though sympathetic, Ambaum also points out difficulties, particularly with respect to von Balthasar’s understanding of hope and his hypothesis of a “fundamental decision” that transcends particular choices.

28. Von Balthasar, op. cit., 85.