Dare We Hope

Roughly four years ago I was in a late-night discussion with a Baptist friend when our attention turned to the subject of hell. I wondered aloud what would happen if a soul in hell legitimately turned to God with a contrite heart and pleaded for forgiveness. My assertion was that it is entirely possible that exceptions could be made by an infinitely merciful and loving God who dispenses perfect justice.

My friend (in a tactful way) said that I was being absurd and cited numerous biblical passages to buttress his point.

Enter stage right, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, author of 1988’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?

As Fr. Robert Barron says on the back cover of a 2014 reprinting:

“Critics contend that von Balthasar espouses universalism, the idea that all men will certainly be saved. Yet, as von Balthasar insists, damnation is a real possibility for anyone. Indeed, he explores the nature of damnation with sobering clarity. At the same time, he contends that a deep understanding of God’s merciful love and human freedom, and a careful reading of the Catholic tradition, point to the possibility — not the certainty — that, in the end, all men will accept salvation Christ won for all. For this all-embracing salvation, von Balthasar says, we may dare hope, we must pray and with God’s help we must work.”

Perhaps the impetus for my conclusions come from repeated dreams with a friend who died in an ATV accident. We were raised Catholic, but it was my understanding that he drifted away from the Church and somewhere along the line decided that he did not believe in God. In my dreams he comes to me, and when I tell him that he is dead he gets a frightened expression on his face and runs away — often exploding in a ghostly mist when he hits a nearby door or wall. (Note: I get chills when I think or write about these dreams.)

My reaction to these experiences has always been to pray for my friend’s soul because at the end of the day I have zero knowledge about his ultimate fate. If he is in hell, then do I have an obligation to pray for him? If he is consigned to eternal separation from God, then may I pray to ease his suffering?

I do not believe that God would send me on a fool’s errand; therefore, I have to believe that the urge to pray for my friend’s soul — whatever has become of him — has deep meaning.

Furthermore, it seems to me as though Søren Kierkegaard offers an incredibly wise blueprint for how a Christian man should think:

“Telling other people … ‘You are eternally lost’ is something I cannot do. As far as I am concerned, the situation is that all the others will, of course, go to heaven; the only doubt is whether I shall get there.'”

What he says is something that is perpetually at the forefront of my mind: No matter how hard we try, at the end of the day we are all unworthy to stand before God. Pure justice in the earthly sense of the word would require all of us to be banished to hell; it is only God’s infinite love and mercy that saves. Given that, why would I ever tell another man that he is destined for eternal damnation?

It seems to me that when a man constructs a moral pedestal high enough to proclaim that others are destined for hell that all he has really done is create a personal high-dive into “the lake of fire.”

Von Balthasar puts it far more eloquently than I could when he observes:

“It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a massa damnata of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side,” (152).

Additionally (and I believe this is of utmost importance):

“The strong Christian would have to endure the tension and ‘prepare himself seriously for the possibility of himself being among the rejected. Love of God first shows itself in its full purity only when one affirms God’s will even though it destroys one’s own happiness,” (155).

There is much more to say, but for brevity’s sake I will simply recommend reading Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? if this post has piqued your interest. It’s a fascinating book for all Christians — and those non-Christians who honestly want to better understand the faith.

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

11 comments

  1. I think as Christians, we can hope and pray – all will be saved. And Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants, can have different theological perspectives – regarding hell (depending on church affiliation). Like;

    Heaven and hell are each, being in the presence of God (the Eastern Orthodox perspective).
    Hell as exile (like that covered in Skeletons in God’s Closet by Joseph Ryan Butler)
    Hell as becoming less then human (a position I call the P-Zombie position, from Anglican Biblical scholar – N.T. Wright).
    Hell as annihilation or conditional immortality. A position popular among some leading Protestant theologians.

    It should be noted that historically, the church fathers had various views on hell. Roughly they were annihilation, Universalism and Eternal Conscious Torment.

    1. I’m of the mindset that God doesn’t send anyone to hell per se — it’s a decision the individual has chosen via his own free will during the course of a lifetime. In fact, I would be willing to bet that someone who stood before God and saw the totality of his sins would willingly throw himself into hell if that were an option because you cannot see/experience living Truth with a capital T and then deny your unworthiness. The “burning” of hell would be the “burning” desire to be with God while simultaneously knowing that your own actions made that union impossible.

  2. This is a heavy subject, and the first mistake I think anyone makes when they attempt to tackle it, is they forget to “deny self” as Jesus requires of us in Luke 9. Part of what that means is that we must remove our own desires and hopes from how we read and interpret scripture.

    The simplest refutation of this idea is Luke 16:19-31. This was the very reason Jesus shared this parable (Jews had developed a similar idea that one could “escape” damnation post death). The rich man, once he sees what his wicked life has bought him wishes to escape it, but as Abraham says to him in Luke 16:26:

    “And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”

    While I wish this were not the case, as I have had many friends and family that have died and I know not the state of their relationship with Christ, the scripture makes it clear. You can chose your citizenship, Earth or Heaven, but you cannot pick both.

    The second mistake people make is they define God as love and solely love. But God describes himself this way in Exodus 34 “But He will not leave the guilty unpunished”. Paul does an excellent job of making us understand our situation as sinners. It is essentially a court room; with God as the Judge and Satan as the prosecutor (this is littered through Romans and his letters and is from the OT). Those who have accepted Christ have Him as the defense attorney who is ready to take the punishment for us (we are guilty, that doesn’t change). Those without Christ grace and mercy must pay the sin debt themselves. But someone must pay, as John puts it in 1 John 1:5, “God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him.” This not only describes His abiding love, but also His stand as absolutely righteous.

    Logically the idea of universalism, or post death salvation, would be illogical, given how Jesus and the epistles talked about the importance of making the decision ASAP.

    Matt 24:42-44
    “42 Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this: If the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he would have stayed alert and not let his house be broken into. 44 This is why you also must be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

    Matt 24:45-51
    45 “Who then is a faithful and sensible slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give them food at the proper time? 46 That slave whose master finds him working when he comes will be rewarded. 47 I assure you: He will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked slave says in his heart, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and starts to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    On top of that, what would have been the point of living a faithful life for Christ and doing His good works. If I could just do what I would have wanted and still gotten into heaven once I knew hell was not where I wanted to be, why would I not use this life for my own pleasures.

    Talking about moral pedestals gets way to close the modern misinterpretation of the “judge not” ethos. 2 Tim 4:2 tells us to “Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching.” We are absolutely equipped and mandated to point out sin where we see it, and warn of the debt sin creates. What we cannot do is be the arbiter of who does and who does not get salvation. But those who stand before God without Christ having paid their sin debt are bound for the lake of fire. Revelations leaves no doubt about that:

    Rev 20:13-15
    13 Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. 14 Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

    Again it is the human mistake to see God’s need to punish sin as unloving and try to work a that does not require the decision to be made while alive. Rev 3:20 Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me. But Jesus isn’t standing at that door forever.

    Luke 9:23-26
    23 Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. 25 What is a man benefited if he gains the whole world, yet loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory and that of the Father and the holy angels.

    1. I think you would enjoy the book. All your points are indeed known to the author, who also makes equally interesting points about passages like:

      “Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (Jn 12:31-32).

      “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)

      “The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men (Tit 2:11)

      “[God does not wish]…that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Pet 3:9)

      “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all…” (Rom 11:32)

      “…every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11)

      You get the point. Von Balthasar makes a very intriguing case for the hope that all men might be saved.

      “Talking about moral pedestals gets way to close the modern misinterpretation of the ‘judge not’ ethos.”

      I disagree. Anyone who reads my posts or speaks to me knows that I can have a rational and intelligent conversation that differentiates between recognizing sin as sin without putting oneself on a moral pedestal … and moral relativism.

  3. Isn’t this speculation, or a moot point, if the Bible teaches everlasting judgment? Christ talked about “eternal” fire (Matthew 25:41), using the same Greek adjective in the phrase “eternal” life.

    If someone could be saved out of Hell, wouldn’t that mean that a righteous spirit could be lost out of Heaven and be damned?

    1. “If someone could be saved out of Hell, wouldn’t that mean that a righteous spirit could be lost out of Heaven and be damned?”

      Kind of like…Satan and the fallen angels.

  4. Douglas – thank you for this recommendation! I’ve often wondered along these lines as well. I’m not sure we can ever truly know the answer in our time, but I am interested in reading this book.

    1. “Douglas – thank you for this recommendation! I’ve often wondered along these lines as well. I’m not sure we can ever truly know the answer in our time, but I am interested in reading this book.”

      I’m glad you liked the post, Andrew! Indeed, the author talks on your very point — that eternity is beyond our grasp. Therefore, I will continue to pray for all souls with the understanding that all will be revealed in the end — “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done…”

  5. That was a very interesting article Douglas. It is an interesting concept, though one I disagree with. However, I do appreciate the recommendation of the book, and I will have to keep an eye out for it.

  6. Hey Douglas. I am so interested in this topic and I will definitely read this book.

    Isn’t it interesting that no matter what various Christians believe concerning the eternal damnation of men, they all seem to say something akin to what copperagecommentary said above, “While I wish this were not the case…”.
    Why should he wish that God’s will as seemingly expressed in the New Testament isn’t true?

    I can’t help but believe God is very pleased with your concern and prayers for your friend who died and didn’t believe. What earthly father wouldn’t be pleased with a child who pleaded with him to be merciful to a brother or sister who is being punished? And if an earthly father (who is evil compared to God) would be pleased and moved to mercy, how much more will God who is perfect, be pleased and moved to mercy?

    This comment by copperagecommentary is disturbing to me. “This is a heavy subject, and the first mistake I think anyone makes when they attempt to tackle it, is they forget to “deny self” as Jesus requires of us in Luke 9. Part of what that means is that we must remove our own desires and hopes from how we read and interpret scripture.”

    So, I hope that God is good and loving and fair. Am I to set these aside when I read the scriptures in case the scriptures seem to indicate that He is otherwise? I desire all men to be saved and that one day we will all be friends. Should I lay this desire aside when I read the bible? I don’t think so. It’s because of these hopes and desires that I believe in God and in Jesus Christ.

    Here’s another quote from copper: “But those who stand before God without Christ having paid their sin debt are bound for the lake of fire.”

    All men’s sins have been paid for. Jesus paid for them all. We are all bought, everyone of us. Therefore, Jesus will decide our fate in the next life. This is good news! The man who forgave the Roman soldiers who were nailing him to a cross is to be our judge and decide our fate! Who is there to condemn us? Satan? He lost! We don’t belong to him anymore. Even those who don’t believe in God belong to Jesus, because He bought them. If Jesus decides to pardon a man who didn’t believe in Him while he was alive, who is going to dispute with Him? Will someone whip out their King James Bible and flip to Revelations and read scripture to remind Jesus how he is to decide our fate? I say keep on praying Douglas.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Edwardo. Please do circe back with me if you buy and read the book. I would love to hear what you have to say. Also, just a heads up…but I should have a review of Fulton J. Sheen’s “Life of Christ” up in the very near future. Here’s the abridged version of my review: It is a masterwork.

      I won’t comment on Copper’s opinions on scripture, but I will say that you and I are basically on the same page. 🙂 I’m not sure if you’re on Twitter, but I’m alway happy to interact on that platform as well. That also allows for Direct Messages, which I like quite a bit.

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