Heaven, Hell, C.S. Lewis, and Hans Urs von Balthasar

Father Joseph Fessio, Vivian Dudro, and Joseph Pearce discuss Michael Barber’s  Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know.

“The Last Judgment” (1467-71) a triptych attributed to Flemish painter Hans Memling. [Wikipedia]

This partial transcript is from the FORMED Book Club discussion of Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know by Michael Barber, July 8, 2019. Participants were Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder and editor of Ignatius Press; Vivian Dudro, senior editor at Ignatius Press; and the author Joseph Pearce, who edits titles produced jointly by Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute.

Click here to see the full discussion, or watch the embedded video at the bottom of this page. And click here to visit the FORMED Book Club.

Father Fessio: I think there’s somewhere in C.S. Lewis, where he puts forth the idea that there is kind of a conscious choice we make which leads to our own destruction as persons, where we kind of become unpersons in hell, not that we are annihilated but that there is a kind of disintegration.

On that topic, someone who reflected a lot on hell and on Christ’s descent into hell was Hans Urs von Balthasar. When I was at the Rigi, which is a little mountain in Switzerland where the Johannes Gemeinschaft, the community von Balthasar founded, has a little cabin, I was reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. In mentioning it to Balthasar—here is this great theologian who had read just about everything that can be read—he said, “That is the greatest book on heaven and hell that’s been written.”

In The Great Divorce a bus goes from hell to the outskirts of heaven, in this kind of purgatory. It’s the opportunity for these people to come on in or not. In one scene George MacDonald pleads with this fellow, “Accept the mercy.”

“I don’t want any bloody mercy,” the man says.

“Oh, yes, accept the bloody mercy,” MacDonald replies.

Somewhere in the book there’s this classic statement: At the end of time there will be those who say to God, “Thy will be done”, and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”

Yes, if you’re in hell it’s because you’ve chosen to be there, but the interesting thing is that hell at the beginning of the book is described as this place where everyone is moving farther and farther apart because no one wants to be near anybody. It’s solitude, it’s being on your own [in the vastness of space].

Yet when the bus goes up to heaven they find out it’s just a little crack in, you know, the land. But it’s infinitesimal so that there’s something. And for heaven Lewis has this beautiful image, which he admits he got from someone else, that everything is heavier than on earth. When you’re trying to walk on the grass, it punches your feet. You put your hand in the water and it gets bruised because water is like rock-solid. Raindrops or dewdrops are like big blocks. So Lewis is trying to make the point that heaven is more real, more solid, more concrete, heavier, weightier than earth, and that therefore hell is less.

Joseph Pearce: What Lewis is all about is, this life is the Shadowlands and what’s to come in heaven is more real. But if we take the alternative choice? If Christ is the more fully human person and in becoming more like Christ we become more fully ourselves as human beings, then if we refuse that, we become less fully human.

I love your distinction between annihilation, which is ceasing to be, and disintegration, where we are no longer the integrated whole that we were meant to be but where we actually start to fragment because our own ego cannot hold it together.

Father Fessio: Just as Paul tells us that eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered the mind of man what is laid up for us, that is to say, we cannot imagine the glories of heaven. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15, around verse 30, he says some people are asking what the body will be like in heaven. We all ask that, right? And Paul says that’s a stupid question, and he begins to explain why it’s a stupid question. And just as we cannot grasp or comprehend with our images and our experiences what heaven will be like, likewise with hell.

All our images of hell point to something which is a mystery beyond our full comprehension. Now you can say the images are metaphorical, but as Lewis also mentions, in his book Miracles, because something is metaphorical does not mean it’s meaningless. To say hell is not really fire does not mean it’s not going to hurt. It’s worse than fire.

Vivian Dudro: You mentioned von Balthasar. In his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?, he quotes from The Great Divorce.

Father Fessio: OK. Let’s get to that.

In chapter eight of Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know, which is titled “Not Inevitable”, meaning salvation is not inevitable, the author speaks a couple of times about who is in hell. He makes these statements. On page 124, he says that “the New Testament authors indicate that in the end not all will be saved.” On page 125: “Although it has been indicated that God ‘desires all men to be saved’, numerous passages indicate that not all will be.” And here, a little later on 125, he says that Jesus makes the point that there will be individuals who are not saved.

In this chapter Michael Barber explicitly refers to Hans Urs von Balthasar and his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Will Be Saved”?

Vivian: And our revised version has a wonderful foreword by Bishop Barron.

Father Fessio: Balthasar is famous for being accused of saying that hell is empty and that we are assured that all men will be saved. I think it’s very important to make the distinction Balthasar does.

Balthasar says explicitly that there are two strands of New Testament texts. There are clearly strands which talk about eternal damnation. Jesus says that the way is narrow to salvation and few choose it while the way to hell is broad and many are on it. With respect to Judas, he says that it would have been better had he never been born. But there’s never any statement that Jesus makes that says we know that some will not be saved and we know the proportion or how many. On the other hand, in the New Testament there’s a series of verses: “I will draw all flesh to myself “, God desires, God wills, “that all men be saved”. That’s in First Timothy, I think.

So you’ve got these two strands of text, one of which clearly shows that hell is a reality in itself and a possibility for each of us and another which asks us to hope for and pray for the salvation of all men. How do we synthesize that? Balthasar’s point is you can’t synthesize it; you shouldn’t synthesize it.

The problem is, that if we’re going to say we’re sure there’s a large number who are damned, it’s always the other people, you know, and thank God that we’re not in that number. Whereas Balthasar says that we have to hope for the salvation of every single human being, especially ourselves; and if we have a fear of damnation for any one, the primary person we should fear for is ourselves. So he is opposed to the certainty that some are damned, and he makes it clear that the Church has never dogmatically said that any particular person is in hell, so we don’t want to have that certainty that some are in hell. At the same time, we cannot have the certainty that we will go to heaven or that anybody is in heaven, except the canonized saints. We have to live in this time of hope, to hope for the whole human race and for ourselves that Christ’s redeeming sacrifice will be effective in us.

It’s a legitimate debate. Certainly Michael Barber has on his side many great theologians, starting with Augustine, who was the one who basically began this idea of a kind of a sociological discussion of who is in hell and who is not. And there’s Dante, of course.

But on the other side you have great theologians also. There’s Gregory of Nyssa, Origen. And there are modern theologians like Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict), who would side with Balthasar. So it’s a worthwhile debate.

Whatever side one comes down on, existentially we all have to fear for the salvation of our souls. Let’s not make fear our only motive for loving God and not sinning, but let’s not take it away either. Hey, Joseph, you’ve taught classes; I’ve taught classes. Take away the final exams and what happens? People don’t study. Love of learning, that’s a great motivation. Fear of failing, that helps too.

Joseph Pearce: And I would say, by way of keeping the controversy rolling here, that’s because the possibility of failure exists. If they were going to pass the exam anyway, failure would no longer be very scary.

I’m certainly not opposed to the von Balthasar/ Ratzinger position–I don’t like to be opposed to anything that Cardinal Ratzinger says, quite frankly. But there are two things I would like to say. First of all, I think it’s very intriguing and interesting, now you mention it, I hadn’t really thought about it before, that the Church does canonize those that it says dogmatically and

definitively are in heaven but has never canonized those that it says dogmatically and definitively are in hell, and that’s actually very intriguing.

We do have presumably the assurance that there are souls in the hell or spirits in hell because Satan’s there and the demons are there, so it’s not as if hell is uninhabited. The argument is about whether it’s inhabited by human souls.

Father Fessio: Yes, it’s a very important point. Hell does exist, and Satan and the fallen angels are there. And Balthasar has explicitly repudiated what they call apokatastasis, which is an idea that in the end, the final end, hell will be emptied and we’ll all be in heaven, and that’s been repudiated by the Church and rejected by all the people I’ve mentioned.

Vivian, do have something to say?

Vivian Dudro: First I want to say that the only reason Father and I are bringing this up is because Michael Barber does in his book Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know.

And he explicitly takes issue with von Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? When I get in this conversation with people, I like to say that you could rename von Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope That God’s Desire Will Be Fulfilled? Because it’s God’s desire that all he creates comes into a consummate love with him. That is his desire, so dare we hope that this desire will be fulfilled?

I was speaking to Father earlier about an analogy for different kinds of works.

Joseph, maybe you’ll appreciate this. Different works are different things; we use the expression apples and oranges. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes as if he were a man walking through a garden after a butterfly. He’s not really trying to pin it down; he’s trying to follow it wherever it might go, and there might be contradictory things at the same time, and it’s all a mystery, and he’s just kind of following wherever it leads. And then you get some of these trained theologians, and they’re more like the guy in the garden who wants to get the butterfly in a net and pin it on a board and start measuring its wingspan. These are two very different ways of understanding the butterfly. And I think that’s a helpful analogy when we sometimes compare different sorts of authors.

Joseph Pearce: I like that. I think it was Keats or one of the Romantic poets who said that we kill when we dissect, that you have to want to know the life of thing but not to know it so well that you are killing it in the process.

Father Fessio: Actually he said it more poetically. He said we murder to dissect.

Joseph Pearce: OK. Thank you. Who was it?

Father Fessio: I think it was T.S. Eliot. (For the actual poet and verse, see below.)

Vivian Dudro: The point is, that the truth is a really big thing. You’re a champion of paradoxes, Joseph. There are often these seemingly contradictory things. In Scripture itself we get these seeming contradictions between hell and the fear of hell on one hand and this desire of God for all to be saved on the other hand. And how do you put these things together? We really can’t.

Joseph Pearce: It’s important to distinguish, as Balthasar does and Ratzinger does, that an apparent contradiction, in other words a paradox, is not the same thing as a contradiction. Faith and reason is a paradox. Faith is, by necessity, something you don’t know for certain; reason is something by which we know something for certain or the things that we can apprehend certainly. Holding faith and reason together is paradox.

Vivian: We’ve been raving about this book in every session, haven’t we? About how wonderful it is and how much we’ve all learned from it. And in this chapter Father and I both came up against its limits, right? There’s limits to what we really can apprehend and express, and it’s okay to be reminded that those limits are there, and that’s not to disparage the work that’s been done here.

Father Fessio: In fact, it points out one of the great strengths of this book, namely, it’s very scriptural. But in this particular case, the author will take Scripture and he’ll say, well I’ve quoted this already, but he says that the “New Testament authors indicate that in the end not all will be saved.” But that’s not true. They don’t say not all will be saved. I mean, there are some threats– if this happens, that happens; or, if you’re in this group, you’re lost. But it doesn’t say that not all will be saved. He quotes the passage from Timothy here, that says God desires that all men will be saved, but he says that it doesn’t really mean that God’s will is that all be saved.

Vivian Dudro: Barber emphasizes over and over, and we’ve emphasized in these meetings, that if there is anyone in hell, he chose to go there; he refused the offer of God’s love and mercy. So back to The Great Divorce, I mean how long is it going to last that these people are offered to get on the bus and check out heaven and decide to accept mercy or not? Lewis doesn’t say. Who knows how long this could go on?

Joseph Pearce: I think the problem is that the process of disintegration is something which is ongoing. To use what happened to Gollum [in The Lord of the Rings] as a verb, we can Gollumize ourselves through our pride so that we cease to be rational. Gollum is no longer a rational creature. He made choices when he was rational which compromised his reason.

Vivian Dudro: That’s right. So that’s why we should all be in fear and trembling about receiving these invitations from God and heeding them while we have time to do it. And that’s the point Barber is ultimately making through the whole book–that it’s God’s grace, it’s God’s invitation to enter into his life, but we do have the freedom not to.

Father Fessio: Amen, sister.

Note: Father Fessio later looked up the poem that linked dissection with murder. It is “The Tables Turned” by William Wordsworth. Here is the relevant verse:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.