Universalism, Balthasar, the Massa Damnata, and the Question of Evangelization.

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Dr. Larry Chapp

If you want a dog whistle guaranteed to summon a pack of barking traditionalists just mention the names of either Hans Urs von Balthasar or Bishop Robert Barron. The former more than the latter and the latter only to the extent that he expresses sympathy for the former.  Balthasar and his alleged “universalism” (all are saved) is definitely the boogeyman in this narrative and is so, ironically, because of his great devotion to theological orthodoxy.  If he were a garden variety liberal theologian the traditionalists would pay him no mind and just throw him on the dung heap of modernist heretics without much further thought.  But it is precisely because of his orthodoxy that his influence is strong among orthodox Catholics – – indeed, even upon some popes of recent memory – – which makes his fulminations on the eschatological census particularly dangerous, according to many of the leading traditionalist provocateurs.  The same goes for Robert Barron. As one Facebook friend of mine once said, in response to my question as to why he did not go after quislings like Cardinal Cupich instead of Barron: “Because nobody expects orthodoxy from Cupich anyway.”

My concern here is not so much with the intense debate that swirls around Balthasar’s views on Hell as it is with what I consider to be a misguided fixation on the topic by so many traditionalists who seem to think that unless we believe that many folks are in Hell that we won’t have any motivation to evangelize or to pursue holiness ourselves.  I think this is a somewhat misguided view that masks a deep misunderstanding of the Christian vocation. More on that in a bit.

But with regard to Balthasar’s views on Hell let me just mention before I proceed that I can honestly say that it is not an issue that I dwell upon or care that much about because it is not a topic that I think is central to Balthasar’s overall theological project but is rather a piece of highly speculative theologizing which is downstream from the main current of his thinking.  As a scholar of Balthasar’s theology I am drawn to the profound truth and beauty of his christology, trinitarian theology, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology.  His massive trilogy is a monumental achievement that has drawn the praise of many fine, orthodox, theologians, too numerous to mention, as well as Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict.  I do not share all of Balthasar’s conclusions with regard to the topic of Hell (nor does Bishop Barron for that matter) and consider his assertion that it is “infinitely improbable” that human freedom can resist the divine offer of grace in the long run a bridge too far.  He might be right, but it is not a position that I am willing to defend.  I share his view that we can reasonably hope that all will be saved given the depth of Christ’s soteriological action, and that we should pray for that to happen, but beyond that I prefer not to speculate for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, it is not something that keeps me awake at night and it most certainly does not rob me of my enthusiasm for Balthasar’s broader project.  Even the great Aquinas got some important things wrong, but that fact does not send me into a screaming tirade against his dangerous perfidy whilst tossing his Summa into the bonfire. 

And it is precisely this hyperventilating overreaction to Balthasar’s views on Hell that I think is deeply instructive as to what the deeper issues really are and what is really driving the traditionalist train.  By way of illustration, Ralph Martin, in his recent book “A Church in Crisis” engages in a shocking and truly despicable discussion of Balthasar in chapter eight which is entitled: “Powers, Principalities, and Organizations.” The chapter is devoted to the manner in which the modern crisis in the Church is being fueled by various Satanic deceptions, among which he includes Marxism, the Enlightenment’s rejection of God, Feminism, secular elitism, sexual deviancy, false near death experiences, Nazism, Planned Parenthood, the Gay agenda, and … Balthasar.  The mere inclusion of Balthasar in a chapter devoted to all manner of Satanic deviancies is bad enough, but he actually leads off his carnival of carnage with Balthasar, which can only lead one to the conclusion that Martin is asserting that Balthasar’s views on Hell were of Satanic origin.  To treat a thoroughly orthodox theologian of Balthasar’s stature in this manner – – a man who spent his entire life devoted to explicating the truths of the faith, and who was made a Cardinal by John Paul in order to signal the Pope’s deep respect and appreciation for this theology – – is simply execrable. And all because Martin disagrees with Balthasar’s view on Hell. A better example of hyperbolic and uncharitable traditionalist overreaction to Balthasar’s stance on Hell cannot be found and shame on Ralph Martin for being so driven by his vision of the massa damnata that he would stoop to such calumnies. It is one thing to simply disagree with this single point in Balthasar’s theology, and many fine theologians do (but with charity), but it is another thing entirely to label it all as Satanic and to lump Balthasar in with the Nazis and abortionists. This is not how Christians should treat one another.  There is indeed the stench of Satan here, but it isn’t coming from Balthasar.

And if that is not bad enough, Martin then focuses his attention on Balthasar’s “unusual” relationship with the mystic and seer Adrienne von Speyr with a not so subtle insinuation that there was something not proper going on.  Balthasar did indeed move in with Adrienne and her husband (when Adrienne was older and not in good health and largely bed ridden) in order to be better able to document her various charisms, which Balthasar, who knew her best and was her spiritual director, thought to be genuine.  And they did indeed develop a close working relationship that influenced Balthasar’s thinking on various topics.  But so what? The history of the Church is littered with mystics and visionaries who had close working relationships with their spiritual directors which was actually a sign of their desire to remain within the ambit of the orthodox faith and to not get carried away into various enthusiasms.  However, Martin asserts without the slightest shred of evidence that both Adrienne and Balthasar lost their ability to think critically about each other’s thoughts. How he knows this he does not say (how could he?) but it is important to his narrative of Balthasar having succumbed to satanic deception that he “establish” her Svengali like hold on Balthasar’s thought processes on the topic of … you guessed it … Hell. 

Martin clearly thinks that Adrienne was a fraud and cites her various alleged communications with Saint Ignatius as his chief piece of damning evidence.  That is particularly irritating since it takes a particular kind of chutzpah for Martin to cast a shadow over such charisms without any evidence whatsoever since Martin himself is a Catholic charismatic who has in the past frequently mentioned various “prophecies” that have come out of his involvement with that movement – – a movement characterized by people speaking in “angelic” gibberish and who get a new “word of knowledge” every morning while munching on their granola.  A movement, by the way, which has its origins in Protestant Pentecostalism with its deep anti sacramentalism and quasi Gnostic views of ecclesial affiliation.  So if Martin wants to find Satanic deceptions at work in the Church he should have looked in his own backyard.  But hey, charismatics tend to think lots of people are in Hell so they are safe and their charisms given the benefit of the doubt.

Martin’s entire treatment of Balthasar and Adrienne is highly selective in the facts he chooses to emphasize and is clearly designed to do nothing but insinuate that her alleged charisms were satanic in origin.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Martin mentions not one word about the truly profound body of theological writings that Adrienne produced. Nor does he mention that Pope John Paul initiated a conference in Rome devoted to those writings – – a conference which he addressed and in which he encouraged people to study her writings more.  Here is how the theologian Regis Martin (no relation to Ralph) described the conference:

“Presented in terms of her “ecclesial mission”, the conference attempted to show the immensity of von Speyr’s gifts and service to the life of the universal Church. Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger interrupted their own busy schedules to offer powerful and prayerful witness to the character and achievement of this truly extraordinary woman. Yet it can fairly be said that most of the Catholic world knows nothing at all about her.” (You can find Regis Martin’s entire essay on Adrienne and the conference here.)

I guess Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger did not get the memo that this was all from Satan. But you know what is from Satan? Calumny. I don’t care if one thinks that von Speyr’s charisms were questionable.  Lots of people do and that is their right.  Personally, I think her charisms were genuine, but like many mystics before her the basic message was also mixed in with purely human errors as many theologians of mystical phenomenon affirm.  For example, I accept the legitimacy of Fatima. I think Mary really did appear there to those little kids.  But I do not believe for one minute that she told them that most people are in Hell because of sins of the flesh.  I could be wrong about that, of course, but it is a message that does not sit well with my conception of the hierarchy of deadly sins.  The messages of Fatima, or of Sister Faustina, or Akita, or Medjugorje, or of Adrienne von Speyr, are not holy writ.  They are capable of containing an admixture of error which is why a discernment of spirits is required in all such alleged charisms.  But to label them as of satanic origin simply because they run afoul of your own personal theological agenda is tendentious and unfair.  Call then “wrong” or “garbled” or whatever, as I just did with Fatima, but to allege Satanic influences requires more evidence than one’s own theological preoccupations. 

To be sure, some alleged mystics are of satanic origin.  But you also need more evidence to assert such a thing than the fact that the alleged mystic claimed to talk to saints.  Sister Faustina claimed to talk with Jesus himself.  Was that Satanic too? Clearly, for Martin there is only one metric worth paying attention to. Namely, what did the alleged mystic say about the number of people, if any, in Hell? Martin has spoken favorably of certain aspects of the alleged messages given at Garabandal, even as he acknowledged that this apparition does not have ecclesial approval and has some sketchy elements to it.  But he affords no such charity or latitude to Adrienne von Speyr and clearly treats her differently simply because she undermines his theological commitment to a densely populated Hell.

My point in all of this is not to dump on Ralph Martin, although his scandalous treatment of Balthasar and von Speyr richly deserves it, but to highlight the extent to which the traditionalist movement has become obsessed with eternal hellfire.  As I have mentioned before, their mantra should be “more hell cowbell please.” Martin’s book, “A Church in Crisis,” is an otherwise decent book with which I am in deep agreement on many points, which only underscores the oddity of his sudden flight into hysteria and calumny when it comes to the question of Balthasar and Hell.  And that really was the main point of all of the foregoing. Namely, that the retrieval of some concept of the massa damnata is so important to traditionalists that they are willing to eviscerate, and then to draw and quarter, even orthodox theologians of great stature who they deem to be too soft on the question.

So why this obsession with a densely populated Hell? The reasoning they employ is not complex and boils down to three assertions.  First, the charge is made that the soft universalism of so many in the modern Church has led to a diminishment in our fervor for evangelization.  Second, it is alleged that a great deal of the laxity one finds among Catholics themselves is also attributable to this alleged universalism.  As one very dear friend of mine who is a devout Catholic and a devotee of Michael Voris put it to me: “if everyone goes to heaven anyway why should I bother to bust my chops to be morally good or to go to Church?” A third charge, more theologically sophisticated than the first two, claims that this soft universalism robs the Gospel of its dramatic, existential seriousness since it presents us with salvation as a fait accompli.  What all of these points have in common is their proposed solution: an evangelical style that once again places the threat of damnation front and center as the linchpin for any effective strategy for conversion.

But are any of these assertions true? Is it really true that the desire to avoid Hell is the primary motivation behind the desire to convert to the faith or to embrace it with more vigor? And is it really true as well that the primary motivation for wanting to bring people to Christ is to make sure that they avoid Hell? My answer might shock you because my answer to those two questions is yes.  But I do not mean by that answer the same thing the hyper traditionalists mean and my answer thus comes with one important caveat:  Heaven and Hell are not “places” where I might end up “in the future after I die” depending on whether or not I checked the right box on the religion survey, but present realities in the here and now.  They are spiritual conditions of the soul which every human being has intimations of and which give us a participatory foretaste of eschatological realities.  Sin is the dis-integrative power of dissipation and entropy, the power which grips us like a vice even as it rips us apart from within.  It alienates and annihilates and is the source of our deepest existential anxieties and creates our deepest miseries in life.  It is the libido dominandi that lives in us all and which creates the despair within us where, try as I might, I cannot escape the furies of my own decrepit soul and the self-inflicted horrors of my incessantly compromised choices. 

We can experience a foretaste of Heaven in this life as well in all of the various joys that come our way through our participation in all that is true and good and beautiful.  We naturally desire all of these things and move toward them to the extent that we see them properly, and in their proper hierarchy, and with a sincere hope that they will bring us happiness, which is, as Aquinas noted, what we all most deeply want. But these joys are often lost due to our ignorance of what is truly good and of our disordered desire to sacrifice higher goods to lower goods, which is the very essence of sin and its idolatries which is why only an affirmation of the true God as the highest Good can save us from these counterfeit substitutes.  But the joys of this life also run up against the ultimate barrier: death.  Which is why in this life even our deepest joy will be tainted with the patina of the loss of everything in the final dissolution of all things in death.  It is the blunt and brutal reality of death that hollows out our experience of the good from within our terror – – a hollowing out that empties the good of its goodness and leaves us with the haunting suspicion that there is no deeper good at all, but merely passing pleasures. This is why Saint Paul referred to death as Satan’s sting and the greatest generator of sin since the realization of our terminal finality is what robs us of the motivation to seek the higher goods and the greater joys they bring since death seems to call the reality of those higher goods into question.  The higher goods and the deeper happiness are hard to achieve and require a death to the libido dominandi which alone appears “real” to us. Sin thus whispers in our ear, “it is all a sham and there is no God so live within the shallow waters of proximate procurements.”

This is why Christianity burst upon the ancient world with an explosive and liberating force. It was presented as the “euangelion” (good news!) which was a Greek term used by imperial Rome to announce a great victory for the Empire but redeployed by Christians to announce an even greater victory accomplished by one greater than Caesar.  It was presented as a liberation from the oppressive spiritual principalities and powers that capriciously and arbitrarily ruled this world through death and force and coercion.  The message was not “believe this or you will go to Hell” but rather “believe this and you will come out of Hell.”  The greatest evangelist the Church has ever seen, Saint Paul, rarely spoke of the eternal torments of Hell that awaited those who rejected his message of the crucified and risen Christ. Such talk is foreign to his manner of approach. Instead he preached the risen Christ as the conqueror of death and sin and thus as the great liberator from our chains of bondage to the regime of decay. What he preached was that the Hell in which they were living was not their truest destiny and that the higher spiritual goods were now eminently attainable in the new Kingdom of life and grace.  In other words, Paul preached a message that emphasized that the new Christian ordo was an ordo of eschatological rupture with the worldly world and the breaking in to this world of a supernatural light that had the power to transform everything from within as it healed the broken bonds of our fractured and despairing souls. 

And this was the message of Balthasar as well who most certainly believed in Hell and judgment but who also believed that we experience that Hell and judgement even in the here and now and that the true power of the Gospel was its evangel of Christological liberation from our bondage. Anyone who thinks Balthasar preached a message of cheap grace has manifestly never read him, or if they have, were too obtuse to understand him.  Or, as in the case of Ralph Martin, are too beholden to a flat-footed theology of massa damnata nightmares to read Balthasar’s writings on Hell within the broader context of his entire theological project – – a project that is saturated with the Gospel message of sin, judgment, redemption, and cosmic consummation. Balthasar might be wrong about Hell, but only a theological blunt axe would accuse him of being a stooge for Satan. And if he was, then so were/are John Paul and Benedict who, though not entirely on board with the totality of his views on this matter were, nevertheless, deeply sympathetic to it and were most decidedly closer to Balthasar’s view than Martin’s clear predilection for a return to a dangerously narrow interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus

My point in all of this is that it is precisely this experience of integrative liberation that should be the prime mover of our evangelizing, as it was with St. Paul.  In my 25 years of teaching theology, in both high school and university, I never once walked into a classroom thinking to myself, “these kids are sinners in the hands of an angry God and are in danger of suffering eternal torments in Hell and so I must save them from God’s just wrath.”  Rather, I said to myself, “I am in possession of a great treasure, the truest Beauty, and the most liberating narrative the world has ever known or will know, and I want to release these students from their bondage to the honey laced arsenic of our culture and to show them the only path to the deepest happiness.” And, to toot my own horn, I was damn good at it.  And I don’t mention this to build myself up but to point out that this message still works, as it did in the days of St. Paul, and that some kind of reversion to a hyper Tridentine emphasis on mortal sins, Hell, damnation, and the superficial “litmus test” orthodoxy of pinched-up neo scholastic inquisitors, is not only a recipe for pastoral disaster, but is also deeply contrary to the Gospel Paul preached. Indeed, it is an anti-Gospel of pharisaical anxiety wrapped up in the laced surplices of sanctimonious sadists.

It is both instructive and ironic, is it not, that one of the greatest evangelists of our time, Bishop Robert Barron, is also a man who shares the real hope that all will someday be saved, and who teaches what the Church teaches with regard to the possibility of salvation outside of the visible confines of the Church.  This gives the lie to the notion that one will not be properly motivated to evangelize unless one first believes in some version of the massa damnata.  It is my contention that the infernalists who get so hypoxic over his approach are not so much afraid that his evangelizing style won’t work, but precisely because it does. Because his success invalidates their thesis that a Church that does not step forward with its eternal damnation foot first is a Church of relativists and indifferentists.  Likewise with Balthasar whose views on Hell do not seem to have robbed him of his fervor and who spent his entire life explicating the Gospel in profound ways.  One would think, in other words, that if Martin’s thesis is true – – namely, that only a message that most will be eternally damned will motivate us to evangelize – – that Barron would close up shop over at Word on Fire and Balthasar would never have written a word, and both would have retired to life on a tropical island in order to sip relativist Pina Coladas on the beach of indifference. 

One could counter by saying that Martin and others do not teach that most will be damned and that, therefore, I am mistaken in my assertion that they are advocating for a return to some version of the massa damnata.  But one of the favored talking points in almost everything I have read or watched from these folks is to quote the words of Jesus concerning how wide the path is to Hell and that most are on that path, and narrow is the path to Heaven and there are few who take it. And Martin sternly and repeatedly criticizes the view that this verse, and others like it, is merely admonitory and not predictive.  Martin clearly thinks these are predictive statements from Jesus and it is one of the chief weapons in his arsenal of rebukes. And so I am thoroughly justified in my claim that Martin teaches the doctrine of the massa damnata.  Indeed, and not to put too fine a point on it, Martin, in a recent YouTube video criticized a recent homily from Bishop Barron on the topic of salvation outside of the Church wherein Barron alluded to Lumen Gentium as his guide in these matters.  Predictably, Martin, Taylor Marshall, and a wannabe celebrity priest of limited theological acumen named Fr. Mark Goring, all came out with response videos.  The common theme in all of them was that Barron did not emphasize enough how very difficult it is for non-Christians to get to heaven.  That he did not emphasize enough the moral culpability of their ignorance of the Gospel, and how steeped in error they are. One cannot escape the conclusion, therefore, that here once again we see a doubling-down on the notion that it is more probable than not that most are going to Hell and need to be told so.

As I said, I too believe that we must appeal to a message of liberation from the bondage of the Hell that is within us all, but that is far different from a message of a not so latent “insiders versus outsiders” logic where the insiders have the proper union card and the outsiders don’t.  Of course, I am not denying that the Church provides us with all the means of salvation and that, therefore, faithful inclusion in her life does afford us great treasures of grace.  Because it does.  But don’t tell me that there isn’t a strong element of a very superficial understanding of what it means to be “saved” and “unsaved” in their thinking. There is a strong forensic tone to it all and a strong tone deafness to the movement of the Holy Spirit outside of the visible structures of the Church. The Church is necessary for salvation insofar as she is the conduit of those graces of the Spirit. But the vocation of the Christian is not to draw neat lines in the sand between the saved and the unsaved, but to offer up their prayers, supplications, penances, and sufferings in solidarity with those still awaiting liberation from bondage.

The fact of the matter is that Martin and other like-minded traditionalists get something very wrong. Namely, that the indifferentism and lukewarm laxity that afflicts the modern Church has been primarily caused by a loss of belief in the reality of eternal damnation for most. In reality, the laxity in the modern Church has not arisen from a lack of faith in the eternal horrors of Hell.  Rather, the laxity comes from a lack of faith in the existential reality of Heaven. In fact, it comes more specifically from a generalized lack of faith in the eschatological power of supernatural realities in the first place.  Because if people really and truly believed in the reality of our liberation from bondage and the joys of Heaven, and truly understood what these realities mean, then the very real possibility of eternal loss would be powerful and palpable.  Furthermore, if people had a deeper grasp in faith of what such liberation means then the question of why I should strive to be morally good even if all end up in Heaven someday answers itself.  We seek moral goodness because it is liberative and integrative.  It opens us to beauty and a holistic happiness. And the more we are on that path the more we begin to realize that Heaven isn’t a Disney World in the sky, or an undifferentiated “reward” for having been a “good person,” but is rather a nested hierarchy of souls that have differing capacities for love, and thus beatitude, depending on what one has done in this life. Jesus says that in his Father’s Kingdom there are “many mansions.”  I think this is what he meant.  Finally, none of this will come without purgation, in this life or the next.  And that purgation will be painful and difficult.  Even among those Catholics who feel confident of their ultimate salvation there is still a rigorous desire to do penances now, to lead a life of holiness now, precisely in order to avoid such purgations later.  Therefore, I do not need to believe that anyone is in Hell in order to desire the highest and most luxuriant of Heavenly mansions and to avoid the fiery cauldron of purgatory.

What all of this points toward is that our style of evangelizing needs to focus first and foremost on the true, the good, and the beautiful. It needs to build on our natural desire for happiness and our natural desire for the higher spiritual goods of life.  It needs to build on the natural thirst for Transcendence that all people feel.  And then it needs to show how Christ is the fulfillment of our deepest and most inchoate and hidden desires.  It needs to show how we do not even know what it is we should desire and that Christ points the way.  It needs to show that Christ has overcome the tribulations of this world and is the only person who holds the key to unlocking our chains.  It needs to foreground the positive aspects of the Gospel message as our liberation from the bondage of sin and death in the eschatological present.  Only then can it speak of the real possibility of an eternal loss because only then will people truly appreciate what is at stake. 

But by all means … continue on with the eschatological census taking.  I hope one of those so engaged will apprise me of what they find. Because so far nobody has ever really figured it out. Not even the saints. Perhaps, most especially the saints.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.


  1. Oh I am enjoying this so much. So refreshing.

    My religious formation was in the pinchgut massa damnata weaponised Jansenism-twice-removed school of emoting. God has spent absolutely years breaking me down and rebuilding me. I’m a great deal happier as a result, and now have more love than fear. (Still got plenty of room for improvement.)

    Von Speyr’s stuff has been a comfort and a challenge to me. I agree with you about mystics; I don’t know where she got her ideas, but I have never come across anything kooky in what I have read by her.

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    1. I was raised in the opposite extreme. 1960’s style, hippie Jesus Catholicism where all was allowed. Ugh. And so I get the traditionalist backlash. But it is reactionary and wrong. I have never read anything by von Speyr that wasn’t really good and very helpful/insightful. I have no idea about the truth of her charisms nor do I care all that much. But this attack on her by Martin and others is just disgusting. What Martin does in his book with Balthasar and von Speyr is one of the most despicable things I have ever seen from a so-called “reputable” theologian.


  2. Thanks, Larry, for the excellent reflection. Some thoughts…

    I find the criticism of Bishop Barron to be puzzling at best and disturbing at worst. My “traditionalist” FB friends just can’t seem to forgive Barron for his failure to sufficiently denounce/condemn the homosexual lifestyle of David Rubin, or for his failure to point out the salvific inadequacies of Judaism to Ben Shapiro, during his interviews by these men. And why (they might ask) is he spending so much of his time talking with a Jungian psychologist like Jordan Peterson? Shouldn’t a Bishop be out “preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ”!

    I think Bishop Barron knows the importance of building relationships and seeking common ground: not as a place to permanently reside, but as a place from which he and his interlocutors can (hopefully) move forward. Such things take time and grace, and Bishop Barron has the patience to allow them to grow naturally (or, God willing, supernaturally).

    Of course, Bishop Barron has an incomparable (and, I think, highly effective) social media presence. He knows that that is where “the young people of today are to be found.” He is evangelizing, but in a forum that “is different.” As a consequence, so much of what Barron says or does (e.g., in interviews) becomes a matter of public record and, hence, subject to careful scrutiny. Any missteps on his part–and who doesn’t make them!–are there to be found and magnified by those who are hellbent on finding them. I simply have to ask: Would the words/deeds of any saint or pope have been able to withstand a similar scrutiny and survive the ordeal without stain or blemish? Perhaps the new “virtue” that we need in the Age of Social Media is simply the virtue of cutting each other some slack: not expecting perfection from our fellow believers (including Bishops and popes). If we demand perfection of ourselves (or others) before we “engage the world,” the world will not be engaged, nor will the Good News be proclaimed.

    Personally, I tip my hat to Bishop Barron for developing the skill set and the professional staff that is enabling him to do both–for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Larry, as usual, a lot to chew on here. I agree with your overall point–evangelization needs to be rooted in God’s beauty and love. von Balthasar gets treated badly by many because he hoped all would be saved. But I do think you are unfair to Catholic Charismatic Renewal as a whole in this piece. I haven’t read Martin’s book so I will leave that out, but there are plenty of responsible charismatic Catholics out there who test the spirits and act in charity. My experience working in evangelization in our diocese is that the charismatic Christians are the only ones who frankly CARE about evangelization and have skin in the game…and it is out of the joy of the Holy Spirit. Every movement has it’s temptations, and I’m clear eyed on this movement’s own–but there is also great good in it as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for the post! Yes, as commented above, it is refreshing.

    It is also worth noting that while the Church has declared thousands of people assuredly to be in Heaven, it has not once formally declared anyone to be in Hell. So in this way the Balthasar’s hope is still alive.

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  5. Thanks for this thoughtful, and rather heated (pun intended!) reflection.
    I agree and I disagree.
    Hell in the afterlife is real–so it’s an act of charity, and even our duty I would think, to warn people about it, in appropriate ways. Our approach to evangelisation should be measured by Christ’s approach. He warns about hell on quite a few occasions. That’s not to say he engaged in modern style fire and brimstone preaching, but he did preach the reality of hell as part of his overall message of mercy. Of course hell isn’t the main focus of the Gospel, but still, Jesus didn’t leave the topic out or water it down.
    I think that many of the people you call “traditionalists” in this piece are concerned that people have become presumptuous–they simply presume without thinking (because of the Zeitgeist within and without the Church) that they know where the line between damnation and salvation is, and that they are safely on the side of salvation—because God is softness and love and all that and we’re nice, unlike Nazis. They have little or no fear of God. They think that God revolves around us, and in such a way that we can more or less do what we like, or just do the bare minimum, turn up to Church each Sunday as a sort of afterlife insurance and that will be good enough. But this is far from good enough. God demands and deserves everything. God is not to be mocked and we need to recover a sense of holy fear of trembling before Him–alongside deep trust and familial love. I don’t think the issue is how many people go to hell but the presumption and carelessness which underlie the assumption that God wouldn’t send anyone to hell (certainly not me because I’ve paid my afterlife insurance by attending Mass–or because I’m a moderately nice guy). Not attending to the last things and not shaping your life in the light of the last things is foolishness, recklessness. It’s too easy to end up in hell, it’s foolish and reckless to presume that, if one coasts easily along, drifting with the times and with one’s passions, one is headed toward heaven, or that there will be plenty of time to repent when one gets older. No. We have to wise and vigilant. Watchful, unlike the foolish virgins. That’s all through the Gospels. The important point is not how many go to hell but how easy it is or would be to drift into eternal damnation. This is truth, and it shouldn’t be watered down.
    But in order not to water down the seriousness of the very real possibility of going to hell, it is not necessary to make Hell and the fear of Hell front and centre in the Kerygma as a whole–that sort of misses the point. Having said that, if a sober sermon or message or vision or awakening about hell is what it takes for some people to wake up from their slumber–and sometimes this might be the only thing that wakes some people up to begin with–then well and good.
    The problem is manifold: comfort, easy drifting, lack of consciousness of spiritual realities, worldly distraction, presumption. I don’t think an emphasis on the reality and danger of hell is a misguided response to that. That’s not to deny that central to the Message of Christ is the attractive love and abundant mercy of God. It’s both/and. Divine caritas is primary–as is presenting the attractiveness of Christ–but included in that caritas, as an application to our situation, is an urgent warning.
    I wonder whether some of your objections are responding to a straw man. It’s certainly possibly to take on board what you’ve said about presenting the attractiveness of God’s love (and truth, goodness and beauty) and the hope of heavenly beatitude–but at the same time, give sober warnings about the reality of hell. That’s what Jesus did, I believe.
    Charismatics come in different types; American Protestant ones are quite different than the Catholics who do not tend to be fundamentalist (or “fire-and-brimstone”) at all. They are exemplary in taking on board the call to new evangelisation. That’s been my experience, having been part of the movement myself.

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  6. Larry, your defense of Balthasar against Martin & others is most welcome, but may I push you on this a bit? Would Martin’s position be more palatable if he were obsessed, not with a densely populated hell, but with a thinly populated hell? I know this is an unfair question. I just sneakily trying to persuade you to engage David Hart’s critique of Balthasar’s universalist hope. 🙂

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    1. It is not an unfair question at all but a most pertinent one. Thanks for commenting. The post wasn’t really about universalism so much as it was about condemning the massa damnata thesis as necessary for motivating evangelization. I did not want the primary focus to be a debate about universalism but rather a debate about how bestial the massa damnata approach is. That said, I definitely agree with Balthasar although I think Hart’s critique is something that needs addressing. I have read Hart’s book and he and I had a few friendly email exchanges about it. I loved the book and think his arguments are powerful. However, as a Catholic the Church’s dogmatic tradition does not allow me to embrace universalism. Balthasar understood this too. Furthermore, I think at issue too is that I just don’t think we are given to know who is not saved, or if all are. Still, Hart’s book is powerful and I encourage everyone to read it


  7. It’s worth adding that both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI rejected the “massa damnata” view.

    John Paul said, “Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.” Note the inclusion of the word “whether,” which confirms Pope John Paul II considered the possibility that hell might be empty. When the statement was included in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the word “whether” was removed by editors, but its original inclusion affirms that Pope John Paul II personally held this outcome to be a real possibility.

    Benedict XVI said in, “Spe Salvi,” that “for the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself . . . The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. . . . This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.” His implication seems to be that “the great majority of people” are not damned.

    At Word on Fire, we’ve put together a helpful FAQ on von Balthasar and the “dare we hope” question here: https://wordonfire.org/hope

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    1. All great quotes and I wanted to use them, but at 4500 words the post was long enough. But the site you sent to me from Word on Fire that has those quotes should get a link in there somewhere. When I get a chance I will do an edit.


  8. Thank you for this. This blog (and Word on Fire too) has done a lot in guiding me back to the Church in the past year. I was away from it for a while, felt the existential stirrings to return amidst the coronavirus, and I admit it was disorienting to come back to a Church with, as you put it, 1) a liberal “hippie Jesus Catholicism” wing 2) hyper, hell-obsessed traditionalist wing. You do a great job cutting through the noise. This is probably hardly a novel take, but I can’t help but think that most of this is driven more by a view that it is American politics and culture wars that are the true spiritual warfare and eschatology of the day, and that the Catholic Church is beholden to Americanism, not vice versa. This is prevalent among Catholics, even though few would admit it. It is conceptually easier to fit Christ and His Church within the bounds of American politics/culture, than to view American politics and culture in light of Christ and His Church. Everything in American media encourages this basic binary. And the theologians that do transcend this easy binary (Balthasar, Barron, not to mention JPII and Benedict), it is not so easy to put them into the 2021 American left/right divide–so the traditionalists, already (understandably and rightly) fed up with a Church of cultural appeasement will cast anything or anyone in the fire that has, to their mind, a whiff of that cultural appeasement–Balthasar’s and Barron’s speculations on hope and salvation are of course far from that, but what can the traditionalists do when their central binary is Left vs. Right and there can be nothing that transcends this sacred division? The liberals, of course as you noted, are guilty of this as well–in my experience, their view is that a Catholicism that is not strictly about social justice and social justice alone, is not the true Church. I agree with you though on them too–they’re not nearly as influential in Catholic circles as the traditionalists.

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    1. Kate, your post is using a binary, tradtionalists and liberals, which translates in most minds to Right vs Left. In fact, it is hard for me (us) to think any other way, it has become ingrained. I am surprised that you think the liberals are less influential in Catholic circles – they often seem to run the institutions. Maybe they are less likely to attend mass?

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      1. HI Michael–that’s true and thank you. I suppose my point is that American politics and culture wars have so engulfed our minds–and how could it not, we are bombarded by it–that all of us, even (especially?) Catholics have a tendency to put American politics and culture wars (is there any difference between those things anymore?) as above Church teaching, so that the Church teaching is subservient to the “real” eschatology of Left vs. Right in 2021 America. Few would admit this, but I think it is a real problem, and I catch myself falling into that trap a lot. Regarding your second point, you’re right that a lot of the liberal Catholics do run the institutions–but I think the recent surge of anti-Vatican II, anti-Barron, anti-Balthasar etc., sentiment captures a lot of the (justified) anger that non-liberal Catholics feel–that same spiritual exhaustion that comes from seeing our Church watered down to mere social justice platitudes and cliches and cultural appeasement that comes from the liberal Catholics who run the institutions. This is why I think they’re more likely to be influential–not because of institutional power, but because, in the face of spiritual malaise and corruption in the hierarchy, they burst on the scene as the bold brave ones decrying the laxity and returning to tradition–taking, of course, the baby out with the bathwater. To the many who are disillusioned with a “hippie Jesus” Catholicism, they are attractive in a fervent, populist way.

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  9. But I do not believe for one minute that she told them that most people are in Hell because of sins of the flesh. I could be wrong about that, of course, but it is a message that does not sit well with my conception of the hierarchy of deadly sins.

    But you and the Fatima children can both be right, since a hierarchy of severity and ubiquity are two different things.

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  10. Magnificent. One of the most compelling description/exposition of sin that I have ever read. With this clarity, I can see in my own life what needs remediation and work to cleanse. Thank you.

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  11. From his essay on Creation, Hart says: to know the good is to desire it insatiably…. I just finished rereading the book of Revelation, and through the lens Hart offers the Good News finally makes sense. Jesus Christ is THE Good news. St Augustine’s declaration that there is only one answer to my restless heart is not a hoped for consolation, but a declaration that All Shall Be Well; All manner of things shall be well. Thank you for this post; the infernalist prophets of doom need to be answered; it is appreciated.

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  12. Wow. Just wow. So much to unpack here. I come from a Catholic Charismatic background, stemming from Ralph Martin and his contemporaries. There are already a lot to discover in that world which is not so much mine anymore. I’d like to think I’ve retained whatever charism I had before but it seems God and his plan is beyond and beneath any offset or upset within the walls of binary or non-binary spaces. Maybe I’ve become spiritual AND religious. In fact, if not for Bishop Barron and others along his spectrum of thinkers & doers of “integrative liberation”, I probably would not have continued on this journey to finally become a spiritual director/mentor after almost 10 years of ministry/missionary work for a charismatic community. God wanted MORE. So yes my hope is as great as Balthasar’s or St. Paul’s or any saint; this is what I tell my friends, believer & non-believer alike. Hope is real. I pray we can surrender to God like this daily, in the sight of angels, demons, and men.

    † St. Joseph, patron saint of the hidden life, pray for us.

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  13. Dr Chapp, thanks for this enlightening post. As I see it, you are arguing that Balthasar’s work has immense value even if he might have erred on the question of eternal damnation. You make a good point that it isn’t just hell that has been forgotten, but heaven also, and any real sense of the supernatural. That “wannabe celebrity” Fr Mark Goring has a couple of videos where he urges listeners to try to imagine the joys of heaven every single day. I was talking to a friend quite some time ago, and the passage “…Jesus…for the joy set before Him endured the cross…” came up, and we asked the question what do we imagine is set before us, and our answer was we have some concepts like living forever, seeing God and our deceased relatives, and so on, but that it’s quite vague.
    With regard to hell, I don’t want anyone, not even Hitler, not even DB Hart, to go there. But I feel that if nobody is really eternally damned, then I have been taught a false doctrine, and this would make me think that the Catholic Church cannot be trusted. “Infinitely improbable” means no occurrences, but could perhaps be read as a poetic statement of Von Balthasar’s estimation of God’s mercy, not a mathematical statement.
    I have started reading “The Moment of Christian Witness”, and find it both intriguing and difficult. It doesn’t give me any indication that the writer would believe in “cheap mercy”. In fact, just the opposite.

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  14. this is a strand of thought in _i’m not correcting anything you’ve said just posing my own thoughts on the matter_response to the following statement: “but i feel that if nobody is really eternally damned, then i have been taught a false doctrine . . . ”
    So with that said, there is no question that the Church demands that hell be taken as real and that we are eternally powerless to free ourselves from its confines.
    What if catechism 1821 and Our Lady of Fatima’s imploring that all be saved from the fires of hell especially those most in need of His mercy are statements of what needs to happen because we are all already damned (John 3:18)

    In one sense John 3:18 means that the Church hasn’t spoken falsely; rather, She has described what is actually true in this moment and without the intervention of Jesus Christ, will be true forever: we are damned / in hell, even now, outside of the Truth of His Life, Death, and Resurrection.

    if we imagine the number of humans ever conceived, lets imagine it’s a trillion people, then an empty hell represents the application of His Incarnation to one trillion lives and each one is an ineffable miracle; not a single rescue from Adam’s Lament is a common unremarkable event.
    but, here’s where i think the massa damnata tends to overlook the enormity of what is asked of us if it be true. for a single one of those trillion souls to be lost is also an ineffable thing. to imagine that the One Who Is, the One Who tells us in Isaiah 49 that His love is greater than the love of a mother for her nursing child, to imagine that this Triune God can be thwarted is for me in this moment something i cannot fathom. I cannot fathom how the One for whom we were made will fail; everything He has done seems to indicate that He will not take no for an answer. In saying this, i don’t mean for one instant that you can’t make the argument for how we could resist; yes, the mechanism of resistance can be described and our wickedness and stupidity are forever sources of amazement, but when St Paul says: every knee shall bow, there’s nothing to indicate that that has to be understood as a forced bow rather than a joyful surrender to the Good we were made for and freed from the slavery of sin do desire insatiably. Or when St Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, there is nothing stopping us from understanding this truth as the answer to our argument that we will be the one to resist the love of God. Nothing, not my addictions stupidity selfishness or pride will ultimately be able to prevail against the love of God. and here is where it gets scary, scandalous even, i realize that this means that i may be tempted to and even engage in behavior where freed from the fear of hell i take advantage of God’s grace and live even for one second in apparent willful deliberate sin, but what i’m saying here is that even this heinous act is not enough to thwart God’s love, no matter how fiercely i call His love a lie, still He says: You are my beloved and My desire is for you.
    ok, i guess what i’m saying is that the massa damnata forces me, like hopeful universalism does for you, to call into question the Church’s trustworthiness, for if what the Church preaches of Jesus Christ is true, then how can it be possible for it to fail so completely, how can His love be so easily thwarted; every soul in hell represents a failure of Creation and the Cross, even if i frame hell as my own choice.

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    1. myshkin, thanks for your comments. I can certainly do the thought experiment, and wonder how I could be happy in heaven if I can see people I know in eternal torment. Seems that I just wouldn’t be happy. But it might just show my inability to fathom (to reach a depth) the full evil of sin and the depth of God’s justice. We are taught that God is both just and merciful. The Catholic “both” not just the one. I think faithfulness involves accepting teachings that go against our feelings. And of course, I am certain that eternal damnation has been taught.

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      1. That works for me. I’m at a little bit of a different place than you in terms of conclusions, but i appreciate your, for lack of a better word, caution. These things are sacred things / holy things and i should always remember to take my shoes off; i for one can certainly get a little too exuberant.

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  15. Well, I was anticipating all the clever comments I was going to make about this post when I opened Saint Faustina’s Diary at random (it’s part of my daily beauty routine) and read entry 741, which happens to be her vision of hell. You should read it (you can Google it).
    Towards the end she writes: “most of the souls [in hell] are those who disbelieved that there is a hell.” Which makes sense, since if you don’t believe in hell you don’t believe that your choices and actions have permanent consequences; you do not believe that your earthly life has a transcendental meaning, i. e. you are a de facto atheist.
    How best to present this reality to a jaded, self-indulgent world, I don’t know, but if I may make a specific suggestion for the evangelization of the world, Larry, why don’t you choose your favourite HUvB book, wrap it as though you were sending it to your best friend and send it to Ralph Martin with an invitation to meet and discuss it? Maybe throw in some produce from the farm. He is your brother after all.

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    1. So would it be weird if i offered some dueling Diary Paragraphs starting with paragraph 873 where she asks Jesus to save every soul that died that day. read it, it is amazing. He says yes. I did a google search for obits on that day January 8th 1937 to look at all who died that day and marveled at how this completely random saint had a hand in their salvation. One of the things this paragraph confirms for me is that the mystics, as they draw closer and closer to Jesus become outlandish in their conception of Christ’s salvific omnipotence, so rather than worrying about universalism, st faustina behaves according to what she knows and she does the Noah and Moses intercession with the difference being that hers is successful through Jesus Christ, so i would offer this: pray for the souls of the world, dead or alive, as though the love of Jesus Christ is omnipotent, and don’t forget to pray for Judas. Pray as though every time you ask Our Lady to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death it actually accomplishes that for which you ask.
      Ok, now check out paragraph 1486, conversation with a despairing soul where the saint explains that in His conversation with a despairing soul the following happens: Then the mercy of God begins to exert itself and without any cooperation from the soul God grants it final grace . . (Jesus) gives the soul a special light by means of which the soul begins to understand. . . that this is for her a final grace and should she show even a flicker of good will the mercy of God will accomplish the rest . . For me this is in perfect consonance with David Hart’s point that true freedom requires true knowledge; now, who knowing that there were no more chances would not offer a flicker of good will; i think we all know that we would probably take Him up on His offer of grace if we knew beyond all doubt that it was the last chance.
      Finally i want to say this, as the saints draw close to the love of God they are almost always moving towards universalism in their ecstasy; is this proof, no, but it is is fascinating that the deeper one falls into Divine Eros, the more one sees restoration as the only reasonable answer. 3 quick examples. See Julian of Norwich in her famous section on all shall be well; Jesus makes that glorious statement because Julian is baffled by sin; having seen the love of God and heard His peace, she can’t fathom how sin plays a role; His answer: All shall be well. Then look at the famous quote from St Catherine in her dialogues: It’s as though thou wert mad with love for your creatures. It’s important that we don’t just not hear her; what has impelled her to this exclamation. Finally check out the marvelous gem in St Anselm’s third prayer to Mary: so much good has come into this world through the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb, but Lady why do i only speak of the benefits with which you fill the earth? they go down to hell, they go up to heaven, for through the fullness of your grace those in hell rejoice that they are delivered . . . . . o woman uniquely to be wondered at, and to be wondered at for your uniqueness, by you the elements are renewed, HELL IS REDEEMED, DEMONS ARE TRAMPLED DOWN AND MEN ARE SAVED, EVEN THE FALLEN ANGELS ARE RESTORED TO THEIR PLACE.

      now forget for a moment about anything but what drove Anselm to write this: contemplating the implications of Mary he Exclaims these universalist thoughts, because coming face to face with the love of God makes its nearly impossible to imagine how a love that stunning could possible allow someone He loves much more than me to uselessly suffer forever. Finally, nothing i’ve said here proves universalism, my only point is that as the mystics draw close, a lot of them are overwhelmed by the love of God and it makes them sound like hopeful universalists; even if you can’t accept that, still what could it hurt to contemplate a God who elicits that level of exuberance from those who are madly in love with him?


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      1. Myshkin, a thought on St Faustina’s request. God knew from all eternity who would die on that day in 1938, and he inspired St Faustina to make the request for that day.


      2. To M Cashman. you make a wonderful point about God’s knowledge in regard’s to St Faustina’s request for salvation for the souls who died on Jan 8th 1937, and I can only say, yes yes yes. Thanks for making that point, it’s a thought that will have me smiling all day, just amazing. Peace

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    2. Just as Balthasar and von Speyr should have been viewed by Martin. As his brother and sister in the Lord. Instead, he accuses them of succumbing to satanic deception. Not sending him any free books. Lol. However, I disagree that if you don’t believe in a populated Hell that it will cause you to be morally lax. Because even if you think all will eventually be saved, the process whereby you get there will still involve a lot of purgation, pain, and suffering that you will want to avoid. Furthermore, there is the issue of “levels” of beatitude in Heaven where your capacity for beautitude will be greatly amplified depending on how you act in this life. Finally, there are two great world religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, that do not have a concept of an eternal Hell, but opt instead for a quasi purgatorial concept of successive reincarnations rooted in the moral law of Karma. I think it is a false “talking point” to keep insisting that unless we insist on eternal damnation for some or many that there is no “incentive” to the moral life. What a restricted and diminshed view of the moral life such a view presents!

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      1. Well, Larry, be your grumpy self then. But I still think you should extend a hand (rather than a fist) to Martin, specially if you agree with him in other areas.
        I agree that fear of hell is not the way to spread the Good News, but it may be a case of good news-bad news. The good news is that this life has eternal consequences; the bad news is that this life has eternal consequences. We may not like it much but it is what it is.
        ‘Hard universalism’, a complete restitution to an initial state before the fall, before Satan’s rebellion, is and will always be incompatible with Christianity, because if the Alpha is identical to the Omega, then whatever happens in between, the entire history of creation and redemption, is pointless and meaningless. If there is an ultimate complete restitution at the endpoint, then an omnipotent God could have saved Himself the trouble of the intervening process – and us the suffering of this ‘valley of tears’. Hard Universalism is a rejection of the suffering in our lives, and of suffering as an intrinsic part of God’s Will (remember Jesus’s words in Gethsemane – the Cross is explicitly the Father’s will).
        The levels of beatitude is a different matter, and maybe they make it possible to adhere to a ‘soft universalism’ and conceive some kind ’empty hell’, or at least a ‘depersonalised hell’, which does not contradict a meaningful creation and redemption. But there are other considerations (leaving aside the testimony of so many saints and mystics). One of these considerations is that God does not forget, and that for God ‘memory’ and ‘existence’ are one and the same. Whatever God remembers has actual existence. God knows all our sins, and so our sins exist for ever. What happens if we do not reject our sins -i.e. if we do not repent? Do we then not become ‘trapped’ in our sins for all eternity? The damned in hell may not suffer because they are tortured by an angry God, but because they are angrily torturing God. The damned may be damned because they cannot forgive God for the suffering in their lives, because they cannot forgive God for having created them.
        In the end, I think the question is not whether we should or should not talk about hell, but that we should remember that we believe things we do not fully understand and for which we don’t have all the answers – that faith is a lamp which is bright enough to illuminate a few steps ahead but no more.


      2. I assure you I have my reasons for not reaching out to Martin and it has nothing to do with my “grumpy self.” And since you are handing out suggestions here is one from me to you: police your own life and leave mine to me. I post my posts in order to analyze ideas and movements. And if I needed first to “reach out” to everyone I criticize (Voris, Marshall, Vigano, and Martin, et. al.) then I would never get anything done. Also… Martin knows how to reach me. My email is public. If he wants to talk then we will talk. Otherwise, quod scripsi scripsi.

        Furthermore, you misconstrue universalism as a mere return to the beginning. It is not. Because the restoration of all things in Christ involves the elevation of creation into a higher order than what obtained at the beginning. Hence: O Felix Culpa! And none of it is automatic but involves the full and dramatic use of human freedom in the appropriation of God’s grace in Christ.

        You are welcome to post on here all you want. But if you insult me personally again and start telling me what I should be doing as a Christian (especially since I am someone you do not know personally) then I will delete your posts. I am very open to fraternal correction from those who know me best. But not in my blog’s combox from perfect strangers. Thank you.


  16. Thanks Dr Chapp, this is hopeful, challenging, and scandalizing.

    I’ve appreciated the little I’ve read of Balthasar. I’m scandalized by the Ralph Martin quotes- I recently purchased Ralph’s book, “The Fulfillment of all Desire” and will now read it differently.

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    1. Read it with an open mind. I think many of Martin’s books are very good. Even his latest, Church in Crisis, is a good analysis of things. I just strongly disagree with his calumnies against Balthasar and von Speyr in chapter 8.


  17. “We believe that the Church is necessary for salvation, because Christ, who is the sole mediator and way of salvation, renders Himself present for us in His body which is the Church. But the divine design of salvation embraces all men; and those who without fault on their part do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but seek God sincerely, and under the influence of grace endeavor to do His will as recognized through the promptings of their conscience, they, in a number known only to God, can obtain salvation.”
    – Pope St. Paul VI, Credo of the People of God

    In the old days the Church used to use Pius IV’s Professio fidei Tridentina as a test of orthodoxy for Catholic theologians and converts. I think the modern Church would benefit greatly from using St. Paul VI’s Credo for the same purposes.

    By the way, Larry, not sure if you are aware but Ralph Martin is part of the Charismatic Movement. He’s not a Traditionalist in the least, and is very enthusiastic about the Second Vatican Council. Sure, there are Traditionalists who share his views on this topic, but personally every Trad I’ve ever met has been far more hostile toward the Charismatic Movement than toward von Balthasar.


    1. Oops… read too quickly. Obviously you’re aware Martin is a charismatic. My apologies. That said, my point that Trads are more hostile to charismatics than von Balthasar fans is I think true. I know many Trads who will readily admit that von Balthasar can be read with great profit, but they’d rather be caught dead than “speaking in tongues”.

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  18. “Rather, the laxity comes from a lack of faith in the existential reality of Heaven”.
    I think that’s spot on, Dr Chapp. That’s why we’re so reluctant to leave this world. We ought to be eager to meet the Lord, if we truly believe that being finally able to see God face to face is the most glorious thing there is.

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  19. Dr. Chapp,
    A few stray observations;
    1) Going after the likes of Cupich is what one of my old theology professors likened to “shooting caged turkeys with a bazooka. It’s good clean fun, but it’s too easy.”
    2) I’ve been reading Robert Royal’s “A Deeper Vision” and Matthew Levering’s “Ressourcement After Vatican II”; highly recommend these books to any Catholic struggling to understand ressourcement theology and the intellectual currents around V2, this puts them in perspective, and demonstrates that, for all the shenanigans perpetrated at the council, orthodoxy won. It wasn’t a very impressive victory, but nevertheless…
    3) I remember how surprised I was several years ago when Fr. Aidan Nichols was a hero to so many trads when he signed the letter calling out the Holy Father for tolerating heresy. Had they not read Christendom Awake, with its heavy reliance of both JP2 and Balthasar? I have been encouraging my trad friends to read Fr. Nichols and Stratford Caldecott, who combine both a love of the usus antiquor and the best of pre-conciliar theology with a reading of ressourcment. It can be done, it just takes some work.
    4) If I had the ability to time travel, I’d travel back to Basel, and beg Fr. von Balthasar not to write “Dare We Hope?” That one little book is overshadowing his bigger legacy, IMHO.

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    1. Wow! The “heresy” of hopeful universalism. That sounds even stronger than Hart’s treatment of that same topic. I can’t wait to read this. I am bogged down right now in finishing a text for a review that is due soon. I will get to your essay soon! I also want to read your blog post on reconciling universalism with the Catholic dogmatic tradition. I am also going to be posting a follow up blog post on this topic soon as well so I am desperately trying to juggle all of my publication commitments with the time needed to write the blog carefully.


      1. Haha. I confess to composing a clickbait title. My only excuse is I’ve been blogging a long time. 🙂

        I welcome all criticisms of both parts 1 and 2 (which hopefully will be published sometime next week).

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  20. I see here at times the idea that if any souls are lost, this implies a limit to divine mercy. Or a limit to divine omnipotence. I don’t see why. Suppose an extremely rich man offers you any amount of money you desire. He says just drive to the bank and withdraw it. But you say, no I’m not willing to drive to the bank. Does this mean that his offer is “limited”. No – you just were not willing to accept it. The same with divine mercy – it is unlimited, but must still in some sense be accepted.


  21. It is interesting to note the similarities between Saint Faustina’s vision of Hell and Saint Teresa of Avila’s own vision of hell 400 years earlier. Of course, if you want to play the skeptic you could say that Saint Faustina was just rehashing Saint Teresa’s vision. Not being a skeptic where Saint Faustina is concerned, to me the most striking similarity is the reference to an ‘interior fire’, something which also connects these two visions to the vision of hell described by Sister Lucia of Fatima, in which the souls of the damned are cast about by flames that come from *within* them.
    Again and again, there is a fire that burns from within – a fire that has its source in the interior of the damned soul. Could this fire be hatred of God?
    When we are told to love our enemy we forget that, ultimately, our greatest enemy is God. This may sound shocking, but whatever bad happened to you in life, whatever suffering was caused to you by an ‘enemy’, it was at the very least allowed by God, if not actively willed by Him (because although God never wills evil, the suffering that results from evil is not in itself evil, as the Cross teaches us. Evil is not God’s will, but the suffering that arises from it, is). We may be preparing ourselves to grovel before God and beg His forgiveness when we meet Him, but are we ready to forgive Him first?

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  22. I believe part of the disconnect on this issue is tied to the terminology. What is “reasonable hope”? I Bishop Barron does a nice job addressing this point with his “FAQ” on this point at Word on Fire.

    Does Bishop Barron teach we can have a “reasonable hope” all will be saved? If so, what does he mean by “reasonable”?

    “Yes, Bishop Barron is convinced we have a “reasonable hope” that all will be saved. But the first step in assessing and critiquing a view is to understand the terms of the view as its proponent is using them. It’s important to note how Bishop Barron is using those two words in this context (“reasonable” and “hope”).

    First, he means reasonable in the sense that we have good reasons to ground our hope—namely, the cross and Resurrection of Jesus and his divine mercy. He isn’t making any sort of probabilistic judgment, as if to say reasonable means “very likely” or “quite probable.”

    Second, we should recognize hope to mean a deep desire and longing, tied to love, for the salvation of all people, but without knowing all will be saved, thinking all will be saved, or even expecting all will be saved.

    Bishop Barron does not hold any of these alternative views. He does not know all will be saved, he does not think all will be saved, and he does not expect all to be saved.”

    Based on this statement, I believe Bishop Barron is 100% orthodox and clearly within the bounds of Catholic doctrine. The ultimate problem with von Balthasar’s speculation on this point is that it goes well beyond Barron’s clarification, as Dr. Chapp notes: “I do not share all of Balthasar’s conclusions with regard to the topic of Hell (nor does Bishop Barron for that matter) and consider his assertion that it is ‘infinitely improbable’ that human freedom can resist the divine offer of grace in the long run a bridge too far.”

    However, my personal experience (and it is just my personal experience) is that the vast majority of Catholics – including many Churchmen and theologians – appear in practice accept something close to what von Balthasar proposes and Bishop Barron expressly disavows: i.e., something closer to “knowing,” “thinking” and/or “expecting” that all (or at least the very vast majority) will be saved. This kind of soft universalism is just as off-base, in my opinion, as the massa damnata view. The truth is, only God knows who, and how many, will be saved. At the same time, we know that he wills that all be saved (1 Tm 2:4) and we pray in the Our Father that his will be done.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Dr. Chapp –
    I agree with you, generally, that we will catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Clearly, your many years of experience in the classroom supports this conclusion. I see some online rad-trads calling for the preaching of hellfire and damnation, but rarely have experienced anything approaching this at Mass or from any authority figure in the Church. Quite the opposite in fact. I think we receive a steady dose of what H. Richard Niebuhr called a God without wrath, who brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross. Indeed, its seems that Catholics have become so accustomed to this God that even the slightest hint of the reality of God’s wrath, the need to repent of sin, the possibility of judgment, or the requirements of the cross results in vocal and strident backlash. Woe to the poor priest who dares to mention such realities in a homily – and not just from parishioners but even, possibly, from his bishop.

    It is worth noting that Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is generally credited with igniting the First Great Awakening. This revival movement was not Catholic, of course, and clearly had its theological deficiencies, but it did start an evangelical fire that burned for decades and resulted in many deep conversions among American Protestants. One key aspect of the theology behind this movement was the concept of “conviction of sin.” The basic concept was that people generally are not receptive to the grace of conversion until and unless they come to grips with their need for salvation – i.e., that one’s “default” position is “down,” not “up,” and so a conversion and acceptance of Christ’s grace and mercy are necessary to avoid the wrath of hell.

    I want to be clear: I am not advocating that some version “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” be delivered as a homily at Catholic masses. But I do want to offer an anecdote. I recently attended the wedding of a niece who’s fiancé (now husband) is in an ordained baptist minister, working on a PhD. His dissertation is on the theology of John Edwards. The groom’s cake was even in the form of book with “John Edwards, Vol 1” written in icing on the top. I will just say that circle of young people who attended this couples’ wedding were clearly on fire for the Lord.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. The difficulty is how to convince anyone that they are a sinner without also convincing them that you have made a negative personal judgement about them.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. May I commend this interview with Michael McClymond?


    I have wanted to read his recent magnum opus on universalism titled The Devil’s Redemption but have not been willing to pony up the $70 to purchase it. In this interview about the book, he makes some interesting comments about von Balthasar’s “hopeful universalism” which resonate with me.

    Again the question is one of terminology. He points out that the Christian theological virtue of “hope” involves not just wishing for or desiring something, but a “confident expectation” or “firm belief” that it will come to pass. This seems to be close to von Balthasar’s ultimate position given his speculation that it is “infinitely improbable” that any soul can resist God’s grace in the end.

    I realize that Bishop Barron has specifically stated that he rejects this part of von Balthasar’s thesis (as have you). But this does put him in a difficult spot in defending “Dare We Hope?” against its detractors. First of all, he can only defend von Balthasar up to a point, while rejecting his ultimate (albeit “speculative”) conclusion. And, in order for even this truncated defense of von Balthasar to work, he has to employ a different definition of “hope” than that of the Christian theological virtue of hope (i.e., stating repeatedly in his FAQ that he does not “know,” “think,” or “expect” that all will be saved). Instead, he defines “hope” as “a deep desire or longing.” Adding the qualifying adjective “reasonable” to this definition of “hope”, complicates things even further.

    Of course, I agree that we should take whatever is good from the work of theologians while recognizing that even the greats get some things wrong. My question as to von Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope?” thesis is whether the defense is worth the effort. It can be confusing and it presents a stumbling block for many people. No doubt, “Dare We Hope?” has been used by some to promote the sort of soft / practical universalism I mention below.

    McClymond quote from the interview:

    “Essentially, my argument is that there are well-defined positions of universal salvation and particular salvation, and Balthasar’s effort to forge an intermediate view does not hang together conceptually. We should distinguish between wishing for something and expecting it. There are any number of things I might wish for that I would not expect to occur—for instance, that there might be no violence on earth in the coming year. Yet the biblical virtue of hope involves not only wishing but expecting something—even confidently expecting something—on the basis of God’s promise. When we turn to universalist “hope” or “hopefulness,” my question is this: Does this “hope” involve confident expectation that all will be saved? If so, then I would not call this “hopeful” universalism but “assertive” or “affirmative” universalism. I would ask further: On what divine promise is this confident expectation based? Is there such a promise by God to save everyone? Conversely, if universalist “hope” does not involve confident expectation that all will be saved, then the phenomenon falls short of biblical “hope” and might be thought of as a form of mere “wishfulness” or “wishful thinking.” … In the final pages of The Devil’s Redemption, I suggest that Christianity is a religion of hope—and that the proper kind of hope is a “hope for each” rather than a “hope for all.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. McClymond asks upon what promise is this confident expectation based? There is a strange phenomenon among human beings in which we read the Bible, yet don’t really understand or see what we are reading. I think of converts from Protestantism who say they read pro-Catholic verses in the Bible dozens of times, but only after converting to Catholicism did they really “see” what was being said. Apparently McClymond suffers from the same presuppositional blindness whereupon he can read “In Adam all are condemned, in Christ all live” (Romans 5: 15-21) or “All are reconciled unto God” (Col 1:20).or “Jesus died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).and yet somehow still come to the premise that most will wind up going to hell.

      One wonders also if he – and his fellow hellists – consider the full ramifications of human history, from creation to the eschaton, if an eternal hell of torment is really true. As Hart says in his First Meditation (forgive me if I mistate his position in my simplistic understanding), if God, who is complete and in need of nothing, created the cosmos and all in it Ex Nihlo, foreknowing that mankind would fall and by doing so, doom billions of sentient creatures to an eternity of the most horrid misery, then He did so with that being the goal. A divine being who would do such a thing is a monster beyond all horrific description. Yet hellists blithely talk about Him being love, as if love would do such a thing to sentient beings – creating them for no other reason than to suffer in order to display His glory and power (the Calvinist paradigm). No horror that man could do would match such an act of pure malevolence.



      1. “A divine being who would do such a thing is a monster beyond all horrific description.”

        Are you caught up on the fact that humans (as opposed to fallen angels) may go to hell? Why would it be any less monstrous that God would send fallen angels to hell than humans? Yet the existence of an eternal hell and that Satan and the other fallen angels will spend eternity there are de fide teachings. Are you saying you reject these de fide teachings?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Don: “Are you caught up on the fact that humans (as opposed to fallen angels) may go to hell?”

        Yes, every person with a formed and informed conscience _should_ be caught up on–and deeply troubled by–the “fact” that humans may go to hell, as it calls into question the character of God as absolute and infinite love. The “hopeful” universalist position within the Catholic Church is powered by the conflict between informed conscience and magisterial teaching. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian: ““It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created.”


        Liked by 1 person

      3. Dear reluctant

        Re: “…doom billions of sentient creatures to an eternity of the most horrid misery”. This is rhetorical. We don’t know how many is “many”. On the one hand, I think that Hart would make the same allegation against God if hell held only one person. On the other hand, look at how vast the universe is, and how long it has already existed. Even if billions of sentient creatures are damned, they might be a minute fraction of all the sentient creatures that will have existed.

        About God, creation and hell: “…then He did so with that being the goal”. This doesn’t follow, because we can seek goals that involve consequences we do not want. For example, when we build a house, we may destroy the trees that stood there before, but our goal wasn’t to destroy the trees. If some (or many) people are in hell, we would trust that God has done this to achieve a greater good.

        I read your article – long on rhetoric, and accusations of dishonesty against the “infernalists”, and you say that hell is a “Roman Catholic fantasy invented by Augustine in his despicable view of human beings” which is a slander against the saint. I noted your view that first century Jews who heard Jesus speak about Gehenna would have gone home at night thinking about a rubbish dump! Please consider the possibility that a first century Jew might have thought the rubbish dump was being used figuratively to refer to something else.

        Liked by 1 person

  26. I’ve been following this thread since day one. I have noticed a common feature. Most critics of universalism have not read the universalist literature (whether patristic or contemporary) and therefore understand neither the universalist position nor objections to the doctrine of eternal damnation. I offer this suggestion: if you are going to engage the universalist position, please first acquaint yourselves with the literature. It just so happens that I have pulled together a long list of readings, which you can find here: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/. I’d also be happy to make specific recommendations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks you so much for this Fr. Kimel. I have been reading your various blog posts on the topic over at your site and think you are a very important interlocutor in this discussion. So many thanks for joining the conversation. Perhaps we can collaborate in the future. I have been in contact with David Bentley Hart and have had some very interesting conversations with him. He is, quite simply, one of the most brilliant writers out there right now on this topic. And I encourage everyone to read his book too in order to get a better grasp of what universalism teaches. I still have issues with universalism from a dogmatic point of view, as I have expressed to David. it is not a big issue in the East, but in the Roman communion it is since there is a dogmatic tradition that appears at least to run against universalism.

      Liked by 1 person

  27. Here is a nice Spanish song which sounds early Renaissance to me. Nice music and some interesting theological points re. hell and final judgement in the lyrics. At the very least it is interesting as a sample of the culture that shape (or some may say distort) the ‘West’ when Christianity was its dominant force.
    Btw, a very interesting channel -despite an undeniable fire and brimstone flavour- if your musical taste extend that far back.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I was able to press the arrow in the middle of the picture, and hear the song.


  28. Terminology

    In some of the discussions about universalism, we find something like “Universalist Mr X does believe in hell, he just doesn’t think it is an eternal state”. For Catholics this is incorrect use of language – hell is an eternal state by definition. For a state where a sinner is in torment but will eventually be saved, our word is “purgatory”. So Hart for instance does not believe in hell according to our definition – he only has various degrees of purgatory.

    Appeal to the writings and visions of mystics cannot resolve the issue either, because the universalist can say that they saw a temporary state of suffering (to Catholics Purgatory) but they mistook it for something eternal. And of course, if the mystic sees an empty “hell”, then somebody could argue that they saw purgatory after all the purgation has finished, not hell.

    If an explicit universalism becomes widespread in the Catholic church, then we might need a council simply to define what the word “eternal” actually means.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the point of what ‘eternal’ means in this context is an important one, and I think using temporal terms is confusing and not helpful. It would be beneficial to update some theological terms now that our understanding of time as a physical property is better (although by no means complete) than it was when these concepts were coined. Eternity is not something that lasts ‘infinitely’ – an infinite sequence can only happen in time-space (or rather, *not* happen in time-space, as infinite sequences do not happen in the physical world, for all that mathematicians tend to get very confused about this – but that’s a different story). Eternity is not infinite since infinity implies temporality, even if it is an open-ended temporality. ‘Per saecula saeculorum’ can only be seen as poetic language from a time that had a more rudimentary understanding of time.
      A better way to understand this, I think, is in terms of changeable or unchangeable. Purgatory is a state open to change into a different state; hell is not. Hell, if it exists, is an unchangeable state chosen by the soul (and it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about hell without examining carefully what we mean by ‘soul’) with full knowledge. Is this choice possible? If you believe in the Devil, then it must be. The Devil rebels against God despite seeing Him ‘face to face’, despite having full knowledge of his own choice. And this is another problem with Universalism, that the denial of hell leads to the denial of the Devil and, ultimately, of evil itself. If evil is wiped out in the Apokatastasis, then it never really existed, as something that has 0 consequences cannot be said to exist, at least from our understanding of what existence means.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t see why “full knowledge” is necessary. I think “adequate knowledge” would be a better formulation of what is needed for responsibility to exist.


      2. For what is is worth, I believe that all created beings are temporal beings. Only God is eternal, i.e., timeless. This point is reinforced by the confession of the resurrection of the body. To be embodied is to be temporal. Here I agree with Paul Griffith. See his book ‘Decreation.’

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I agree that only God is eternal, but we cannot forget that salvation is union with God – we, corporal/temporal creatures become partakers of eternity through union with God in Christ (and only in Christ). Whatever doubts we may have about our bodies, I think it is undeniable that the resurrected Jesus has a body, a body born in history, in time. But this same resurrected Jesus is the Son, second person of the Trinity, God and therefore eternal. I don’t see how it is possible to say that there is a contradiction between corporality, having a body (which is born in time), and being eternal/timeless (through union with God).
        Same as it is fundamental to reflect on what a soul is, so it is with the concept of body. What is a body? That is actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer. ‘A pattern of information exchange’ or ‘a pattern of communication’ may be the closer we can get to a definition.
        Personally, I think the ‘carnis resurrectionem’ is the body of Christ and not our individual organic bodies somehow reconstituted for no discernible reason. Only the pattern of information conformed to Christ can join said patter of information, i.e. the body of Christ. We refer to this pattern as ‘love’. Only the part of our body which is love can be saved – only our love can join the body of Christ and resurrect (become eternal) in him. This is also why the Virgin Mary’s body is assumed into Heaven, because she is pure love: the pattern of her body is all love and only love.
        And of course, going back to the issue of eternal damnation, how can hell be eternal if hell is not God, and only God is eternal? Only, I’d say, if history affects God. And doesn’t it? What is the Incarnation, the Passion and Death of Christ, if not humanity affecting God? Don’t we say that in his Passion Jesus takes our sins on himself? What happens to those sins? Do they simply disappear or do they ‘become’ hell? I think it is possible to define hell as the empty space inside the wounds of the body of Christ – the way in which that patter of information which is the body of Christ is altered by sin is what hell is; and as the body of Christ is eternal, so is hell.

        Liked by 1 person

  29. ‘Full’ in the sense that no further information will ever be forthcoming, and no necessary information is withheld; hell will not surprise the damned soul, who enters it ‘knowing what it is getting into’. Why would any soul – and again, what is a soul? – do that, that is the question.


  30. Wow just found this blog. A Pearl of Great Price.

    While I would not criticize Martin’s book with the same pointedness you have here, I think you are on the right track. The book does have some very redeeming qualities, and about perhaps 2/3 of it was fully excellent.

    I will only add one observation I made when reading it. Early on, Martin describes the evangelical philosophy of leading with beauty. But then, astonishingly, he abruptly dismisses it with a curt, too-broad-brush disparagement. It probably was the most stunning part of the whole book for me to read. But after reading your piece here, one can only conclude it was a veiled potshot at Barron.

    As the Lothlórien sentry put it, “Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”

    Liked by 1 person

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