Question: Fr. Jacob Neduvazhy
“Thus it is just as possible to maintain that Jesus’ being forsaken by God was the opposite of hell as to say that it was hell (Luther, Calvin) or even the ultimate heightening of hell…. His experience of being abandoned on the Cross is timeless. Here too it is analogous to hell,” writes the Swiss theologian and cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar. How do we understand it?
Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS
It is relevant to reflect about the hell-experience of Jesus on the Cross in the context of similar experiences, though in a different way, by the people all over the world during the Covid-19 pandamic. Certainly, the intensity, quality and significance of such painful experiences like thousands of people not only in this time but also in their everyday life in this ‘valley of tears’ are different in comparison with the excruciating suffering and pain experienced by the Son God as human on the Cross. Those theologians who deal with the suffering of Jesus on the Cross in their theologia crucis or theology of the Cross opine that the height of this suffering is the experience of Jesus that He was abandoned by God, His Abba.
The well-known Swiss theologian Hans Ursvon Balthasar (1905-1988) whose statement we are reflecting on, was a former Jesuit, then a diocesan priest of the diocese of Chur, Switzerland and was named Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in recognition of his theological contributions but died two days before his investiture as a Cardinal. He was from a family of nobles in Luzern, Switzerland and his secular studies secured him a doctorate in German literature and he did his philosophical and theological studies in the Jesuit colleges under well-known Jesuit theologians like Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac. He had a deep knowledge of German literature and philosophy and the writings of the Fathers of the Church especially Origen and Maximus the Confessor. His long friendship with Adrienne von Speyr, a medical lady doctor, a twice-married protestant convert to Catholicism and a mystic with whom he founded the Secular Institute of the Community of St John influenced his theological reflections. She dictated to him insights on Scripture, theology and prayer which were published in 60 volumes of theology and spirituality. Von Balthasar was also a prolific writer. His widely known theological books are: The Glory of the Lord (7vols.) a work on theological aesthetics; Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory (5 vols.) on the goodness and ethics in the action of God and human response especially in the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday and Theo-Logic (3 vols.) on the relationship of Jesus Christ and the reality itself. In spite of his certain valuable insights into the mystery of Christ and the understanding of salvation some of his theological ideas are controversial and some consider them even heretical! Such accusation depends on the criterion they use to judge one’s orthodoxy. However, at his funeral Cardinal Ratzinger, (later Pope Benedict XVI) said, “that he is right in what he teaches of the faith.”
Christ’s Descent into Hell –Its Meaning
Not only during His life time even more than 18 years after his death in 2006 there were debates on the question of Von Balthasar’s theological position concerning Christ’s decent into Hell. Von Balthasar’s statement about it in the above question is part of a quotation from his Theo-Drama, IV. He says: Jesus does experience the darkness of the sinful state, not in the same way as the (God-hating) sinner experiences it (unless the sinner is spared such experience), but nonetheless in a deep and darker experience. This is because it takes place in the profound depths of the relations between the divine Hypostases – which are inaccessible to any creature. Thus it is just as possible to maintain that Jesus’ being forsaken by God was the opposite of hell as to say that it was hell (Luther, Calvin) or even the ultimate heightening of hell (Quenstedt). His experience of being abandoned on the Cross is timeless. Here too it is analogous to hell. This is why its actuality persists through all ages of the world. Jesus’ agony lasts until the end of the world (Pascal); in fact, it goes back to the world’s beginning. His mortal wounds are eternally open (Berulle).. This timelessness is confirmed in some, by those Christian mystics who are privileged to experience something of the dark night of the Cross.” ((Vol. IV, pp. 336-337)).
In the next volume of Theo-Drama he would compare this hell-experience of Jesus like the dark-night experience of some mystics. He says, “Those Christians who are found worthy to experience something of the dark night of Christ’s Cross have a faint idea of what this forsakenness is” (Vol V. p.307). He goes beyond the so called “mythical” or a pictorial understanding of Hell as Netherworld to which Christ has to descend and set free those who are bound by Satan. Inspired by the visions of Adrienne von Speyr, Von Balthasar would describe Jesus’ experience on the Cross as abandoned by the Father is similar to those who lived in intimacy with God and yet experienced abandonment or terrible experience of the absence of God. Many saints like St John of the Cross, St Francis de Sales and in our times St Mother Teresa shared their experience of such painful absence of God in their lives. How is Jesus’ experience of abandonment by His Father opposite of hell? If the term hell signifies the ‘timeless’ experience of absence of God for whom humans are created due to their willful rejection of God’s love during their historical existence, in Jesus’ case on the Cross not only Jesus experiences that God, the Father has abandoned Him, but also God the Father experiences the pain of His Son being abandoned. What would this theo-drama mean? It means that God’s sharing in the history of humans involves that God enters into the darkest and most painful areas of their existence through the humanity of Christ, His Son. It not only reveals the historical suffering of God but also the eternal suffering of God because God is love. Love involves suffering. Von Balthasar’s interpretation of the descent to the hell or to the dead is not as a glorious entry of Christ to liberate the just but it is to reveal the “hell” experience of Jesus on the Cross which every human being for whom God is the ultimate meaning of his or her life experiences in life as well as the meaninglessness of everyone who rejects God’s infinite love for him or her.
In his theology of the Holy Saturday, Von Balthasar, is very much influenced by the visions of Adrienne von Speyr. According to him Jesus does not enter hell with glory and splendor in order to rescue the Israelites of the past generations but as the crucified Son of God experiencing the abyss of dissolution and the depth of nothingness and dramatizes this as the farther and farther separation from the divine life of the Father, indeed, the experience of hell. But a large number of theologians consider Jesus’ descent into hell is not to suffer but to proclaim victory.
Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter, Salfici Dolorissays: “When Christ says: “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”, His words are not only an expression of that abandonment which many times found expression in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and in particular in that Psalm 22  from which come the words quoted. One can say that these words on abandonment are born at the level of that inseparable union of the Son with the Father, and are born because the Father “laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” They also foreshadow the words of Saint Paul: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin.” Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the “entire” evil of the turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of His filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. But precisely through this suffering He accomplishes the Redemption, and can say as He breathes His last: “It is finished” (No. 18).
The reference to the descent of Christ to liberate those who were believed to be in a state of waiting for salvation after their death is expressed in 1 Peter 3:18-19. “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison…” Again,“For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God” (1 Peter 4:6). In the Letter to Ephesians also we find reference to Christ’s descent to this world of the dead. “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, ‘When He ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?”( Ephesians 4:7-9).
In the Apostles’ Creed and in the Athanasian Creed Christ’s descent to the dead is a creedal statement. The apocryphal book, the Gospel of Nicodemus has a section called Acts of Pilate which describes the descent of Christ to the world of the dead. The Fathers of the Church like Cyril of Alexandria too affirm this as the part of the Christian faith. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when He descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before Him” (CCC 633).
Expressed in the apocalyptic, metaphorical and symbolic language, the descent of Jesus to the dead or to the Hell can be the affirmation about the reality of Jesus’ offer of salvation or liberation extends to all humans who lived before the Word became human and all after Him till the end of time and all those contemporaneous to him. In the Pauline use of the Hebrew theology of the “Corporate Personality” or the “Inclusive Personality” applied to Jesus would mean that Jesus Christ includes everyone. Therefore, both His Person and his work of salvation affect every human being irrespective of where or when they lived or live! But does it mean that all will be saved whether they lived a more or less righteous life or whether they hard core sinners who lived without God or rejected His love? Von Balthasar’s theology of Jesus’ descent to hell, in its final analysis, can draw a positive answer to this question. Then hell can be empty!
Is the Hell Empty?
In the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, there is a controversial indication that God saves everyone both the righteous and sinners at the end! It is a consequence of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, taken into Himself the “timeless” experience of the abandonment of God. Von Balthasar believes that any human being can be led by a final grace to freely willed repentance in some point in the process of dying and God’s mercy would finally save that human person. He is in favour of the theology of “universal salvation” or apocatastasis proposed by Origen. According to Origen human souls are kept in its pristine purity in heaven and at the time of conception a human body is given this soul and after human life and death this soul will go back to its original state. In the fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople this theology of apocatastasis or universal salvation was condemned. The reason was that it offers the possibility to human beings to live as just or sinful, good or bad life but eventually it would not have any consequence for one’s life after death. Von Balthasar bases his theological opinion on the Pauline universal salvific will of God. I Tim 2:4, “This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” There are theologians in the East and in the West who hold similar theological perspectives. However, Von Balthasar was careful in holding his opinion that Hell might be empty as merely a hope but even this claim was not acceptable to the traditional Catholics including A very Dulles who was also as a theologian named as Cardinal.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1035). Here again, though, the apocalyptic, metaphoric and evocative language of the New Testament is used to express the belief of the Church concerning the destiny of those who have rejected God and His love during their earthly life. The everlasting separation from God for those who reject God is always a possibility. Therefore, the Church does not teach that the Hell is empty!
Going beyond the theological postulates of Hans Urs von Balthasar on the hell-experience of Jesus, the Son of God, on the Cross, the question of the meaning of hell and how it would reconcile with the infinite mercy of God would always remain an issue for theological debate. Therefore, the ambiguity concerning the possible actualization of the universal salvation as desired by God (I Tim 2:4) remains unresolved. The possibility of eternal separation from God would remain a possibility as long as humans have the God-given freedom even to say “No” to God and His infinite love. This being the case, those who reject God by exercising their freedom to do so, cannot be in communion with God. However, they cannot remain outside the reality of God because outside God there is nothing. Could we say that they continue to be in God without communion with God or with anything in God that their presence in God is equal to an eternal absence. They would be present to God but God is absent to them. Would it not be “the eternal darkness” they are thrown into? Wouldn’t that be the eternal hell for God, a wound in the heart of God, that He created humans out of love and gave them freedom to reject Him. Dare we say, hell is more a problem for God than for humans? Is not Jesus’ experience of abandonment by his Father and His descent into hell an expression of this eternal hell of God?