Balthasar, Universal Salvation, and Ralph Martin’s “Will Many Be Saved?”

The Catholic blogosphere is atwitter with discussion of a recent dustup between Mark Shea and Michael Voris regarding the latter’s criticism of Fr. Barron, over Barron’s continued receptivity toward a theory advanced by Hans Urs Von Balthasar that it is acceptable to have good hope that Hell may be empty. Boniface at Unam Sanctum has the blow-by-blow for those interested.

Appropos of the topic, I have just finished reading Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (Eerdmans, 2012).

The question of whether and how people who have not had the chance to hear the gospel can be saved goes back to the beginnings of Christian reflection. It has also become a much-debated topic in current theology. In Will Many Be Saved? Ralph Martin focuses primarily on the history of debate and the development of responses to this question within the Roman Catholic Church, but much of Martin’s discussion is also relevant to the wider debate happening in many churches around the world.

In particular, Martin analyzes the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the document from the Second Vatican Council that directly relates to this question. Contrary to popular opinion, Martin argues that according to this text, the conditions under which people who have not heard the gospel can be saved are very often, in fact, not fulfilled, with strong implications for evangelization.

I was very impressed by Martin’s survey of the subject and the praise from Timothy Dolan, Francis Cardinal George, Peter Cardinal Turkson and Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P. seems to me warranted.

After a detailed explication of the doctrinal development and scriptural basis of section 16 of Lumen Gentium, Martin proceeds with a detailed analysis and criticism of Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” and the larger part of his book to Balthasar’s Dare we Hope that all may be saved?.

Martin’s negative evaluation of Rahner’s theology was to be expected, howbeit what I found interesting was how Rahner in his later years admitted to some critical reservations about his earlier position — as well as a “too euphoric” evaluation of humanity and the human condition at the Council. Likewise,

So the Council’s decree Gaudium et Spes can be blamed, despite all that is right in it, for underestimating sin, the social consequences of human guilt, the horrible possibilities of running into historical dead-ends, and so on.

Martin’s devastating critique of Balthasar, however, comes as more of a surprise. For even with figures as highly esteemed as Avery Dulles, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict giving a stamp of theological toleration (and/or approval) to Balthasar’s hope for universal salvation — Martin’s detailed exposition of Balthasar’s tendency to ignore, misquote or mischaracterize his sources (whether from the Scriptures, the Fathers or the mystics) as well as his questionable theological reasoning should give pause for all. …

Consider for example:

At this point we can no more than mention that patristic scholars have raised serious questions about the accuracy of Balthasar’s interpretation of these Fathers, particularly his attempts to enlist them as sympathizers or teachers of universalism. Brian Daley, for example, challenges Balthasar’s assertion that Methodius was a universalist. He traces both Origen’s thought and its influence on Methodius and Gregory of Nyssa and he concludes that, not only does Methodius not teach this openly, but he does not even hold it secretly. […]

O’Connor identifies instances where Balthasar clearly misrepresents the teachings of the Fathers in order to claim precedents for his own theory. For example, Balthasar claims:

“Let us return to the Church Fathers. At first, the view still existed among them that no Christians, even if they had sinned grievously, end up in hell. Cyprian already seems to suggest this; Hilary as well; Ambrose remains formal on the matter, and Jerome no less so.”

O’Connor comments:

“This statement is disappointingly inaccurate. . . . There is no Father of the Church, up to the time of Origen, who teaches that all Christians, even those who sinned grievously, are saved.” He finds Balthasar’s citation of Cyprian particularly egregious, for the actual text of Cyprian teaches the very opposite; the Christian sinner who sins grievously and then repents can be saved.138 He also points out that, contrary to Balthasar, the earliest Christian writing outside of the NT that attests to the reality of hell was not the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 156) but the even earlier Second Epistle of Clement …

Manfred Hauke also raises questions about Balthasar’s invocation of various Fathers in support of his theory, noting that it is precisely those ambiguous teachings of various Fathers that were never accepted by the Church that Balthasar cites for support.

Martin devotes a substantial amount of his book to exposing what appears to be, from a standpoint of academic integrity, a rather questionable treatment by Balthasar of myriad sources — the Scriptures, the Fathers, the mystics — in support of a position that is squarely at odds with the weight of Catholic tradition. Indeed, my experience o Martin was not unlike that of reading the late Ralph McInerney’s “Praeambula Fidei”: Thomism And the God of the Philosophers, in which he laid bare Henri De Lubac and Etienne Gilson’s (mis)interpretation of Cajetan and Aquinas.

Is Martin (and Daley, and O’Connor, and Hauke, et al.) correct in his assessment of Balthasar? Balthasar strikes me as being neither ignorant nor a fool, and Martin’s portrayal imputes an element of brazenness in advancing his position, at once professing his orthodoxy and repudiating apokatastasis while covertly hinting at it:

O’Connor describes the situation like this:

Although he rejects the theory of apokatastasis, von Balthasar is so categorical in denying that we know that there are or will be humans who are to be eternally damned, and so forceful in defense of a hope for the salvation of all that he appears to be saying that, in fact, no one will be eternally lost.

Roch Kereszty makes a similar observation:

Does his understanding allow for a definitive free refusal of God’s love on the part of any human being? He repeatedly insists on this possibility, but the inner consistency of his thought does not seem to admit it. . . . My reservation regarding his position comes from the suspicion that the logic of his thought leads not just to hope, but to a (consciously denied but logically inescapable) certainty for the salvation of all.142

The charges practically scream for a rebuttal. (Paging qualified Balthasar scholars …).

For a theological movement that styles itself Ressourcement must be, if anything, honest in the treatment of its sources. If Martin’s critique of Balthasar is correct (as McInerney is in his criticism of De Lubac) — if their scholarship on this particular subject is simply not to be trusted, and found wanting — it casts some doubt upon the integrity of their work as a whole. Where else could they have gone wrong?

At the very least, I do find myself reading the work of both De Lubac and Balthasar with a more cautious eye, and a more attentive ear to those sounding the alarm.

* * *

One final piece of theological trivia worth noting — Balthasar ends Dare we Hope with a lengthy citation from the unpublished theological speculations of Edith Stein, ““which expresses most exactly the position that I have tried to develop.” Stein asserts that while the possibility of the soul’s refusal of grace and consequent damnation in principle cannot be rejected, “In reality, it can become infinitely improbable — precisely through what preparatory grace is capable of effecting in the soul.” According to Stein,

The more improbable it becomes that the soul will remain closed to it. . . . If all the impulses opposed to the spirit of light have been expelled from the soul, then any free decision against this has become infinitely improbable. Then faith in the unboundedness of divine love and grace also justifies hope for the universality of redemption, although through the possibility of resistance to grace that remains open in principle, the possibility of eternal damnation also persists.

But here’s the catch: While Balthasar identifies himself completely with this passage from the saint, Stein herself moved beyond it and revised her position in later years:

Schenk, “Factical Damnation,” p. 150, n. 35, points out that while Balthasar makes this his final position, it was not the final position of Edith Stein herself. Schenk points out that these were passing comments in a work that she herself never published, and that in 1939 in her spiritual testament, she significantly modifies. “The possibility of some final loss appears more real and pressing than one which would seem infinitely improbable.” Hauke, “Sperare per tutti?” pp. 207-8, makes the same point as well as the additional point that not everything a saint or Doctor wrote is honored when they are recognized as saints or Doctors.

Dr. Martin received his BA from the University of Notre Dame in Philosophy and did Graduate work on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Philosophy at Princeton University. He received his MA in theology from Sacred Heart Major Seminary and has been on the faculty since 2002. He holds a S.T.L. degree from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. and an S.T.D. in systematic theology from the Pontifical Faculty of St. Thomas Aquinas (The Angelicum) in Rome. He teaches in the areas of systematic theology, spirituality and evangelization and is Director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization which includes the STL program as well as the New Evangelization concentrations in the MA and MAPS programs.

He has published widely and is engaged actively in Catholic evangelization through the non-profit organization Renewal Ministries, of which he is president. His latest books are Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization and The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints.

In December of 2011 Pope Benedict XVI appointed Dr. Martin to a five year term as a Consultor for the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. In 2012 Dr. Martin was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as an “expert” for the World Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.

Book Reviews of Ralph Martin’s Will Many be Saved?

  • Who Will Be Saved, How Many and How?, by Fr. C. John McCloskey. National Catholic Register 9/28/13.
  • Review: Will Many be Saved?, by Peter A. Huff. Xavier University. Homiletic and Pastoral Review March 2013:

    Martin’s timely and provocative study is likely to shake up the theological and pastoral establishment. Critics will find a scholarship that is derivative in spots, and a prose that occasionally borders on turgid. Some will dismiss the work as biblicist. Historians will demand harder evidence to establish a link between professional theologians’ ideas, and a mood allegedly dominating a Catholic generation or two. The erosion of belief is overdetermined, as Freud would say. One can cease to believe in hell, without marching orders from a German-speaking theologian.

    The thrust of the book’s bold thesis, however, cannot be ignored, or easily denied. Universal salvation is an unofficial article of faith in the mainstream Catholic theological academy. Martin’s claim that it has no basis in the teachings of Vatican II demands a serious and self-critical response. His book restores evangelization to its proper status as a genuine Vatican II theme. Every seminarian, priest, college professor, and administrator should read it. It may not be the best book on Vatican II released during the Year of Faith, but it could be the most important.

  • Oh, Hell, by Dr. Philip Blosser. The Pertinacious Papist 12/14/12.
  • Review: Will Many be Saved?, by Rev. Andrew McLean Cummings. Archdiocese of Baltimore. Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2012.
  • Saving the Hell Out of You, by Fr. Robert Barron. RealClearReligion. 12/13/12.

    Responses to Fr. Barron

  • The Flight from Hell, by William Doino, Jr. First Things “On the Square” 10/08/12.
  • Will Many Be Saved?, by Dr. Jeff Mirus. Catholic Culture 9/19/12. “If you can read only one book on this topic, which is so critical for a continuing Catholic renewal and the salvation of souls, read Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved?. You will find it a valuable exercise in spiritual growth, and a vital means of setting the record straight.”
  • “Blatant Censorship” and Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? – On Mark Brumley’s pulling of David Paul Deavel’s review from The Catholic World Report.

Related discussions of Dare We Hope?

Personal note — I found it refreshing to revisit the research of Avery Cardinal Dulles on this subject (referenced above), where he gives what I think is fair treatment to both sides. Cardinal Dulles had a calming presence about him, conveying a sense of both scholarly neutrality (letting the research speak for itself) as well as Christian charity (presenting each position in the best light and not imbuing the other party with dubious motives).

It seems to me that the voices in these times have gotten increasingly more shrill (Mark Shea and Michael Voris strike me as prime examples). As Catholic blogs renew these theological debates (at times ad nauseum), Dulles’ tone and presentaton is one worth emulating.

And Alyssa Pitstick vs. Balthasar over Christ’s descent into Hell

More to explorer


  1. I sure do miss Cardinal Dulles.
    I grow weary at the extreme positions either recklessly taken or unfairly attributed in this debate. The truth is simple — we don’t know. The Church’s doctrine of Baptism of Desire is not fully developed, and therefore its precise boundaries are simply not known. The Holy Spirit has not seen fit to reveal those boundaries (at least yet). Accordingly, Catholics are free to hope for an expansive application of the doctrine, but are not free to assume it with confidence. This uncertainty may actually be a blessing to the extent it allows us to hope and pray for loved ones who died as non-believers while it simultaneously impels us to share the Gospel and evangelize so that others may be saved. Uncertainty is not always bad. God knows what he is doing.

  2. Brilliant review, Christopher…

    I’ll second that. If the book is half as well-done as this review, it’s worth buying.

  3. This is a faith filled and reasoned reflection on a very important question: “”Will many be saved?” Ralph Martin has established himself as a major theological light in the Catholic Church in America. He joins a growing list of Catholic theologians who are tackling tough subjects and/or texts of the Second Vatican Council that up until this point have not interpreted well.

    Martin has tackled this tough issue/question because on it rests the real understanding of the Church’ mission, especially in the New Evangelization

  4. Botolph, you get too upset with facts, so as you have said previously, please dont read my comments following: “For others (pro multis):
    Von Baltasar was instrumental in influencing many individuals at the V2 Council (Rahner; Schillebeeckx; Congar; others) and in the V2 Concilium commission on the liturgy in the subsequent years in radicalizing the translation of “this is cup [that]…will be shed for you and for all” Instead of the now-corrected version (“for you and for many”). At last a prima facie study of the theological break at Vat2 that tried, and to a great degree has succeeded, in a discontinuous “new theology”, one aspect of which is that “all will be saved” (a viewpoint with which Pope Francis’ recent statements are entirely consonant). Too bad it isnt in line with Catholic tradition. But I doubt Bergoglio worries much about that.

  5. This question is as you all know, not academic. We have loved ones who are living in mortal sin, in peril. Taking our concern to bishop and priest we are given the advice to not worry about it “God won’t let him be lost”

    the universal call to holiness (salvation) includes a universal requirement to repentance.

  6. Anzlyne,
    Yes, and it is because I seriously doubt that repentance is or will be universal (the pride of the fallen angels is sadly shared by fallen men) that I also doubt that salvation is or will be universal. But alas, we just don’t know. We can hope that our loved ones and neighbors, including those “living in mortal sin,” will eventually repent and share in the beatic vision. Just to be clear, we don’t even know with certainty if such repentance must occur in our life on earth. There is much we don’t know, and it is folly and arrogant for us to assume things we can not know. Hope is fine, as long as it is accompanied by an uncertainty grounded in humilty rather than certainty grounded in false confidence and arrogance.

  7. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t von Balthasar’s question (dare we hope that all be saved) related to the question “Was Christ’s sacrifice big enough to save all?”
    Since his sacrifice was infinitely enough, and since we cannot know a soul’s choice immediately after death, we can surely HOPE that all can be saved. THAT is the question. We can HOPE that this is so. But we have free will, and probably, some do not choose salvation. But , on this side of heaven, we must always hope…and pray …for the salvation of ALL. To do otherwise would be arrogant and vain, and we would risk the good of our OWN soul by the limits placed upon God’s grace and mercy. While it is true that it is possible for souls redeemed by Christ to be eternally lost, it is ALSO possible that all can be saved (albeit, as through fire)…the question is whether or not we believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, which opens this “possibility”.

  8. I believe that you are 100% correct, Sari. While I seriously doubt all will be saved, I think it is hard to fathom why we wouldn’t hope for such. Certainly, Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient. Whether all will choose to cooperate through repentence is not for us to know.

  9. “One can cease to believe in hell, without marching orders from a German-speaking theologian.”
    WE know that the devil is in hell. Persons who embrace the devil and reject almighty God are in hell with the devil. To say that there is no hell is to reject the free will that God has endowed to the sovereign human being, and the existence and immortality of the human soul.
    We know that the soul of Jesus Christ descended into hell. God, the Father and the God, the Holy Spirit accompanied Jesus. God, the Father created Hell out of necessity and pity over Lucifer’s betrayal. Jesus has Lordship over Hell, now and forever.
    Jesus is in perfect and pure conformity to the will of God, the Father. Jesus could no sooner reject Himself as to reject His Father and His Father’s love. It is Aquinas’s law of non-contradiction. God cannot and does not contradict Himself. Jesus descended into Hell. Hell rejected and rejects God and Jesus WHO is God. If Jesus was not rejected by Hell, then Hell would have become Heaven. If Jesus is not rejected by Hell, then Hell becomes Heaven. Needless to say, the devil’s free will would have been impugned and annihilated. Hell would have been annihilated and God would have contradicted HIMSELF. Therefore, God would be annihilated unless there is a Hell inhabited by Lucifer, Satan, Legion, and those who go there by choosing to reject God.
    Atheism is Hell.

  10. Sari,Mike and Mary,

    I really enjoyed and fundamentally agree with your thoughts. What we are dealing with here is the Mystery of Salvation. It is a Mystery which means that while we can say what it doesn’t mean, what it really and fully mean will never be grasped and/or understood completely in this life. This is the reason Saint Thomas Aquinas urges us to go beyond the particulars of a dogma or doctrine into the Mystery it is revealing. We cannot cast the doctrine or dogma aside or treat it as “relative”. Instead we need to enter into the saving truth, allow ourselves to. Be grasped by it and brought into the deeper Mystery of our Triune God.

    This Mystery begins in our Triune God, “God so loved the world that He sent His Only Son that those who believe in Him might have life…” (John 3.17). The Mystery of salvation begins within the Mind and Heart of the Father Whobsends His Son and the Holy Spirit “for us men and for our salvation”

    Mankind and each human being finds its/our dignity in communion with the Blessed Trinity. This communion was and has been broken/divided from the very beginning of human history and the moment of our conception. Together, and individually we are in radical need of salvation: communion and participation in the very Life-Love of the Blessed Trinity.

    Jesus Christ has come revealing the Father’s love-mercy and just how much our need for salvation is. Through His whole Life, but especially His Death and Resurrection, Christ has been and continues to reconcile us to the Father and to one another in the grace of the Holy Spirit.

    Over the centuries the Church has guided us away from two extremes: that very few are saved (because this denies the saving will and power of the Trinity) and its opposite, that all are saved (because this denies both the freedom of the human will to actually and willingly reject God, His grace and salvation and it denies the depth and power of the mystery of iniquity-sin)

    We can indeed both hope and pray for the salvation of “all”, but match that with taking up, according to our own vocation and graces (charisms) the new evangelization as well as interceding for and doing penance (especially on Fridays) for sinners

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