In the wake of all the controversy revolving around Fr. Baron’s remarks about von Balthasar, I thought it would be appropriate to try to add an Eastern voice to all this commotion.
All this aggression and name calling with regards to von Balthasar’s universalist hope raises an interesting question, why are we so bothered by the idea of hell being empty? Most arguments against this manner of thinking about the unfortunate part of the here-after makes a claim that von Balthasar (and Fr. Barron in turn) is going against the Holy Tradition of the Church. To determine the validity of this claim, let’s go to the Tradition.
To understand the Eastern view of this topic, we should consider it valuable to work from the beginning and make our way forward.
St. Gregory of Nyssa:
In the works of the great Cappadocian Father and theological powerhouse of this early period of the Church. In St. Gregory’s work, we find a view of salvation of a similar strain to that of Origen. While it’s true that Origen was condemned as a heretic, it is important to realize that this was because of his belief in the pre-existence of souls (which was his justification for universal salvation), not because of his universalist themes themselves.
St. Gregory makes it clear, however, that his writings do not indicate any sort of certainty that all men will be saved, but rather that there is a possibility that all men may be saved, since it is the will of God that all men should return to Him.
St. Issac the the Syrian:
Another theological giant, not of the abstract sort of St. Gregory, but of the more practical and ascetic sort, St. Isaac re-iterates a similar sentiment to that of St. Gregory, but adding that if in fact there are persons bound to the eternal torments of hell the door is locked from the inside. It is not God, in his “immutable justice” who has “rightly condemned them to this anguish,” but rather they themselves who have placed themselves there, having refused the love and grace of God all their lives, and continuing this into the here-after.
Twentieth century Elder and Athonite monk, St. Silouan, also adds something fundamental to this discussion. In his discussion with a particular hermit, the hermit expounds his joy with those who have been horrible people getting what they deserve in their torments in hell. Disappointed with the hermits conviction that people “deserved hell,” St. Silouan asks him how Christian love can endure the pain of the thought of there being people in hell, thus, he says, “we must at least pray for all.”
Thus, in my, albeit fallible, understanding of the Eastern tradition, I present a possible manner of considering those departed who are of ill report; that they need our prayers. Truly it is possible that there are souls trapped in the eternal torments of hell, but it is incumbent upon us (as von Balthasar explains, and Tradition backs up) that we should have hope that all men might be saved. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (Jn 3:17)” As such, we should pray for the salvation of all mankind, especially those who we might want to say “deserve hell.” Both living and departed, those whose salvation concerns us should be in our prayers.
We should never dwell with glee at the torments of those who “deserve hell,” this is not Christian love, but rather it is the bitter resentment which many critics have come to associate with Christian morality (and not entirely without justification). As such, hoping in the damnation of anyone, is wrong, and even perhaps heretical. We know that hell is real, through Scripture and Tradition, but it should be our utmost hope, in Christian love, that all men, no matter how awful, have somehow opened themselves up to the salvation which God has offered to them. No one knows the internal life of a man, except he himself, and God.
It is important to remember the torments of hell, for in fact we can know of at least one soul who truly “deserves hell,” our own. With our sins ever before us, we should always seek out the Lord and His forgiveness, working out our salvation in fear and trembling, and loving our neighbor and praying for them, and seeking their prayers for us, never hoping for their damnation any more than we would hope for our own.