Love Hopes For All As It Works For All

Love Hopes For All As It Works For All June 21, 2017

Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? systematized the basic criticism many have had concerning modern theologians who have hoped that many, if not all, might end up saved.  Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner are central to Martin’s book, where he believes their theological opinions, even if they end up not being heretical, have hindered Christian evangelization because of their hope that those who do not affiliate themselves as Christians can still be saved. Martin suggested that from their hope a type of universalism emerges which thinks that all will end up being saved and so there is no longer any need for formal evangelization:

One reason why evangelization may be stymied is that there seems to be in the minds of many Catholics, and other Christians as well, a lack of conviction that being a Christian is really necessary in order to be saved. If it is not really necessary to become a Christian in order to be saved, why bother to evangelize? [1]

Martin reluctantly admitted that there is some room in the Church’s teaching to believe that some who, in their life, did not join the Christian faith might yet find themselves among the saved: “Of course, this lack of conviction finds a certain basis in the Church’s own teaching. The Church definitively teaches that it is possible for non-Christians to be saved without hearing the gospel or coming to explicit faith in Christ.”[2] But, Martin is clear: we must not rely upon such exceptions; we must know that those who do not hear the Gospel do not receive the help, the grace, which the Gospel provides, making it much harder for them to be saved. So, for Martin, we must acknowledge with fear that many, if not most, of humanity risks being lost, and those who suggest otherwise, must be criticized as harming the Church’s mission: “The reasons for the command – namely, that the eternal destinies of human beings are really at stake and for most people the preaching of the gospel can make a life-or-death, heave-or-hell difference – needs to be unashamedly stated.” [3]

Photograph by Henry Karlson
Photograph by Henry Karlson

Martin’s reading of Balthasar and Rahner is highly distorted, indeed, outright misleading; neither is, as Martin suggests, a universalist. My book, The Eschatological Judgment of Christ: The Hope of Universal Salvation and the Fear of Eternal Perdition in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, takes on Martin’s reading and criticism of Balthasar and demonstrates, through it, how Martin and many like him create a strawman presentation which hinders the actual points which Balthasar makes through his theologizing.

But that is not our interest here. Rather, I find Martin’s mercenary attitude towards God and the Christian faith to be troubling. If people convert solely out of fear of hell, or for sake of some great reward, with that alone ending up as the basis of their following God, they have failed to follow Christ. They prop up themselves and hold on to themselves and look after themselves above all things. To evangelize employing such self-centered justifications for being a Christian undermines what it means to be a Christian and so fails to properly convert the listener to the Christian faith itself, a faith which tells us to pick up our cross, die to the self, so that we can love God and be loved by God. What he offers is a view of God which is also quite unlike God, where God is seen like a tyrant who demands worship and obedience instead of entices it out of his inner beauty and the awe we experience in his presence.

True, conversion away from sin, and the possibility of perdition as a result of sin, can be and should be a part of evangelization, but they should all be subsumed into the higher order which does not give way to the caricature of God as tyrant found in many atheistic criticisms of the Christian faith. Those who see through such a childish notion of God will not be convinced by such evangelical methodologies as suggested by Martin, but rather, turned away in horror, so that even if they end up believing such a God is possible, they would deny him love because such a God does not appear to be the God who is love.

By Dr. Manuel at de.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Dr. Manuel at de.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Maimonides was clear, such a way of viewing God is detrimental to following God in and with the love God desires out of us. We should serve God, not out of fear, nor because we think we will be rewarded by God as if we charm God and convince him to give us his gifts because we played along with his demands, but because we love him:

Let not a man say, “I will observe the precepts of the Torah and occupy myself with its wisdom, in order that I may obtain all the blessings written in the Torah, or to attain life in the world to come; I will abstain from the transgressions against which the Torah warns, so that I may be saved from the curses written in the Torah, or that I may not be cut off from life in the world to come. It is not right to serve God after this fashion for whoever does so, serves Him out of fear. This is not the standard set by the prophets and sages. [4]

The person who loves God, will do what is right because it is right. They will follow God out of love, and do what God suggests, not because they fear God, but because they know God loves us and what he suggests is suggested out of his love. Love promotes not only the right attitude towards God, but the right way to engage praxis. We can follow the motions, do what is said to be done, but out of the wrong intention and so be far off from the truth – it is an illusion of goodness which imitates the true good, but without the depth of grace found in the communion of love between God and humanity, that external activity remains hollow, and unworthy of a true follower of God:

Whoever serves God out of love, occupies himself with the study of the Law and the fulfillment of the commandments and walks in the paths of wisdom, impelled by no external motive whatsoever, moved neither by fear of calamity nor by the desire to obtain material benefits; such a man does what is truly right because it is truly right, and ultimately, happiness comes to him as a result of his conduct. This standard is indeed a very high one; not every sage attained it. It was the standard of the patriarch Abraham whom God called His love, because he only served out of love. It is the standard which God, through Moses, bids us achieve, as it said, “And thou shalt love the Lord, thy God” (Deut. 6:5). When one loves God with the right love, he will straightway observe all the commandments out of love.[5]

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in his classic, On Loving God, presented four stages of our engagement with God; the first two, the lowest, each represent is a lowly love mixed with selfishness and fear, where God is loved but God is loved for what he offers less than for God himself. This is why God is also feared, because the person fears the rejection of God, and with it, the consequences of such rejection. Thus, the person goes from loving themselves seeking all the goods they can get for themselves, to loving God for the goods he offers. Yet none of it is truly loving God for the right reason. They could help someone start on their path to God, but neither of them are our proper end (and so all evangelism which relies upon these notions fails to provide the proper foundation for faith because it keeps the one being evangelizes within the sin-bound egotism which prevents true conversion to God). It is only with the last two levels of love that true love for God emerges. The person is to love God without measure, loving God because God loved them first, that is, because God’s love changes them so that they can love God freely, without reservation, and without seeking anything for themselves in return:

This love is acceptable because it is given freely. It is chaste because it is not made of words or talk, but of truth and action. It is just because it gives back what it has received. For he who loves in this way loves as he is loved. He loves, seeking in return not what is his own, but what is Jesus Christ’s, just as he sought not his own but our good, or rather, our very selves. [6]

Already indicated in this response, then, is the move to the fourth way of loving God, which is to love ourselves, and all that is in the world, all of creation, because all these things are loved by God. We love them, including ourselves, freely and without expectation; we desire what is good to be given to all things, because love seeks the good for the beloved; but unlike the first stage, we do so without selfish expectations, without putting ourselves first. We return to the world full of God’s love for the world because God is the focus and center of our love, and through him as the center, we find ourselves then united to all things in him and his love:

From this point that fourth degree of love can be possessed forever, when God is loved alone and above all, for now we do not love ourselves except for his sake; he is himself the reward of those who love him, the eternal reward of those who love him for eternity.[7]

Thus, the words of al-Shushtari are relevant:

I am content in the Creator, upon him I rest.
In him I am joined, in him I am separated, in him
I desire him.
In him I see, in him I hear and my soul is in his hands. [8]

We love God, and in God, we see and view the whole of creation, seeing God in creation and creation in God. It is this which should motivate us to evangelize: we evangelize out of love, to spread the love of God, to encourage the response of love back. True love is itself the goal. True love does not turn us into self-seeking mercenaries who wants the gift of salvation for ourselves and would cry out if others are blessed with it; true love will see all things in the light of God’s love, and so will work to spread that love, to come to the world in and through that love, hoping for all things to be integrated and raised up in that love. That is why there is the hope for the salvation of all and yet why there is no denial of evangelism: proper evangelism is from the fourth, highest, kind of love, where the person in God turns to the world and loves the world as God’s creation. It is full of compassion, and mercy; indeed, to the one who knows and loves God, hate and fear will fall away and as long as either remain, the love of God remains impure, and so the evangelism itself will remain impure.

“I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear” is the principle by which we should live and act in and with God.[9] Evangelism, proper evangelism, engages it and establishes it as the basis for true conversion to God. It is the conversion of love. It is the conversion which knows all things only in the light of love. It is hopeful. It is elevated. It lifts us up and then brings us back to the world so that we can share that love and lift others up in it.

Only love remains,
ask it and it shall answer for me.[10]

Without love, the basis of evangelism is lost. Without love, we are nothing. And so whatever conversion is had without that love, will itself end as nothing as well. While hell and brimstone preaching might make people fear God and so seek to appease God, it does not truly provide proper conversion to God. This is why the hope that all might be saved, whether or not they will, does not counter evangelism at all.


[1] Ralph Martin, Will Many Be Saved (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2012), 5.

[2] Ralph Martin, Will Many Be Saved, 5.

[3]Ralph Martin, Will Many Be Saved, 204.

[4] Maimonides, The Book of Knowledge. trans. Moses Hyamsom (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1981),92a.

[5] Maimonides, The Book of Knowledge, 92b.

[6] St. Bernard of Clairvaux , “On Love God” in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works. trans. G.R. Evans (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 77.

[7] St. Bernard of Clairvaux , “On Love God” 84-5.

[8] Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari, Songs of Love and Devotion. trans. Lourdes Maria Alvarez (New York: Paulist Press, 2009), 61 [“My love is beyond compare”]

[9] From the Sayings of St. Anthony in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 8.

[10] Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari, Songs of Love and Devotion,  56. [“Only Love Remains”]



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