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Von Balthasar on Revelation as Absolute Love

I recently finished reading through Han Urs von Balthasar’s incredibly profound little book, Love Alone is Credible. In it von Balthasar explores how Christianity can only be understood to be credible when it is understood on its own terms, namely as the revelation of the infinite love of God in the self-giving of Christ.

Von Balthasar eschews attempts on the part of Christian apologists to make Christianity credible by reducing it to some other criterion outside of its own content as the revelation of God’s love in Christ. He critiques the ways in which Christianity in the patristic and medieval period sought to make Christianity credible within the framework of ancient cosmology (what he calls the cosmological reduction) and how in modernity, the church sought to make Christianity fit within an anthropocentric worldview (the anthropological reduction). In contrast he unpacks the way of Love, which is centered on the Trinitarian self-giving of God in Christ.

This book is a microcosm of von Balthasar’s entire aesthetic and dramatic theology and I highly recommend it. I have included a lengthy quote from the book below which deals with the issue of love and judgment. Given the amount of discussion about universalism in the blogosphere, I think that von Balthasar’s work is quite instructive on that question. This was one of the most moving sections of the book and I think it encapsulates the essence of grace, the infinite grace of the God of Holy Saturday.


But one could raise a weighty objection to gathering the whole “truth of revelation” around the theme of divine love. Isn’t judgment, at every point in the Old Covenant, always the counterpart to love? A “judgment without mercy” (James 2:13) falls on all, not only those outside the narrow bounds of God’s heritage, Israel, but even those within who resist the divine flame of jealous love that elects whom it will. Is not Israel itself torn in two in a horrifying way and placed between Gerizim and Ebal, the mountain of promise and the mountain of damnation (Deut 27-28)? Is not only a “remnant” of Israel that is saved, while it is useless for the rest to implore (Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11)? Jesus proclaims his message of love in relation to this first Jerusalem, irrmediably condemned to the unquenchable fire of God’s wrath (Jer 7:20), and does he not do so without opening up even more horrible abysses than were ever foreseeable by the Old Testament. There, being blessed or happy, like being cursed or lost, could have a meaning only in temporal terms; as long as heaven (Heb 11:40) was not open, there could not be a hell, (bug only as a predecessor to beoth: Hades, Sheol). It is only when that heaven has been opened that eternal hell opens up for the first time. The words are there; they cannot be overlooked and they cannot be hushed up. And the Spirit, the Counselor, will bring the world to understand that there is such a thing as sin, justice and judgment (Jn 16:8). Whatever is found united with the powers of evil, with temptation and Babylon’s destruction of love, will be thrown down together into the pt of fire with the great Babel and the creatures of the abyss, in order to be punished there, day and night for eternity. “This is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of Fire” (Rev 20:9-10, 14-15; 21:8). The ultimate abysses of man’s freedom to oppose God open up at the place where God, in the freedom of his love, makes the decision to descend kenotically all the way into the forsakenness of the world. With his descent, he reveals this forsakenness: to himself, insofar as he wants to experience abandonment by God, and the to the world, which only now measures the entire breadth of its own freedom to oppose God against the dimensions of God’s love. From this point on, it becomes possible to sound out “the depths of Satan” (Rev 2:24). From this point on, true, deliberate atheism becomes possible for the first time, since prior to this, without a genuine concept of God, there could be no true atheism. God’s making himself vulnerable in unshielded freedom yanked man from the shell of an all-encompassing, divine-cosmic Logos and placed him in the nakedness of his own freedom in relation to God, a freedom that points to the Absolute. The Old Testament had been, in this regard, a long and strenuous training period: everything rests on the bilaterally free consent to the mutual Covenant; man can withdraw from it, but so can God, and only when this possibility is thought through and lived through in all of its consequences can the other possibility be affirmed that far surpasses the first, namely, that though God can reject and will reject, in the end, in eternity he will save: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jer 31:3). Therefore, after all of the definitive rejections, the whole of Israel will definitively be saved (Rom 11:26).

The biblical language of the Old and New Covenants is prophetic language, the language of decision. There is a formal unity to the language in both the Old and New Testaments, that is, it is the articulation of a Covenant, and in fashioning this Covenant (since it is a Covenant between the God of love and man, who is always ready to abuse this love), the language must always necessarily present both objective possibilities. While the speculative theology of the Patristic period and the Middle Ages systematized this prophetic ambivalence into a cosmology (and doing so blunted the nub of the words), the anthropological theology of modernity centered this ambivalence around human existence and therefore diluted it in part with psychological and pedagogical categories, in part with existential and logical (dialectical) categories. But in truth, the opening of the flaming abyss of God’s wrath depends on the opening of the firey abyss of divine love, which poured itself out in the Heart that hung broken on the Cross and in the descent into the shadows on Holy Saturday. The supreme threat – coming from God the Father, who as it were gives sinners his supreme love, God the Son – swathes the broken heart like a sheltering cloak; it is a threat not to abuse this supreme gift, because, behind it, there is no greater love to call upon and turn to (Heb 6:4-8; 10:26-31). And once again, the Spirit of Love cannot teach the Cross to the world in any other way than by disclosing the full depths of the guilt that the world bears, a guilt that comes to light on the Cross and is the only thing that makes the cross intelligible. Indeed it is in the God-forsakenness of the Crucified One that we come to see what we have been redeemed and saved from: the definitive loss of God, a loss we could never have spared ourselves through any of our own efforts outside of grace.

But the insights we gain through the Cross can never bring us beyond the Cross: the moment we see our sins objectified before us on the Cross, it becomes all the more impossible to leave the One who died for us to his fate; so loveless a thought reveals our whole evil heart to us, love awakens fear in us, and the terrifying reality of being left behind by God (which is timeless as far as the one abandoned is concerned) shows us vividly that hell is no pedagogical threat, it is no mere “possibility”. Instead, it is the reality that the God-forsaken one experienced in an eminent way because no one can even approximately experience the abandonment by God as horribly as the Son, who shares the same essence with the Father from all eternity.

Thus, both of our eternal lots lie together in his hand: precisely because he is our grace, he is also our judgment; he is our judge and at the same time our redeemer. As Christians, we know that the sins committed in the face of acknowledged love weigh imponderably more heavily than those committed in ignorance; this is why every standard of measurement for our attempts at loving God has been taken away, every systematic oversight
of the outcome of our judgment, as well as the judgment of our neighbor and of the world. In the place of any such system – whether it be one that knows “cosmologically” that, in Christ’s judgment, a certain number will enter into heaven and a certain number will enter into hell, or on that knows “anthropologically” that the threat of hell can be meant only as a pedagogical aid and that “everything” will ultimately turn out well – the Christian is entrusted with something far more valuable: Christian hope.

This hope is to be clearly distinguished from purely human hope, since it cannot be described in terms of uncertainty or calculations of probability, but like faith participates in the unconditionality and universality of love (“love believes all things and hopes all things” [1 Cor 13:7)] and thereby leaps over its own shadow (“hoping against all hope [Rom 4:18]). As a spiritual and not merely instinctive act of the human being, it remains a paradox that reason cannot resolve and becomes understandable only when we take it seriously as a modality of love, at least as the beginnings of a love modeled on God (a “supernatural” love). Doing so, we come to see it as the only attitude that can be permitted for the one living by the sign of the Son of Man, which will “appear in the clouds” (Mt 24:30; Rev 1:7) and will be God’s final “Word” to the world after heaven and earth have passed away (Mt 24:35).

We are therefore not required to bring a systematically conceived hell into harmony with the love of God and make it credible, or indeed to justify it conceptually as love (and perhaps merely as the revelation of self-glorifying divine justice), because no such system could be constructed out of a possible “knowledge” apart from or beyond love and at the same time related to it. We are required only not to let go of love, he love that believes and hopes and through both is suspended in the air so that its Christian wings may grow. Soaring in the air, I also necessarily experience the abyss below, which is only part of my own flight. Similarly I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely than my own.

A love that fails to recognize the infinite distance of reverential fear before the majesty of God’s love on the Cross would have every reason to doubt itself, so too would any love that no longer contained any fear of judgment. Perhaps this love would have claimed perfection for itself in light of 1 John 4:17-18, but if it did so it would have failed to take seriously the disturbance in Jesus’ soul and his sweating of blood before the Passion (Jn 11:33, 38; 12:27; 13:21; Lk 22:44). As one who is troubled, Jesus can, in love, console the apostles ho are also troubled (Jn 14:1), and in whose midst the traitor sits. The Redeemer in his anxiety no longer desired or was able to make a distinction between his own innocence and the foreign guilt of those for whom he atoned; likewise the man who in the trial of love joins God’s love in suffering both for his own guilt and that of the world will no longer be able to distinguish clearly what causes his anguish: the only thing clear is that he has every reason to be anxious for himself.

And thus whoever simply refuses to she his eyes to the abyss of hatred, despair, and depravity that can be seen in the life of men on earth, and thus who refuses to close himself off from reality, will find it difficult to contrive his own escape from this damnation through a purely individualistic conception of salvation, to abandon everyone else to the grinding wheels of hell. Just as God so loved the world that he completely handed over his Son for its sake, so too the one whom God has loved will want to save himself only in conjunction with those who have been created with him, and he will not reject the share of penitential suffering that has been given him for the sake of the whole. He will do so in Christian hope, the hope for the salvation of all men, which is permitted to Christians alone. Thus, the Church is strictly enjoined to pray “for all men” (and as a result of which to see her prayer in this respect as meaningful and effective); and it is “good and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved…, for there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself over as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:1-6), who, raised up on the Cross “will draw all men to himself” (Jn 12:32), because he has recived there a “power over all flesh” (Jn 17:2), in order to be “a Savior of all men” (1 Tim 4:10), “in order to take away the sins of all” (Heb 9:28); “for the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Tit 2:11), which is why the Church “looks to the advantage of all men, in order that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:33). This is why Paul (Rom 5:15-21) can say that the balance between sin and grace, fear and hope, damnation and redemption, and Adam and Christ has been tilted in favor of grace, and indeed so much that (in relation to redemption) the mountain of sin stands before an inconceivable superabundance of redemption: not only have all been doomed (the first and the second) death in Adam, while all have been freed from death in Christ, but the sins of all, which assault the innocent one and culminate in God’s murder, have brought an inexhaustible wealth of absolution down upon all. Thus: “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32).

Amen and Amen.

2 Comments

  1. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Halden, wow that’s really great. I think I’ll have to read it over again about six times, but it is full of insight. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Thursday, October 12, 2006 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Thanks. I’ve re-read that chapter about 6 times myself. It’s a thing of beauty.

    As is your new boy, by the way. Those pictures are great. Hope you and Marcia are doing well.

    Thursday, October 12, 2006 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

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