When Pope Francis said last year, “The good Lord will save everyone,” not many Catholics seemed to notice, despite the enormity of the statement. Perhaps after nine years we have grown so accustomed to him saying things that seem unusual for a pope, the impact has been blunted. Nevertheless, his profound claim deserves theological examination, even as we acknowledge that he was expressing his opinion and not delivering official Catholic teaching as the bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter.
Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has been on a trajectory of doctrinal development regarding questions pertaining to salvation. Understood in the light of this trajectory, the pope’s bold assertion is less surprising—though it was at least somewhat surprising, especially since he made the assertion without (explicit) qualification. Two high-profile conservative Catholic theologians of the twentieth century had already broached the dangerous topic of universal salvation: Hans Urs von Balthasar and, more cautiously but under Balthasar’s manifest influence, Pope John Paul II. Let’s explore that history, beginning (as usual) with Vatican II.
I explained in my previous posts about salvation that one of the most distinctive theological developments of the Council is what Fr. Karl Rahner and other theologians have dubbed “salvation optimism” (heilsoptimismus for Germanophone readers). This is the belief, attitude, or presumption that many people need not be Christians to be saved, so long as, moved by God’s grace, they try to follow their conscience (Lumen Gentium 16): “what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom 2:15 RSV). And no one but God alone can judge what is in another person’s heart (cf. 1 Sam 16:7).
It does not follow from this that everyone will be saved, since not everyone follows their conscience at all times. Indeed, no one does (see Rom 3:23; 1 John 1:8). At best, the universal availability (or possibility) of salvation suggests only that many people may be saved as opposed to only a few (and not every Catholic theologian even agrees with this). This is the view of former Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in his encyclical on hope: “For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God” (Spe Salvi 46). Unlike what the words of Pope Francis seem to indicate, Benedict does not believe that God will save everyone, for he also wrote: “There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves” (ibid. 45). He then refers, without naming any, to historical figures who fit this description (perhaps bringing to mind people like Hitler or Stalin). Earlier in his theological career Ratzinger was also known to have disagreed with Balthasar about this.
Objections to universalism
This brings us to the first of two fundamental objections to the belief in some kind of universalism. The first is the argument from human reason and experience, which says that it would be unjust for God to save everyone, because at least some people surely deserve to go to hell. I’ve been interested in universalism since I first became a Christian at the age of 17. I remember saying something about this to my non-practicing Protestant parents, one of whom said hell must exist because heaven exists and you can’t have one without the other. I believe that this common-sense thinking represents the viewpoint of the vast majority of Christians.
The second objection is from divine revelation. Numerous biblical passages, in harmony with the above-described human reasoning, indicate the sorts of people whose final destiny is hell. Two proof-texts will suffice here:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate men, nor men who lie with men, nor thieves, nor greedy people, nor drunks, nor abusive people, nor robbers will inherit God’s kingdom. (1 Cor 6:9, my translation)
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Rev 21:8 RSV)
These passages state that people who habitually commit certain grave sins will not be saved unless they repent. Indeed, the message of repentance is the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus warned people: “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). He told them not to fear those who can kill the body, but rather fear God, “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28; cf. Luke 12:5). We know that Jesus used the Aramaic word for “hell,” Gehenna, because the people who wrote the Gospels left it untranslated in the eleven instances in which he uses it (Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:18; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). This word originally referred to a valley called Hinnom (e.g., Josh 15:8), but in early Judaism, as seen in the Gospels, it refers to postmortem firey punishment. It is reasonably rendered as hell in some English translations of the Bible, though it’s often left untranslated, being a foreign word.
For the vast majority of Christians who reject universalism, the argument from reason and the complementary argument from revelation are more than sufficient to prove their point with certainty and finality. Indeed, in arguing such people rarely go beyond simply quoting the above passages as infallible, self-evident proof. But those among us who argue for some form of universalism are well aware of these passages and arguments. Indeed, we have probably spent more time thinking about them than the average Christian.
There are two main types of universalism, which I will call the dogmatic and the aspirational. Dogmatic universalists believe as a matter of doctrine and theology that God will save everyone. Aspirational universalists, on the other hand, have a sincere hope that God will save everyone, because God desires it (cf. 1 Tim 2:4) and no one can thwart his omnipotent will: “In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you” (2 Chr 20:6). This is hope in the proper Christian sense, because it is founded on God’s promises, which cannot fail. It is not just human optimism or wishful thinking.
Dogmatic universalism is associated principally with Origen of Alexandria, a church father who lived in the third century, and aspirational universalism with the aforementioned Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Love him or hate him, canonize or anathematize him, Origen was the most influential theologian who lived between Paul and Augustine. Unfortunately, his exact views are lost to us because the vast majority of the thousands of works he wrote have not survived. This is partly due to their extraordinary size and partly because he was condemned as a heretic at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in the sixth century.
The emperor Justinian had a list of heresies of the sixth-century Origenists drawn up, which included the pre-existence of souls, universal salvation (even of the devil), and the belief that the stars are alive. There is contradictory evidence about how many of the condemned propositions Origen himself had held. Furthermore, modern historical studies have cast doubt on whether Justinian’s anathemas were ever formally adopted by the Council. The 20th-century Catholic reappropriation of Origen is premised on the difference between the speculative, non-definitive nature of the historical Origen’s views and the later, dogmatic views of the condemned Origenists.
Origen’s basic eschatological concept is expressed in the philosophical axiom that “the end must be like the beginning.” Just as God created all things good and in union with himself prior to the fall, in the end he will bring all things back into unity with himself. The thinking here is perhaps as common-sense as that given for hell: God, being perfectly good, would not abandon any of his creatures forever, but will keep bringing them back to himself until he has restored goodness to the entirety of his creation. He will not allow evil to continue to exist forever.
Just as the human reasoning about the necessity of hell is supported by Scripture, so there are several scriptural passages, from Jesus, St. Peter, and St. Paul, that seem to support this view that God must ultimately reconcile all people to himself. In Acts, Peter uses a Greek word that has become a shorthand name for Origen’s theory: apokatastasis, which means restoration:
[Jesus] must be received into heaven until the times of the restoration of all, which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets of old. (Acts 3:21, my translation)
Paul refers to all people being saved in his letters. It is enough to quote 1 Corinthians 15:
For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. . . . so that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:22, 28 NRSV).
These passages seem to support the thinking that God will not stop until he has restored the entire universe and the entire human race. Not only some will be made alive in Christ, but all will. Nor can this be interpreted as the wicked rising for judgment, for although those destined to hell could be made alive again by Christ, they cannot be said to be resurrected in Christ. To be “in Christ” in the writings of Paul means to be in loving communion with him, to be conformed to his image: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). Furthermore, God will not be in only some people, Paul says, but in all people. All people, not just some, will be “restored’ after Christ returns to heaven. In this, Paul makes us think of Jesus’ own words: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
Various interpretations can and have been given to explain these passages—or at least explain them away. Notably, in some passages, Paul seems to indicate that not all will be saved:
For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. (Rom 2:6-10)
Here he sounds just like Jesus and other Jews of the time, who spoke of a twofold judgment: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:45). This is first found in the Book of Daniel: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2).
I do not know how Paul reconciled his universalistic eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 with the more typical dualistic eschatology of Romans 2. I wonder why, when specifying the opposite of immortality, Paul says “wrath and fury” without the word eternal used by Daniel and Jesus. The only time eternal punishment is mentioned explicitly in the Pauline corpus is in 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (RSV). Catholic biblical scholars are divided over whether that letter was written by Paul himself or posthumously in his name by one of his companions. We probably should assume that Paul means that God’s wrath will be eternal—after all, immortality is forever. But when I consider the passages about wrath in light of his passages stating that all will be saved, I wonder whether his omission of the word eternal in Romans 2 is in fact deliberate.
Regardless, this speculation leads us to the counterargument that dogmatic universalists use to interpret the many unambiguous passages that warn of eternal punishment for the unrepentant. According to Origen, God will punish sinners in this life as well as in the afterlife, but not forever. He believes that all divine punishment by its nature is medicinal. God does not punish us out of anger, for God, being pure and perfect spirit, has no emotions and cannot feel angry. Rather, he punishes us to make us better, to show us the error of our ways and draw us back to himself. Origen is on solid biblical ground here, for the Bible says this more than once:
My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves the one he loves. (Prov 3:11-12 = Heb 12:5-6 NRSV)
Therefore, dogmatic universalism is in no way a denial of God’s wrath or divine punishment; it merely specifies that the goal of such punishment is rehabilitative and therefore temporary. The more hardened a person is by repeated sin, the longer the punishment will last, but no one will outlast God in his infinite patience and mercy.
As we saw with Benedict XVI, the response to this is to say that it is possible for a human being to become so hardened by sin as to reach a “point of no return,” when they have “totally destroyed … their readiness to love.” And the universalist replies back that God is omnipotent and therefore, if God desires someone to be saved and restored, that person cannot stop him. And the dualistic counter to that is to say that God respects our free will, restraining his own omnipotence, and permits us to remain eternally closed to his love. People may find one or the other side of this debate more persuasive without being able to change someone else’s mind.
The second type of universalism is aspirational: we hope that the Lord will save everyone, but we do not lay it down as a proposition of faith that he will certainly do so. This view was expressed and defended by the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, particularly in his short book Was dürfen wir hoffen? (What can we hope), which was translated into English and published by the conservative Catholic publishing house Ignatius Press in 1988 under the title Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? That was the same year Balthasar was named an honorary cardinal by John Paul II, though he died two days before the consistory was held! Because of Balthasar’s view, he was condemned as a heretic by “traditional” Catholics. On this he remarked, “If I have been cast aside as a hopeless conservative by the tribe of the left, then I now know what sort of dung-heap I have been dumped upon by the right” (Hope, 19-20).
Balthasar’s understanding of the hope for universal salvation is that it is properly theological hope in the Christian sense. That is to say, it is not a merely human wish or longing. It is thus more than “salvation optimism.” Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope:
Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promise and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. (1817)
This theological hope is directed toward heaven and is in fact universal:
In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere “to the end” (Matt 10:22; cf. Council of Trent: DS 1541) and to obtain the joy of heaven. … In hope, the Church prays for “all human beings to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). (Ibid. 1821)
It appears that the wording of the Catechism in this paragraph was influenced by Balthasar and John Paul II. The hope of universal salvation is not idle or vain, for it is founded on the universal salvific will of God (1 Tim 2:4) and the promise of Christ, as expressed by the Apostle Paul: “Just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be made alive. . . so that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor 15:22, 28). Because of this theological and biblical foundation, aspirational universalism cannot fairly be dismissed as wishful thinking, irresponsible, “modernist,” or otherwise heretical.
Also included in the English version of Balthasar’s book is a translation of an essay he wrote called Kleiner Diskurs über die Hölle (A Short Discourse on Hell). In one of its strongest portions, he lampoons the many implausible distinctions scholastic and neo-scholastic theologians used to interpret Paul’s universalism. Please indulge a lengthy quotation:
What … becomes of the statements in which God’s redemptive work for the sinful world as undertaken by Christ is represented as a complete triumph over all things contrary to God? Here one cannot get by without making distinctions that, while retaining the notion of God’s benevolent will, nevertheless allow it to be frustrated by man’s wickedness. “God … desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:4f.). Permit us, Lord, to make a small distinction in your will: “God wills in advance [voluntate antecedente] that all men achieve salvation, but subsequently [consequenter] he wills that certain men be damned in accordance with the requirements of his justice” (S. Th. 19:6 ad 1; De Ver. 23:2). One can also speak of God’s having an “absolute” and a “conditional” will (1 Sent. 46:1, 1 ad 2). Further, Christ is referred to as “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10): Can we not see a qualification in this formulation? But what about Jesus’ triumphant words when he looks forward to the effect of his Passion: “Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:31f.)? Oh, he will perhaps attempt to draw them all but will not succeed in holding them all. “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). Unfortunately, only half of it, despite your efforts, Lord. “The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Titus 2:11)—let us say, more precisely, to offer salvation, since how many will accept it is questionable. God does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). He may well wish it, but unfortunately he will not achieve it. “Christ” was “offered once to take away the sins of all” (Heb 9:28). That might be true, but the real question is whether all will allow their sins to be taken away. “God has consigned all men [Jews, Gentiles and Christians] to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). That he has mercy upon all may well be true, but does this mean that all will have mercy on this mercy, that is, will allow it to be bestowed upon them? And if we are assured, in this connection, that one day “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26), then this sweeping assertion need not, of course, include every particular individual. The prison letters appear to speak in this sweeping manner, too, when they say that God was pleased, through Christ, “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20), or that he purposes “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10); hymnlike and “doxological” talk of this kind need not be taken literally. The same applies, of course, to the Philippians hymn in which, at the end, before the victoriously exalted Christ, “every knee will bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10f.). And if Jesus prays to the Father: “Thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him” (Jn 17:2), would it not be better to distinguish the first “all”, which can be universal, from the second “all”, which refers only to a certain number of the chosen? But can the overpowering passage in 2 Corinthians 5:20f. be in any way interpreted as restrictive: “For our sake” God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”? And is it not all but embarrassing when the same Paul, in Romans 5, hammers home to us that in Adam (the principle of natural man) “all died”, “but God’s gift of grace, thanks to the one man Jesus Christ, abounded for all in much greater measure”? That is stressed seven times in a row, with the culmination being that “through the trespass of all” (for all share the responsibility for Christ’s condemnation) “justification and life came for all”. The repeatedly stressed words “much more” and “abounding” cannot be ignored (Rom 5:15-21). All just pious exaggeration?
But how does Balthasar account for the many passages of Scripture that warn us about eternal damnation? Dogmatic universalists take the punishments of hell to be temporary. The Catholic Church has a separate word for temporary punishment in the afterlife: purgatory. Indeed, Origen’s writing on this subject are part of the long theological tradition that led to the articulation of purgatory as such in the Middle Ages. But aspirational universalists still need to explain those passages that say or imply that punishment for at least some people will be eternal.
Balthasar says that these passages are how God warns us as people “under judgment” about the real possibility of eternal separation from himself. They are not, according to Balthasar, dogmatic declarations that at least one or two people will certainly and actually be in hell. Rather, these words of Jesus and other Scriptures are not assertions about the future, but warnings directed to each one of us personally. In this aspect at least, Balthasar agrees with the view of another great theologian of the 20th century, Karl Rahner, whom he quotes several times. For example, Rahner says that these scriptural warnings are:
not to be read as an anticipatory report about something that will someday come into being but rather as a disclosure of the situation in which the person addressed now truly exists. He is the subject who is placed in the position of having to make a decision with irrevocable consequences; he is the one who, by rejecting God’s offer of salvation, can become lost once and for all.
In other words, the warnings about hell are real, but they are existential and personal rather than informational. They are directed to each individual in their present existence. They do not tell us the final outcome for any individual person, nor collectively for the human race. They can’t, because the human race is merely the totality of those individuals, none of whose fates are meant to be foreknown by us. God’s revelation is not directed at telling us interesting facts about the future, like a Nostradamus or fortune teller. Rather, God’s revelation is himself, who offers himself to our inmost beings. We are free to reject that offer, hence the warning. Therefore, we cannot infer that any human beings will in fact be damned. Indeed, because of the universal hope of redemption expressed by Jesus and Paul, as shown above, we can hope no one will be lost.
Balthasar’s view seems to have been shared by John Paul II, who had immense respect for the Swiss theologian. When he died , the pope sent a telegram to another theological giant, Henri de Lubac, who then included it in his eulogy of Balthasar. In this telegram, the Holy Father called him “a great son of the Church, an outstanding man of theology and of the arts, who deserves a special place of honor in contemporary ecclesiastical and cultural life.” He also remarked that his theological work was “held in high esteem by the Holy See.”
We see evidence of the influence of his thought on hell specifically in John Paul II’s catechesis on hell, which he gave on July 28, 1999. At its conclusion, he says:
Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it. The thought of hell — and even less the improper use of biblical images — must not create anxiety or despair, but is a necessary and healthy reminder of freedom within the proclamation that the risen Jesus has conquered Satan, giving us the, Spirit of God who makes us cry “Abba, Father!” (Rm. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
This statement encapsulates the core thesis of Balthasar’s book. That it is from Balthasar has been confirmed (after a fashion) by the fact that the Vatican’s official journal, Acta Apostolica Sedis (and thus also the Vatican website), censored this part of the pope’s address. I assume with the pope’s consent, the words “whether or” were removed (“we are not granted the knowledge of which human beings”). As a result, the official, censored version merely says that we do not know who specifically is in hell. The uncensored version has been preserved by EWTN and other sources.
However, there is uncertainty about John Paul II’s view. In the long, written interview he had with journalist Vittorio Messori in 1994, he seems to reject Balthasar’s view (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 185-86). The Wednesday catechesis on hell was given five years later, so the pope may have changed his opinion later. Regardless, the controversial nature of both Balthasar’s book and John Paul II’s catechesis on hell indicate why, after saying bluntly that God will save everyone, Pope Francis added with a laugh, “Do not say this aloud!”
This one-liner, if taken literally as an absolute assertion, would indicate that Francis is a dogmatic universalist. However, the historical and theological context of Balthasar and John Paul II indicate with high probability that Francis is instead coming from their aspirational universalism. In fact, Francis has given warnings about hell more than once. For example, in his message for Lent 2016, he said:
Yet the danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell.
This talk of the “danger” of hell that “always remains” sounds like JP II’s “real possibility.” Given this and other mentions of hell in the speeches of Francis, we can safely conclude that Francis’s remark about universal salvation should be interpreted within the Balthasarian framework of aspirational universalism. John Paul II spoke of it publicly only once and then very carefully, with a censored version being officially published. Francis, as we know, is much freer with his words, reflecting a different approach for the papacy at this moment in history and his own particular gifts and strengths as a pastor and evangelical communicator.
The bottom-line takeaway of all this is that we have solid scriptural grounds to hope—and we ought so to hope—that “the good Lord will save everyone.” Before each of us stands the choice to obey our conscience and seek the kingdom of God, or to turn away from grace and thus risk condemning ourselves. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut 30:15). But in this, thanks be to God, we are not left to our own devices, as though we could save ourselves by our bootstraps, for God loves us and desires all of us to be saved. May his will be done!
 See Fr. Aidan Kimel, Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?, Eclectic Orthodoxy
 Origen’s view here is part of a larger intellectual system in which there are many successive “ages” or “worlds” (aiona), throughout which God slowly draws all beings back to himself. His understanding of the Fall is also cosmic in scope: pre-existent rational beings fell from the contemplation of God. Some then became embodied as human beings, while others became angels or demons. Only one creature never fell, and instead became one with the Logos of God in what later theology would call the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity. This one being, the Son of God, later became incarnate, taking a body from the flesh of the Virgin Mary. The condemnation of Origen’s universalism was made in the context of this overall worldview, which was rejected by the Church after it was adopted and further developed by the sixth-century Origenists.
 “Increasingly in recent times, however, the opinion has been advanced that 2 Thessalonians is a pseudepigraph, that is, a letter written authoritatively in Paul’s name, to maintain apostolic traditions in a later period, perhaps during the last two decades of the first century.” (Introduction to 2 Thessalonians, New American Bible: Revised Edition)
 For a typical, though moderate in tone, critique of Balthasar’s argument by a traditionalist theologian, see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 3, q. 6. Grisez is famous for his defense of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and, more recently, co-authoring an open letter to Pope Francis asking him to condemn eight propositions taken from his own apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. They include a highly legalistic disclaimer that isn’t fooling anyone: “We neither assert nor deny that Amoris Laetitia contains teachings needing qualification or delimitation, nor do we make any suggestions about how to do that, supposing it necessary.”
 Balthasar, Hope, 183-86.
 Some patristic scholars, such as David Bentley Hart and Ilaria Ramelli, argue that the word eternal only indicates that the punishment will continue through the succession of all ages of the cosmos, but not for infinite time. The apokatastasis takes place after all the ages are complete. I have chosen not to address this avenue in this essay in part because it seems to be outside the bounds of Catholic doctrine.
 Karl Rahner, ed., Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology, vol. 2, s.v. “Hölle,” 736 (quoted by Balthasar, Hope, 32).
Image: Hans Urs von Balthasar greets Pope John Paul II as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) looks on. balthasarspeyr.org.
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).