Volume > Issue > Balthasar, Christ’s Descent & the Empty Hell

Balthasar, Christ’s Descent & the Empty Hell

Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell

By Alyssa Lyra Pitstick

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 474 pages

Price: $36

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s Light in Darkness is the first comprehensive study of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s teaching on Christ’s Descent into Hell. Such a study is long overdue. Even before it came out, this book caused quite a stir in the pages of First Things. No surprise, since Balthasar, who died in 1988, has been touted in some Catholic circles as the major theologian of the 20th century. There is even a Balthasar Institute in Rome. And yet, as Pit­stick demonstrates, Balthasar has “radically reinterpreted” the Catholic Church’s teaching on Christ’s Descent into Hell, an article of the Apostles Creed, and made it the center of a new theology.

In the first four chapters of her work, Pitstick explains the doctrine of Christ’s Descent as it has been taught from antiquity. She then carefully analyzes how Balthasar reinterprets this doctrine and uses it as a key to the Incarnation and the Trinity. In the final chapter, she critiques Balthasar on specific theological grounds. With more than 1,500 endnotes, Pitstick demonstrates that she has mastered virtually everything Balthasar ever wrote on the Descent. Her analysis of his work is a closely reasoned, highly informative, and first-rate piece of scholarship.

The Catholic mystery of the Descent is simple, yet of infinite depth: After dying on the cross, Christ descended in His divine Person and His glorified soul to the holy dead, who lay in captivity due to Original Sin. He came in majesty and authority to liberate the just, and His great power was felt throughout all of Hell, though He went no further than the imprisoned saints. Pitstick cites a vast number of sources for the Church’s continuous teaching on this mystery, including ancient creeds, universal catechisms, papal and conciliar statements, scriptural passages authoritatively interpreted, theological writings of holy Fathers and Doctors, liturgical texts of East and West, and representations in art. She concludes, “This doctrine has been maintained with exceptional consistency from apostolic times.”

Fully aware of the traditional view of the Descent, Balthasar dismisses it as “folk myths.” Against the consensus of the ages, he redefines the Descent as a timeless suffering far more excruciating and meritorious than Christ’s visible Passion. In place of the Catholic mystery, he substitutes mind-boggling paradoxes such as these: Christ is most “yes” the closer He unites to Himself the “no” of what is anti-God, and the Son’s alienation from the Father is the “supreme expression” of His love. Instead of our Savior’s precious blood being sufficient for our salvation, Balthasar contends that only the second death — the death of Christ’s soul in Gehenna — can expiate all sins. Balthasar calls his version of the Descent a “rereading of historical sources,” but those scholars who have carefully examined his writings on the topic agree that there is “discontinuity” between the Church’s teaching and his reinterpretation. Discontinuity — that’s putting it mildly! He offers a total inversion of the great mystery.

What is striking about Bal­thasar’s Descent is that Christ has no authority, no power, no dignity. He is entirely “passive.” What’s more, the Descent is supposedly the culmination of a lifetime of passivity and a revelation of the Son’s eternal passivity in the Trinity. Balthasar asserts that at the Incarnation Christ gave Himself up to the Spirit, who then “drove” Him along the paths of the Father’s will, keeping Him in ignorance of His mission except for small doses from moment to moment. This ignorance was necessary for Christ to experience hopelessness and a sense of futility. According to Balthasar, the Son “deposited” His divine knowledge before becoming man and then had only faith to guide Him, although faith, too, was lost in the Descent. Only one sort of knowledge increased in Hell, the “perfect knowledge of men’s sins,” which He experienced as if He’d committed them all Himself.

Balthasar claims that sin is a positive “reality” that can be “abstracted” from sinners and placed as a burden on Christ. Under the colossal weight of all sins, the Son is “crushed” into Hell — the verb descends is too active for Balthasar — and is literally “made sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). Conformed “passively to sin-in-itself,” Christ then lets Himself “be identified with the reality of separated sin” and condemned by the Father. So “absolutely passive” is Christ in the Descent that He suffers as a “thing” in Gehenna, an “object” of the Father’s wrath. Balthasar exclaims that there “God cursed (and so banished) in him everything hostile to the Divinity.”

As Pitstick notes, Balthasar’s Descent sounds like “fantasy fiction.” True enough, but it’s fantasy fiction published as sound theology by Ignatius Press and taught at Catholic seminaries across the globe. It’s fantasy fiction trickling down to the faithful in articles and talks on how we are saved by Christ’s hopelessness and God-abandonment. Due to Balthasar and his disciples, Catholics are often presented with a caricature of our Redeemer as passive, spineless, and lacking in both divine and manly authority.

Using his version of the Descent as a key to the mystery of the Trinity, Balthasar argues that the “extremity” of Christ’s “passivity” in Hell reveals the Son’s “Trinitarian personality to be the one completely at the disposal of another.” For it is as eternal Son that He suffers the Father’s wrath: “Only he, as Son, is capable of this, and it is qualitatively deeper than any possible hell.” And again, “only God Himself can go right to the end of the abandonment by God.” Curiously, both Father and Son experience the Trinity “as destroyed” during the Descent. Balthasar explains that when the Son suffers the terror of the Father’s rejection, the Father simultaneously suffers loss of intimacy. And even if the Spirit still connects them, the Son is unaware of it.

When the Son is “configured” to sin in the Descent, the “reality of sin” is brought inside the “reality of the Trinity” and comes to exist “in the ‘bracket’ of Trinitarian love.” Thus “spiritual death” is overcome by being made part of the “Trinitarian life of love.” Balthasar explains, “The Son’s eternal, holy distance from the Father, in the Spirit, forms the basis on which the unholy distance of the world’s sin can be transposed into it, can be transcended and overcome by it.” And so, a radical reinterpretation of the Descent leads to a reinterpretation of the Trinity, whereby the “letting go” and “letting be” of Trinitarian love is called “super-death.”

According to Balthasar, Christ in His Descent “emptied the underworld,” a claim that flatly contradicts what the Church has always taught, namely, that our Savior freed only the holy dead. But this is only part of the larger argument Balthasar is making about the virtual impossibility of eternal damnation. In fact, he claims that Christ mysteriously remains in Hell and continues to suffer there: “since the Son subjectively experiences Sheol as eternal, and since its relation to time is impossible to determine, Christ’s redemptive expiation can be actual at the moment of each sinner’s judgment.” And again, “The timelessness of His experience embraces anyone else’s experience of hell, regardless of when it begins.” Little wonder that Balthasar can “hope” that all men will be saved! The presence of Christ in Hell, he says, will ever after “disturb” the “loneliness” of the damned. Christ will never accept their “no” for their final answer.

In Hell, Balthasar assures us, those who are damned suffer side by side with Christ in His even “greater abandonment” and “timeless isolation.” So the only question that remains is whether the sinner can refuse forever: “All that stands between the sinner and God then is his own acceptance of God’s work in Christ.” Balthasar wonders if hatred of God can be “maintained eternally,” or if the Son will “endure, outlast, and make impotent” any such hatred. Not wanting to assert universal salvation too plainly (for this tenet has been condemned by the Church), Balthasar declares coyly: “We cannot predict which will go on longer: God’s ‘yes’ or men’s ‘no.'” But one thing is sure, “God will not allow Himself to be restricted by finite freedom’s choice against Him,” because “all sins, even those of apparently unrepentant sinners, have already been destroyed and expiated in the Descent.”

Thus, Balthasar would have Catholics believe that there are limitless chances to repent after one is dead and condemned to Hell. He would have us believe that the damned remain so only “as long as they reject forgiveness.” Even in perdition, in Balthasar’s scheme, God refuses to take their choice against Him as “definitive.” God is able and must “be ‘in’ this self-damnation while remaining the absolute good that He is.” Why must God do this? As Pitstick explains, “Balthasar’s primary argument in support of hope for the salvation of all is that the eternal loss of some implies a defect in God’s omnipotence.” Yes, a defect. His Creation will be found defective if anyone is damned.

Balthasar thinks God would not have taken the “risk” of giving rational creatures a “finite freedom” if He had not been able to “guarantee” their salvation. He had to make their limited freedom foolproof. So He prearranged the Descent as the “guarantee of a responsible creation.” Then, if some of His rational creatures chose damnation, a way was prepared for the Son to “make good” their “abuse of His paternal love.” The Descent (in Balthasar’s version) was set up from the start as a safety net in case anyone fell. Balthasar says the Descent is “the only way redemption is possible and it must necessarily be undergone.” God is obliged to gather in all the lost by “going into powerlessness to share in man’s lostness.”

Pitstick finds several grave problems with Balthasar’s theology, such as that he “divides the divine Persons from the divine attributes,” “divides the Persons from each other,” and fails to distinguish the two natures of Christ by collapsing His human and divine wills in the Descent. She also points out a number of Balthasar’s self-contradictions and disingenuous denials of what he actually teaches. However, she carefully avoids using the words that naturally come to mind when an ordinary Catholic is faced with Balthasar’s strange new Descent, words like weird, monstrous, and blasphemous. There is no mention of Satan in her entire discussion of the Descent. This is odd because in Balthasar’s version of the Descent, Christ is virtually transmogrified into Satan.

Pitstick does not critique Balthasar for his view of the Eucharist, though she cites him declaring that the Eucharist is “effectively the sacrament of Holy Saturday” and that it is precisely because Christ emptied the cup of His Father’s wrath in Hell that “the Son is poured out in the Eucharist as a drink for others.” He also says that the Eucharist is God’s anger “shattering” Christ as “by lightning and distributing him” among believers. And again, “As Jesus’ ‘corporality’ undergoes ‘a certain “stretching apart”‘ in the descent, his ‘earthly substance’ is ‘liquif[ied]’ or made ‘fluid’ in the Eucharist so that He can be divided among the faithful while remaining what He is.” What dark convolutions!

As Pitstick demonstrates, Balthasar’s version of the Descent is not a development of the luminous Catholic doctrine that has been taught down the ages, but a revolutionary and shocking departure from it. The tragedy is the silence of our Shepherds — for two generations already — in the face of such strange novelties in doctrine.

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