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Balthasar's eschatology on the intermediate state: the question of knowability.

IN SPE SALVI, POPE BENEDICT XVI DEVOTES several paragraphs to the intermediate state before concluding his encyclical with attention to Mary, Star of Hope. (1) First, Benedict interprets the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) as referring to "an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced." (2) According to the Pope, this early Jewish idea of an intermediate state contains the view that souls are already being punished or are experiencing provisional bliss. It also means that souls are being purified, which enables them to mature for their communion with God. Benedict notes that the early Church adopted these concepts. (3) He then considers what this intermediate state may hold for the supposed great majority of people who neither go to hell nor at their moment of death are already utterly pure. (4) Throughout his treatment, the Pope speaks of the intermediate state as something with various interpretations. For example, he writes, "The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and suffering in the intermediate state." (5) The Pope avoids the more trenchant recent theological controversy in the West on whether an intermediate state can even be thought to exist.

As shown below, this subject was the matter of fierce contention in some theological quarters in the twentieth century. In a brief note to the Theo-Drama's volume The Last Act, Hans Urs von Balthasar intimates the controversy and emphasizes the limits of knowing in eschatology. He writes,
 We have tried to go as far as revelation permits--some may feel we
 have gone one step too far--resolutely stopping at the point where
 pseudo-logical speculations have been shown to lead only into an
 abstract void or to superfluous lists of what is forbidden. There
 is nothing 'scientific'--and this applies equally to theology--about
 speaking with 'exact' precision about things that are unknowable
 (for example, the 'intermediate state') [Uber Dinge, die man
 nicht wissen kann, "exakt" zu reden (zum Beispiel uber den
 "Zwischenzustand")]. (6)

I wish to consider the question of the intermediate state's knowability in Balthasar's theology. In doing so, I address concerns in Balthasar's consistency in theological language for his reader's understanding. While one could take Balthasar's expression about things that one cannot know to connote a great mystery beyond our knowledge in this life, Balthasar seems to mean something different from that here, as will be discussed in this article. (7) For as much as this controversy on the intermediate state rages, it seems odd that various studies of Balthasar's eschatology have not highlighted the way Balthasar approaches the topic. (8) Attending to this neglected aspect of Balthasar's eschatology may help his readers assess tensions of novelty and tradition, of coherence and confusion, of intelligibility and obscurity in this brilliant and challenging writer. (9) Moreover, since there are certain affinities between Benedict and Balthasar in their descriptions of purgatory, but divergences in their language about the intermediate state, there is an added interest to engaging Balthasar on this matter.

Before examining Balthasar's eschatology, I first note the position of Joseph Ratzinger and the International Theological Commission's "Some Current Questions in Eschatology." I then consider four aspects pertinent to questioning the intermediate state's knowability in Balthasar's eschatology: (1) the witness of the New Testament and the early Church on the Christian's intermediate state; (2) Balthasar's emphasis on the "one judgment" as it relates to anthropology and time; (3) the descriptions of purgatory, heavily indebted to Adrienne von Speyr; and (4) Christ's own intermediate state in the mystery of Holy Saturday. By raising the question of the intermediate state's knowability, the article gives a critical appreciation for not only what Balthasar believed in his eschatology but also his theological style in articulating that belief. I will show that Balthasar's treatment of the intermediate state, by formally denying its knowability, drawing arguments against its existence, and affirming aspects of it at stake in the Catholic doctrine, risks unintelligibility in a matrix of interconnected eschatological issues.

The Intermediate State in Controversy: Ratzinger and the International Theological Commission (ITC)

The work of Joseph Ratzinger in his Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (10) and the International Theological Commission's "Some Current Questions in Eschatology" provide useful perspectives on the post-Vatican II controversy about the intermediate state. (11) Although the Roman document does not name its opponents, Karl Rahner's arguments against the intermediate state have been taken as paradigmatic of the opposition within Catholic theology. (12) On the other hand, both Ratzinger and the ITC praise Balthasar. (13) Setting aside Rahner's work, we can see the contributions of Ratzinger and the ITC as providing a broader framework for the complexity of considering Balthasar's eschatology on this issue.

In his Eschatology, Ratzinger begins "The Immortality of the Soul and the Resurrection of the Dead" with a study of the state of the question. He situates the contemporary discourse after the work of Protestant theologians Carl Stange (1870-1959) and Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938). They received some assistance in furthering their work from Paul Althaus whose own work on eschatology was published in 1922. These Protestants appealed to the Bible and to Martin Luther to counter what they considered to be Platonic dualism's concept of the immortality of the soul. For them, the intermediate state does not exist, because death is the death of the whole person, body and soul. Likewise, resurrection is the resurrection of the complete human being. This idea has ramifications not only for anthropology, but also for reconceiving time. Ratzinger explains:
 It generally became accepted that time should be considered a
 form of bodily existence. Death signifies leaving time for
 eternity with its single 'today.' Here the problem of the
 'intermediate state' between death and resurrection turns out
 to be a problem only in seeming. The 'between' exists only in
 our perspective. In reality, 'the end of time' is timeless.
 The person who dies steps into the presence of the Last Day
 and of judgment, the Lord's resurrection and parousia. (14)

Ratzinger notes the effects that the denial of the intermediate state had upon the Catholic Church, especially in the liturgy and catechesis. The new Roman Missal suppressed the term anima in the funeral liturgy and the opinion that resurrection takes place at the moment of death became so popular that it was even incorporated, with qualified acceptance, into the Dutch Catechism. (15)

Because of limits of space, I want only to mention further from Ratzinger's book his Appendix I--"Between Death and Resurrection: Some Supplementary Reflections." More than any other, Ratzinger levels against his Catholic theological opponents the particular charge of setting themselves against tradition like Martin Luther did. Calling it a "general crisis of Catholicism itself," Ratzinger expresses alarm that Catholicism's relation to tradition "has now become unintelligible." (16) While such a sentiment takes us beyond the scope of studying the intermediate state, it is precisely that attitude which shapes Ratzinger's concern against those who deny the intermediate state in Catholic eschatology. He sees two fundamental attacks against the tradition of the intermediate state: a denial of the immortality of the soul and a confused notion of history that effectively renders a temporal end to history and a fulfillment of the cosmos as superfluous. (17)

Under the presidency of Cardinal Ratzinger, the ITC drew up "Some Current Questions in Eschatology" in response to the challenges described by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1979 letter "On Certain Questions Regarding Eschatology." Calling the problem a certain "theological darkness," the ITC's document quotes the CDF's alarm concerning the confusion of the faithful:
 In fact, it is to be noted that the existence of the soul has been
 made the subject of debate, as well as the meaning of life after
 death; in the same way, questions have been raised about what
 happens between the death of the Christian and the universal
 resurrection. The faithful are perturbed by all these questions
 since they are no longer able to recognize the idiom to
 which they are accustomed and the concepts already familiar
 to them. (18)

In regards to the intermediate state, the ITC document offers a number of arguments, especially against those who favor a theory of resurrection in death. It has been said that the main burden of the text is precisely the affirmation of the intermediate state. (19)

The ITC bases itself in the biblical witness. It looks to the ancient Jewish concept of Sheol where the refaim dwell. As faith in the resurrection began, Sheol came to be considered as differentiating the just from the unjust, awaiting the Last Judgment. Luke 16:19-31, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, presupposes this conception of Sheol. The ITC states, "A certain intermediate state of this kind is affirmed in the New Testament insofar as an immediate survival after death is taught as a theme quite different from that of the resurrection--a resurrection which, in the New Testament is certainly never posited in connection with death." (20) In considering the New Testament evidence, the document places great weight on passages from Philippians. It says that "the principal passage in Paul regarding the intermediate state" is Philippians 1:21-24, which begins: "For, to me, 'life' means Christ; hence dying is so much gain." After further argumentation including a citation of Philippians 3:21, it continues that "an intermediate state is conceived of as transitory, something acceptable because of the union with Christ that it implies, but in such a way that the resurrection of the body always remains as the supreme hope." (21)

After reviewing scriptural foundations, the commission declares what has been the constant tradition of the Church. It states:
 One can easily grasp from this twofold doctrinal line of
 reasoning in the New Testament that the whole Christian
 tradition, without any important exceptions, has, up to our own
 day, conceived of the object of eschatological hope as
 embracing two phases. Between the death of people and the
 consummation of the world, it believes that a conscious element
 of people subsists which it calls by the name of 'soul'
 (psyche), a term used also by Holy Scripture (cf. Wis 3:1; Mt
 10:28); this element is already in that phase the subject of
 retribution. At the parousia of the Lord which will take place
 at the end of history, there is to be expected the blessed
 resurrection of those 'who are Christ's' (1 Cor 15:23). From
 that moment, the eternal glorification of the whole person who
 has now been raised begins. The survival of a conscious soul
 prior to the resurrection safeguards the continuity and
 identity of subsistence between the person who lived and the
 person who will rise, inasmuch as in virtue of such survival
 the concrete individual never totally ceases to exist. (22)

The commission's statement obviously resonates with Ratzinger's eschatology and challenges many Catholic theologians with something claimed to be not only scriptural and traditional but also something one can "easily grasp." Given the arguments of the commission's document, it is now time to look more closely at Balthasar on this controversial topic.

Balthasar on the Knowability of the Intermediate State

In a 1960 essay, Balthasar writes that the following are all established doctrines of Catholic teaching:
 the universality of death as the consequence of sin; the
 cessation, with death, of the time of merit; the particular
 judgment; the immediate entrance of the soul on the beatific
 vision after expiating venial sin or the discharge of
 temporal punishment in purgatory, or else its entrance on the
 state of eternal damnation in hell; the Lord's parousia at
 the end of time; the bodily resurrection of all for the last
 judgment. (23)

His list seems to place purgatory after the particular judgment and seems as well to distinguish the particular judgment from the Last Judgment, the latter of which is preceded by the bodily resurrection. How does Balthasar subsequently modify his language on the intermediate state's knowability?

Balthasar on the Intermediate State in the Bible and Christian Traditions

We can first see how Balthasar, so attentive to scriptural and patristic sources, considered the intermediate state at the origins of the Christian religion. "It is well known," he writes, "that, in contrast to the apocryphal writings, the New Testament engages in practically no speculation about a supposed intermediate state [uber einen eventuellen Zwischenzustand] between the individual's death and the (final) Judgment." (24) Balthasar cites without discussion various New Testament texts that suggest an intermediate state: Luke 16:22ff; 23:43; Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 5:1ff; Jude 6. Clearly, however, these texts do not seize Balthasar's imagination. He writes that it is ultimately the "Johannine, purely christological eschatology that retains its validity." (25) He concludes,
 This means that, apart from unimportant and incidental
 vestiges of Jewish eschatology, the New Testament no longer
 entertains the idea of a self-unfolding horizontal
 theo-drama; there is only a vertical theo-drama in which
 every moment of time, insofar as it has christological
 significance, is directly related to the exalted Lord, who
 has taken the entire content of all history--life, death and
 resurrection--with him into the supra-temporal realm. (26)

As elsewhere, Balthasar gives the witness of John pride of theological place. Balthasar comments, "If we follow John's thought, we see Jesus' death and Resurrection, that is, his exaltation, as the inseparable deed and proof of God's eternal love; accordingly, the man who has died in faith already lives in the risen Lord, and whether there will be an 'intermediate state' between his death and his resurrection 'on the last day' is an open question, and not one of great moment." (27) The support that Balthasar notes here comes from none other than Joseph Ratzinger in his exegesis of John's eschatology: "The question of an intermediate state between death and resurrection ... does not arise. Jesus is the resurrection: consequently faith, which signifies the contact between Jesus and me, means that I have passed over the line of death here and now." (28) Balthasar never mentions a disagreement with Ratzinger about the intermediate state. Indeed, from Balthasar's text it would appear that he is following Ratzinger's lead. (29)

When approaching texts from the witness of tradition, Balthasar notes that many Fathers reflect on the intermediate state as a state between death and the Last Judgment. However, Balthasar credits this not to authentic Christian reflection, but to late Judaism's speculations about anterooms in Sheol with separated areas for the good and the bad. (30) In a footnote, Balthasar rehearses various early supports, especially in the West, for the intermediate state. (31) His treatment is rather selective. For example, he notes that Irenaeus's Adversus Haereses 5.31.1-2 echoes Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho 5 in ascribing a waiting place for the judgment of souls. However, he does not mention the prominence Irenaeus gives to the intermediate state, complete with an interpretation of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in Adversus Haereses 2.34.1-4. (32) Also, he claims that Aquinas speaks of two judgments only in passing, citing the Summa theologiae Supp. q. 88, a. 1 ad 1. This is highly misleading. The reply to the objection cited by Balthasar actually takes place within an elaborate framework of an immediate judgment after death and a general judgment after the resurrection of all the dead. (33) Balthasar could also have considered the last question in Aquinas's tract on Christ (ST III, q. 59)--"On the judiciary power of Christ." Article 5 deals precisely with whether there is a general judgment in addition to the present judgment. (34)

Balthasar on the One Judgment: Anthropology and Time

Because Balthasar is aware of certain Protestant concerns about the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, he clarifies his own position in the volume on The Action of the Theo-Drama. Balthasar writes, "The Protestant view, which says that the biblical 'resurrection from the dead' precludes philosophical reflection on something allegedly imperishable in man and involves the complete destruction of man, body and soul, in death, contradicts the nature of man as he actually has been created." (35) Although he disavows "the Protestant view," there seems to be sympathy for its rejection of a soul existing outside of a body. For Balthasar, positing an intermediate, disembodied state is fraught with problems. Indeed, he thinks that theology's pursuit of a systematic elaboration of an intermediate state has "thought itself into a corner where it finds itself obliged to posit two judgments: man faces a particular judgment immediately after death and a general judgment at the end of the world." (36)

In Balthasar's view, the idea of such a twofold judgment is unacceptable. He quotes Pope Benedict XII's bull Benedictus deus (1336) in support of his own position. Balthasar summarizes: "Since Christ's Resurrection, the souls of the departed after their death and the relevant purgation attain to the direct vision of God in heaven 'before resuming their bodies and before the general judgment.'" (37) After quoting the papal definition, Balthasar lauds Karl Rahner's approach to the general judgment as the judgment after the death of the individual. Balthasar writes, "As Karl Rahner puts it so well, it takes place ' "along" the history of the world' and so coincides 'with the sum of particular judgments undergone by individuals.'" (38) Since the general judgment coincides with the particular judgment in this view, it seems that Balthasar, like Rahner, does not think that Benedict XII's statement definitively teaches belief in a disembodied soul's experience of the beatific vision.

Indeed, Balthasar mentions obliquely "the controversy about whether and how (in a putative intermediate state) [in einem eventuellen Zwischenzustand] one can envisage a soul without a body and, if such a state must be assumed, at what 'point in time' the soul is reunited with its body." He continues, "We shall not deal with these questions here. In any case they are ultimately insoluble in a theologia viatorum, since the latter cannot imagine the state of those who have died in Christ to be above time, while the earthly history of the world continues to perdure. The most we can say is that it is difficult to imagine a communio sanctorum made up of both embodied and disembodied souls." (39) Instead, Balthasar imagines a communion of the saints wherein there are no disembodied souls.

Balthasar goes on to explore how others, besides Christ and Mary, are body and soul in heaven. He writes:
 We have Christ and those who rose with him at his death, then Mary
 and--as many believe--John, the beloved disciple; but then why not
 the other apostles? And what of those saints who have experienced
 the 'first resurrection' and reign with Christ (Rev 20:4-5)? On
 the one hand, there would be a great company of those who have
 risen 'in advance', while, on the other hand, there would be
 all those who have to wait until the 'end of the world' to be
 reunited with their bodies. It is hard to make sense of this.
 In fact another theme cuts across this idea, namely, that the
 bodily risen Lord, precisely through his exaltation and as
 an expression of his glorification, has granted freedom
 and space for his members who remain on earth to continue
 their journey toward perfection. (Why should this not apply,
 by analogy, to other risen saints?) In this way he would be
 enriching himself in his bodily perfection by the successive
 perfection of his members. However, our ignorance of heavenly
 super-time [Uberzeit] (which does not even need to be
 internally affected by the end of chronological world-time
 [Weltzeit]) prevents us from coordinating the two levels
 satisfactorily. (40)

"Why not the other apostles?" asks Balthasar. One can infer that Balthasar thinks that St. Peter, whose bones are believed to be in Rome, has been bodily raised from the dead. This seems to be a break from a traditional Catholic understanding as articulated by such voices as Ratzinger and the International Theological Commission. Although Balthasar does not want a split between embodied souls and disembodied souls in the communion of saints, he does want a "heavenly super-time" and a "chronological world-time."

But Balthasar goes even a step further. Exploring the meaning of Matthew 27:51-53, he says that since the one judgment can and must take place along earthly history, then why could not the same be said of the resurrection? (41) Balthasar takes this biblical reference as a Matthean witness to the Johannine perspective of the present, eschatological reality of the resurrection. He writes, "Now we have already emphasized elsewhere that Jesus' Resurrection took place in all truth at the end of the world, since he has atoned for those who will come after him in time just as much as for those who were before him and contemporaneous with him (Theo-Drama III, 110): accordingly we must say at least the same of those who rose together with him." (42) Balthasar then links this further with the Apocalypse. He says, "However, we should also keep in mind the 'first resurrection' of those in the Book of Revelation (20:4, 6) who died as martyrs and 'live and reign with Christ'; there is no suggestion here that this resurrection is a merely spiritual one." (43) From this perspective, the general resurrection must occur "along" our time in history. It seems to be a process from our time and immediate in heaven's time. This radical eschatology of exaltation has not been sufficiently appreciated. Balthasar here does not merely think that the intermediate state is unknowable. Rather, the force of his argument is that the intermediate state is nonexistent. It is an impossibility because the dead are immediately raised in the "super-time" of heaven.

Balthasar on Purgatory

If the personal judgment and the Last Judgment are one and the same for Balthasar, some may wonder what Balthasar does or does not say about purgatory. Significantly, Balthasar resists putting purgatory on this side of death as simply the purification sinners receive while walking on this earth or in the act of dying itself. Rather, he introduces the section on the one judgment and the purification with this remark: "What Catholic theology speaks of as purification beyond the grave must be seen as one aspect of Judgment." (44) As it lies beyond the grave, purgatory seems to mean something after the experience of life on earth and before the experience of the resurrected. Yet, Balthasar does not place purgatory after the personal (and only) judgment. Rather, it is the "state in the encounter between the as yet unpurified sinner and the Kyrios who appears as his Judge." (45) This particular idea, a concept common to various theologians, is found in Benedict's Spe salvi. (46) Although Balthasar does not use the term "intermediate," he thus calls purgatory a state between death and the one judgment. Rather than dismissing it as something "unknowable," Balthasar in fact gives vivid descriptions of purgatory--descriptions that exceed the few teachings in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (47) He writes of its trinitarian origin on Holy Saturday, its fire, its complete isolation for the sinner in an apparent tension with the Church's efficacious intercession, and its process that lasts some duration, depending on the sinner's need for purification. In describing it, Balthasar draws heavily on the insights of Adrienne von Speyr.

Characteristic of his ready attention to Scripture and various traditions, Balthasar acknowledges the Jewish and early Christian roots of purgatory, quickly reviewing biblical and patristic references that pertain to the development of the doctrine. He gives some prominence to Origen's interpretation that understands God himself as the purifying fire. He quotes the Alexandrian as preaching that in Jesus Christ God "stands in this stream [of fire] with his flaming sword, 'to baptize in this stream all those who are destined for paradise after death yet still need purification.'" (48) In Balthasar's retrieval of Origen, we find an early source for what is acknowledged today as something fairly common in Benedict's encyclical: "Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour." (49) Balthasar goes on to criticize the late patristic and medieval visions of purgatory that make it relate too closely to hell's tortures. He also says that the definitive form of the teaching occurred in the late twelfth century.

For Balthasar and Speyr, purgatory properly speaking comes into existence on Holy Saturday, when the Son by going through "hell" introduces mercy into the condition of "those who are justly lost." (50) Purgatory's fire is the Father's fire experienced by Christ, who made himself in passivity "fuel for the fire. In purgatory he makes us to be fuel for the fire that consumes him." (51) This fire of love, the fire of testing, burns away everything impure from a sinner in order for that one to meet the Judge.

One aspect very much emphasized by Balthasar and Speyr is how one experiences purgatory's fire in isolation as an act in preparation completely concentrated on the Lord. They apply Matthew 25:31-46 in its Christocentrism to judgment: "Whatever you did--or did not do--to one of these, you did it--or did not do it--to me." This isolation is a kind of solitary confinement entirely consumed by one's relationship with God alone. Balthasar quotes Speyr: "For a moment the communion of saints is suspended. When the time of testing has come, it is impossible to have recourse to what others have done, to be carried by them. Everyone stands there in isolation. ... Though this does not mean that prayers for the dead in purgatory are ineffectual." (52) The only neighbor is the Lord, as the sinner has no other. (53)

What about using the language of time for purgatory? Quoting Ratzinger, Balthasar insists that purgatory lies "beyond the earthly calculation of time." (54) Nevertheless, neither Balthasar nor Speyr hesitates to speak of this process as something temporal. Although purgatory may seem endless according to them, "Objectively speaking, it is a 'temporal suffering' (like that of the debtor servant who is handed over to the torturers until he has paid the last penny: Mt 18:34), but the duration of purgatory--which can vary greatly--s a hidden matter reserved to the Lord." (55) For them, purgatory ends at the point where one, "looking at the Cross, begins to realize the extent of the world's sin," which somewhere or other contains one's own sin. When the sinner cries out for more punishment, then "'the end of purgatory is near.'" (56) Later, Balthasar quotes Speyr: "In the process of purification, through a slow and hidden time of contemplation, he will be brought to a complete insight into the Cross and an ever closer discipleship. Then he will walk together with the Lord, from the Cross, along the path that leads to the Father. This, for the individual, is the Lord's final and definitive appearance in him." (57)

This treatment of purgatory may come as a relief for some in Balthasar's fidelity to Catholic teaching on the intermediate state. Aidan Nichols, OP, an English translator and interpreter of Balthasar, comments on both the process of a general resurrection and purgatory as follows:
 Though human ignorance of the mode of the heavenly Uberzeit
 ('super-time') induces a certain restraint, Balthasar's
 final thought seems to be of the general resurrection
 realising itself by a process in the world to come, just as
 does, by way of postmortem judgment, the universal judgment
 likewise. And at least that creates an open area which the
 dogmatic tradition of the Church on Purgatory can make its
 habitation: there is still some room, after all, for the
 intermediate state. (58)

Balthasar holds that purgatory exists after death in a temporal process of encountering the Lord. Given his vivid descriptions of purgatory, it is difficult to see how this would fall under a claimed unknowability. Rather, Balthasar's eschatology reaches into new frontiers through this theology of purgatory, a theology especially indebted to Adrienne von Speyr.

Balthasar on the Intermediate State of Christ

Before we leave Balthasar's complex discussion of the intermediate state, we should emphasize the significance of Christ's intermediate state. Between Christ's death and bodily resurrection, the mystery of Holy Saturday forms the centerpiece of Balthasar's theology. (59) Therefore, rather than being considered simply unknowable, Christ's intermediate state is given a radical reinterpretation that has left a most distinctive mark. In fact, for this Swiss theologian, we see that Christ's descent into hell formed purgatory. To be sure, Balthasar's theology of Holy Saturday has received wide and critical attention, but its connection to the intermediate state has remained largely unexplored. (60) His Mysterium Paschale, which he calls "hastily written" and is in some ways surpassed by subsequent writings, reveals the core of Balthasar's teaching so heavily indebted to Adrienne von Speyr on the state between Christ's death and resurrection. This may be supplemented by later writings, especially the end of Truth of God, the second volume of the Theo-Logic. (61)

Balthasar acknowledges that the Gospel accounts are silent to the "time in between his [Jesus's] placing in the grave and the event of the Resurrection." (62) For Balthasar, this shows that Jesus was really dead, and Balthasar speaks of Jesus's "separated body." (63) The body must be buried, and Jesus's soul is with the dead. (64) Balthasar does not entertain some Gnostic notion of a bodily descent into the underworld. Rather, just as Jesus was in solidarity with the living when he walked on earth, so he also is in solidarity with the dead. Also, Balthasar wants to keep an amplitude and ambiguity to this solidarity, as he emphasizes the passivity of Christ's death. (65)

In death, the Redeemer shows himself as the unique one who surpasses the general experience of Sheol to measure the full extent of the abyss. Balthasar looks at the Son of God being dead from three perspectives: the experience of the second death, the experience of sin as such, and as trinitarian event. As for the first perspective, Balthasar thinks that Nicholas of Cusa is fundamentally right in his description of Christ's experience of the second death:
 Christ's suffering, the greatest one could conceive, was like
 that of the damned who cannot be damned any more. That is,
 his suffering went to the length of infernal punishment
 (usque adpoenam infernalem) ... He alone through such a
 death entered into glory. He wanted to experience the poena
 sensus like the damned in Hell for the glorifying of his
 Father, and so as to show that one should obey the Father
 even to the utmost torture (quod ei obediendum sit usque ad
 extremum supplicium) (66)

In terms of the second perspective, the experience of sin, Balthasar furthers the meditation of Nicholas to say that the vision of death is the vision of hell, "sin in itself." It is the chaos contemplated by the Redeemer, and in fact a product of the Redemption so that in his resurrection he will receive the power and keys over it. (67) Balthasar is perhaps best known for the third perspective, the trinitarian character of the event. The Father sends the Son into the world not as judge, but as savior. Holy Saturday holds the God-man's vision of chaos as the salvific condition of the human vision of God. This leads Balthasar to posit Christ's salvation in the abyss, a salvation that does not necessarily mean that all human beings are saved because of Christ's experience of hell. It does mean that Christ takes hell with him "as the expression of his power to dispose, as judge, the everlasting salvation or the everlasting loss" of humanity. (68)

In his later work of Truth of God, Balthasar summarizes the thought of Speyr on Christ's experience in hell and seems to make her voice his own. Balthasar quotes Speyr that all should learn to keep silence between death and resurrection, and even the Holy Spirit keeps silent about the hell of Holy Saturday. (69) One odd thing is that Speyr wrote a two-volume work on the Cross and hell, a subject of such great silence, wherein she gives graphic details of Christ's experience in hell. (70) For example, Christ encounters in hell innumerable effigies of sinners whom he saves. When coming upon effigies of the living, "the Lord lies upon them, like the man upon the woman, in a spousal embrace" to communicate to them a share of the salvation worked on the Cross. (71) This is but one of many remarkable assertions about Christ in hell.

Far from holding an unknowability about Christ's intermediate state, Balthasar stresses in Mysterium Paschale the significance of the dead Christ in his utter passivity and his vision of hell. In Truth of God, it is difficult to see how the Lord's activities, such as lying upon effigies of the living, are utterly passive. Seemingly much can and should be said for Balthasar on the significance of this saving event between Christ's death and bodily resurrection, a mystery of paradoxical silence.


Besides questioning how Balthasar writes of the intermediate state as unknowable, this article has provided the opportunity to explore Balthasar's own coherence for the purpose of knowing what he teaches. In this study, I have reviewed four significant areas of Balthasar's eschatology: (1) New Testament and early Christian evidence; (2) the one judgment; (3) purgatory; and (4) Christ's intermediate state. I did this after calling to mind Benedict XVI's second encyclical and situating some of the concerns of Joseph Ratzinger and the International Theological Commission against the Catholic theologians who did not uphold the intermediate state. This study yields a number of contentions for interpreting Balthasar's eschatology.

First, one should pay close attention to similarities, dissimilarities, and contemporary authorities among those writing on the intermediate state after the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger and the International Theological Commission mention Balthasar only to praise him. Balthasar quotes Ratzinger (and Rahner) only in ways that agree with his own position on the intermediate state. By looking merely at cross-references without reading the wider works or knowing the theological context of the time, one would not know that there is a divergence between Balthasar and Ratzinger.

Second, Balthasar in his early work (1960) speaks of certain doctrines that must be accepted. This includes the particular judgment, either the entrance of the soul to the beatific vision (whether immediately or after purification) or the entrance into hell, and the bodily resurrection for the general judgment. Balthasar will modify his language so that his reader should not infer that he upholds as dogmatic distinct judgments and an intermediate state of a bodiless soul.

Third, Balthasar thinks it difficult to conceive of a disembodied soul and so finds other solutions. Yet, if the intermediate state were to exist, it does not much matter to theology. Furthermore, he goes on to claim that the bodily resurrection must be thought to be taking place along with temporal history. In this, he explicitly agrees with Rahner.

Fourth, although he refuses to acknowledge an intermediate state, Balthasar claims that purgatory has duration between death and judgment. This relocates the interim of purgatory, traditionally thought to be after personal judgment, but still considered to be in some sense intermediate. Relying upon Adrienne von Speyr's insights, Balthasar emphasizes the solitude of purgatory and its objective temporality and its relation to Christ's mystery of Holy Saturday. He retains and redescribes the "fire" of purgatory. In doing so, it seems that he speaks far more on the topic than what normally could be said if one thought it unknowable.

Fifth, Balthasar does not call Christ's solidarity with the dead between Good Friday and Easter Sunday an intermediate state. Yet, because he speaks of Christ's death as the separation of soul and body with the soul's experience in hell before the resurrection, it is difficult to deny that this is an intermediate state. Ironically, the fulcrum of Balthasar's Christology in Holy Saturday can serve as an internal critique to his position on the intermediate state.

Benedict XVI's encyclical on Christian hope brings the intermediate state back to a theological prominence. By studying Hans Urs von Balthasar, we are able to review one Catholic theologian's own grappling with the mystery whose affinity with the Pope's ideas may be detected in some aspects of the encyclical. However, Benedict's teaching on the intermediate state differs, strikingly at times, from Balthasar's rather complex position that dismisses its knowability, yet makes rather bold claims about Christ's intermediate state and that of the holy dead.

All readers on this issue must pay close attention to the variety of ways Balthasar speaks about the intermediate state. For some, including myself, this Balthasarian language at times jeopardizes the intelligibility of Christian doctrine. But perhaps for others, Balthasar's theological style, as demonstrated in his eschatology of the intermediate state's unknowability, conveys the paradox of Christian doctrine in its most dramatic terms. (72)


(1.) I am grateful to Mary C. Doak and Bernard Mulcahy, OP, for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.

(2.) Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe salvi (On Christian Hope), November 30, 2007, [section]44. As is common practice, I refer to the author as Joseph Ratzinger before his papal election and as Benedict XVI after the election.

(3.) Ibid., [section]45.

(4.) Ibid., [section]46.

(5.) Ibid., [section]48.

(6.) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theodramatk, vol. 4: Das Endspiel (Einsiedeln: Johannesverlag, 1983), 11. All English translations are taken from published works. Here, see Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 5: The Last Act, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 13-14.

(7.) As for the use of unknowable in the context of mystery, one can read Ratzinger's use of unknowable in Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, vol. 9 of Johann Auer and Joseph Ratzinger, Dogmatic Theology, trans. Michael Waldstein, trans. ed. Aidan Nichols, OP (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 161: "Yet the content of eternal life, its Was as distinct from its Dass, lies completely outside the scope of our experience, being quite simply unknowable from our perspective."

(8.) For example, see Nicholas J. Healy, The Eschatology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: Being as Communion, Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). On p. 6, n. 19, Healy notes that he does not treat certain eschatological tensions, such as the tension between the soul's immortality and the resurrection of the body and that between judgment immediately after death and judgment on the Last Day. For the former, he simply directs the reader's attention to Ratzinger's Eschatology and offers nothing for the latter. As I will try to show that Balthasar's position in some way differs from Ratzinger's, Healy's referral to Ratzinger is remarkable. Geoffrey Wainwright's essay titled "Eschatology" gives a general introduction, but does not offer insight into the complexity of Balthasar's position on the intermediate state. See his essay in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, ed. Edward T. Oakes, SJ, and David Moss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 113-27. Steffen Losel writes of a related issue, but does not directly discuss our present inquiry in his "Unapocalyptic Theology: History and Eschatology in Balthasar's Theo-Drama," Modern Theology 17 (2001): 201-25. In contrast to discussing the intermediate state, many treatments of Balthasar's eschatology have analyzed his understanding of the hope for a universal salvation. On this topic within Balthasar's writings, besides Theo-Drama vol. 5, see esp. Balthasar's Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988). For Pope Benedict's thought on hell and hope for others, see esp. Spe salvi, [section]45 and [section]48.

(9.) In his intriguing book, Kevin Mongrain calls for a new stage of study on Balthasar whose brilliant work he recognizes as "not always consistent, coherent, or rhetorically balanced." Mongrain sets up the possibility of internal critique in this fashion: "An internal critique based on what von Balthasar actually argues will always be more effective than one based on misinterpretations of his work." True, but one can also critique a theologian from external standards (such as ecclesial doctrines) without necessarily misinterpreting the theologian's work. See The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Irenaean Retrieval (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), 210.

(10.) Ratzinger, Eschatology, offers two valuable appendices not contained in the 1977 original German edition. Appendix 1 is "Between Death and Resurrection: Some Supplementary Reflections" (241-60), and Appendix 2 is "Afterward to the English Edition" (261-74).

(11.) The English translation can be found in Irish Theological Quarterly 58 (1992): 209-43. For the production of this document, the note on p. 239 is most helpful:
 This document of the International Theological Commission, under
 the leadership of Rev. Candido Pozo, SJ, was prepared by a
 subcommission made up of Professors J. Ambaum, G. Gnilka,
 J. Ibanez Langlois, M. Ledwith, S. Nagy, C. Peter (+), as
 well as the Most Reverends B. Kloppenburg, J. Medina Estevez
 and C. Schonborn. After it was submitted to debate in the plenary
 session of December 1991 it was fully approved by written vote
 informa specifica. According to the statutes of the International
 Theological Commission it is now published with the approval of
 His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, President of the Commission.

Balthasar himself served on the International Theological Commission from 1969-72.

(12.) Cf. Peter Phan, "Current Theology: Contemporary Context and Issues in Eschatology," Theological Studies 55 (1994): 507-36, at 525. Rahner addresses the intermediate state in a number of contexts, including in the essay titled "The Intermediate State," in Theological Investigations vol. 17: Jesus, Man, and the Church, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: Darton, Longman & Todd), 114-24. On p. 115, Rahner summarizes his intention: "No one is in danger of defending a heresy if he maintains the view that the single and total perfecting of man in 'body' and 'soul' takes place immediately after death; that the resurrection of the flesh and the general judgment take place 'parallel' to the temporal history of the world; and that both coincide with the sum of the particular judgments of individual men and women."

(13.) For an example from Ratzinger, in his Appendix 2, he gives a quick review of the most recent literature. When coming to Balthasar's The Last Act of the Theo-Drama, he writes: "This is certainly no manual of eschatology; and yet, with its profound analysis of the essence of Christian hope, of the pain of God, of judgment and the consummation, it makes a foundational contribution to a deepening of the eschatology theme. Concern for these aspects of eschatology could well release the subject from a narrowly anthropological concept of its own task, while avoiding the excessively inventorial approach of the classical heuristic schemes" (262). The International Theological commission gives a quotation from Balthasar as one of the very few texts cited by the commission of recent times that does not come from the Magisterium: "God is 'the last thing' for the creature. Gained, he is heaven; lost, hell; testing, judgment; purifying, purgatory. He himself is that in which the finite dies and through which it rises again in him and to him. He himself is such that he turns himself to the world, namely, in his Son Jesus Christ who is the manifestation of God and therefore also the sum of the 'last things.'" In "Some Current Questions," 1.2.3, on p. 215; quoting from Balthasar, "Eschatologie," in Fragen der Theologie Heute (Zurich-Koln, 1957), 407-8. A published English translation appears as "Some Points in Eschatology," in Explorations in Theology, vol. 1 The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 255-77; quotation on 260-61.

(14.) Ratzinger, Eschatology, 107-8.

(15.) Ibid., 105, 108. Ratzinger quotes here a selection from that catechism: "Existence after death is already something like the resurrection of the new body" (A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults [New York, Herder and Herder: 1982], 474). In Appendix I, Ratzinger similarly says:
 Within a year of the Council the Dutch Catechism had already
 put the doctrine of the immortality of the soul behind it,
 substituting in its place a remarkably obscure anthropology
 of resurrection-by-stages. Indeed, the Missal of Paul VI
 dared to speak of the soul only here and there, and that in
 timorous fashion, otherwise avoiding all mention of it where
 possible. As for the German rite of burial, it has, so far as
 I can see, obliterated it altogether." (248)

(16.) Ibid., 249.

(17.) Ibid., 252-53.

(18.) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter Recentiores episcoporum synodi, Introduction: AAS 71 (1979) 940; quoted on 210.

(19.) Phan, "Current Theology: Contemporary Contexts and Issues in Eschatology," 520.

(20.) "Some Current Questions in Eschatology," 3.4 (219).

(21.) Ibid., 3.5 (220).

(22.) Ibid., 4.1 (220-21).

(23.) Balthasar, "Some Points of Eschatology," in Explorations in Theology, vol. 1 The Word Made Flesh, trans. A.V. Littledale with Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 257-58. The collection of essays was originally published in 1960.

(24.) Balthasar, The Last Act, 47-48.

(25.) Ibid., 48.

(26.) Ibid. Original emphasis.

(27.) Ibid., 356.

(28.) Ratzinger, Eschatologie (Regensburg, 1977), 103; quoted in Balthasar, The Last Act, 356, n. 23. Original emphasis. This passage appears in the English translation of Ratzinger, Eschatology, 117.

(29.) Ratzinger obviously does not give the same privilege as Balthasar to the Johannine witness. Interestingly, Ratzinger writes, "Bultmann took this Johannine theology to be the perfect expression of authentic Christianity" (117-18). Aidan Nichols recognizes Balthasar's reliance on Ratzinger's exegesis of Johannine eschatology and comments: "It was therefore not surprising if the question of the 'intermediate state'--Purgatory--remained for long unasked." Aidan Nichols, OP, No Bloodless Myth: A Guide Through Bathasar's Dramatics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 222.

(30.) Space limitation prohibits adequate attention, but the intermediate state would be an interesting case in which to consider Balthasar's language against things identified as Jewish in theology. For another example, in The Last Act Balthasar states, "Jewish eschatology at and before the time of Jesus is extremely varied and contains patent contradictions" (351).

(31.) Balthasar, The Last Act, 350, n. 8.

(32.) For an excellent overview of the eschatology of the Fathers, see Brian E. Daley, SJ, The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). See 28-32 for the eschatology of Irenaeus. In his epilogue, Daley writes, "From the end of the second century (Tertullian), Patristic writers begin also to suggest the prospect of a judgment pronounced by God at the end of each individual's life. Even before this, the apologists seem to assume that our personal histories each come to final resolution at death, rather than at the end of the world; so they began to hint at the conception of what modern theology calls an 'interim state' between death and resurrection" (220, original emphasis).

(33.) See esp. ST Suppl. q. 69, a. 2 "Whether souls are conveyed to heaven or hell immediately after death" and ST Suppl. qq. 87-90.

(34.) Aquinas holds that one judges perfectly only after the completion of an act. In a fascinating discussion, he sees a certain prolongation of the human life on earth, after death, in six ways that would affect one's reward or one's punishment. For example, the effects of Arius's heresy and the preaching of the Apostles will both last until the end of the world. The general judgment takes those consequences into account for the respective punishment or reward.

(35.) Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. IV: The Action, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 133.

(36.) Balthasar, The Last Act, 356.

(37.) Ibid., 357, quoting from DS 1000 (Enchiridion Symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, 32d ed., ed. Henricus Denzinger and Adolfus Schonmetzer, SJ, [Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1963], 296-97).

(38.) Ibid., quoting from Rahner's "On the 'Intermediate State."

(39.) Ibid., 358.

(40.) Ibid., 358-59.

(41.) Ibid., 360.

(42.) Ibid., 353.

(43.) Ibid.

(44.) Ibid., 360.

(45.) Ibid., n. 1; quoting himself from Fragen der Theologie, 3rd ed., ed. Feiner, Trutsch, and Bockle (Benziger, 1960), 411.

(46.) Spe salvi, [section]47: "The encounter with him [Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour] is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves." Cf. Ratzinger, Eschatology, 228-33. On 231 Ratzinger writes, "Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and reforms us to be vessels of eternal joy" (original emphasis). Here Ratzinger refers the reader to Balthasar's "Eschatologie im Umriss," in Pneuma und Institution: Skizzen zur Theologie IV (Eisiedeln: Johannesverlag, 1974), 443.

(47.) CCC 1030-32. In our specification concern of the intermediate state, it may be helpful to mention that the Catechism describes purgatory as after death and before the final judgment. Of course, for Balthasar, the final judgment is the one judgment, and purgation occurs before meeting judgment.

(48.) Balthasar, The Last Act, 361; quoting Origen's In Luc. Hom. 24.

(49.) Spe salvi, [section]47.

(50.) Balthasar, The Last Act, 363. Cf. Mysterium Paschale, 178-79.

(51.) Balthasar, The Last Act, 362; quoting Objektive Mystik, 383-84.

(52.) Ibid., 364, quoting I Korinther, 102-3. The ellipses are within Balthasar's own quotation.

(53.) Pope Benedict has a different shift of emphasis: "Now a further question arises: if 'Purgatory' is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself" (Spe salvi, [section]48). Cf. Ratzinger, Eschatology, 231-33.

(54.) Balthasar, The Last Act, 361; quoting J. Ratzinger, Eschatologie (Regensburg, 1977), 188.

(55.) Ibid., 366-67; citing Gleichnisse des Herrn, 79 and Objektive Mystik, 374.

(56.) Ibid., 368; quoting Objektive Mystik, 351.

(57.) Ibid., 369; quoting Kath. Briefe, vol. I, 279.

(58.) Nichols, No Bloodless Myth, 223. Original emphasis.

(59.) Cf. Aidan Nichols, OP, in his "Introduction" to Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. Aidan Nichols, OP (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990), 7; Nichols cites Glaubhaft ist nur Liebe (Einsiedeln: Johannesverlag, 1963), 57.

(60.) I give only two of the most recent examples. For a relentless criticism against Balthasar's theology of Holy Saturday, see Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007). For a defense, see Edward T. Oakes, SJ, "The Internal Logic of Holy Saturday in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar," International Journal of Systematic Theology 9 (2007): 184-99.

(61.) See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: Theological Logical Theory, vol. 2: Truth of God, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 345-61, esp. 345, n. 75 for the comment on "hastily written" and a sort of apology about Adrienne von Speyr. One can contrast the scant mention of Speyr in the notes from Mysterium Paschale with the profuse attention to her in Truth of God, 345-61.

(62.) Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 148.

(63.) Ibid., 149.

(64.) Ibid., 160-61.

(65.) Ibid., 149.

(66.) Ibid., 170-71; quoting Nicholas of Cusa, Exicitationes 10 (Basle 1565), 659.

(67.) Ibid., 174.

(68.) Ibid., 177.

(69.) Truth of God, 347.

(70.) Adrienne von Speyr, Kreuz und Holle, 2 vols. (Einsiedeln: Johannesverlag, 1966).

(71.) This quotation is Balthasar's paraphrase from Truth of God, 356.

(72.) As for Balthasar's theological style, he thinks the exposition of God by the Logos in the Holy Spirit to be "so true that it can assert and prove itself even beyond the law of noncontradiction." Is this a key for probing Balthasar's theology on its own terms? See Truth of God, 363.

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Author:Hofer, Andrew
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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