In his column yesterday, Stephen Webb argues that von Balthasar’s view of the descent into hell is incorrect, but not for the usual reasons. Webb agrees with von Balthasar that Christ enters the abode of the damned, but argues that he comes to preach, not to suffer. Based on his experience with prison ministry, Webb sees Christ as, in a sense, the great prison minister, bringing the good news of forgiveness to those who need it most:
In any case, after his death he visited the ultimate prison of hell itself. Having accepted God’s judgment on all of humankind, Jesus would have felt right at home in hell, and the prisoners would have been glad to welcome him. The sharing of the good news is a joyful event, especially in a place where its message is most needed. . . . If Jesus took on the sins of the world and suffered the ultimate judgment of guilt and defeat, then I am convinced that he found camaraderie and understanding among the prisoners in hell.
It’s a beautiful picture, but one almost entirely at odds with the orthodox Christian understanding of hell. Moreover, it falls victim to some of the same problems that plague Balthasar’s understanding of Christ’s descent.
Balthasar’s argument runs roughly as follows. Jesus must bear the full human weight of sin—the actions and consequences of forsaking God—so through him humanity might be incorporated into the life of God. In order for this to take place, he must suffer not only physical death but also spiritual death. To unite humanity to God, he must stand with those utterly and seemingly finally separated from God. For Balthasar, Christ’s standing in the place of the damned allows for the possibility that God’s love trumps man’s final rejection of God. A passage from Balthasar’s Explorations in Theology captures this idea well:
God does not overtake freedom in such a way that man’s choice is called into question from without—which would be the equivalent of showing contempt for the very freedom he gave man—but in such a way that God accompanies man into the most extreme situation of his (negative) choice with his own divine choice. . . . [On Good Friday, Jesus] takes the blows, and the hate they express, upon himself and, as it were, amortizes it through his own suffering. The impotence of suffering (and the active readiness to undergo that impotence) outlasts every power of hammering sin. Sin’s impatience, as the sum of all world-historical sinful impatience against God, is finally exhausted in comparison to the patience of the Son of God. His patience undergirds sin and lifts it off its hinges.
For Balthasar, this is not because God takes away human free will, but because God’s love remains stronger than it. Like a parent who waits out a child’s temper tantrum, God suffers through and surrounds any rejection of himself.
This brings to light an important aspect of hell: Hell is the place of those who hate God. It is not like an earthly prison. The damned in hell do not want to repent. They do not want mercy. They will not pray or go to Bible studies. Their rejection of God is real and deep. They would not receive the gospel but reject it; if they were to receive it, they would no longer be in hell. As one who loves God—and indeed is, himself, the second person of the Trinity—Jesus would not be at home in hell, nor would he be welcomed. Rather, he would be rejected as he was during his passion, and probably with greater violence.
If hell is the home of those who reject God, as Balthasar and the Christian tradition argue, it’s hard to see how Webb’s vision is in any way plausible. But perhaps we could change it a bit and make it accord with Balthasar. Yes, the prisoners of hell might first respond with hate, but the whole point of Christ’s descent is to wait out and conquer that hate. In the end, then, Webb and Balthasar would be correct and Christ could conquer the hearts of his last despisers.
However, as many theologians have noted, this account is not without its problems. First, Balthasar believes that the Son’s loving obedience brings him to stand not just in the place of a sinner who cries out for mercy, but one who echoes—to borrow an example from the world of opera—the final defiance of Don Giovanni. However, Christ’s loving “yes” cannot really bring him to the same place as one who spits out “no!” As much as he bears the sin of the world, he cannot bear the sin of final rejection and still intelligibly remain the Son. If the Son eternally proceeds from and is united to the Father, he cannot suspend his union with him. His eternal love cannot lead him to stand with those who truly hate. The Trinity cannot be broken or more tenuously bound, at least if God is to remain changeless and truly eternal.
Second, the question of final rejection remains. Balthasar never says that there can be no final rejection of God, though he believes that God’s love will always surround the sinner’s rejection and, by its beauty, elicit acceptance from even the most recalcitrant heart. But Scripture and Christian tradition have held that final rejection is real. To the Don’s “no!” there may indeed come the response, “It is too late.” Moreover, even if Christ could fully stand with the damned, it is unclear that they would repent having rejected him when he stood with them before. That is to say, it is unclear that a real rejection in this life would not somehow be continued in the next, and therefore be final. As Milton’s Satan says when he discovers paradise, “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell . . .”