On a contemporary theological thesis

Thesis: A Christian has hope that all persons will be saved. 

I have no strong opinions on the thesis, but it does contain the danger of distorting and trivializing the virtue of hope. Faith, as Paul tells us, is the substance of things hoped for, which means that hope is that which proceeds out of the substance of the faith, i.e. it is the confident expectation of that which faith promises will come to pass. For example, if you believe that scripture inerrantly reveals that Christ will judge the world, then you confidently expect that to happen. Even if something of the faith is not precisely a future good (like the Catholic’s belief that the canonized are in heaven or that Mary was immaculately conceived), we still confidently expect to see the truth of it if and when we are saved, and in this sense any truth of the faith might fall under the virtue of hope.

But the sort of hope that the thesis speaks of is very different from this, to the point that it seems to be not hope at all but a wish. Fr. Neuhaus, a proponent of the thesis, does just this:

We know that some are saved. At least Catholics know, on the basis of infallible teaching, that Mary, the mother of the Lord, is saved…. With respect to all the faithful departed, we are invited to have a generous expectation, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

But in fact Catholics don’t know that some are saved: they accept this as being de fide. True, we are certain of the teaching, but it remains based on faith. Neuhaus’s argument only makes sense if a Catholic’s hope for all to be saved is opposed to his supposed knowledge that the canonized are saved, but what Neuhaus calls knowledge is precisely what hope is. Since, by his own terms, we are forced to see the “hope” that all are saved as less than this,  then we are not talking about the virtue of hope, with its confident expectation of things that the faith promises, but simply of a wish.

And that’s my concern: the thesis clearly leans on the idea of hope, but it understands hope in a way that opposes it to the things we confidently expect to proceed from the truth of faith, that is, to what scripture calls hope. If the thesis were re-worded so as to make it clear that what were were really toying with was the idea that universalism or apokatastasis was de fide, then my objection would be removed, but I also suspect that the thesis becomes immeasurably more controversial.

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1 Comment

  1. November 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    As you note, Christian understandings of hope do not really work in this instance, and so a different term should be used.

    “A Christian hopes that each might be saved, loves them that they may be, and desires that none go to Hell, for Hell is avoidable for all.”

    This is probably a better formulation. It avoids universalism as well as salvages the practical point. It places, I believe, theological hope where it belongs — between individuals, and qualified as being a possibility. The whole tragedy of Hell is that each resident had a chance not to be there.

    Or maybe I’m missing the point.


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