NB: After the disagreement (though not quite unanimous) that my last post generated, I hesitated briefly on this next one. Every time I bring up von Balthasar’s Holy Saturday thesis, it generates quite a bit of conversation. Nevertheless, I find it very useful on this third, and perhaps most mysterious day of the Sacred Triduum. Please know that I am not unaware of the theological controversy surrounding this thesis.
In my mind, this is an example of a deep theological question that warrants some discussion. The publication First Things did a very nice job of presenting both sides of this argument: Alyssa Pitstick representing the traditional position, and Fr. Edward Oakes defending Balthasar (or rather defending the position that Balthasar was not heretical in his claims). For my own part, I think Balthasar’s thoughts are worth pondering, and I think Fr. Oakes is correct at least in his assessment that Balthasar is not wading in heresy in his claims.
While I do not have time, space, or expertise to present this entire debate, I would reference the readers to the series of article by Pitstick and Oakes in First Things. Without further adieu …
The twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a work entitled Mysterium Paschale in which he attempts to come to grips with the experience of Christ on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. The thesis of the book is that Christ, in order to redeem man from the punishment of sin, must take on sin and all of its consequences and must rise from those consequences on Easter in his return to the Father.
The most striking chapter of the book, and certainly the one that has received the most attention, is his description of Holy Saturday. For Balthasar the experience of Holy Saturday is preeminently about the credal phrase descendit ad inferna (Christ’s descent into Hell). While belief in the statement is a matter of dogmatic obedience, the Church has not been clear on exactly what Christ’s going to Hell entailed. Balthasar’s thesis hinges on two given facts. First, in order to redeem man Christ must take on the penalty of death merited by man’s sin. Second, the penalty for sin is not just death of the body, but also death of the soul.
The experience of Hell is that of abandonment by God. More precisely, the soul has chosen to separate itself from God in the very act of sin. God is both our efficient and final cause, so eternity spent in the absence of this God is greater than any suffering of which we can conceive, and certainly greater than any physical suffering.
Because Christ in his saving act must go through the entire experience of death, with the eventual result of its conquering, he must not only suffer and die a bodily death, but also must suffer a spiritual death, a death that is the complete abandonment by God. The whole idea becomes more profound when we consider that Jesus is God. As such, his “closeness” to the Father is perfect, and certainly much more intense than our own relationship with the Father. While two separate Trinitarian Persons, they are in fact one God. In this sense, Christ has a much greater loss when he is abandoned by the Father in Hell than any non-divine man could experience. (Note that only in a Trinitarian theology can we even begin to grapple with the idea of God being abandoned by God.)
Another way of looking at this is that Jesus, as true man, must experience the full depth and breadth of the human condition, and as perfect man will experience this depth and breadth in a manner more perfect than the rest of us. The human condition in its positive aspect is an original union with God, of which Jesus experiences in a far more perfect manner than we. In its negative aspect, the human condition is the abandonment of God in death caused by both original and personal sin, a death that only begins with the destruction of the body, but continues in the destruction of the soul in every way except its annihilation. Jesus, as perfect man, experiences the depths of Hell in a manner more perfectly terrible than even the souls of the damned.
As Christians, we have become accustomed to thinking about the sufferings of Christ on Good Friday. On Holy Saturday, we at times become a bit more human-centered, perhaps reflecting on the emptiness and confusion the disciples would have felt as people who did not yet fully understand the significance of the prior day’s events. Perhaps, however, we should keep our gaze on Christ, knowing that the sufferings he is experiencing today are infinitely greater than those of Good Friday. The height of his Good Friday sufferings occurs in his shout from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me!” This is the beginning of His Hell, and today is a long and arduous experience of this abandonment – and all of this He did for us.
Note: The traditional view on the matter comes from 1 Peter 3:19 and describes Christ preaching to the souls in prison. Balthasar notes that the tense in this and other passages is mysteriously passive, as if the preaching occurred simply by the event of the descent. Of course, the second person of the Trinity is the Word, so any action is simultaneously a “speaking” of sorts. A similar “preaching” occurred to the souls of the living in his very act on the Cross. The point is that Balthasar’s thesis in no way contradicts the traditional view.