God revealed in the Paschal mystery


From an essay by Anne Hunt

“Psychological analogy and paschal mystery in Trinitarian theology”
(Theological Studies, Vol. 59, 1998.)

“For Balthasar to take the paschal mystery as not merely redemptive “for us” in its effect but revelatory of trinitarian being (analogy properly speaking of the immanent Trinity) is quite remarkable. But what is more startling about his trinitarian theology is the priority he gives to Jesus’ descent into hell, despite the scant biblical warrant for doing so. Balthasar bemoans the fact that a theology of hell and Holy Saturday has been neglected and forgotten in the theological tradition. “And yet Holy Saturday stands as the mysterious middle between cross and Resurrection, and consequently properly in the center of all revelation and theology. And here in the center like an unexplored, inexplicable blank spot on the map!” He argues that, there at the midpoint of those three holy days of the sacred triduum, the descent into hell on Holy Saturday is a trinitarian as well as a soteriological, indeed a christological event. It preeminently reveals the glory, albeit a hidden glory, or inner-trinitarian love; “it is precisely in the kenosis of Christ (and nowhere else) that the inner majesty of God’s love appears, of God who `is love’ (1 John 4:8) and therefore a trinity.” Here, as Balthasar is quick to note, he is indebted to the theological charism of the contemplative Adrienne von Speyr and her mystical experiences of the descent into hell.

In contrast to the prevailing view among the Fathers of the Church that the descent was a glorious entry into the underworld, for Balthasar it is far from being an active descent. It is rather a “sinking down” into the abyss of death, an utterly passive “being removed,” as in the burial of a corpse. This passivity of the Son’s descent stands in stark contrast to the active self-surrender of Jesus on Good Friday. There, on the cross, his death is the supreme act of his liberty; but on Holy Saturday, in this passive “being removed,” Jesus’ surrender is characterized by the utter passivity of being dead. In the descent into hell, his obedience is the obedience of the dead Christ.

The mystery that Balthasar would have us behold is the mystery of God who descends into hell and enters into the utter loneliness and hellish desolation of the sinner (“a being-only-for-oneself” in the absolute weakness and vulnerability of love. In Balthasar’s theology, the descent represents Jesus’ solidarity with humanity in its sinfulness (without, however, any cooperation in sin itself: Jesus is “free among the dead,” not bound by any of the bonds of sin). It is Jesus’ complete identification with the sinner in his death, in his radical separation from God, in his hellish desolation and utter loneliness as a being-only-for-oneself, and in his complete powerlessness to redeem himself. At this point, Balthasar takes us to the extremes of paradox. In the descent into hell, God experiences God-forsakenness and God-estrangement. For him it is precisely here that the glow of the Lord is revealed: “It is `glory’ in the uttermost opposite of `glory,’ because it is at the same time blind obedience, that must obey the Father at the point where the last trace of God seems lost (in pure sin), together with every other communication (in pure solitariness).”

This is absolute glory because it is absolute love. Herein lies the essential meaning and significance of the descent. God, who is love, having accomplished on the cross the divine judgment on sin, in the descent freely takes responsibility for the flourishing of creation, in the context of human freedom and sin. In the descent, trinitarian love itself enters into the realm of death and desolation and gathers our lostness into God’s triune self, thus revealing the sheer graciousness and glory of the love that is God. Henceforth, even hell belongs to Christ; even hell is taken up and into the trinitarian communion of love.”


The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...