The Arc of Human Life as an Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Contributions

Author: Megan Heeder

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) was a Swiss theologian who was a prolific author, writing over 500 essays and articles and publishing 85 books. While impressive not only in quantity, but also in depth, his theological contributions were shaped by more than erudite reflections. His work as a student chaplain in Basel, Switzerland and friendship with Adrienne von Speyr heavily shaped his theology.

Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr

Balthasar’s Life Out of Death serves as a study-in-miniature of the major themes of his sixteen-volume Trilogy, a three-part systematic theological exploration of Christ as beauty, goodness, and truth. Life Out of Death is as accessible in its manner of writing and size as the corpus of Balthasar’s work is dense and extensive. In it, Balthasar takes the course of a human life as his inspiration for meditations on how the Paschal Mystery (the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ) changes the nature of not only human death, but existence itself. Tracing how Christ’s Paschal Mystery fits within and transforms the arc of human life both serves as an introduction to Balthasar’s treatment of Christian themes and offers insights on how he draws rich theological conclusions from something as ordinary as the human life cycle.

Birth: Theological Anthropology

Life begins when a child is born, and realizes the miracle of her existence and acceptance into the world through her mother’s smile. As the child grows, she realizes within her development distinct truths about herself, the world, and others. Eventually, she asks herself what she wants to achieve in life. At this point, Balthasar observes the meeting of the eternal and transitory in the desire to create something permanent that transcends time, something which is a reflection of one’s personal uniqueness. He notes that part of being human is resisting the transitory state of the world through love or achievement, or both. Illustrating the everyday, yet remarkable nature of Balthasar’s theology, this point is not only a theological one. It is something which nearly every young person can relate to as they become aware of themselves as a person in the world, longing to make a difference in the lives of others and to push back against the injustices with their own achievement, love story, or unique existence. Balthasar once observed what is true today: that to exist is to grapple with the question of what matters most in one’s life, how to spend one’s time, and what one wishes to leave behind in pursuit of what matters.

What Will I Offer the World? The Unity of Divine Mission and Christian Serenity

As one seeks to answer these questions, they ask themselves what is worthy of their assent–that is, what do they want to say “yes” to, as they implicitly say “no” to the thousands of other lives they could live? This “yes,” Balthasar says, requires letting go of one’s self. It is in this letting-go that one finds oneself. This is true for Balthasar not only because of philosophical conclusions, but because of the mission of Jesus. One of Balthasar’s theological claims throughout his work is that Jesus’s mission is not external to Him, something He assents to and subsequently takes up. Rather, Jesus and His mission are one. His work of reconciling the world to God is who He is. He brings the eternal “into the field of the world” so that “the Kingdom of God [might] spring up in this field” (35). The eternal breaks into the temporal in the life of Christ. Christ’s life not only enacts reconciliation between God and humanity, but is God’s reconciliation with the world.

Like any person who wonders what their life will contribute to the world, Jesus is challenged by the work of doing something definitive within the transitory nature of human existence. Balthasar points to Christ’s death as the act which makes this paradox possible; because Christ died, our deaths have already taken place within him. What he has done is transferred eucharistically into us. Because of Jesus’s sacrifice, Christian serenity is possible. Our impending death need not worry us. Balthasar assures us that we are safe in the hands of the Father, who “will catch us in his fatherly hands, even if together with Jesus we feel ourselves abandoned, even if we seem to sink into a bottomless abyss.” (41)

One might ask what will come of the work we do in the world. Balthasar observes that insofar as we surrendered ourselves to the tasks we did, doing them not for our own glory or gain, the work that we have done on earth will be preserved. Such work mirrors the obedient surrender of Christ. It is only in this giving-away of self that transient tasks can be brought to fruition, the power to love is unleashed, and the human person imitates both the mission and person of Christ so that their death can be perfected.

Young Balthasar.

Love is as Strong as Death

The question of the legacy one will leave behind often intensifies as one realizes they will not live forever. Balthasar focuses intensely on the fact that Good Friday is not immediately followed by Easter Sunday’s Resurrection–rather, Holy Saturday lies in between them, a period of what Balthasar terms “letting oneself be taken.” Balthasar’s emphasis on Christ’s descent into Hell and what He endures there is one of his theology’s more controversial points.

The Resurrection does not heal Christ’s wounds. Balthasar notes that Christ’s opened heart–what he terms “the most deadly” of all of His wounds–remains open in the final life of the Resurrection. The peace He offers is that which death’s transfigured peace has entered, a peace accessible because He incorporated universal death into His own personal aliveness. In losing Himself in death, Christ brought about and made possible our, as well as His own and the Church’s, utmost aliveness.

Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter, and the Ascension are all inextricably connected in Balthasar’s view–in Christ, in the Church’s liturgical life, and in the life of individuals. The interconnection of death and life within the cycle of human life is much the same–a single day can be marked by literal or metaphorical deaths, births, and moments of surrender that can become glorified when united with those of Jesus.

In the end, Balthasar says, life and death are united in mission. But, he warns, their intertwined transformation takes place on the condition that one not forget how dark a life of self-abandonment can be if resistances to love are to be overcome, and themselves transfigured. But hope of this transfiguration persists as the communion of saints sings that “love is strong as death” (Song 8:6f).


Suggested further reading:

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Engagement with God. Translated by R. John Halliburton. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Life Out of Death: Meditations on the Paschal Mystery. Translated by Martina Stockl. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Love Alone is Credible. Translated by D.C. Schindler. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Mysterium Paschale. Translated by Aidan Nichols. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1993.

Nichols, Aidan. A Key to Balthasar: Hans Urs von Balthasar on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.

About the author



Megan Heeder holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Marquette University. Her area of specialty is in Systematics and Ethics, particularly engaging resources from the Catholic intellectual tradition to develop a moral theological approach to eating disorders in a digital age, including Balthasar’s theological aesthetics.