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Not For All But Only For Many?

The Problem of All-reconciliation
and the Praying Church's Hope

A Contribution to the Discussion
from the Viewpoint of Fundamental Theology


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 4/2007, S. 29f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


In the last edition of CiG Thomas Söding already pointed out that the intended change in the translation of the cup word of the Eucharist contains fuel for conflict. So far it read, "My blood will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven." The Latin words "per multis" are now no longer to be translated with "for all", but with "for you and for many". One may feel sorry for the demanded linguistic correction, and it is also to be regretted, because it can lead to misunderstandings. But if the for quite some time rumbling discussion about the correct translation of Christ's words on Bread and Wine (words of consecration) should inspire people to talk anew about God and thereby also about the hope that is the center of Christian faith, then the whole matter would have at least some good aspect.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, responsible in the Vatican for questions of liturgy, expressly underlined in his letter to the Bishops' Conferences that the new translation does not want to correct the belief in God' will of a universal Salvation. The God from which Christians believe that It finally revealed Itself in Jesus Christ wants the salvation of all people. No human being will ever be given up by God. Thus reads - in view of the real events of this world - the optimism of Christianity expressed in the words "for all"; an optimism that - according to Karl Rahner can almost be named "crazy".


No Turning Away From the Universalism of Salvation

One must time and again see in one's mind's eye the dimensions of this hope in its whole inscrutability, in order not to reduce it. Neither the henchmen of the Third Reich nor Stalin neither Mohammed Atta nor Saddam Hussein fall out of this hope. In each celebration of the Eucharist they too are taken into the prayer. Time and again the hope is expressed that they too are - without exception - not given up by the God who revealed Itself to the utmost as the one who comes to meet even those who mock It with Its will to forgiveness and reconciliation. This will of God is assured and historically proven. Hence the "for all" is by no means only a human hope. It is rather owed to God's revealed promise, to the promise of that God who becomes always anew present in the Eucharist event.

Hence the question about the appropriate translation of "per multis" is not at all a matter of minor importance. On the contrary, here the Christian hope is made pointed. How universal is our faith? Does its hope really include all people or is it after all exclusive? This is at stake with the words "per multis". Hence the translation problem can also not be decided on the level of philology alone. That would be a disguised biblicism. Instead the theological logic depends on the facts. It must be possible to make clear which interpretation (translation) is entitled to expect the better right for itself in view of God's utmost will to reconciliation - proven by Jesus' death on the cross. God's incarnate love of man - documented by the New Testament - is to be opened in the abundance of its significance.

The tradition argument too has only a limited importance in the decision of the question whether Jesus gave up his life now "for all" or "for many". Of course, we are to treat tradition carefully. But it was nevertheless the very achievement of Christian theology to discover the historicity of the revelation event. Historicity does just not mean relativism, no; it takes it seriously that God's wish to live and die for man is made accessible to man in history itself. It is man who more and more understands God, and this, to be precise, based on the belief in the revelation. First God communicates Itself, but then man is to learn to understand God's will. In this process of an understanding of God, that is always to begin anew, it can very probably come to changes of views/things that have been so far considered to be the true ones.

As starting-point of its conception of God the Christian belief takes God's Incarnation. Already the writings of the New Testament try to interpret it in quite differentiated ways. Just by the differences of their approaches they too invite therefore time and again to a new understanding of God's intention with Its creation. For that reason the Second Vatican Council could carry out a clear correction at the up to then valid particularism of salvation, according to which there was "no salvation outside the Church".


The Optimism of Christianity

In the history of the churches the hope for the final salvation of all people has been regarded with suspicion time and again. The sharp Biblical words about the Last Judgement, as they are found also in the New Testament, contributed substantially to this. Is there no poetical justice at all? Could man take responsibility for a God who at the end loves all people equally? The following sentences turn up with the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: "Nobody, not even God, can put itself in the place of the victim. The world in which forgiveness is omnipotent becomes inhuman." Levinas knew about what he spoke. In his whole writing he had in mind the millions of murdered Jews, his own family, a history that brought horror and murder upon innumerable human beings. Has God Incarnate really sacrificed himself "for all"?

Who takes history seriously, will not simply ignore this doubt. It is connected with the fact that it is inconceivable for the Abrahamitic religions to understand the belief in God without its reference to history. History - in its uncounted interpersonal everyday life dimensions, but also in its social ones and in those that bring nations together -, is important for these religions. The concrete world and its history are here discerned as that reality where people realize their destination to be human beings or also just miss it, and where they at the same time realize their relation to God. This is concisely expressed in the formula of the unity of the love of God and of one's neighbour. This spirituality says not no to the world but wins its substance in the practice of life.

The Christian belief which even accepts that God was there in the flesh of the man Jesus, and lent thereby infinite dignity on it, means the culmination of God's relation to history. But who then dreams of a salvation of all people, must be aware of what s/he dreams there. They are human beings with their concretely lived history who appear in this dream. When the Christian churches from the times of the Old Church urged to be careful and when the conception of a salvation of all people was also curtly condemned time and again, then this has a reason that can be exactly named: The dignity of freedom was too serious for them to admit there any automatism. If salvation, then not without the free man. Man's life is to be taken absolutely seriously.


And God? Is God not Free?

Hope that is lived in the way of the Eucharist, counts on a God who is not relieved of time and history. The Biblical theologians did not know the concerns of the Greek philosophers who wanted to keep God away from all changes of history, in order not to hurt its perfection. Jesus too did not know this concern. When for example Mt 7:7 says, "Ask, then one will give you", then one reckons here with a God who can give, because It hears the request of man. The Biblical prayers do not let people be swung into a cosmic All-Oneness (Zen-Buddhism). People do just n o t learn to forget the world.



Rather Biblical praying is concrete, is fleshly-"materialistic" and refers to the worries and hopes of man. So the recalling of Jesus in the Eucharist event, a Jesus who finally makes himself in and with his life a prayer, when he relies in his whole mortal danger on the Father and is heard by him, cannot lead into withdrawal from the world.

In the Jewish-Christian prayer traditions is it always the free and personal God who is addressed - and this with reference to a free history that brought infinitely many marvellous, humanly deeply touching things to the light, but into that also a deep trace of disaster is drawn.

But all the more important becomes then the question whether one forgets all too fast God's freedom, when one hopes "for all", yes, even makes this "for all" the center of the Eucharist anamnesis. Should God be unable to indulge in in unbounded wrath about some humans and to banish them into the absolute and final God distance, i.e. to send them into "hell"? Who truly radically reckons with a free God, will not be able simply to deny this possibility. Either God is free, hence also not subject to any necessity, or is not free. But that would be then no longer the God of the Bible. In the formula of the name "I am the one and I will show myself (as the one) who I am and as who I will show me" (Exodus 3.14) - so the Freiburg exegete of the Old Testament Hubert Irsigler - is expressed God's "unavailable freedom out of sovereign power", but not an abstract and nameless principle of existence.


For Many Already Now - And Nevertheless For All

But a quite different question is important for a thinking that is committed to the Christian-Biblical testimonies about God. Is really to be reckoned with that God wants to abandon again Its passion for man? The One who was so "crazy" - probably from the beginning - to become Man Iself, in order to be able to come humanly close to man? And by Its forgiving proximity to move man to turn back? Or is this perhaps even the grossest sin against the Holy Spirit of the God Incarnate, to doubt now again about the fact that God even runs after the last sheep gone astray? No matter how serious its guilt was? That It wants to be also then still there for man, even if s/he was incapable of insight and regret in this earthly life? As now was reported about Saddam Hussein, who was allegedly only capable of uttering the old speeches of hate - even still shortly before his barbarian execution, an execution that can by no means be justified, although he was a mass murderer?

To talk in a Christian way about the history of salvation means to talk about the hope that this history may be turned into good. That man at last becomes man. To be precise: each man, all human beings; and this dramatically: with an open end. Hans Urs of Balthasar spoke even of a possible failure of God with his creation, should finally only one human being refuse to accept God's love. This would be the price to be paid by God when It binds Itself so decidedly to man's freedom. God proves Its perfection by courting man only with the possibilities of love. Nobody can say then whether "all (people)" will really correspond to (God's love) "for all", by confessing their own history of guilt, by repenting and asking for forgiveness - since they have been set free to do so by God's forgiving proximity. It is the idea of the coming Last Judgement that averts that God's history with the world, Its salvation becomes "inhuman".

But Christ's sacrifice applies "to all", certainly. Not pettiness is the name of this God, but infinite mercy. By this devotion of Jesus, in which God's unreserved decidedness for each human being was finally revealed, the logic of permanent continuation of guilt has been broken. Thus the Münster theologian Thomas Pröpper says, "Since our guilt has been forgiven, we are able to forgive each other." Already here and now and, and all the more in the Last Judgment that we expect. And perhaps the uncounted degraded and murdered of this history are able to forgive their perpetrators in this Judgment: since the deeply guilty persons see - in view of God's mercy - the whole monstrosity of their doing, and are therefore able to repent and to ask honestly for forgiveness. And perhaps then forgiveness is after all granted, and the guilt that is unforgivable according to human standards is forgiven.


To Celebrate Eucharist - Incarnation Already Now

And what about the one who joins the prayer "for all"? It is after all a deeply edifying idea that man, who at last - in the face of God Incarnate - became a true man, will no longer bear it that even one human being further hardens its heart, and is not able to show regret and to ask for forgiveness. It is allowed to none of us to judge who could be such a man. Also for those people who are now sure of their faith, who are naturally convinced of their own salvation, could apply that they are - in the meeting with the first true human man, Jesus Christ - to recognize their whole small-mindedness and spitefulness. The confession of sins, spoken in each Eucharist, has a realistic dimension that is fast overlooked. And perhaps resonates in the word on the cup "for all" another meaning yet: that also those who have been tormented are able to forgive.

One can be extremely keen to know whether the wish expressed in the Vatican's letter to the Bishops' Conferences, one may make understandable the background of the new translation to the faithful by suitable catecheses, will meet with a response at all. But if there is such a positive response, then people will ask the question, "For many?" now well - and what happens with the other people? Placing their hopes in the always greater God (Deus semper maior) the Christians will then nevertheless include "all" (human beings) into their Eucharist devotion, the humiliated and tortured people first. And they will also not forget those to whom inhumanity became second nature. This is the hope that articulates itself when the Christian community prays "for all". It prays in the confidence on that God who revealed Itself in Its entire passion for each human being - and this always in concrete terms.

An execution is always scandalous. It can become even more scandalous by its attendant circumstances. "Spiegel online" reported that - while Hussein was already hanging in the rope - a man who wanted to pray for him was shouted at, "What, you want to pray for that one?" Yes, Christians pray for him. They feel obliged to do so by their belief that God in Its unrestrained love does not exclude any human being. And when they do this then they have by no means forgotten that this prayer applies to a murderer. They pray for all, because God has already revealed Its love for all. It is sad that this truth will more easily be missed in the probably coming translation "for many".


Link to 'Public Con-Spiracy for-with-of the Poor'