Products>Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell

Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell

, 2007
ISBN: 9780802807557


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“He descended into hell.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, placed this affirmation of the Nicene Creed at the heart of his reflection on the world-altering events of Holy Week, asserting that this identification of God with the human experience is at the “absolute center” of the Christian faith. Yet is such a descent to suffering really the essence of Catholic belief about the mystery of Holy Saturday?

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s Light in Darkness—the first comprehensive treatment of Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday—draws on the multiple yet unified resources of authoritative Catholic teaching on Christ’s descent to challenge Balthasar’s conclusions. Pitstick conducts a thorough investigation of Balthasar’s position that Christ suffered in his descent into hell and asks whether that is compatible with traditional teaching about Christ.

Light in Darkness is a thorough argument for the existence and authority of a traditional Catholic doctrine of Christ’s descent as manifested in creeds, statements of popes and councils, Scripture, and art from Eastern and Western traditions. Pitstick’s carefully argued, contrarian work is sure to spur debate across the theological spectrum.

Key Features

  • Presents a comprehensive discussion of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday
  • Argues for the existence and authority of traditional Catholic doctrine of Christ’s descent


  • Part One: The Catholic Tradition
    • Creeds and Catechisms
    • Scripture and the Traditional Doctrine of Christ’s Descent
    • Magisterium and Sensus fidelium: Liturgy and Art
  • Part Two: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of Christ’s Descent into Hell
    • The Descent Event
    • Christ’s Descent in Light of the Trinity: The Father, Active Inflictor of the Visio Mortis
    • Christ’s Descent in Light of the Trinity: The Son, Mission as Expression of Procession
    • Christ’s Descent in Light of the Trinity: The Spirit, Bond of Love, Bridge of Separation
    • The Centrality of the Descent in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar
  • Part Three: General Comparison and Conclusion
    • Global Questions about the Theological Opinion of Hans Urs von Balthasar
    • General Conclusion

Praise for the Print Edition

Pitstick’s book is a challenge to those who regard Balthasar as an entirely trustworthy theologian, ranking with the greatest masters of the Tradition. She subjects his understanding of Christ’s descent into hell to a searching critique and shows it to be seriously at odds with the teaching of the fathers and Doctors of the Church.

—John Saward, associate lecturer, Blackfriars, Oxford University

This severe, but forcefully argued, study will have to be borne in mind in all future assessment of Balthasar’s theological doctrine.

Aidan Nichols, John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer, Oxford University

Alyssa Pitstick gives no quarter. She notes instances in which Balthasar, in her view, misrepresents scriptural, patristic, and magisterial texts and simply ignores aspects of the tradition inconvenient to his argument. . . Pitstick has thrown down a gauntlet that other theologians should not ignore. . . . Thanks to Pitstick, a new and lively debate over Balthasar’s achievement is almost certainly under way.

—Richard John Neuhaus, First Things

An impressive book. Pitstick has had the courage to challenge a major theological reputation head on, and has done so with great skill. The result is the most sustained and detailed criticism of Balthasar’s theology yet published in English, and a work of acute argument in its own right.

New Blackfriars

Product Details

In the Verbum edition, this volume is enhanced by amazing functionality. Scripture citations link directly to English translations, and important terms link to dictionaries, encyclopedias, and a wealth of other resources in your digital library. Perform powerful searches to find exactly what you’re looking for. Take the discussion with you using tablet and mobile apps. With Verbum Catholic Study Software, the most efficient and comprehensive research tools are in one place, so you get the most out of your study.

About Alyssa Lyra Pitstick

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick holds degrees from Pontifical University in Rome, International Theological Institute in Austria, and Gonzaga University, and is assistant professor of religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.


4 ratings


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  1. Zachery Joseph Moore
  2. Katelyn M

    Katelyn M


  3. Sean



    This is a masterful work of theology, a revised doctoral dissertation that fulfills the ideal of both thoroughly answering a very focused question as well as showing mastery of the breadth of the field of systematic theology. Even if one, like me, isn't interested in Balthasar's theology, there is an incredible amount that can be learned from this book on subjects such as church history, soteriology, Trinitarian theology, and Christology. It is a very dense work and far from an easy read, though the writing style is quite clear. This is a very catholic work but still very useful for protestants in three chief areas: 1. It covers a much neglected topic: Christ's harrowing of hell. 2. It is an extremely good illustration of catholic theological method. It showcases both how and why their approach to the Bible and tradition differs from that of protestants. 3. Although it's only lightly touched upon, Balthasar's basic problem is that he pretty accepts the reformed theory of atonement as penal substitution. He follows Calvin in teaching that Christ suffered in hell after his death. This work shows, from a different angle than most, the disruptions that this belief creates throughout the breadth of Christian belief. Protestants would be well advised to take some of these points into consideration when thinking about how they interpret Christ's saving work on the cross.

  4. Rev. Dr. K. Robert Schmitt


Digital list price: $34.99
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