Balthasar was born in Lucerne, Switzerland on 12 August 1905, to a wealthy family. He was educated first by Benedictine monks at the abbey school at Engelberg in central Switzerland. Before finishing his secondary education, however,
Balthasar was moved by his parents to the Stella Matutina College run by the Society of Jesus in Feldkirch, Austria. In 1923 he enrolled in the university of Zurich. His studies in philosophy and German literature led him to study subsequently in Vienna and Berlin and culminated in his doctoral work on German literature and idealism. In 1929, having submitted his thesis, he entered the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits (in Germany, since the Jesuits were banned in Switzerland until 1973). For three years he studied philosophy at Pullach, near Munich, and came into contact with Erich Przywara, whose work on analogia entis (the analogy of being) was very influential on him.
In 1932, he moved to Fourvières, the Jesuit school at Lyon, for his four years of theological study. Here he encountered Jean Daniélou, Gaston Fessard, and Henri de Lubac. Daniélou and de Lubac were both to become notorious from the 1940s onwards as members of the nouvelle théologie, a set of thinkers raising deep questions about the neoscholastic doctrine of grace and nature, with its suggestion that human nature could be conceived of in isolation from its relation to the vision of God. Both Daniélou and de Lubac, as part of their re-assessment of neoscholastic thought, were increasingly turning to studies of patristic thinkers.
Balthasar received from his time here an enduring love of the church fathers, which was later to lead to his studies of Origen of Alexandria, (1938), Maximus the Confessor, Kosmische Liturgie (1941), and Gregory of Nyssa, Présence et pensée, (1942). Having finished his seven years of training, Balthasar was ordained a priest in 1936. He then worked briefly in Munich, on the Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit.
In 1940, with the Nazi regime encroaching on the freedom of Catholic journalists, he left Germany and began work in Basel as a student chaplain. While he Basel he met Adrienne von Speyr. She was a twice-married Protestant medical doctor in chronically poor health, who through her mystical experiences would have a huge impact on Balthasar's later thought. In 1940 he received her into the Church.
In 1945, they founded a religious society, the Community of Saint John (Johannesgemeinschaft), for men and women. This became more widely known three years later when Balthasar produced a theology for secular institutes in his work Der Laie und der Ordenstand, the first book to be published by the Johannes Verlag, a publishing house established  with the help of a friend. Because the Jesuits did not see running the institute as compatible with belonging to the society, von Balthasar had to choose between remaining a Jesuit and his involvement with the institute.
In 1950 he left the Society of Jesus, feeling that God had called him to continue his work with this secular institute, a form of consecrated life that sought to work for the sanctification of the world. He accordingly remained without a role in the Church until in 1956 he was incardinated into the Diocese of Chur as a secular priest. Balthasar was not invited to take part in any capacity in the Second Vatican Council. In later years, though, his reputation as a theologian grew. In 1969,
Pope Paul VI appointed him to the International Theological Commission. From the low point of being banned from teaching as a result of this move, his reputation eventually rose to the extent that Pope John Paul II named him to be a cardinal in 1988. He died, however, in his home in Basel on 26 June 1988, two days before the ceremony which would have granted him that position. His remains were interred in the Hofkirche cemetery in Lucerne.
In Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory—the following 5-volume work on 'theodramatics'—the action of God and the human response, especially in the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are examined. Balthasar's soteriology, christology, and eschatology, are here developed. The final group of volumes are titled: Theo-Logic. These three volumes describing the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (christology) to reality itself (ontology, or the study of being). He completes the third part of his trilogy with a brief Epilogue.