“I don’t want to go, unless heaven’s got a dirt road.”

— Kip Moore


For whatever reason, the topic of the afterlife has not been a common topic among students of Karl Barth.

After all, we have so many other matters which direct our attention, usually pertaining to trinitarian metaphysics, divine election, incarnation and atonement, incarnation and ecclesiology, and the perennial “knowledge of God” questions. And if you want to establish yourself in the Barthian guild, you better attend to these matters! But I am grateful that Wyatt Houtz has addressed the doctrine of the afterlife in Barth’s theology: “Karl Barth’s Argument Against Afterlife.”

I do not agree with Wyatt, and you can read my brief comments in the combox for further indications of why. I am not in the least convinced that Barth believes in such a depressing afterlife, where the temporal is absorbed and annihilated into the divine — where the individual consciousness is decisively negated. This is the very worst of Gnostic speculation, and it makes the eternal-finite dialectic the end-game of Barth’s dogmatics. If this is true, then Barth is a truly terrible theologian, scarcely worth our time and energy.

In contrast to one of Wyatt’s reflections, I am perfectly happy with a “pagan” image of heaven as a “Valhalla” where beer is on demand and abundant. At the very least, I hope that heaven is nothing less! By way of illustration, let me offer you the country-rock song, “Dirt Road,” by Kip Moore:

When a preacher talks of heaven, he paints it real nice / He says, you better get to livin’, better get to livin’ right / If you’re gonna get your mansion / he’s been saving for your soul / If you’re gonna do your dancing / on city streets of gold

But unless it’s got a dirt road / leading down to a fishing hole …

As is often the case, country music does theology better than students of theology. The existential heaven of a temporal “hope” is worthless [I sanitized my previous language!], and it is long overdue for us to call a spade a spade. Perhaps, dare I say, we should “absolutize” our temporal experience, as in the Rolling Stone interpretation of this song: “he didn’t want to enter the Pearly Gates if the afterlife wasn’t akin to his beloved South,” also in reference to Hank Williams Jr. Of course, we do not need to do this in an overly literal sense, though I am rather tempted to do so!

My point is simple, and it requires a “new creation” that is at least as good as the old creation. I am very doubtful that liberal Protestants are up to the challenge, as in Christopher Morse’s The Difference Heaven Makes, which does a fine enough job of making the Kingdom present and with moral imperatives. But it does little more.

The resurrection of the body — even a “spiritual body” — is surely good enough for a dirt road, fishing poles, and beers with a pretty girl.

I recently wrote a post, “Faith Without Apologetics,” and I stand by every word! But I appreciate when an apologist offers some wise advice on how to talk with real people, which is not something I typically associate with my fellow systematic theology nerds.

Mary Jo Sharp teaches at Houston Baptist University, and here is a Question and Answer session with her:

She avoids, here at least, all of the facile maneuvers that have plagued apologetics, and she demonstrates an obvious depth of both warmth and intelligence. May she prosper in all things (3 John 1:2).

Barth’s universalism

January 22, 2014

Barth with pipe

Is Karl Barth a universalist?

This is one of the most common questions posed to Barth, both during his lifetime and among his students to this day. For the sake of clarity, I am using “universalist” to refer to an ultimate restoration of all people. Barth is assuredly a “universalist” if we are speaking of the scope of the atonement or, as Barth would prefer to say, man’s “justification, sanctification, and calling” in Jesus Christ. However, the question of Barth’s “universalism” is more commonly in reference to whether he affirmed that all people, by the Holy Spirit, would receive our “proper being” in Jesus Christ. That is the sense in which we ask the question, “Is Karl Barth a universalist?”

Let us first take a look at an instance where Barth comes closest to affirming a universal restoration. In Church Dogmatics IV.1, Barth gives a survey of his christology in the doctrine of reconciliation. Therein we find his famous threefold delineation of Christ’s person and work: the servant as Lord (justification), the Lord as servant (sanctification), and the true Witness (calling). After mapping the territory which will occupy the rest of CD IV, Barth addresses the “subjective apprehension and acceptance” as distinct from the “objective relevance” of man’s justification, sanctification, and calling in Jesus Christ (147). He also uses the language of “appropriation” as distinct from “ascription,” the former of which is “the being and work of His Holy Spirit.” Barth recognizes that the “ascription” is universal but the “appropriation” is given according to the Spirit’s determination, and both are equally the work and decision of God: “That God did not owe His Son, and in that Son Himself, to the world, is revealed by the fact that He gives His Spirit to whom He will” (148).

As if that were not clear enough, he repeats, “In this special sense Christians and only Christians are converted to Him. This is without any merit or co-operation on their part, just as the reconciliation of the whole world in Jesus Christ is without its merit or co-operation” (148). Barth is comfortably Calvinist here. He refuses to introduce even the mildest synergism at the point of “appropriation,” just as surely as he refuses to do at the point of “ascription.” Yet, Barth will speak of Christians as “representatives” of all people, and this is where the universalism comes to the fore, implicitly at least:

[Christians] have over the rest of the world the one inestimable advantage that God the Reconciler and the event of reconciliation can be to them a matter of recognition and confession, until the day when He and it will be the subject of His revelation to all eyes and ears and hearts, and therefore of the recognition and confession of all men. [149]

The language here is the same that he uses for those who have been awakened by the Holy Spirit: “eyes and ears and hearts.” Barth had similarly drawn together the “elect” and “rejected” (Jacob/Esau, David/Saul, etc.) in CD II.2 with the use of “proximity” language, in order to emphasize their common orientation to Jesus Christ. Yet, I do not recall Barth coming this close to a universal restoration in II.2. In fact, he is at pains to avoid it when he discusses “the determination of the rejected” and in his massive excursus on Judas at the end of the volume.

When we turn later in the Church Dogmatics to IV.3.2, we have an instance of where Barth directly addresses the question of universalism and expressly rejects it, even though he recognizes that “theological consistency” may urge us in that direction. Here is how he discusses the matter:

A final word is demanded concerning the threat under which the perverted human situation stands, in spite of its limitation by the powerful and superior reality of God and man, to the extent that from below it is also continually determined by the falsehood of man in a sinister but very palpable manner. Can we count upon it or not that this threat will not finally be executed, that the sick man and even the sick Christian will not die and be lost rather than be raised and delivered from the dead and live? …

First, if this is not the case, it can only be a matter of the unexpected work of grace and its revelation on which we cannot count but for which we can only hope as an undeserved and inconceivable overflowing of the significance, operation and outreach of the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ. To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things. No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift. [IV.3.2, p. 477, underlining mine]

Barth will immediately, on the following page, say that “there is no good reason” that we should not be open to the “unexpected withdrawal of that final threat” — “open to this possibility” (478). Yet, he has made it clear that it is not known, which is why he uses the language of “possibility,” whereas he loves to use “certainty” for the objective work of the God-man. As far as I know, this is the most explicit rejection of universal restoration in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Whether this is entirely compatible with his statements in CD IV.1 is another question.

I never gave much thought to the fact that the damned are included in the resurrection of the dead. Hermann Cremer gives it some due consideration in his volume on eschatology, Beyond the Grave. In this passage you’ll get a good sense of Cremer’s flowing, vibrant prose. Theologically, I appreciate his particularism (non-universalism) while comprehending the proper features of a universal atonement.

The dead in Christ shall rise first, when the Lord shall come at the end of the world. This is the first resurrection (1 Thess. iv. 16; Rev. xx. 5ff.). After that is the end, the second resurrection. All will rise, for Christ has redeemed all; and even those who in unbelief have despised this redemption will experience how wide-reaching and world-comprehending this redemption is. Their resurrection will testify to them that they too needed not to have abode in death. But because they did not accept the redemption and made no use of it, they have come to be so indissolubly bound to death that they are able only to give a look at the glory now irrevocably lost to them, a look of apprehension that arouses every sensibility and enhances their pain to the utmost. The resurrection gives nothing to them. It only seals their fate, an eternal continuance of death. This, says the Scripture, so darkly and sadly, is the second death (Rev. xx. 14; cf. ii. 11). For them the resurrection is only the transition from the intermediate place and vestibule of the realm of death to the final penalty of condemnation. After they have received what properly appertains to them of the redemption, they must depart eternally whither the power of sin, of unbelief, and of death irresistibly impels them, voluntarily, and yet against their will, into eternal remoteness from God, into eternal deprivation of light and of life. They are dead, ruined. For them all that God has thought, done, prepared, is lost. Such is the second resurrection. Yet, perhaps, in the second resurrection even those will celebrate a resurrection even those who only after this life could learn to know the Saviour, and then believed on him and were converted to him.

Then at once all struggling and sighing of the creation has an end. All will participate in the glorious freedom of the children of God, and the Lord redeems his word, “Behold, I make all things new.” Then the separation between heaven the place of the blessed, and earth, that has continued till then, will cease to exist. The earth will no longer stand in a position between the realm of death and heaven; but heaven and earth will again constitute a connected whole, and the tabernacle, the sanctuary of God, will be with the children of men. Such is the future that lies beyond the grave.

[pp. 78-80]