Hell 3: Universalism and Karl Barth

Posted: March 12, 2014 by J in Bible, Church history, Theology
Tags: , , ,

Will all people be ultimately ‘saved’ – restored to God and to goodness and life?

Last post we saw that God’s judgement is one of the major, big-picture ideas or images that run through the whole Scriptures, and give shape to the story of God’s purposes for his world. The gospel can be well-expressed as the story of God’s judgement arriving in the world through his Son, the judged one and the bringer of judgement. The Christian confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ is really saying that Jesus is the judge of the world.

Fundamental to the image of judgement, we saw, is the idea of division. The judge distinguishes between those approved and those shamed. He makes a finding in favour of one, and against the other (Model 1)

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Model 1

This core image of division has been largely lost in Protestant teaching about judgement. And this has directly led to the teaching of universalism which has been so pervasive in Protestant churches over the past century or so.

Our Protestant message of God’s judgement has instead gone something like this: Everyone has sinned and put themselves in the wrong with God. Everyone receives the verdict of guilty, an adverse judgement. There are no two sides in this judgement: everyone is on the same side: the ‘condemned’ side. Or if we imagine two sides, then God is on the other side, standing over against us all (Model 2).

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Model 2

In this Protestant story of judgement (Model 2), the details of what we do ‘down here’ make no difference. Everyone is by definition included in the general condemnation. Thus there is no possibility of division between different people. Not in the judgement.

This revised version of God’s judgement (Model 2) has far-reaching consequences for the whole of our gospel theology. Here are some of the most problematic:

  • It divorces God’s judgement from his saving activity. These become opposites, rather than one and the same thing. God’s judgement becomes an entirely negative thing, which saves no one. Where the early believers could sum their faith up simply with ‘Jesus is Lord’, we Protties feel we have to add ‘Lord – and Saviour‘, because for us they are very different things.
  • God the judge is seen to be against everyone. Literally everyone.
  • The only way of salvation for anyone is by escaping from God’s judgement. Justice becomes a kind of evil, to be escaped at all costs.

These are serious and fundamental distortions. The doctrine of God’s character, the very idea of justice, the Lordship of Jesus: the whole shape of our faith has been badly skewed by this alternative version of judgement which we have adopted.

Those who have been unwilling to accept these distortions have found themselves in a hard place. They have felt forced to reject the traditional teaching. But there have seemed to be few alternatives, and all of them bad.

From a starting point of Model 2 (which is the common heritage of all Protties) how can you avoid the unacceptable consequences outlined above?

a) You could deny the whole judgement thing. A God who judges is a primitive doctrine not appropriate to modern man. God is love and salvation, and therefore he is not judgement. OR

b) You could keep the structure, but subvert the meaning. If Protestants can lump everyone together under the ‘negative’ side of the original bible doctrine of judgement, then why not just reverse the thing, and lump everyone together under the ‘positive’ side, and still call it judgement? Just as defensible, no? So judgement would be defined as a restorative, salvific process, in which all will eventually be healed and reconciled to God.

They’re your main options, and those are the main two ways churches have gone. We evangelicals tend to tar them both with the same brush and call them liberal, missing the differences.

What is common to these two options, is the universality of the result. Either everyone is free from judgement because it doesn’t exist, or else everyone is caught up in the saving judgement of God, and ultimately rescued.

And now we need to step back a bit, take in the bigger picture, and ask, “where did this universal, all-inclusive structure come from?” Why have ‘liberal theologians’ felt constrained to arrive at one ultimate reality that would be the same for everyone? Who taught them this undifferentiated structure of thought?

We did.

Universalism is a Protestant heresy. It came from us. It was born in our ranks.

Liberal universalists were not the ones who rejected the differentiating, distinguishing, dividing core of God’s judging action. We’d already done that for them. The heart of what it means to judge: to save some from others – we Protestants abolished that. The universal structure of thought regarding judgement – that came from us. Liberal Christians simply adapted it to try to lessen the distortions it created. And of course they ended up with equal and opposite distortions to ours. But the traditional Protestant view of God’s judgement – that came first.

In other words, we kind of forced them to it, the liberal universalists. We left them in a place where they could see no alternative, no other stance that was liveable. We made universalism necessary.

If we had stuck with Model 1, above, the doctrine of universal salvation would hardly have been needed. If God’s judgement is essentially between people, if it differentiates – then it doesn’t mean the same outcome for everyone. Not everyone experiences it in the same way. If that is core to your doctrine, universalism is ruled out from the start.

In summary then, what we have really been seeing is when it comes to the doctrine of God’s judgement, both traditional Protestants and liberals are universalist: just on opposite sides of the thing. In a kind of Dark Crystal scenario, both have gone in different directions away from the Scripture teaching about judgement, depicted above in Model 1.

It seems to me that even one as great as Karl Barth has gone wrong here. As far as I understand him, by downplaying the role of the Spirit in applying redemption to individuals, Barth (in Church Dogmatics) minimises the judgement dimension of the gospel – its distinguishing effect on mankind. Barth sees condemnation and acquittal as having been brought together in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and so allows the structure of his thought about judgement to collapse them together. He makes the cross of Christ produce a fundamental change in the core meaning of God’s justice: it no longer distinguishes between people, as in Model 1. For Barth thinks all mankind experiences both sides of judgement, in Christ.

Barth’s insight that the whole of humanity has been renewed in Christ is sound. Trouble is, he doesn’t allow much room for the ‘opt-in’ nature of the gospel message about Christ. He neglects to emphasise that not everyone joins the new humanity. And at that point, the point where people respond well or badly to the gospel, Paul would say, ‘judgement is happening’ (e.g. Acts 13:46). But Barth plays this division down. He isn’t going for Model 2, but he’s undermined Model 1. Barth ultimately leaves the way open for a new version c) of the universalist position.

Next up: What about Hell?

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