All posts in “Gospel”

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?” (Barth in Conversation)

“Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel?”

Karl Barth’s response to this question has been recorded in the recently translated volume, Barth in Conversationwhich I am currently reading (and will soon be reviewing). It is often stressed, especially in evangelicalism, that we must proclaim the “bad news” of hell before we can properly explain the “good news” of Jesus. But is this how the great theologian from Basel thinks we must preach the gospel?

To this question, Barth offers a fierce Nein! He writes:

Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ! 1

But lest we think Barth takes hell lightly, he continues by saying:

So please understand me. I would not take a light view of hell: it is a very serious thing, so serious that it needed the Son of God to overcome it. So there is nothing to laugh about, but there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to preach. What we have to preach is fearlessness and joy in God, and then hell remains aside. 2

Whenever we proclaim the gospel—and especially this week, for Holy Week—Barth’s response acts as a timely reminder: we do no proclaim hell, but Christ, who overcame it! Hell is serious only in its defeat. It should never be used as a manipulative tool for scaring people into belief.

In Church Dogmatics II/2, on the doctrine of election, Barth takes up a similar line of reasoning that explains his point a bit more clearly. He writes here about Christ as both the electing God and the one elected man, and therefore as the one rejected man in our place. (For more on Barth’s doctrine of election, see chapter 5 in my book, Karl Barth in Plain English.) Thus, there is only one person whom we can say suffered the fate of hell: God Himself in Christ bearing our rejection on the cross. Barth writes, “[W]e must not minimise the fact that we actually know of only one certain triumph of hell—the handing-over of Jesus—and that this triumph of hell took place in order that it would never again be able to triumph over anyone” (CD II/2, 496). Barth continues:

Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves. From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God. We certainly cannot deny its reality. But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ in His humiliation, His descent into hell, on the basis of the handing-over which fell on Him. We can thus ascribe to it only a reality which is necessarily limited by faith in Jesus Christ. In this faith we shall never cease to leave wholly and utterly to Him the decision about us and all other men. In faith in Jesus Christ we cannot consider any of those who are handed over by God as lost. We know of none whom God has wholly and exclusively abandoned to himself. We know only of One who was abandoned in this way, only of One who was lost. This One is Jesus Christ. And He was lost (and found again) in order that none should be lost apart from Him. 3

This further clarifies Barth remark about hell and its exclusion from the gospel proclamation. We do not deny the reality of hell, but we must limit everything we say about its reality under the greater reality of Christ’s descent into hell, and of Christ’s bearing our rejection and judgement. We only know of one person who suffered hell, Jesus Christ, and only in the light of his rejection and election can we understand and proclaim hell as truly overcome. 


So far I have been thoroughly enjoying Barth in ConversationLike I said, I will eventually write a full review of the book, but I also plan to publish a number of shorter pieces from the book. So stay tuned for more insights from the frank conversations in this volume. Buy a copy yourself by clicking here.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1948-57.
  2. ibid., loc. 1957.
  3. CD II/2, 496.

I Was “Born Again” 2,000 Years Ago (T. F. Torrance)

 

Shortly after becoming the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the esteemed theologian Thomas F. Torrance was asked whether or not he was “born again.” Naturally he said yes, he was born again. But then he was asked, “When were you born again?” Torrance startled his inquisitor with this reply,

 

“I still recall his face when I told him that I had been born again when Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary and rose again from the virgin tomb, the first-born of the dead. When he asked me to explain I said: ‘This Tom Torrance you see is full of corruption, but the real Tom Torrance is hid with Christ in God and will be revealed only when Jesus Christ comes again. He took my corrupt humanity in his Incarnation, sanctified, cleansed and redeemed it, giving it new birth, in his death and resurrection.’ In other words, our new birth, our regeneration, our conversion, are what has taken place in Jesus Christ himself, so that when we speak of our conversion or our regeneration we are referring to our sharing in the conversion or regeneration of our humanity brought about by Jesus in and through himself for our sake. In a profound and proper sense, therefore, we must speak of Jesus Christ as constituting in himself the very substance of our conversion, so that we must think of him as taking our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision, for without him all so-called repentance and conversion are empty. Since a conversion in that truly evangelical sense is a turning away from ourselves to Christ, it calls for a conversion from our in-turned notions of conversion to one which is grounded and sustained in Christ Jesus himself.” 1

 

This quote summarizes so well what attracts me to the theology of Thomas F. Torrance (and the same could be said for Karl Barth). The objective nature of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ is central for Torrance, but it is not central to the point of losing all subjectivity. Perhaps better than any theologian I’ve read, Torrance balances this exceptionally well. The objective work of God does not cancel out the need for a personal response. In Jesus Christ God has acted fully and completely on our behalf for our salvation, and apart from Him we would not be saved. However, this does not exclude our participation in Christ’s humanity, or response within His vicarious response.

Torrance would often say, “all of grace means all of man”. We tend to think that either “all of grace” means “none of man”, or that “some of man” means “some of grace”. Torrance rightly affirms both aspects, offering a profoundly evangelical presentation of the gospel in which salvation is wholly by God’s grace—but it is grace which does not destroy our human nature and response, but completes it.

Feel free to borrow Torrance’s reply the next time someone asks you when you were “born again”!

 

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“I Know Someone Who Was in Hell: Christ” (Moltmann)

stavronikita-mount-athos_16cHappy Holy Saturday!

Holy Saturday, especially in protestant churches, is a deeply under appreciated part of the Easter story. In recent years, though, as I’ve meditated more on what it means, I’ve become convinced that Holy Saturday is just as essential to the gospel as Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Let me explain why.

Holy Saturday is the day in which Christ was buried in the grave, and descended to hell (as the Apostles Creed proclaims. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”) The significance of this day is brought out, at least for me personally, most of all in the works of Jürgen Moltmann. For Moltmann, Christ’s descent to hell is a further movement of His solidarity with mankind. As on the cross Jesus suffered our forsakenness and our death, so too in the grave Jesus suffered our hell. He went so far as our God acting for us that He not only overcame our sin and death, but our hell too. Jesus has bankrupted hell, robbing it of any power it once had over mankind. He has defeated the grave.  Truly, we can say with Paul: “Death where is your sting? Grave where is your victory?”

Here Moltmann writes in Jesus Christ for Today’s World on this descent to hell:

“Is there a hell?

Yes, I believe there is a hell. In the horrors of Auschwitz and in the terrors of Vietnam, people experienced a hell of suffering and a hell of guilt. That is why we talk about the hell of Auschwitz and the hell of Vietnam, meaning a senseless suffering with no way out, an unforgivable guilt and a fathomless abandonment by God and human beings. Is there a hell after death too? I believe there is, for the hell before death is worse than death itself. For many people death was a release from the suffering and fear of that hell.

Do we know anyone who is in hell? Would we tell a mother weeping at her son’s grave that her son is in hell because he never found faith while he was alive? We should respond to the first question with an embarrassed silence. And we would not answer ‘yes’ to the second one either. But I know someone who was in hell: it is Jesus Christ, who the creed says ‘descended into hell’.

When we were thinking about the tortured Christ, we asked: what does this article in the creed mean? When did Christ go through hell? And we saw that in the past two answers have been given. The earlier interpretation said that after his death Christ descended to the realm of the dead, to preach to them the gospel of their redemption and to deliver them. Luther looked at it differently, maintaining that Christ endured the torments of hell between Gethsemane and Golgotha, in his profound forsakenness by God. But whatever we may think about Christ’s descent into hell, Luther was right when he said: ‘Regard not hell and the eternity of torment in thyself, nor these things in themselves, nor yet in those who are damned. Look upon the face of Christ, who for thy sake descended into hell and was forsaken by God as one who is damned eternally, as he said on the cross: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” See, in him thy hell is vanquished …’ Because Christ was in hell and endured its torments, there is hope in hell for redemption. Because Christ was raised to life from hell, hell’s gates are open and its walls have been broken down. Though I make my bed in hell, you are there.’ And then hell is not hell any longer. ‘O hell where is thy victory? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ? (1 Cor. 15:55, 57).” 1

Hell Overcome

Hell is overcome by Christ. Whatever else we have to say about hell, it’s duration or existence or who goes there—we can say for certain this: hell is overcome. And we only know with certainty of one who has been there: Jesus Christ. This means that even in hell, there is hope. Because even in hell there is Jesus Christ the reconciler of the world, the redeemer of mankind, the friend of sinners.

This does not, of course, automatically equate to universalism. As Karl Barth has said about the subject, “I don’t teach universal reconciliation but I don’t not-teach it.” Because in the end the question of universalism is not something we can answer. Instead, it will only be answered by God. As Jürgen Moltmann has also said, “Does the new creation of all things mean ‘universal reconciliation’ and ‘the restoration of all things’? This is a difficult question, because only God will answer it. If we think humanistically and universally—God could perhaps be a particularist. But if we think pietistically and particularistically—God might be a universalist. If I examine myself seriously, I find that I have to say: I myself am not a universalist, but God may be one.” 2

If we take seriously the scope of Christ’s redemption, and the solidarity He has taken up with mankind, it’s impossible, in my mind, not to have at least some hope for the redemption of all creation. We cannot claim factually that all will be saved. But we can, and must, have hope for it. And we have hope for it because in Christ we see only this hope, the hope that all will be saved.

(For more see further my book We Belong: Trinitarian Good News appendix B, along with Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? by Hans Urs von Balthasar.)

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Notes:

  1. Moltmann, J. (1994). Jesus Christ for Today’s World. (M. Kohl, Trans.) (pp. 143–145). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  2. Moltmann, J. (1994). Jesus Christ for Today’s World. (M. Kohl, Trans.) (pp. 142–143). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Not One – Good Friday Meditation

Isenheim Altarpiece

Happy Easter and a very blessed Good Friday to you!

I hope you have the time today to sit and meditate on what Jesus Christ has done for the human race in His death, resurrection, and ascension. This gospel is truly good news of great joy! Jesus became one of us rescuing us from death and sin by dying our death, raising us again to new life, and seating us with Him in heavenly places. Today calls for the celebration and remembrance of this marvelous truth!

Yesterday, I was reading Karl Barth, as I’ve mentioned before, in his Church Dogmatics volume IV.1. As I read I came across a magnificent passage I want to share with you today. Here Barth writes about the objective work of Jesus Christ for all people, what He has done on the cross for all mankind in justifying us and obliterating our sin. It is a beautiful passage on what Jesus has done for the human race, and I was struck with emotion when I read it. It is a perfect reminder as we contemplate and remember what Jesus has done for us! Enjoy!

If you’re looking for something to listen to today, I’ll be listening to the music of Arvo Pärt. Here’s an especially appropriate choral work called “Passio” which follows Johns account of the crucifixion. It’s very beautiful!

Enjoy!

Not One

“But the self-demonstration of the justified man to which faith clings is the crucified and risen Jesus Christ who lives as the author and recipient and revealer of the justification of all men. It is in Him that the judgement of God is fulfilled and the pardon of God pronounced on all men. …It happened that in the humble obedience of the Son He took our place, He took to Himself our sins and death in order to make an end of them in His death, and that in so doing He did the right, He became the new and righteous man. It also happened that in His resurrection from the dead He was confirmed and recognised and revealed by God the Father as the One who has done and been that for us and all men. As the One who has done that, in whom God Himself has done that, who lives as the doer of that deed, He is our man, we are in Him, our present is His, the history of man is His history, He is the concrete event of the existence and reality of justified man in whom every man can recognise himself and every other man—recognise himself as truly justified. There is not one for whose sin and death He did not die, whose sin and death He did not remove and obliterate on the cross, for whom He did not positively do the right, whose right He has not established. There is not one to whom this was not addressed as his justification in His resurrection from the dead. There is not one whose man He is not, who is not justified in Him. There is not one who is justified in any other way than in Him—because it is in Him and only in Him that an end, a bonfire, is made of man’s sin and death, because it is in Him and only in Him that man’s sin and death are the old thing which has passed away, because it is in Him and only in Him that the right has been done which is demanded of man, that the right has been established to which man can move forward. Again, there is not one who is not adequately and perfectly and finally justified in Him. There is not one whose sin is not forgiven sin in Him, whose death is not a death which has been put to death in Him. There is not one whose right has not been established and confirmed validly and once and for all in Him. There is not one, therefore, who has first to win and appropriate this right for himself. There is not one who has first to go or still to go in his own virtue and strength this way from there to here, from yesterday to to-morrow, from darkness to light, who has first to accomplish or still to accomplish his own justification, repeating it when it has already taken place in Him. …There is not one whose peace with God has not been made and does not continue in Him. There is not one of whom it is demanded that he should make and maintain this peace for himself, or who is permitted to act as though he himself were the author of it, having to make it himself and to maintain it in his own strength. There is not one for whom He has not done everything in His death and received everything in His resurrection from the dead.

Not one. That is what faith believes.”

(Karl Barth Church Dogmatics IV.1 Hendrickson Publishers, 2010, pp.629-630)

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