All posts in “Hell”

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

“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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  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.

What if Hell Didn’t Exist?

hellThis is a hypothetical question. There’s no need for it to get out of hand. I am certainly not a universalist.

I just want you to think about this question. “What if hell didn’t exist?”

Think about it. If Hell didn’t exist, how would that fact effect the way you 1) live your life, 2) make your friends and 3) preach the gospel?

Hypothetical or not, this is an important question. I believe it reveals a great deal about our belief system. In my mind, the Western church has become far to hell-focused, and far less Jesus-focused. Therefore, in asking this question I hope to assess (and hope that you do this as well) how much of this is true for me.

Here is my perspective in these three areas of inquiry.

If Hell Didn’t Exist…

#1 …How would that effect the way I live my life?

To be honest, this probably would effect my life. I would not stop preaching the gospel, nor would I stop dedicating my life to God. I would, however, think differently about my life.

And if I’m honest, it would be in a positive way.

I think my life would be filled with less stress and worry, and more peace and calm. Why? Because I wouldn’t live in constant fear of my friends, family, and acquaintance’s  getting tossed into an eternal barbecue. 

While I don’t I live in reaction to hell, I do live effected by it. On some level that’s a good thing, although I don’t believe hell to be a motivation for evangelism. Instead, I seek to live my life in reaction to the majesty of Jesus Christ.

I don’t think our focus in life should be on hell, or on preaching hell to convert people. I think our focus should be on Jesus. The magnificence of Jesus, the goodness of the Gospel, and the joy of salvation. This should overwhelm our lives. Hell, at best, is an afterthought. Jesus Christ is our magnificent obsession.

#2 …How would that effect the way I make friends?

To be honest, most of my friends are believers. Which as I’ve come to study the Gospel more, I’ve come to feel truly ashamed of this fact. Jesus was a friend of sinners, why am I not?

My wife, however, is awesome at this. So let me brag about her.

She inspires me tremendously with how selfless her love is for others. She loves and accepts people for who they are! not for the purpose of “converting” them or changing them. She is a genuine friend, who cares about the people in her life.

She inspires me. Of all the people I know, my wife is probably the best at genuinely loving well. Which ultimately, is what we’re called to do: love. Simply, love others.

I think we need to get ahold of this, too. Christians for far too long have lived in a “holy huddle.” But shouldn’t we be an inclusive group of friend-makers? Shouldn’t we be calling people in rather than making lines as to who is out. I mean, if we are serious about following Jesus, we should start acting more like Jesus (profound, I know). What did Jesus spend most of His time doing? Being a friend to sinners! Including the least of these, loving them, and accepting them!

#3 …How would that effect the way I preach the gospel?

2004_church_sign_turn_or_burnAbout six years ago, if you’d asked me to preach the gospel without hell, I would have laughed and said, “Impossible!”

I was a “hyper-hell-fire-preacher.”

But today—thank God!—I have moved passed my fire-and-brimstone days. While I did learn a lot from that season, I also now see in retrospect that my motivation was not always love. I preached to achieve a certain religious goal, not because I actually cared for people.

When our gospel is a kind of fire-insurance, rather than a Jesus-introduction, we have a serious problem! The Gospel is not good news because we escape hell. The Gospel is good news because it means enjoying a relationship with God! God! The good Being, the happy Father, the delightful dance of love. That God is a good God, and that God is what makes the good news good.

The Gospel is good news because the God of the Gospel is a good God! It is not about avoiding hell, it’s about enjoying Jesus!

For me, this is essential. If hell did not exist, I would still preach the Gospel! Why? Because hell or no hell, everyone needs Jesus! Not in a threatening way, as in, “you need Jesus or else!”, but because life with Jesus is the best life. What greater joy is there than to be included into the Trinitarian fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit? What greater freedom is there than to be fully accepted, loved, and embraced in Christ?

That’s what makes the good news good, and that is why I preach it!

So what do you think? If Hell didn’t exist, would you still live the way you do, make the friends the same way, or preach the Gospel? Let me know, comment below!

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