Karl Barth on Universalism

Paradiso_Canto_31Karl Barth responds to the question of universalism directly, though briefly, in his short book The Humanity of GodHis response to the question of universalism is brilliant, and perhaps one of the best pictures of how he understood universalism. It’s an often debated subject: whether or not Barth was a universalist. 1 I personally would argue that he is not, but here, in Barth’s own words, is a beautiful response to the question.

Does this mean universalism? I wish here to make only three short observations, in which one is to detect no position for or against that which passes among us under this term.

“1. One should not surrender himself in any case to the panic which this word seems to spread abroad, before informing himself exactly concerning its possible sense or non-sense.

“2. One should at least be stimulated by the passage, Colossians 1:19, which admittedly states that God has determined through His Son as His image and as the first-born of the whole Creation to ‘reconcile all things to himself,’ to consider whether the concept could not perhaps have a good meaning. The same could be said of parallel passages.

“3. One question should for a moment be asked, in view of the ‘danger’ with which one may see this concept gradually surrounded. What of the ‘danger’ of the eternally skeptical-critical theologian who is ever and again suspiciously questioning, because fundamentally always legalistic and therefore in the main morosely gloomy? Is not his presence among us currently more threatening than that of the unbecomingly cheerful indifferentism or even antinomianism, to which one with a certain understanding of universalism could in fact deliver himself? This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.” 2

What a fantastic answer!

We might break down these three points like this. First, Barth argues that we should avoid the gut-reaction common to the term universalism (especially among evangelicals). I take this to mean that Barth wants us not to immediately dismiss the idea as heretical just because that’s what we’ve been told about it. Second, if we take the scriptures seriously we cannot help but at least find ourselves stimulated by the idea of universalism, as there are certainly universalist tendencies in the scriptures. And finally, universalism, at the end of the day, is far more preferable over doom-and-gloom pessimism! That is perhaps the more serious error. But if we’re going to error, isn’t it better to error on the side of God’s loving-kindness? to “understand [God’s love] as being still greater than we had seen before”, rather than to error on the side of pessimism in which universalism is dogmatically impossible? The possibility of universalism may not be a perfect one, but it is a far better alternative to dogmatic pessimism!

All these three points could, in other words, be summarized by Barth’s most famous statement on universalism, “I don’t teach it [universalism], but I don’t not teach it.” Barth said it himself: he takes no position either for or against universalism.

It is this emphasis that I find so compelling, especially since this subject is all too often dealt hastily with cheap and quick yes or no answers. I admire that Barth leaves the question open and unanswered. It’s a sign of respect for God, I believe. Ultimately, I think this is the best way to understand Barth’s position towards universalism: it is an open, unanswerable question. He cleverly is giving us a non-answer here. I don’t think he was afraid of the question, I think Barth genuinely considered it unanswerable, as any attempt to dogmatically answer it is, ultimately, I think, an attempt to play God. Who will know in the end what will take place? Only God can, and will, answer the question of universalism. But we can and should have hope for it, or at least not be so quick to dismiss it as many do today!

It is an open question, one which we can hope for, but never dogmatically assert. The error of dogmatic assertion is on both sides here, as Barth rightly warns us. To dogmatically claim that salvation/redemption is not universal is just as problematic as to dogmatically claiming that it is universal.  We can hope for it, but we cannot try and “play God” and thus divine what the outcome will be. Although, as Moltmann pointed out, our hope is a “certain” hope, founded on the cross of Christ. So it is not merely a “wishing for the best,” but a definite hope in what God has done in Jesus Christ and will do for all humanity.

What do you think of Barth’s answer? Is this a brilliant way to answer the question, or just a nonsense answer? In your reading of Barth, would you say he’s a universalist? Leave me a reply in the comments!

(P.S. The Humanity of God is this month’s free book for those of you in my Readers Group! If you’re not a part of my mailing list, you should be. You get free books like this each month, plus my book Where Was God free right away! Sign up here.)

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  1. One of the best articles on the subject is Roger Olsen’s.
  2. The Humanity of God, John Knox Press, 1960, pp. 61-2

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