Was Karl Barth a Universalist? A New Look at an Old Question

Was Karl Barth a Universalist? Another Look at an Old Question

Roger E. Olson

The question of Karl Barth’s universalism has been much debated—even during the Swiss theologian’s lifetime. Several theological critics accused him of teaching the “heresy” of “apokatastasis”—universal reconciliation. Among them were Donald Bloesch (in Jesus Is Victor!), Hans Urs von Balthasar (in The Theology of Karl Barth), G. C. Berkouwer (in The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Kark Barth) and Emil Brunner (in Dogmatics, Vol. 1). These critics admitted that Barth did not come right out and affirm or embrace apokatastasis, but all argued that it is logically implied by his doctrine of election.

Barth anticipated these criticisms and responded to them in Church Dogmatics II/2 in a section specifically devoted to apokatastasis. (The page numbers given here always refer to the T&T Clark edition of CD.) There Barth explicitly denied that he taught it. He stated that in order to protect the freedom of God and the gratuity of divine grace we cannot say that the “circle” of the elect coincides with the world of man as such: “Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind.” (p. 417) Predictably, however (because Barth was a dialectical thinker), he went on to say that we must also not limit the freedom and grace of God by saying there cannot be a “final opening up and enlargement of the circle of election and calling.” (p. 418)

Barth specifically addressed the issue in The Humanity of God (1960). The chapter is based on a lecture Barth delivered to Reformed ministers in 1956. There he asked of his doctrine of election “Does this mean universalism?”[1] His answer can only be called coy. He said “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.” First, he declared, “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] Then, second, “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 (τά πάντα) to himself,’ to consider whether the concept could not perhaps have a good meaning.”[3] Finally, Barth averred that,

One question should for a moment be asked, in view of the “danger” with which one may see this concept [viz., universalism] gradually sourrounded. 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.[4]

Back to Church Dogmatics. Near the end of the section on apokatastasis in II/2 (which appears in the subsection headed “The Determination of the Elect”) Barth broke decisively with traditional Calvinism (or at least with what usually is understood by that). There he concluded that, in light of New Testament passages such as John 1:9, 1:29, 3:17, 8:12, 9:5, 11:9, and 12:46, “We cannot follow the classical [Reformed] doctrine and make the open number of those who are elect in Jesus Christ into a closed number to which all other men are opposed as if they were rejected. Such an assumption is shattered by the unity of the real and revealed will of God in Jesus Christ.” (p. 422) Clearly, from that statement and many others in CD, Barth denied and rejected “limited atonement.” Whether he affirmed universalism, however, remains unclear if one goes by his stated intentions alone.

Here a crucial question arises. Is the critic right to say that a theologian teaches a doctrine that is necessarily, logically implied by his or her explicit statements even if the theologian in question explicitly denies it? Whether Barth explicitly denied universalism is, I think, debatable. However, some of his statements can reasonably be interpreted that way (such as the ones provided above). Still, a crucial question lingers: Did Barth’s theology of grace, and especially of God’s electing grace (“Gottes Gnadenwahl”), necessarily, logically imply universalism? Critics such as “the big four Bs,” Brunner, Balthasar, Berkouwer and Brunner, thought so. That was their argument—not that Barth explicitly taught apokatastasis or universalism but that his doctrine of God’s gracious election in Jesus Christ necessarily, logically implies it.

After a number of years in which that issue has laid, for the most part, fallow, I will here plow it again. To what purpose? In recent years a new movement called “evangelical Calvinism” has gained ground. Most of these theologians are British and American admirers of the theology of Thomas Torrance, one of Barth’s leading English-speaking followers. (By “admirers” and “followers” I do not mean slavish adherents but theologians who find their primary inspiration in another, in this case Torrance and Barth.) These “evangelical Calvinists” reject limited atonement. Also, some British and American evangelical theologians have flirted with universalism, a few outrightly embracing it, much to the consternation of conservative evangelicals. One example is Gregory MacDonald, the pseudonymous evangelical author of The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical Hope that God’s Love Will Save Us All (2008). Evangelical philosopher-theologian Thomas Talbot has promoted “evangelical universalism” for many years. Looming large over these relatively new movements within Calvinism and evangelicalism is the shadow of Karl Barth. Without doubt, Barth’s influence on evangelical theology is stronger, and more controversial, than ever.

Many evangelical Calvinists (and others) argue that Barth was not a universalist and they point to his explicit denials (such as affirmations of the freedom of God over against the necessity of universal salvation).  Many, probably most, universalist evangelicals (their number is greater than most people think) argue that Barth was a universalist on the basis of the logical necessity of universal salvation in his doctrine of God’s gracious election.

Laying all my cards on the table up front, so to speak, I will argue here that Barth’s doctrine of God’s gracious election necessarily, logically requires a peculiar kind of universalism. To say the things Barth said about it and then deny universalism was, or would be, a logical contradiction—something that makes any system of thought incoherent and thereby nonsensical. But I will also argue that Barth did not explicitly deny universalism. What he denied was the necessity of universal salvation—that God must save everyone. True, Barth backed away from apokatastasis—a particular heresy that, in early Christian thought, affirmed the ultimate reconciliation of even Satan. He also clearly rejected any idea that God is bound to save everyone if by “bound” one means by some kind of inner necessity in God’s own nature. Nevertheless, I will argue, Barth must have known that his doctrine of election, and his doctrine of reconciliation, inevitably included, by logical necessity, belief in a kind of universal salvation. Thus, Barth was a universalist of his own kind but not necessarily of any other kind. (By the end I will have explained what I mean by “his own kind” of universalism.)

A proper place to plunge in, in attempting to make this case, is CD IV/1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Part 1. In a section entitled “The Grace of God in Jesus Christ” (included under the larger heading of “The Doctrine of Reconciliation [Survey]”) Barth wrote about “the grace in which God from all eternity has chosen man (all men) in this One [Jesus Christ], in which He has bound Himself to man—before man even existed—in this One.” (p. 91) (The parenthetical phrase “all men” is in Barth’s text; it was not added by me.) He then continued by saying “He, Jesus Christ, is the One who accomplishes the sovereign act in which God has made true and actual in time the decree of His election by making atonement, in which He has introduced the new being of all men.” (pp. 91-92) Then, in “The Three Forms of the Doctrine of Reconciliation,” the Swiss theologian declared about Jesus Christ that “In so far as He was and is and will be very man, the conversion of man to God took place in Him, the turning and therefore the reconciliation of all men, the fulfillment of the covenant.” (p. 132) By “the conversion of man to God” Barth clearly (in terms of the context) meant “all people.”

In a section entitled “The Being of Man in Jesus Christ” Barth discussed the distinction between Christians and other human persons (“men”). There he argued that the only difference is “experience and knowledge.” (p. 92) “Christians exist in Him [viz., Jesus Christ]. In practice this is the only thing that we can call their peculiar being.” (p. 92) Some deniers of Barth’s universalism have claimed this statement (and similar ones) as proof that Barth believed only Christians are “saved.” But the immediately following context refutes this: “But they [Christians] do so [exist in Christ] only as examples, as the representatives and predecessors of all other men, of whom so long as their ears and eyes and hearts are not opened we can only say definitely that the same being in Jesus Christ is granted to them and belongs to them in Him.” (p. 92) So, what is the distinction between Christians and other “men?” The context (long paragraph) makes absolutely clear that the difference is not “being saved” versus “not being saved” but knowing and testifying of the “new being of man” in Jesus Christ versus not knowing it. It is epistemological, not ontological.

Barth expounded his doctrine of election, which is the locus of his theology many critics claim includes universalism implicitly if not explicitly, primarily in Church Dogmatics II/2. He divided it into several sections beginning with “The Election of Jesus Christ” followed by “The Eternal Will of God in the Election of Jesus Christ.” Barth’s ecclesiastical and theological heritage was Reformed, a tradition that strongly emphasizes God’s sovereignty and is known especially for its strong doctrine of election/predestination. In the background, of course, is John Calvin which is why many English-speakers refer to this tradition as Calvinism. In these sections of CD Barth wrestled with that tradition, sometimes embracing it as correct and sometimes rejecting elements of it. Overall, he called his version of Calvinism “purified supralapsarianism.” (pp. 141-142)

Supralapsarianism is, of course, that form of Calvinism that places the decree of God concerning predestination logically prior to the fall. According to supralapsarians, God’s ultimate purpose with regard to humanity is to demonstrate his glory by predestining some (who are not yet created) to heaven and some to hell. The traditional alternative, probably the majority view among Reformed theologians, is infralapsarianism that views the double decree (some to heaven, some to hell) as subordinate to God’s decree to permit the fall. The difference has to do with God’s purposes. Is election/predestination ultimate or penultimate? Barth sides with supralapsarians who say it is ultimate.

Perhaps Barth’s most significant alteration to traditional theology, including Reformed, is his “Christological concentration” of the doctrine of election. (Some critics have referred to it “Christomonism,” but Catholic sympathetic critic Balthasar called it a “Christological constriction.”[5]) Barth insisted, repeatedly, that the first and most important election is of Jesus Christ and that it is the first of all God’s ways with regard to humanity:

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory. (p. 94)

Jesus Christ, then, is the original decree of God; it precedes and grounds everything, not only with regard to redemption but also with regard to creation. For Barth, as is well known, creation is the external basis of the covenant, but the covenant is the internal basis of creation. God’s covenant with himself first, and with humanity second, is the reason for creation. That’s supralapsarianism. Barth goes on to “purify” supralapsarianism of elements he deems inconsistent with grace.

According to Barth, then, before there was any reality distinct from himself, God determined that the goal and meaning of all his dealings with reality outside himself should be the fact that in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God would be gracious towards humans, uniting them with him. (p. 101) Thus, “As the subject and object of this choice, Jesus Christ was at the beginning.” (p. 102) He was and is the election of God’s covenant with humanity. Election, then, Barth said, is Jesus Christ. (p. 103) “Jesus Christ is the electing God, and…also the elected man.” (p. 103) (Barth whole heartedly affirmed the Nicene “truly God, truly human” dogma about Jesus Christ. What is surprising, and non-traditional, is that he denied any “logos asarkos,” not human Logos, Word, Son of God. For him the Trinity is Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit.) Barth adamantly insisted that the whole doctrine of election/predestination begin, center around, and end with Jesus Christ. What, then, of humans? What of our election? Barth explained:

If God elects us too, then it is in and with this election of Jesus Christ, in and with this free act of obedience on the part of the Son. … It is in Him that the eternal election becomes immediately and directly the promise of our own election as it is enacted in time, our calling, our summoning to faith…. (pp. 105-106)

Barth realized the contrast with Calvin’s doctrine of election (and that of traditional Calvinism) and reveled in it. He perceived in that doctrine a tendency to assume or even affirm a hidden God behind Jesus Christ, something he believed undermines assurance of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. Whether Calvin was a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian (those categories were created after Calvin and both sides claim him) was irrelevant to Barth. For him, any separation between election/predestination and God-for-us in Jesus Christ undermines assurance of salvation. (This is ironic as Calvinists have traditionally argued that their doctrine of double predestination of human persons, some to heaven and some to hell, is the ground of assurance. Barth attempted to turn the tables on them and show that that doctrine, concentrated on God’s selection of specific persons rather than of Jesus Christ, destroys assurance.)

According to Barth, then, “All the dubious features of Calvin’s doctrine result from the basic failing that in the last analysis he separates God and Jesus Christ, thinking that what was in the beginning with God must be sought elsewhere than in Jesus Christ.” (p. 111) By “Calvin,” here, Barth meant not just the chief pastor of Geneva but traditional Calvinism in general. For him, only “As we believe in Him and hear His Word and hold fast by His decision, [can] we know with a certainty which nothing can ever shake that we are the elect of God.” (pp. 115-116) For Barth, then, both the subject and object of election/predestination is Jesus Christ, the God-man, who is the second person of the Trinity. What, then, of other human beings? What of so-called double predestination—some to eternal bliss in heaven with God and some to eternal punishment in hell?

Barth gradually unfolded his answer to that question about double predestination in “The Election of Jesus Christ.” First, according to him, “Jesus Christ is the elected man.” (p. 116) “This man is the object of the eternal divine decision and foreordination. Jesus Christ, then, is not merely one of the elect but the elect of God.” (p. 116) Yes, others, we, are also elect, but only “in Him.” Not “with Him” or “in His company” or “through Him” or “by means of Him,” but “in Him.” His election is all-inclusive, universally meaningful and efficacious. (p. 117)

What singles Him out from the rest of the elect, and yet also, and for the first time, unites Him with them, is the fact that as elected man He is also the electing God, electing them in His own humanity. In that He (as God) wills Himself (as man), He also wills them. And so they are elect “in Him,” in and with His own election. (p. 117)

Barth’s motives for this Christological concentration of election are much debated, but surely it had to do with Barth’s allergic fear of any hint of a hidden God behind Jesus Christ. Barth, of course, developed his theology in the context of Nazi Germany and the so-called “German Christian movement” which nearly deified Hitler and Nazi ideology. Barth came to believe that not only natural theology but also any idea of a hidden God behind Jesus Christ gives permission for such idolatrous confusions of God with other “lords” and “masters.”

This Christological concentration of Barth’s doctrine of election leads ineluctably, inexorably to universalism. That is my thesis. It is proven by Barth’s inclusion of all human beings in the election of Jesus Christ which does not exclude reprobation. In traditional theology, especially in classical Reformed theology, “reprobation” refers to the condemnation of unrepentant, unbelieving sinners; it is determined by God. In classical Reformed theology, “high, federal Calvinism,” the “reprobate” are predestined to hell by God. Some Reformed theologians have taught that election to salvation and predestination to reprobation are opposite but equivalent decrees of God while others have softened the blow of what Calvin called “the horrible decree” by saying the latter is not a positive decree (like election to salvation) but only God’s passive decision to “pass over” the reprobate. God chooses not to choose them (to salvation). In either case, however, the damned are chosen and condemned by God.

Barth would have none of that. But that does not mean he didn’t believe in double predestination; he did. Both election to salvation and predestination to reprobation are concentrated in God’s election of Jesus Christ. No human being, besides Jesus, who is the eternal Son of God, the God-man, is selected by God for condemnation: “The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath of God under which all men lie, the death which all men must die, God in his love for men transfers from all eternity to Him in whom He loves and elects them, and whom He elects at their head and in their place.” (p. 123) Thus, according to Barth, the election of Jesus Christ includes his rejection and all others are elected and rejected in him. (p. 124) Why does God do this? Because he is merciful. In Jesus, then, the divine judge becomes the judged so that sinners are “fully acquitted.” (p. 125)

Immediately following those thoughts (in CD II/2) is a long excurses (in fine print) about traditional or “old” Reformed theology, both infra- and supralapsarian. (pp. 134-144) Barth accused it/them of portraying the electing God as a hidden God behind Jesus, which is, for him, the absolute bête noir of theology. Speaking of infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism Barth declared that “Behind both these views…there stands the picture of the absolute God in Himself…not the picture of God in Jesus Christ.” (p. 134) In this excursus, these ten pages of fine but important print, Barth chose to both embrace and criticize supralapsarianism. Of traditional supralapsarianism (and most non-Calvinists would say this applies to infralapsarianism as well) the Swiss theologian warned that “The Supralapsarian God threatens to take on the appearance of a demon, and in the light of this fact we may well understand the horror with which Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Arminians and even many of the Reformed themselves recoiled from the doctrine.” (p. 140) The reason is that this God creates people to damn them for his glory. Nevertheless, Barth went on to create and affirm his own version of supralapsarianism which he called “purified supralapsarianism.” (p. 141)

According to Barth, the old supralapsarianism can be “saved” and infralapsarianism “avoided” only by rejecting completely any idea of election as focused on individual human beings other than Jesus. We must, he wrote, remove completely from our minds any thought of an individual purpose in predestination as well as any thought of foreordination as a “rigid and balanced system of election and reprobation.” (p. 143) “In place of these we have to introduce the knowledge of the elect man Jesus Christ as the true object of the divine predestination.” (p. 143) The God of purified supralapsarianism is “the God who loves man.” (p. 142) Because God says yes to “man” in Jesus Christ “It remains to the individual only to grasp the promise which is given in the one Elect, and to seek and find his salvation.” (p. 142)

What did Barth mean by that? In what sense must the individual “seek and find his salvation?” Is this some kind of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism? Anyone who knows anything about Barth knows that cannot be the case. His meaning is something else entirely. This is exactly the point where many readers of Barth, including astute interpreters and scholars of Barth, get tripped up. Frequently Barth wrote that salvation is something to be sought and found by people, but does that negate universal salvation? I believe not. Careful reading of Barth leads to one and only one possible conclusion—that for him “salvation” has at least two meanings. One is what happened for all people in Jesus Christ, in his election and reprobation, in his incarnation and atoning death, and in his resurrection. It is finished—for everyone. The other is coming to know it and live in the new being of it—which is what makes one a Christian. But, for Barth, being “saved” in the first sense, objectively reconciled, forgiven, justified, is a “done deal” for all people in Jesus Christ whereas being “saved” in the second sense—something to be sought and found—corresponds to actualizing salvation in knowing, living and witnessing. (This distinction was never stated so baldly by Barth, but it is implicit in many parts of CD, especially IV/1, “The Fulfillment of the Broken Covenant” [57:3].)

Barth’s universalism of salvation, at least of its objective aspect, was clearly revealed in his discussion of “double predestination” in CD II/2. This does not refer to some dual determination of people, some to eternal salvation and some to eternal damnation. Instead, “In the election of Jesus Christ which is the eternal will of God, God has ascribed to man…election, salvation and life; and to Himself He has ascribed…reprobation, perdition and death.” (p. 163) The “No” of predestination, Barth wrote, is not spoken against human beings other than Jesus Christ who is God himself. This is not, Barth argued, because God willed to overlook or accept humans’ sinfulness but because he willed to bear the penalty for it himself. (p. 166) Because of the Christological concentration of election in Jesus Christ, “the divine predestination as such and per se means faith in the non-rejection of man, or disbelief in his rejection.” (p. 167) “Man,” human beings, are not rejected by God; God himself is rejected in the person of his Son. “Predestination means,” Barth proclaimed, “that from all eternity God has determined upon man’s acquittal at his own cost.” (p. 167)

One can only stand back, shake one’s head, and wonder how, in light of these affirmations and assertions, anyone can think Barth believed in anything but universal salvation. And yet many do. Why? Because Barth frequently also said that it is possible for sinners to reject what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. But the question is whether that impossible possibility can be final such that those who reject the grace of God in Jesus Christ, God’s yes to them, can negate it to the point that it is nullified. The answer must be no, they cannot. I return to that later.

After discussing election in Jesus Christ, election of Jesus Christ, Barth turned (in CD II/2) to the problem of evil—especially in relation to God’s predestining will. The question is what place evil has in the predestination of God. This is the opening of his discussion of reprobation. Does God will evil or damnation? Barth’s clear answer was no. (pp. 170-171) There is no “leftward election” (to evil or reprobation or hell) in God’s predestination. “We are no longer free, then, to think of God’s eternal election as bifurcating into a rightward and a leftward election. There is a leftward election. But God willed that the object of this election should be Himself and not man.” (p. 172)

Whence, then, some people’s obvious, manifest no to God? What is the source of continuing obstinacy, willful rebellion, sin and evil? Certainly not God. However, Barth also adamantly denied “free will” in the sense of any creaturely ability to thwart God’s will. He rejected all forms of synergism—cooperation between God’s will and agency and human beings’ in salvation. (p. 194) “It is God who elects man. Man’s electing of God can come only second. But man’s electing does follow necessarily on the divine electing.” (p. 192) But this just raises the question of the human person’s role to an intense pitch. The way Barth stated the matter seems to imply that humans are passive in being elected and electing (to believe and obey). Can there be any competition between God’s will and the human person’s? Is the sinner able to undo God’s election of him or her by free acts of rebellion? Barth does not yet give in to the “free will defense” and, instead, leaves the question open. For him, sin and evil are impossible possibilities, not abilities. But for our purposes here, attention must be paid closely to the quote above: “Man’s electing does follow necessarily on the divine electing.” If we take that seriously (and what saying of Barth’s would he not want us to take seriously?) that implies universal salvation (in salvation’s first sense of objective reconciliation and justification).

Some who object to any interpretation of Barth as a universalist point to the Swiss theologian’s emphasis on corporate election. Also in CD II/2, he wrote about “The Election of the Community” (p. 195) and insisted that election is not about “private persons in the singular.” (p. 196) Rather, “It is these men as a fellowship elected by God in Jesus Christ.” (p. 196) “Ah,” some will say, “see, for Barth election is about the church. The church is the object of election, so those who never join the church in any way, shape or form, are excluded from it.” This is wrong. And the proof is that immediately following that section on corporate election appears “The Election of the Individual.” (p. 306) The previous portion must be interpreted in light of this. Yes, for Barth election was corporate and thus not primarily about “private persons in the singular,” but not to the exclusion of individuals.

The whole dialectic of Barth’s doctrine of salvation is nicely summed up in the large, bold print at the beginning of the section of CD II/2 entitled “The Election of the Individual”:

The man who is isolated over against God is as such rejected by God. But to be this man can only be by the godless man’s own choice. The witness of the community of God to every individual man consists in this: that this choice of the godless man is void; that he belongs eternally to Jesus Christ and therefore is not rejected, but elected by God in Jesus Christ; that the rejection which he deserves on account of his pervasive choice is borne and cancelled by Jesus Christ; and that he is appointed to eternal life with God on the basis of the righteous, divine decision. The promise of his election determines that as a member of the community he himself shall be a bearer of its witness to the whole world. And the revelation of his rejection can only determine him to believe in Jesus Christ as the One by whom it has been borne and cancelled. (p. 306)

Different commentators have focused on individual portions of that admittedly complicated statement and have sometimes concluded that Barth was not a universalist because he wrote that a person has the choice to reject God and be rejected by God. But that is to ignore the overall thrust of the paragraph which was unfolded by Barth gradually after it.

As for the question of individual election, raised by the previous section, Barth here elucidated that individual election is included in the election of Jesus Christ and of the community. (p. 309) There are, Barth wrote, “predestined men” as individuals, but they are “predestined in Jesus Christ and by way of the community. It is individuals who are chosen and not the totality of men.” (p. 313) The mystery deepens. One can only conclude that Barth was striving to avoid any individualistic idea of predestination without losing any sense of individuality in election. But our main concern here is whether Barth believed any individual can finally, fully be lost in perdition. Again, he answered that clearly, if not quite explicitly the way some critics want the answer (viz., “I am a universalist!”) when he declared of the “man” who chooses to live in sinful isolation apart from God and Jesus Christ and the community of God’s people that “He may let go of God, but God does not let go of him. … It is this very man, godless in his negative act, wantonly representing the rejected man, who is the predestinate. … The decision about the nothingness of his negative act has been eternally made in Jesus Christ.” (p. 317) “The only truly rejected man is [God’s] own Son.” (p. 319) “What is laid up for man [including those who attempt to reject God] is eternal life in fellowship with God.” (p. 319) What could be clearer (other than “I am a universalist!”)?

Critics who deny Barth’s universalism will probably say that this eternal life in fellowship with God laid up for sinners by God is not actually theirs if they continue to reject it forever. That is, supposedly, the “impossible possibility” that serves as the exception that makes universalism not Barth’s ultimate and final position. That is a possible but unlikely interpretation of what Barth meant. Such critics, who deny Barth’s universalism, point to his admission that “Not everyone who is elected lives as an elect man.” (p. 321) And, “he [the one who rejects his election] needs to hear and believe the promise.” (p. 321) But, once again, context is all important. Right there, where Barth wrote these things, he was striving to distinguish between those whose being is elect and those whose life is lived according to his or her election. About such a person, the person who rejects election, Barth wrote “It is not for his being but for his life as elect that he needs to hear and believe the promise.” (p. 321) In other words, ontologically every human being is elect in Jesus Christ which means, in Barth’s overall doctrine of election, reconciled to God, converted to God, but not everyone lives the life appropriate for an elect person. Then, just in case someone pounces on this distinction to say that the person whose life is inappropriate for election is not saved, Barth said that not living as one of the elect cannot nullify a person’s election because that is grounded in Jesus Christ. (p. 321)

Barth argued that a person who fully understands his or her unworthiness for election cannot look upon anyone as rejected by God:

The believer cannot possibly confront the unbeliever with the suspicion that the latter is perhaps rejected. For he knows who has borne the merited and inevitable rejection of the godless, his own above all. How can he possibly regard others as perhaps rejected merely because he thinks he knows their unbelief and therefore their godlessness? If he does what becomes of his own faith? What of his own election? (p. 327)

That statement, question, and implied answer appears in a lengthy fine print excursus in which Barth wrestled with traditional Calvinist theology’s double predestination—some predestined outside of Jesus Christ. (pp. 325-340) He argued that such a dual divine decree undermines assurance of salvation even for the “elect”—those predestined to salvation. But that is not directly relevant to our argument here. Imbedded in that lengthy excursus are many statements and rhetorical questions pointing to universalism. Of his own doctrine of election solely “in Christ,” Barth wrote “If the divine decree is identical with the election of Jesus Christ, then the task of the chosen community in respect of the many is exclusively of proclaiming the Gospel in which each one is promised his election in Jesus Christ.” (p. 325) To whom do “the many” and “each one” refer? Barth made clear that, for his doctrine of election, there can be no division of humanity into two groups—the “elect” and the “rejected.” (p. 325)  Rather, everyone, all of humanity, the “many” must be viewed as determined by God for “the free grace of election” with the result that, because of Jesus Christ, “the kingdom of heaven is opened and hell closed.” (p. 326) But! Critics of the claim that Barth was a universalist will no doubt point to a sentence in this excursus just a little further beyond that. Speaking of the church’s proclamation of God’s electing grace in Jesus Christ, Barth wrote “It necessarily cancels itself out if in any circumstances, even among the ‘many’ in hell, it ceases to be the statement of the divine election of grace.” (p. 326) This is typical of what frustrates attempts to draw out a clear answer from Barth regarding universalism. In a single paragraph he could say that hell is closed and speak of the many in hell.

One strategy used by those who deny Barth’s universalism is to admit Barth’s emphasis on the universality of the free grace of election and then say “But God will allow the unbeliever, the person who rejects his or her acceptance by God in Jesus Christ, to continue living the lie forever even in hell.” In other words, hell is the unbeliever’s unreality into eternity. Even though he or she is accepted by God, elected by God in Jesus Christ, God will not force him or her to be in heaven with him. This is something like C. S. Lewis’ vision of hell in The Great Divorce. First, however, the question must be asked if this is not itself a form of universalism? To those who fervently believe in hell as eternal torment and punishment by God, even Lewis’ idea of hell as “the painful refuge” whose door is locked on the inside is a kind of universalism because, from God’s perspective, they are saved, in the sense of forgiven and reconciled, but they just don’t know it or accept it. So even their existence in “hell” is a kind of salvation. God is letting them have their way. Second, the question must be asked whether Barth, with his strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty and humanity’s weakness to thwart God’s will, could countenance such a final outcome for anyone. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann, a student of Barth’s, thought not.[6] But what did Barth think? In that fine print excursus he made a statement that could be interpreted as supporting Moltmann’s view that hell is real but temporal: “The believer cannot possibly recognize in the unbelief of others a final act.” (p. 327) So, one way to interpret Barth is through Lewis and Moltmann: everyone is included in the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, but God will allow those who insist on rejecting their acceptance by God to go to hell, but hell is never final.

Unfortunately, Barth was not as clear (or at least explicit) as his student Moltmann. And yet, in the next sections of Church Dogmatics II/2, the Swiss theologian strengthened the implicit universalism of his doctrine of election, that is, that it logically requires universal salvation. The logic of universalism in Barth’s doctrine of election becomes stronger in “The Elect and the Rejected” and even more in “The Determination of the Rejected.” These are very long, very wordy portions of CD. And Barth’s meaning in them is much debated by interpreters. However, the argument here will be that it cannot reasonably be interpreted as anything but universalist, whether that includes a temporal hell or not.

In “The Elect and the Rejected” Barth discussed the differences between two groups of people—those who know and live as God’s elected ones in Jesus Christ and those who deny it and live against it:

This, then, is how the elect and others differ from one another: the former by witnessing in their lives to the truth, the latter by lying against the same truth. It ought to be clear that to this extent they belong together. The elect are obviously to be found in the sphere of the divine election of grace, in the hand of the one God, under the reign whose beginning and principle are called Jesus Christ. But the others are also to be found there. The former are there in obedience, the latter in disobedience; the former as free children of the household, the latter as forced and refractory slaves; the former under God’s blessing, the latter under His curse. (pp. 346-347)

Of the “others” and the “distinction of the elect in Jesus Christ,” Barth wrote that “They do not possess it only in so far as they do not recognize and accept it as their own distinction.” (p. 349) Also, “They can…dishonor the divine election of grace; but they cannot overthrow or overturn it. They cannot prevent God from regarding them as from all eternity He has willed to regard and has actually regarded sinful men in His own Son.” (p. 349) In light of Jesus’ bearing the rejection of God, then, even those who seem to be rejected by God because they dishonor the divine election of grace by their lives of disobedience “can be only potentially rejected.” (p. 349) Did Barth mean, perhaps, that this potential can become actual such that they, those who live in disobedience against God’s election of them in Jesus Christ, might someday be finally rejected by God, tormented in hell forever? Speaking of Jesus Christ, Barth wrote “In view of His election, there is no other rejected but Himself” (p. 353) and “To be genuinely and actually abandoned by God, to be genuinely and actually lost, cannot be their concern, since it is the concern of Jesus Christ.” (p. 352) Finally, to drive the point home, Barth declared that “For all their godlessness, they are unable to restore the perversity for whose removal He surrendered Himself, and so to rekindle the fire of divine wrath which He has borne in this self-sacrifice.” (p. 352)

What more or other could Barth have said to make clear his belief in universal salvation? Yes, he could have said “I believe in universal salvation” or “I don’t believe in hell.” Both statements would have been too simplistic, however, which is no doubt why Barth avoided them. He did believe in hell—the torment of denial of the truth about one’s own election in Jesus Christ. And he did not believe in universal salvation—as if God did not pour out his wrath on himself in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.

Next, Barth wrote about “The Determination of the Elect” and “The Determination of the Rejected” (in CD II/2, Chapter VII “The Election of God”). Here, if anywhere, we may rightly expect clarification about whether or not some persons will spend eternity in hell, separated from God (as if Barth had not already spoken clearly enough). And, in fact, in the former section he did directly address the doctrine of apokatastasis—universal reconciliation. And he rejected it. Many critics of belief in Barth’s universalism jump on this as proof that he did not affirm universalism. What Barth actually said deserves careful attention and reflection:

If we are to respect the freedom of divine grace, we cannot venture the statement that it must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such (as in the doctrine of the so-called apokatastasis). No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced. Just as the gracious God does not need or elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind. His election and calling do not give rise to any historical metaphysics, but only to the necessity of attesting them on the ground that they have taken place in Jesus Christ and His community. But, again, in grateful recognition of the grace of the divine freedom we cannot venture the opposite statement that there cannot and will not be this final opening up and enlargement of the circle of election and calling. (pp. 417-418)

Barth’s ultimate word on the subject (viz., apokatastasis) seems to be that “It belongs to God Himself to determine and to know what it means that God was reconciling the world unto Himself (2 Cor. 5:19).” (p. 419)

Taken at face value, in a shallow interpretation, these statements may seem to deny universalism. But what was Barth actually denying? Not universal salvation, but any derogation of the freedom of God that would make universal salvation, ultimate reconciliation, something God needs. Our argument here is not that Barth explicitly affirmed universalism but that universalism is necessarily implied by the logic of his doctrine of election. Here we see only Barth backing away from any necessity of it as if God could not do otherwise than save all. That is the fear that held him back from stating universalism as certain fact—that such would lead people to think that God somehow depends on it for his full bliss and satisfaction. No doubt he had in mind church father Origen, who believed and taught that without apokatastasis God would be less than fully God.

Nothing in that section (viz., “The Determination of the Elect”) disproves the claim that Barth believed in universal salvation. All it proves is that he did not want to import it into God as necessary.

Next, and finally, Barth took up the question of “The Determination of the Rejected.” Here, if anywhere, one may expect to find Barth’s clearest exposition of his belief about the damnation of the wicked or final salvation of everyone. But, of course, if he had provided it there wouldn’t be debate about this issue among people who have read and studied Barth for years. So we approach the section without too high expectations. Once again, as before, we are looking at the logic of Barth’s doctrine of election to see what it necessarily implies. (Which is not the same as looking for what God must necessarily do. We are not examining God; we are examining Barth’s doctrine.)

Barth begins by defining a “rejected man” as

one who isolates himself from God by resisting his election as it has taken place in Jesus Christ. God is for him; but he is against God. God is gracious to him; but he is ungrateful to God. God receives him; but he withdraws himself from God. God forgives him his sins; but he repeats them as though they were not forgiven. God releases him from the guilt and punishment of his defection; but he goes on living as Satan’s prisoner. God determines him for blessedness, and His service; but he chooses the joylessness of an existence that accords with his own pride and aims at his own honour. (pp. 449-450)

Our concern, of course, is to discover what Barth believed “becomes” of such a one. Will he or she be saved anyway? But hasn’t Barth already answered that here? “God forgives him his sins;” what more could he say? And yet. (There’s always a “yet” in Barth, or so it seems.) The matter is not so easily settled.

In the middle of a very long, fine print, excursus about Judas, and whether or not he was converted, Barth seemed to deny apokatastasis:

The Church will not then preach an apokatastasis, nor will it preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it. But without any weakening of the contrast [between Jesus and Judas], and also without any arbitrary dualism, it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it. For this is how the “for” of Jesus and the “against” of Judas undoubtedly confront one another. We may not know whether it led to the conversion of Judas or not, but this is how it always is in the situation of proclamation. The rejected cannot escape this situation and its relation of opposites. (p. 477)

Did Barth mean, then, that Judas is an example of someone elected, like all people, in Jesus Christ, but possibly, like some people, bound for eternal hell? Is hell even Barth’s concern here or elsewhere? What should be made of this agnosticism about Judas’ conversion?

This “Judas excursus” is extremely dense; it goes on and on for many pages with thousands of words and among them one can find almost anything. What we are seeking, however, is some clear clue about whether Barth thought Judas (as a symbol of the “rejected”) would finally be saved, brought into heavenly fellowship with God, in spite of what Barth admitted was his horrible deed. Speaking of Judas’ apostleship, Barth argued that his betrayal did not and could not nullify it. “The grace of Jesus Christ is too powerful.” (p. 477) With regard to Judas’ ultimate status as either rejected or elected Barth declared that “the rejection of Judas is the rejection which Jesus Christ has borne.” (p. 480) Also, “Nothing else may be expected or conjectured of any rejected than that in his place, by God’s wonderful reversal as it was accomplished in Jesus Christ, an elect will one day stand.” (p. 480) What can that mean other than apokatastasis? The back and forth about Judas in these pages is enough to make anyone’s head spin! And Barth seemed to realize it when he referred to “The paradox in the figure of Judas.” (p. 502)

Finally , near the end of the crucial excursus, Barth seemed to take a position vis-à-vis Judas’ status after his suicide. This is what we have been looking for—maybe:

The human παραδιδόντες [a term Barth has been using for the rejected that literally means “given or handed over”] exist under the power of the divine παραδουναι [a term Barth has been using for the divine abandonment of the Son by the Father on the cross] accomplished in the death of Jesus Christ, under the power of the proclamation proceeding from it. They exist, as described in 1 Pet. 3:19, like the spirits in prison to whom Christ descended to bring them the kerygma. It is true that they are rejected, spirits in prison, but it is even more true that Christ has entered their prison, that they have become the object of His kerygma, that it is said of them too: “God did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.” Whatever their future may be, it will take place under the power of the proclamation of this handing-over, in the situation which is not merely kept open by this proclamation, but is kept open in the wholly disparate relationship of the two powers. (pp. 504-505)

Is this an affirmation of Lewis’ vision of hell in The Great Divorce? That is certainly one way to interpret it. However, we must remember Barth’s earlier statement that in the place of the rejected person “an elect will one day stand.” (p. 480) That was not said as a hope but as an expectation.

All of this is open to various interpretations, but not all interpretations are equally plausible. The only plausible one is that Barth did believe in an eventual emptying of hell, as his student Moltmann openly affirmed. That interpretation best fits all the facts of Barth’s doctrine of election. At the very least we must conclude that Barth believed in universal salvation (of all people, not necessarily Satan) in the sense that all are forgiven, all are elect by God for salvation, all may enter heaven if they will.

One question yet to be addressed, that may have some bearing on the matter of Barth’s belief about universal salvation is that of free will. What did Barth believe about power of contrary choice in terms of salvation (or not)? This was one of the reasons Lewis believed in hell; hell was necessary because God would not force people for whom Christ died into heaven. We have here been toying with the idea that Barth believed in hell in a similar way—that hell is only a painful refuge God provides for those who refuse to be with him in fellowship into eternity. However, most Barth interpreters conclude (or assume) that Barth did not believe in free will. In many places throughout CD he seemed to affirm a strict monergism in which humans cannot reject God’s election of them and application of the benefits of Christ’s death to them as forgiven persons.

In the middle of the excursus about Judas Barth seemed to affirm this monergism of salvation. “The possibility of…saying No [to the grace of God in Jesus Christ] is taken from him.” (p. 501). Also, with regard to all people and their ability to thwart the will of God for the salvation of all in Jesus Christ: “It is man who is now made powerless in the face of the overwhelming power of Jesus.” (p. 501) Does that mean, then, that humans have no free will? If so, how did sin and evil come about in God’s good creation? Does Barth have a theodicy that does not blame God for sin and evil and all their consequences? Buried in the fine print of this Judas excursus is something surprising. Speaking of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus Barth wrote that “He [Judas] decisively confirmed that the world of men into which God sent His Son is the kingdom of Satan: the kingdom of misused creaturely freedom; the kingdom of enmity to the will and resistance to the work of its Creator.” (italics added for emphasis) (p. 501)

Yes, here, anyway, Barth did affirm that the root of sin and evil and all its consequences, the fact that the “world of men” has become “the kingdom of Satan,” is “misused creaturely freedom.” Clearly, it is not in God; God did not will it except to permit it.

Our conclusion must be that Barth believed human persons misused their creaturely freedom to bring about sin and evil and all their consequences but cannot misuse it to thwart God’s universal will and intention and power to save everyone. The power of creaturely freedom was strong enough to bring about the fall but it is not strong enough to undo the grace of God toward everyone in Jesus Christ. The remaining question, still possibly an open question, is whether it is powerful enough to keep someone in hell forever. Based on everything Barth says about the power and efficacy of God’s grace, it is difficult to believe that he thought so. Moltmann’s eventual emptying of hell seems to be the logical outcome of Barth’s entire doctrine of election.

As mentioned earlier, the “four Bs,” Bloesch, Balthasar, Berkouwer and Brunner, all thought Barth’s doctrine of election necessarily implied apokatastasis. Not all accused the master of actually teaching universalism, but they all detected an inner necessity of it in his account of election. Bloesch wrote that

In Calvin all is of grace, but grace is not for all. In Luther and Wesley all is of grace and grace is for all, but not all are for grace. In Barth grace is the source of all creaturely being and goes out to all, but every man is set against grace. Yet every man is caught up in the movement of grace even in the case where there is continued opposition to Christ. At the same time those who defy grace are claimed by grace and remain objects of grace despite their contumacy and folly.[7]

Balthasar, or “von Balthasar,” Barth’s most astute interpreter by Barth’s own admission, conceded that Barth did not say explicitly that there will be universal redemption in the sense of apokatastasis, but that is clearly built into the very groundwork of his doctrine of election:

It is clear from Barth’s presentation of the doctrine of election that universal salvation is not only possible but inevitable. The only definitive reality is grace, and any condemnatory judgment has to be merely provisional. Even God’s malediction is merely the reverse side of his blessing, and his punishment is ultimately a confirmation of His promise. Even in the ultimate judgment of death, man remains a being created and redeemed in the grace of Christ.[8]

Berkouwer wrote that he could not but be impressed by the unresolved tension between the “triumph of decisive election” and the “rejection of the doctrine of apokatastasis[9] What Berkouwer meant, in light of the context, is that Barth affirmed both but never resolved how. He simply allowed the tension to stand as a paradox. However, Berkouwer clearly believed Barth leaned more toward the universalism side of the paradox and that the logic of his doctrine of election led inexorably there.

Brunner was perhaps the most harsh in his appraisal of Barth’s implicit universalism. In a special appendix to the first volume of his Domatics, entitled The Doctrine of God, he accused Barth of being in “absolute opposition, not only to the whole ecclesiastical tradition, but…to the clear teaching of the New Testament.”[10] “How,” he asked, “is it possible for Barth to arrive at such a fundamental perversion of the Christian message of salvation?”[11] Brunner traced Barth’s universalism to his “objectivism” of salvation.[12] (Bloesch did the same in Jesus Is Victor!) According to him, the basic flaw in Barth’s theology is its robbing of the relation between God and humanity of any personal content and its emptying human decision of any real decisiveness. (Brunner was closer to Arminianism than Barth.) Comparing Barth to “extreme Calvinism,” Brunner declared that “in both cases everything has already been decided beforehand, and there remains no room for man to make a real decision.”[13]

Bloesch agreed with Brunner. Both had greater sympathy with pietism than Barth. According to Bloesch,

He [Barth] will not tolerate any suggestion that salvation must be realized or fulfilled in faith; this is the heresy of Pietism. [Bloesch did not think it a heresy, he was saying Barth rejected it as the “heresy of Pietism.”] Nor is salvation realized or re-presented in the sacraments; this is the heresy of Catholicism. … In Barth’s eyes to contend that God’s saving work in Christ needs to be realized or reenacted in human experience connotes that this work was in some way deficient. The work of salvation is completed, though the plan of salvation is still to be consummated in that all have not been confronted by this work.[14]

Brunner’s and Bloesch’s complaint about Barth’s objectivism of salvation and its resulting universalism seems confirmed by this resounding affirmation of Barth’s in CD IV/1:

With the divine No and Yes spoken in Jesus Christ the root of human unbelief, the man of sin, is pulled out. In its place there is put the root of faith, the new man of obedience. For this reason unbelief has become an objective, real and ontological impossibility and faith an objective, real and ontological necessity for all men and for every man. [Italics added for emphasis] In the justification of the sinner which has taken place in Jesus Christ these have both become an event which comprehends all men. (p. 747)

Did Barth have any place for the subjective, inner decision of faith? Bloesch and Brunner have trouble seeing it in Barth. However, the Swiss theologian clearly affirmed it, but only as the “subjective realization of reconciliation.” (p. 742) No doubt this would not satisfy his critics. Yet, Barth clearly did have a place for the personal decision of faith. The question is, perhaps, how decisive it is with regard to the full realization of reconciliation and justification. About that Barth wrote that reconciliation

does not owe anything at all to this human subject and his activity, his faith. … Faith is simply following, following its object. Faith is going a way which is marked out and prepared. Faith does not realize anything new. It does not invent anything. It simply finds that which is already there for the believer and also for the unbeliever. [Italics added for emphasis] It is simply man’s active decision for it, his acceptance of it, his active participation in it. This constitutes the Christian. (p. 742)

For Barth, then, faith is simply leaving behind the lie and embracing the truth of one’s election and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. It means no longer being in contradiction with the truth about oneself. And Barth asserted that it is personal. But it does not make one a reconciled person; it only makes one a Christian. In light of everything uncovered here it is safe to say that Bloesch and Brunner are right and wrong. They are right that, for Barth, the personal decision of faith has nothing at all to do with causing one to be a saved person where “saved” means “reconciled with God.” However, they are wrong that Barth had no room for a personal decision of faith insofar as Barth did affirm it as that which causes a person to become a Christian, one who knows and witnesses to his or her reconciliation.

But there’s more to it still. As we discovered in our exegesis of Barth’s excursus about Judas in CD II/2, Barth seemed to believe that God will allow a reconciled sinner to go on living the lie, without the knowledge of his or her reconciliation with God, into hell. Perhaps for Barth “hell” is this lie and the living of it. Therefore, insofar as “saved” means living in the joy and blessing of fellowship with God, the personal decision of faith is necessary for salvation.

We are coming, then, to the conclusion that the controversy over whether Barth was a universalist or not comes down to a matter of semantics. (Which is not to say it’s unimportant.) Apparently, in spite of some confusing ways of expressing it, Barth believed in at least two distinct senses of being “saved.” One is the objective reconciliation with God extended to all people because of Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. In that sense, because of election and atonement, all are saved. No personal decision of faith is required for it to be ontologically true and real. The other is the subjective fellowship with God enjoyed by those who, through a personal decision of faith, embrace their identity as reconciled persons. Such persons alone are “Christians.” But they alone are not “saved.” At least some, if not all, of those who reject their election and reconciliation, will, in spite of being saved, go to hell, understood either literally as Lewis’ painful refuge after death or figuratively as the lie lived in misery. Even they, however, are “saved” in the objective sense. And, according to Barth, based on the statement quoted earlier, God will continue to proclaim the kerygma to them, apparently with the hope and intention that they will somehow, sometime become saved in both senses.

Our thesis and conclusion agrees almost entirely with one of Barth’s most astute German interpreters Walter Kreck in his magisterial Grundentscheidungen in Karl Barths Dogmatik: Zur Diskussion seines Verständnisses von Offenbarung und Erwählung (roughly translated Basic Decisions in Karl Barth’s Dogmatics: Toward a Discussion of his Understanding of Revelation and Election). There, in the middle of an exposition and discussion of Barth’s doctrine of election, Kreck asked whether it leads to apokatastasis. He concluded that Barth did not want to draw that conclusion, but that it seems logically to follow from Barth’s doctrine of election.[15] On the other hand, Kreck also wrote that Barth rejected “speculating” (about ultimate reconciliation) and attempted to hold to the “open situation of proclamation” (in place of a doctrine of apokatastasis).[16] However, what Barth wanted and what Barth logically implied (as necessary) appear to be two different things.

The main contribution, if it can be called that, of this research project is that Barth was and was not a universalist. The solution is not sheer paradox, however. He was a universalist in the sense of everyone, all human persons, being reconciled to God, not just as something potential but as something actual from God’s side. He was not a universalist in the sense of believing that everyone, all human persons, will necessarily know and experience that reconciliation automatically, apart from any faith, having fellowship with God now or hereafter. Without doubt, however, he was a hopeful universalist in that second sense of the word.

Roger E. Olson

Professor of Theology

George W. Truett Theological Seminary

Baylor University

Waco, TX 76798


[1] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960), 61.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 61-62.

[4] Ibid., 62.

[5] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, trans., John Drury (New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 170.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, “In the End, All is God’s: Is Belief in Hell Obsolete?” Sewanee Theological Review 40:2 (1997): 232-234. See also Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 237-255.

[7] Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Is Victor!: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1976), 70.

[8], Balthasar, 163.

[9] G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 121.

[10] Emil Brunner, Dogmatics I: The Doctrine of God, trans., Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), 349.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 351.

[14] Bloesch, 108.

[15] Walter Kreck, Grundentscheidungen in Karl Barths Dogmatik: Zur Diskussion seines Verständnisses von Offenbarung und Erwählung (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1978), 213.

[16] Ibid., 214.

  • John Thestian

    Thanks for writing this but how is it interesting or a contribution? You basically end where Hunsinger ended over a decade ago, and you cite non of the many articles published sense then that talk about this.

    • rogereolson

      The testimony of two….? If Hunsinger’s conclusion is so well-known, why do people (I know) who studied with him still insist Barth wasn’t a universalist?

  • http://growrag.wordpress.com Bobby Grow

    [First, thank you for engaging Barth this way---and again, thank you for noticing us "Evangelical Calvinists" :-)!]

    My initial response is that your final conclusion is unremarkable (as I’m sure you already know) in regard to the kind of “double election” Barth was committed to; and that this all takes shape through Barth’s critically dialectical hermeneutic. So I say your conclusion is unremarkable because it is only consistent with what one should expect if they start and end where Barth does; i.e. dialectically.

    I think I will save most of my response (since I don’t have it yet) for a blog post (at my blog http://growrag.wordpress.com). I have been reading Arminius lately, and I am not sure you have an alternative theological construct that provides the kind of hermeneutical and exegetical haven of rest that you seem to think is available. To be sure, either way, this wouldn’t undercut Barth’s alternative way (vis-a-vis your Arminian one), but I would venture to say that given the finite explanation of things–relatively speaking of course–Barth’s conclusion versus Arminius’ or Calvin’s might not look as foreboding (or heterodox, or worse, heretical) as you seem to be suggesting ‘implicitly’ (i.e. following your logic through) throughout your essay in regard to Barth’s offering.

    Anyway, I look forward to responding to this essay in days to come. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Roger!

    • rogereolson

      What in the world made you think I was suggesting Barth’s view is heterodox? My point is that it is virtually the same as C. S. Lewis!

      • http://growrag.wordpress.com Bobby Grow

        Yes, maybe that was too strong of a reaction on my part; foreboding would have been a better place to stop.

        It will be interesting to see how Barth scholars respond to your essay. I know some, and some who have read it already; and they had some interesting opinions about what you had to say. Hopefully they will respond in print form (blog or whatever) at some point.

        Anyway, thanks again for the effort you have put into this; and for sharing it as you have on your blog, instead of a theological journal. I think it makes it much more accessible for the masses, and has greater capacity to provoke more reflection that a theological journal might have.

        Blessings.

        • rogereolson

          Thanks, Bobby. I have already heard from one or two Barth scholars who have been extremely dismissive. I think the reason is they think they own the view I’ve expressed. They’ve published it in theological journals few non-theologians will ever read and they think I should refer to them in my essay. (Many mention of “the secondary literature.) What I wanted to do, however, was bypass all the secondary literature, even wiping it out of my mind as much as possible, and just see what I could find in CD. What I think is that my conclusion is basically the same as some Barth scholars’ but I have not seen the view expressed in quite the same way as I have expressed it. I’m not saying anything against them (although I suspect they think I am). I am simply saying that many Barth scholars still think the answer to “Was Barth a universalist?” is a simple one: “No.” I want people to realize it is not as simple as that and I want people who will never read theological journals to know. My conclusions are not based at all on the scholars’ in question, but I was pleased that I came to at least roughly the same conclusion many of them have. And yet, in spite of that, many others are still entrenched in their belief that Barth was simply not a universalist. I think evangelical Barth scholars are especially prone to this overly simplistic response to the question because universalism is such a controversial subject among evangelicals. In other words, IF you want Barth to be liked by evangelicals, say Barth was NOT a universalist. There’s truth in that. I’m not suggesting otherwise. He was not a universalist in the same way that liberals were and are. True enough. But I have argued for a very long time that he was a universalist in some important sense of the word–that all people are already reconciled to God by Christ. But he was not a universalist in the sense that we can be sure everyone will experience the benefits of that reconciliation by escaping hell. I believe Barth believed hell is real but absolutely unnecessary–not part of God’s intention or plan or purpose. It is for Barth truly the “impossible possibility.” My essay aims at explaining what that means. Those who have already come to the same explanation and published it are, I suspect, unhappy that I have not mentioned them. But I have not because I came to the conclusion independently of them. And I’m not even convinced our conclusions are exactly the same. For example, I emphasize Barth’s few but telling references to the misuse of creaturely free will. I think there is a sense in which an Arminian can embrace Barth’s view of election and remain Arminian.

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  • Bev Mitchell

    Very clarifying article!

    This is partially tongue in cheek, but the thought did cross my mind that an important aspect of becoming a theologian who is discussed by many others over many years is to write with a very high fog index. Being conflicted on important points would add to this (not saying that KB was). A related tactic would be to say things in such a way that there are many, even opposite, take-home messages. It seems a shame to write in such a way that leaves folks forever trying to figure out what it is you meant to say. But then, we have Scripture – go figure. But then too, as you point out, there are those who can misinterpret a stop sign.

    To me, the most striking Barth quote that you provide is “It is man who is now made powerless in the face of the overwhelming power of Jesus.” From the perspective of the general debate between Calvinism and more relational theologies the big question is whether “power” with reference to God (Jesus) should be replaced with “love”. Will every knee bow to Christ’s power or to his love? Since power demands and controls while love convinces and sets free, the decision seems crystal clear to many. Would Barth agree? Could this be what he meant by universalism?

    • rogereolson

      I thought my article, though not original, was clear enough, but some (not you) who have posted here already seem to have misinterpreted it. My point is that, for Barth, because of what God has done in Christ, ontological, objective salvation is universal, real, actual, for all. But because God is love and not a controller, God permits the “impossible possibility” that persons may actually reject what they are and what God has done for them in Christ–forever. Thus, though they are saved in one (the most important) sense, they may fail to experience salvation in heavenly glory with Christ by their own choice.

  • http://GoodReportMinistries.com Ivan A. Rogers

    Dr. Olson:

    Thank you for this ‘fair and balanced’ treatment of whether or not Karl Barth was a universalist. Excellent! I would, however, like to comment on the following statement:

    “At least some, if not all, of those who reject their election and reconciliation, will, in spite of being saved, go to hell, understood either literally as Lewis’ painful refuge after death or figuratively as the lie lived in misery. Even they, however, are “saved” in the objective sense.”

    It is my contention that the traditional doctrine of eternal or limited conscious torture (hell) is based solely on mistranslated Greek words. Thus (in my opinion), hell is a myth. Worse yet, any juxtaposition of “hell” and “universalism” is an obvious oxymoron. I hasten to point out that Bible translators are slowly but surely coming to realize this to be true and, thus, hell is disappearing from the Bible, e.g., the O.T. King James Version mentions the word “hell” 31 times, whereas, the NAS, NIV, and ESV omit the word “hell” in the O.T. altogether. Barth was unaware of this new and improved scholarship.

  • Steve Rogers

    Very well done, Professor Olson. One thing I take away from Barth as you presented him here is that he had such a high regard for God’s sovereignty that he sought to avoid making absolutist statements concerning what God must do. God will be God no matter what we think or believe. Barth had his opinions and logic that he expressed with rare keenness of mind and complexity, but he purposefully, I think, sought to avoid restricting labels. IMHO this is a model worthy of all of us to follow in that it could help us be less dogmatic and more charitable toward those who see it differently and break down some of the excluding walls we have erected. Oh, and by the way, I agree with what I understand of what Barth believed.

  • Casey Glass

    Wow. That was awesome.

  • Josh

    Thanks for the thorough research into this question concerning Barth. I would love to see you interact in a future post with Donald Bloesch’s view of hell in contrast with Barth. With what I have read of Bloesch they don’t seem to be that far apart from each other with the exception that Barth was more optimistic concerning the fate of the unrepentant. Also, after doing further research on Barth have you become more sympathetic toward his views or less? I know that you have said in the past that you “do not revel in paradox” like Barth, Bloesch, or others, but have you at least begun to revel a little? :-)

    • rogereolson

      I think Bloesch’s view of postmortem opportunity (to be saved) is not far from Barth’s view–at least as I have found it in the fine print of CD and quoted it in my essay posted here. But a large part of my intention in this essay is to say that Barth’s view was not really paradoxical. It would be paradoxical if he said something like “All are saved but some are not.” What I have found (and, again, I claim no originality for this) is that he resolved the paradox by defining “salvation” in two clearly distinct ways.

  • http://kingdomgrace.wordpress.com Linda

    Thank you very much for this accessible summary! I very much appreciated the thorough compilation. I felt that you represented Barth’s ideas very fairly. I would be interested to hear the major points where you, as an Arminian, differ from Barth.
    Regarding hell, I believe hell as a location is “closed,” and that all men will spend eternal life in fellowship with God. As you allude, the distinction for the unbeliever will be one of experience. Resistant, by free will, to the love of God, the unbelievers’ experience of His presence may not seem to be a blessed, heavenly existence. And perhaps the unbeliever will not remain eternally resistant.

    • rogereolson

      It seems to me that Scripture represents hell as forever and populated. I tend to follow C. S. Lewis’ view of hell in The Great Divorce. However, it seems to me that Barth’s view, at least in some locations in CD, is very similar, if not identical, to Lewis’ view. I agree with both of them that our “default” position, status, is reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. But I believe grace is resistible. My research into Barth led me to believe he believed that as well. I suspect our (his and my) real difference will come down to the importance of decision.

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  • Buddy duncan

    It seems to me that those who protest the ultimate reconciliation that Barth emphasizes are most at odds with God’s sovereignty trumping man’s free will. Both Berkhouwer and Bruner (footnote 13 above) are frustrated with that issue and seem to believe free will is a more essential doctrine than the Creator’s power to do whatsoever He wills with His creation. I hear that argument regularly and find it entirely lacking in merit. I suggest a textual study of God’s Sovereignty vs. Creations free will. I believe the Creator wins hands down.

    • rogereolson

      No, neither Berkouwer nor Brunner value free will over God’s sovereignty. You need to read them. Berkouwer was a strong Reformed theologian who emphasized God’s sovereignty. Brunner was also Reformed, although more revisionist than Berkouwer. But neither of them valued free will over God’s sovereignty.

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