How you respond to the title of this post says a lot about what kind of evangelical you are. Setting aside for a moment what you think about an evangelical walking into a bar with anyone, there’s the question of whether you think that evangelicals and universalists should really be hanging out together like this.
Traditionally, evangelicals have not responded positively to universalism in any of its various forms. At the very least, evangelicals tend to see universalism as undermining such central evangelical convictions as the radical sinfulness of the human person and the doctrine of justification by faith alone; the importance of personal conversion expressed through ongoing discipleship and holiness; and the vital necessity of evangelism, missions, and social action. And, of course, the primary evangelical concern about universalism is the Bible itself. As Daniel Strange declares,
any serious evangelical theologian whose ultimate authority is Scripture, cannot ignore the clear passages which refer to the reality of judgement and hell and the prophetic element which declares that some will never come to repentance.”
So, if you allow universalism, pretty soon you’ll have complacent Christianity, rampant relativism, antinomian anarchy, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria.
With such significant concerns, it seems hard to believe that evangelicals could have any meaningful engagement with universalists, let alone hang out with one in public. Indeed, given the vociferous response of many evangelicals to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, one wonders if evangelicals and universalists should even be allowed on the same internet. Even as some evangelicals have come to embrace the possibility of annhiliationism (e.g. John Stott) or a second chance for salvation after death (e.g. Donald Bloesch), we have generally rejected universalism itself as a viable option for evangelical theology.
Now all of this creates a bit of a problem when evangelicals turn to Karl Barth. Ask a roomful of educated evangelicals what they think about Barth, and within the first few minutes, you’re likely to hear that he was some kind of universalist, shortly after they complain about his doctrine of revelation, and maybe speculate on the possibility that he had an affair with his secretary. If Barth was a universalist, and if universalism is as problematic as evangelicalism has traditionally believed, then there’s a real question about whether evangelicals should have anything to do with Karl Barth.
So, if we’re going to have any chance of introducing Barth to an evangelical audience, we will need to make some progress here, which is what I hope to do in this series. First, we’ll survey Barth’s understanding of salvation as it relates to the possibility of universalism. And we’ll see that pinning Barth down on the question of universalism is not as easy as it might first seem. Then we’ll look at how we as evangelicals might respond to this aspect of Barth’s theology. Along the way, I hope to demonstrate a way of helping evangelicals appreciate the strengths of Barth’s approach to salvation while still recognizing some important weaknesses.
So stay tuned for follow-up posts on:
- Why do people think that Barth was a universalist?
- 5 Reasons Barth Rejected Universalism
- 4 reasons Barth’s approach is worth listening to
- 3 reasons Barth’s approach is a problem
(I recently presented a conference paper dealing with the question of how to introduce Karl Barth to evangelicals despite the apparently universalistic implications of his theology. This blog series is a lightly revised version of that paper. So, if you’re interested in Karl Barth, universalism, and/or evangelicalism in general, stick around. It should be fun.)