Was Karl Barth a Universalist? (Evangelicals & Universalism, part 2)

When someone asks me what I believe, I generally expect them to take my word for it. After all, they’re my beliefs. So who would know them better than me?

Every now and then, though, people find themselves in the odd position of disagreeing with someone about their own beliefs. They’ve told you that they believe X, but for some reason, you’re just not sure that it’s true. They may say that they don’t believe in Santa, but the cookies are still on the table. So you wonder.

universalism, other religions, eastern religions, universal salvation, dualism, duality

That’s the position we find ourselves in with Karl Barth and universalism. If you want to know whether Barth was a universalist, just ask him:

“I am not a universalist.”[1]

That was easy.

But some still wonder. He says he doesn’t believe in universalism, but looking closely at his theology, it sure looks like he’s left a lot of cookies on the table.

We’re in the process of exploring what Karl Barth had to say about universalism and how we should understand that as evangelicals. In the last post, we looked at why universalism is a problem for evangelicals. Now we need to ask whether Barth himself was a universalist. Here’s why people think he is.

 1. I Pick Jesus

As Barth famously declared, the doctrine of election is “the whole of the Gospel” (CD II/2, 3). This is because it is in the doctrine of election that we find God deciding from all eternity to be God-for-us in the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, from the beginning of time, God determined to be the kind of God who would act graciously toward humanity (i.e. his eternal self-determination). And this also included his free and gracious decision to enact this in Jesus Christ, so that “the goal and meaning of all His dealings with the as-yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in His Son He would be gracious towards man, uniting Himself with them” (CD II/2, 101). Good news indeed.

Of course, people have talked about election for a long time. But Barth thinks earlier theologians, especially in the Reformed tradition, made a fatal mistake when they understood election as God’s decision to elect only some humans to salvation and to view Jesus as simply the means by which salvation is accomplished for the elect. In doing so, Barth argued, the Reformed tradition turned election into bad news because you can never truly know if you are among the elect.

The proper way to understand election, for Barth, is as “the election of Jesus Christ” (CD II/2, 103). And he intended the “of” here to be understood in two ways. Jesus is both the subject of election, one with the Father and the Spirit in eternally willing election, and the object of election, the one who has been elected to become ontologically one with humanity, uniting himself with us eternally (CD II/2, 105).  As the truly Elect one, election is no longer hidden in the dim recesses of eternity, but is fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

If this is all that Barth said about election, few would raise any real concerns. Many modern theologians appreciate Barth’s arguments for centering election on Jesus christ, though many argue that the biblical basis for seeing Jesus as the only Elect one is a little weak. But even they probably not complain too loudly if all he just meant to say that humans are only saved insofar as they are part of the elect-in-Christ. That Barth intended more than this, however, is clear.

2. Everyone Gets to Ride Along

For Barth, God’s eternal decree to be God-for-us and the corresponding decision to elect Christ to become one with humanity means that all human persons are elect-in-Christ. Jesus remains the only true Elect of God since “all who are elected are elected in Him” (CD II/2, 421). But “all who are elected” includes all human persons. Thus, we cannot regard non-Christians “as if they were not elect” (CD II/2, 416). But should approach every person with the assurance that “he, too, is an elect man” (CD II/2, 318). There is no limit to God’s gracious decision to be God-for-us.

Barth does have a doctrine of reprobation (i.e. the idea that God has in some sense “elected” people for damnation as well as salvation), but for him even this eternal decree finds its true object in Jesus Christ. Jesus took our reprobation upon himself so that he is both the truly Elect and the truly Rejected one (CD II/2, 353).

All humans without exception, then, are included in the sphere of the elect. We are all elect-in-Christ.

3. Drinks for Free

And this is precisely where the difficulty begins since it’s beginning to sound like everyone will necessarily get saved in the end. Party time!

Barth even suggests as much when he says that our participation in Christ’s election means that “from all eternity God has determined upon man’s acquittal” (CD II/2, 167). So, despite our sin and faithlessness, God has decided from all eternity to secure our acquittal in Jesus Christ. He’s already declared us “not guilty” in Christ. The only thing that remains is for us to truly understand this amazing truth and to fully participate in the reality he has created for us. We need to experience the salvation that he has already made ours.

Even those who try to reject this divine election are helpless to remove themselves from the sphere of salvation: “this is the very goal which the godless cannot reach, because it has already been taken away by the eternally decreed offering of the Son of God” (CD II/2, 318).

4. The Old Rugged Cross

As if his doctrine of election didn’t create enough problems, Barth also makes some very strong statements regarding the universal effectiveness of the atonement. For Barth, this is a simple extension of his doctrine of election. If we are all included in God’s eternal decree to be God-for-us-in-Jesus, then it stands to reason that we would also be included in the ultimate expression of this eternal decision: Christ’s atoning sacrifice. And that is precisely what we find.

The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath 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.” (CD II/2, 123)

On the cross, Jesus “made Himself the object of the wrath and judgment to which man had brought himself” and “tasted Himself the damnation, death and hell which ought to have been the portion of fallen man” (CD II/2, 164).

That covers just about everything. More importantly for our purposes, Barth sees this as covering just about everyone as well.

There is no-one who does not participate in Him in His turning to God. There is no-one who is not…engaged in this turning. There is no-one who is not raised and exalted with Him to true humanity.” (CD II/2, 172)

Seems pretty inclusive.

Barth’s view of the cross, then, means that atonement is unlimited both in sufficiency (it is sufficient to cover the sins of all people) and efficiency (it actually covers the sins of all people).

A Universalist or a Duck?

When you combine Barth’s doctrine of election–God eternally decided to be God-for-us in Jesus Christ and to unite all humans to himself through him–and his doctrine of the atonement–God atoned for the sins of all people through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, it becomes pretty easy to see why people think that Barth was a universalist. How could it possibly be otherwise? How can any human person fail to be saved given God’s eternal decree and the power of the cross?

So people conclude that if he looks like a universalist, talks like a universalist, and quacks like a universalist, he’s probably a universalist. Even if he claims to be a duck.

But we do have to keep in mind that Barth clearly rejected universalism. How could he possibly do that in light of everything that we’ve seen here? That’s the question we’ll address in the next post.

(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. You can read part 1 here.)

[1] Quoted in Lewis Smedes, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 99.





  1. Laurence Angell says

    I’m not sure where all of this is going, but I will be interested in reading the next post or posts. I was raised in the Unitarian/Universalist Church but later became a Lutheran and then an Episcopalian. My life partner was Roman Catholic. How’ss them Apples? And, oh yes, my parents met and were married in a Methodist Church. And I was an organist in several different churches. So I am a real mixture and will be interested in reading what Mr. Barth has to say. Maybe he can clear up some of my confusion, but I do think that I am mostly an universalist with certain caveats.

  2. says

    Marc, I always thought that Barth said a person can say no to God’s yes and also perhaps it is unfair to judge Barth on this topic when he said he wasn’t a universalist and we do not have volume 5. I wonder how Barth disagre with moltmann whom i am told is a univesalist. is there rhetoric similar? Just my thoughts.

    • says

      It’s actually a little more complicated than that. Barth says pretty clearly that rejecting God’s Yes is the one thing that we can’t do: “this is the very goal which the godless cannot reach, because it has already been taken away by the eternally decreed offering of the Son of God” (CD II/2, 318). If Barth were just saying that God wants to save everyone but that he person has the capacity to reject his will, then Barth would essentially be Arminian, something he explicitly rejects.

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