Why Should We Listen? (Evangelicals & Universalism, part 4)

What would you think about someone who said, “My friend is an outstanding engineer, he’s just a little fuzzy on the laws of physics”? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to find out which building projects he was involved in, and stay away from them.

Evangelicals tend to feel the same way about theologians and salvation. If you get salvation wrong, you can’t possibly be a good theologian. Too much is at stake. So it’s best to find out which theological buildings they’ve constructed and just stay away from them. They may be pretty, but their foundations are rotten.

That is generally how evangelicals have responded to universalism in any form. It’s a rotten foundation, so we should stay away from it entirely.

And this causes problems when evangelicals meet Karl Barth. In the first post in this series, I noted that many evangelicals would question whether evangelicals and Barth should be seen together in public. And we’ve seen that one of the big concerns comes from the fact that his theology leans strongly in the direction of universalism, even though he rejected the label. So the conclusion seems clear: if universalism is bad, and if Karl Barth looks a lot like a universalist, then Karl Barth is bad. And you definitely don’t want to be seen in public with someone like that. Or, if you’re going to hang out with him, you should probably pick one of those dimly lit establishments, wear sunglasses, and sit in the back.

Although the conclusion might be understandable, we can do better. Even if he’s wrong, I think we can identify at least four ways that Barth’s approach is worth hearing anyway.

4 Reasons to Be Seen with Barth in Public

The place to start, before dealing with the particular strengths of Barth’s approach, is to help people see why they need to set aside for a moment the question of whether Barth was right. Too often I find that evangelicals get hung up on their intuition that Barth simply must be wrong when it comes to election and universalism, and we fail to realize that there may be benefits to engaging his theology on this point even if he is wrong. If there’s anything to appreciate about Barth, it’s the fact that even when he’s wrong, he’s usually wrong in interesting and entertaining ways. Unless we help evangelicals see this point, their intuitive bias against anything that looks, tastes, or stinks like universalism will make it very difficult for them to appreciate a number of important strengths in Barth’s approach to the question.

1. Sometimes the Sunday School Answer Is Correct

For Barth, the ultimate answer to any theological question is Jesus. It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, but it’s close. And we definitely see that at work in his doctrine of election. Even if we reject what many think is an overemphasis on Jesus as the only elect and reprobate person, we can still agree that any truly Christian view of election will find its theological center in Jesus Christ.

This is a helpful correction those views of election that cause people to spend so much time trying to understand the “hidden will” of God, or, contrarily, those whose focus is on assessing your own spiritual condition for indicators that you are truly among the elect. On both ends of the spectrum, the reality of election gets lost in an impenetrable fog: either the darkness of God’s inscrutable will or the ephemeral mist of your subjective experiences.

Barth’s theology helpfully points us away from the unknown and subjective toward the revealed and objective: Jesus Christ himself. Even if we choose to unpack a doctrine of election somewhat differently, this must be our non-negotiable starting point.

 2. God Loves the Coffee-Shop-Cell-Phone Guy Too

Barth takes very seriously those parts of the Bible that emphasize the universal scope of God’s desire to save. This is the God who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), and who sent his Son to give himself “as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6) and become  “the Savior of the world” (1 Jn 4:14), so that God might “reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:20). Of course, each of these verses can be interpreted differently. But Barth is not out on a limb in understanding them as pointing to the fact that there is some sense in which God does in fact will the salvation of all people.

Although Barth’s exegesis can be criticized (more on that in the next post), we should not forget that he is outstanding among systematic theologians for the sustained attention he gives to the Bible. And this is a prime example. Barth refuses to soften or dodge the implications of these texts, concluding that they mean just what they appear to mean: God has acted decisively in Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. While we might disagree with the conclusions that he draws, we should emulate his unflinching commitment to following the Bible wherever it leads.

3. Universalism Can Still Include Evangelism

One of the key evangelical concerns about any form of universalism is that it undercuts evangelism. Why bother telling people about Jesus if they will necessarily be saved in the end anyway? Or, more specifically to Barth, why bother when they are saved already. For Barth, it seems that when the non-Christian responds to the Gospel, nothing truly changes. She was already included in Christ’s election, covered by his atoning sacrifice, and reconciled to God. The  most important changes had already taken place. All that was left was for her to learn about her true identity, her real status before God. Conversion is merely a shift from not-knowing to knowing. If that’s the case, maybe evangelism isn’t really worth the effort.

Without going into too much detail, I think Barth would respond to this in three ways.

  • The Priority of Evangelism: He would simply point out that in his own practice, he consistently emphasized the importance of evangelism, maintaining that we must preach salvation to people so they also can experience the reality of their inclusion in Christ. This is not optional for the Christian, but part of our mission in the world.
  • The Motivation for Evangelism: He would also question the presumption that fear of hell is the only, or even the proper, motivation for evangelism. Instead, he would argue that our primary motivation for sharing the good news about God’s grace in Christ is our gratitude for what we have received. That is the only appropriate response to salvation. Any motivation for evangelism grounded in fear is broken at best.
  • The Power of Conversion: Finally, Barth would reject the suggestion that conversion is about mere knowledge. For Barth, there is a real change that takes place when a person comes to know the truth of their status before God. As he says, “When a man has faith and is baptised, then he knows (noetic) something that changes his life (ontic)” (Table Talk, 90). The person experiences a real change when they come to understand who they are in Christ, a transformation that we should want all people to experience.

So, at the very least, reading Barth on evangelism as it relates to the question of universalism might help evangelicals see the need to develop a deeper motive for evangelism and a more adequate understanding of what it means to know the truth.

4. Not All Universalists Are Created Equal

Finally, one of the most useful aspects of engaging Barth’s soteriology is recognizing that universalism comes in different forms, and arguments that work against one form of universalism may not work against them all. Even if we accept the conclusion that Barth’s theology necessarily entails some kind of universalism, it remains the case that his approach is very different from someone like Rob Bell. Indeed, I can well imagine what Barth would have said in response to a book entitled Love Wins. For Barth, such a book sounds like a wedding ceremony celebrating the union of an overly optimistic anthropology and a theology driven by a central “principle,” two of the main reasons that Barth rejected universalism as a theological system.

All four of these are tremendous strengths in Barth’s approach to the question of universal salvation. Nonetheless, in the next post, we’ll have to push back a little. Barth’s theology is not without some important weaknesses at this point, weaknesses that we cannot simply ignore.

(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 find the rest of the series here.)



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