Do evangelicals have anything to learn from universalists? That’s the question we’ve been exploring for a couple of weeks now. And we’ve been using Karl Barth as our conversation partner along the way. Although we’ve seen that he rejected the label “universalist,” there are good reasons for thinking that Barth’s theology leans pretty strongly in that direction. So that makes him a useful test case for whether evangelicals and universalists can hang out together and have interesting conversations.
In the last post, I argued that there are at least four lessons we can learn from how Barth approaches the question of universalism. And they are important lessons. In this post, however, we need to turn the page and ask where the problems are. A good conversation doesn’t mean that we have to just nod our heads politely at everything the other person has to say. That may be appropriate when the person next to you at the dinner party says something particularly stupid, and you decide that it just isn’t worth the time and effort it would take to explain why. So you let it pass. But a real conversation is one in which both the other person and the topic matter to you. And that kind of conversation requires a more meaningful kind of engagement.
3 Reasons Barth Is a Problem
Even if we’re convinced by now that there are good reasons for introducing Barth to our evangelical friends, we should also recognize several important weaknesses in his theology at this point. Unfortunately, I will need to move through this final section relatively quickly. But most of these critiques have been developed extensively by others. So I will just summarize them here for the purposes of demonstrating that introducing Barth to evangelicals should include helping them identify the important weaknesses in any particular theological position.
1. It’s the Bible, Stupid
The biggest concern that evangelicals have always had with universalism is that it simply does not seem biblically-grounded given the many texts supporting the reality of Hell as the eventual destiny of those who reject Jesus. And we have seen nothing in our conversation with Barth to suggest that this is not still a concern with his position. Although Barth does extensive exegesis throughout his work on election and the atonement, he fails to offer a robust exegetical argument specifically at those points when he is dealing with the question of universalism. Instead, by the time he gets around to asking whether universalism is an option, he feels that he’s already assembled his soteriological puzzle in such a way that the answer to universalism is clear. But that is simply inadequate given the many biblical texts that speak directly to the question of universalism. Barth owes his readers a more sustained engagement with the biblical texts on this specific issue.
2. Can God Create a Rock So Big That He Can’t Crush an Incoherent Theologian with It?
In addition to Barth’s exegesis, the biggest weakness in his response to the universalist charge is his appeal to divine freedom. As we’ve seen, Barth refuses to affirm universalism despite the fact that “theological consistency” would see to require it, because he thinks that God always remains free to act however he chooses. This creates at least two sizable problems.
First, it seems to commit Barth to the position that God can simply will contradictory realities into existence. In other words, it would seem that he can decree that all humans are eternally elect-in-Christ and irreversibly redeemed through the atonement and that they may eventually be lost anyway. Although any attempt to wrestle with divine realities will result in some paradoxes—i.e., theological convictions that seem difficult to reconcile with one another—this appears to be more of a straightforward contradiction: two states of affairs that appear mutually exclusive. And it’s not clear how even God can simply will mutually contradictory states of affairs into being.
Second, from Barth’s appeal to divine freedom it would seem to follow that we cannot affirm confidently the truth of any theological position. Even God’s eternal decision to be God-for-us could be called into question, since God would remain free to transform himself into God-against-us whenever he so chooses. And this in turn means that Jesus would not be the full revelation of the divine being, as Barth so consistently emphasized, but only the revelation of God as he has chosen to be for now. Barth rejects this possibility, as he must for his christocentric theology to work, by appealing to the fact that God’s self-determination is eternal and, therefore, unchangeable. But this would seem to be the case with his eternal decree of election as well. So it’s not clear how Barth can affirm that God is always free to change the latter without calling into question the reliability of the former.
Thus, Barth’s argument here seems to be a tacit admission that his theology does entail universalism, but that God’s freedom means the impossible possibility could still happen. And it is precisely at this point that the danger of incoherence looms large.
3. Groundless Hope Is No Hope at All
Given the prior two objections, then, we must really question the adequacy of Barth’s conclusion that we not only can but must hope for the universal salvation of all human persons. As much as I would like this to be true, it’s not clear that he has given me any reason to believe that it is. He certainly hasn’t provided the kind of conclusive exegetical arguments that we would need to be convinced that universal salvation is a viable way of reading the relevant biblical texts. Instead, he has simply offered an appeal to divine freedom, suggesting that no matter what God has revealed in Scripture, and in Christ for that matter, it’s always possible that God will choose to do things differently in the end. That not only fails to ground hope adequately, it threatens to cut against the grain of true Christian hope entirely, leaving open the possibility that, in the end, no one will be saved.
(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.)