Saturday, September 29, 2007

Hell behind us

At the "Weltbundes christlicher Studenten" conference in Strasburg, July 1960, Karl Barth was asked a question about the reality of hell and evil. During his lively response, he stated:

"Should the teaching about hell be a part of the proclamation of the gospel? No, no, no! The proclamation of the gospel means, rather, the proclamation that Christ has defeated hell, that Christ suffered hell in our place, and that it has allowed for us to live with Christ and so to have hell behind us"
- Karl Barth (Gesamtausgabe, 25:111)

As you would expect, for Barth I think things are more complicated than this single statement would imply. Nevertheless, my evangelical sensibilities were screaming "but Acts 24:25 etc."! Still, something to think about.


At 9/29/2007 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this Barth guy! Sensible, practical, and I would say biblical in this particular statement. As far as Acts 24:25...the coming judgment means "hell"? You're stretching it a bit there it seems.

At 9/29/2007 11:47 PM, Anonymous volker said...

I guess a lot depends on how Barth meant the words "us" and "so" in the last part of your quote ("that it has allowed for us to live with Christ and so to have hell behind us"). Who is "us" - everybody or only Christians? And is it only as we live with Christ that we have hell behind us?

At 9/30/2007 12:07 AM, Anonymous Judy Redman said...

Well, I decided not to use the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31 for the children's address this morning even though it is the lectionary gospel reading because I couldn't see how I could help five and six year olds understand this as in any sense good news. This is a very clear teaching about hell, I think. Does that help? :-)

FWIW, I think it's actually quite difficult to proclaim Christ's victory over hell if people have no sense of what it is that we've "left behind us", but I don't think it's helpful to set faith up as "you should be a good Christian because otherwise God's going to get you." I think the proclamation of the gospel ought to be about getting people to respond to God's grace, not about being terrified of a big-stick-weilding God.

And while I would contend that I share the good news, which makes me evangelical, I am definitely not Evangelical.

At 9/30/2007 3:14 AM, Anonymous Ben Myers said...

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that Barth isn't directly concerned here with questions of universalism, whether hell is "real", etc. (He does explore those questions elsewhere.) In Barth's thought, there's a fundamental question about what constitutes the content of Christian preaching -- and that's really what he's talking about here. (A similar example is the famous Barmen Declaration, which is precisely an attempt to mark the boundaries of the content of preaching.)

And this is also why Barth was disgusted when he went to hear Billy Graham preaching! As Barth puts it in Church Dogmatics IV/3, p. 230: "How could the Word ... be a Word which contains both Yes and No and is therefore self-contradictory? How could it speak, like so much poor preaching, half of grace and half of judgment, half of life and half of death, half of the love of God and half of the power of the devil?"

It's not a question here of whether hell or judgment or death "exist", but only whether they can be preached -- or as Barth sometimes puts it, whether they can be "believed in".

At 9/30/2007 5:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Judy Redman said: This is a very clear teaching about hell, I think. Does that help? :-)

I don't think it is at all! Starting in Luke 15 you have one parable with 5 parts ending in Luke 16.

Taking the time to put this one parable together (5 parts) it would seem that this was a "parable" about the state of the those whom He was addressing.

At 9/30/2007 10:37 AM, Anonymous dan said...

I was also surprised by Judy's reading of Lk 16.

Keeping the issues of context and genre in mind, I would suggest that Lk 16 is not to clear on hell (if it is even about hell), but is rather a very clear teaching about wealth, poverty, and the love of neighbour.

Of course, it is easier for Christians to make Lk 16 about hell, since we are sure that we are going to heaven, and since we rather enjoy being rich (which, of course, has nothing to do with whether or not we go to heaven -- and which, perhaps, is why many others prefer not to use this story when it shows up in the lectionary).

At 9/30/2007 1:48 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Anon,
I didn't mean to equate absolutely “hell” with “the coming judgment” (more on that below), but it seems that judgment was a theme in NT preaching. It wasn’t simply “turn to the grace of God”, but also a warning that “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him”.
The Acts 24:25 citation also states that the judgment to come was part of Paul’s apostolic proclamation, and whatever one makes of the accuracy of Luke's portrayal of Paul's sermons, it does not seem too much at odds, here at least, with what one finds in the small snippets explaining Paul's missionary preaching in Paul's letters (e.g. 1 Thess 1:10).

Hi Volker!! (Rabens? How are things?!)
These are good questions!
Yes, this “us” is an open invitation for all people. However, this doesn’t mean Barth denies the importance of accepting that invitation. He goes on to deny universalism in a following question.

Hi Judy,
As a rule, I entirely agree with what you say in the second paragraph. It was the statement in Acts 24:25 that gave me pause. I thought what anon and Dan had to say below about Luke 15 and 16 was rather helpful. As to the ‘evangelical’ thing, I meant ‘Evangelical’, but I am loath to type it with a capital ‘E’, as like you, I am uncomfortable with such a capitalised title. I like to speak of myself as ‘evangelical’ even though I mean something corresponding to ‘Evangelical’. If you get me?!

Hi Ben,
Nice to have a Barth expert help us through these issues - your qualifications are welcome (and I loved the citation from CD IV). I was hoping that it was clear from the quote that Barth is not speaking about the existence of hell (which he here affirms at some level if he speaks of Christ defeating hell and suffering hell in our place), but that he was responding to his own rhetorical question stated in the first sentence.
The question here, as you put it, is whether hell can be preached. This is the significance of Acts 24:25, for here, Paul seems to include the coming judgment in his evangelistic message. Whether ‘the coming judgment’ is the same thing as hell was not too important for me as the point is much the same: there is a warning in the message, perhaps one could say a ‘no’.
I think the only way to avoid the potentially subversive consequence of Acts 24:25 for Barth’s statement here, at an exegetical level, is to employ the sort of reasoning pursued by Andrew Perriman in The Coming of the Son of Man, in which he locates almost all such language on the historical horizon of Paul or Jesus. This means that such language is not about a post-mortem judgment at all – and hence not approximate to ‘hell’. But his view would represent a minority opinion.

At 9/30/2007 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Should the teaching about hell be a part of the proclamation of the gospel? No, no, no!"

It looks like someone forgot to tell Jesus.

Mat 4:23 And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom ...

Mat 5:22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother*will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,*' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Mat 10:28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Mat 18:9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

Mat 23:15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Mat 23:33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?


At 9/30/2007 7:40 PM, Anonymous ntWrong said...

Re Luke 16: I think we can concede Dan's point, that the polemical thrust of the text is about sharing one's wealth and (conversely) God's regard for the poor. But the question of whether the text is merely a parable or a description of eschatological realities is much contested.

Are we to assume that Jesus was completely ignorant about eschatological realities? Alternatively, shall we say that he accomodated his message to the ignorant superstitions of his hearers? Those are both legitimate possibilities, it seems to me, but they must be argued, not assumed.

I am an annihilationist, so I don't believe in hell as a place of eternal torment. Nor do I take the references to fire or worms or the gnashing of teeth literally. But that Luke 16 is a metaphorical description of Hades — vs. 23; not hell — a temporary place of suffering prior to annihilation?

I find that interpretation entirely reasonable. And in the context of Chris's discussion of Barth, that is sufficient justification for Judy's comment.

At 10/01/2007 12:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon John - Jesus never used the word "hell".

aka Q - annihilationist? How sad a thought.

At 10/01/2007 1:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Anon John - Jesus never used the word "hell".

Jesus' name, wasn't Jesus, either.

At 10/01/2007 4:40 AM, Anonymous David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for this quote. I'll add this post to the index of universalism posts.

I am rather concerned, though, by the way you've identified talk about judgment with talk about hell. This is the problem that Barth takes head-on in his doctrine of God and doctrine of reconciliation. Mercy and judgment are not opposed to each other, just as judgment and reconciliation are not opposed to each other. As Jüngel wrote, following Barth, the last judgment is an act of grace. Judgment is salvific, not condemnatory.

There is an important hermeneutical lesson here: we cannot "get behind" the doctrine of Christ's work and read the NT without these dogmas in place. When Barth says that hell cannot be part of our proclamation of the gospel (even though Jesus seemingly spoke of hell), he means that we cannot get behind what Christ accomplished and appeal to proof texts from the Bible. The threat of judgment has to be interpreted in the light of Christ's death, which has rendered such threats, as Barth put it in CD II/2, "impotent."

At 10/01/2007 9:21 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi DW,
"I am rather concerned, though, by the way you've identified talk about judgment with talk about hell."
Thanks for your comment - your insight is always welcome here. In my defence, my point wasn't to identify absolutely the "coming judgment" with "hell". Certainly Paul had little to say about "hell" in a later dogmatic sense of the word. But Paul appears to have felt free to speak of the judgment to come in his evangelism, at least as Luke summarises it. This itself puts a question mark next to Barth's reasoning, I think. It wasn't: "you've been accepted in Christ, believe", but "believe, and be accepted". This is I think the most straight forward reading of Paul (cf. 1 Thess 1:10). Romans 10:10 "For one believes with the heart and so is justified". Was the warning there in NT preaching, that if one doesn't believe then there will be a coming judgment? I think so. For example, the Gospel of John has "whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him". Was this message only for Christians or also for mission? I suspect it was used for both - similar to much Jewish rhetoric of the time.

At 10/03/2007 4:45 AM, Anonymous Judy Redman said...

I thought I'd posted a response the other day, but perhaps I only 'previewed' it? My previous comment was written in a hurry as I rushed out to church to deliver the children's address, so not as well considered as it might have been.

I wasn't trying to suggest that the point of Luke 16: 19-31 is that hell exists and is not nice. It does, however, suggest pretty clearly, I think, that not-nice things happen to people who think that their wealth precludes them from having to follow Jesus' teaching about loving your neighbour. And that Hades/Sheol (or Hell in less-than-careful modern parlance) is a long way from God as well as being not nice.

And Chris, yes, I think I get what you mean about Evangelical/evangelical. Usually, however, I don't mean Evangelical, but I get cross that people assume that this means I don't think that talking about the gospel is important.

At 10/03/2007 5:16 AM, Anonymous dan said...


So, let me continue to press you on this issue. I'll accept that, all along, you were thinking that Lk 16 clearly suggests that "not-nice things happen to people who think that their wealth precludes them from having to follow Jesus' teaching about loving your neighbour."

However, I fail to see why you then needed to skip this section of the lectionary.

It seems to me that it would be fairly easy for you to (to quote you previous comment) "help five and six year olds understand this" as "good news." Of course, dealing with the parents of the five and six year olds (or with our own personal wealth) is another story altogether!

At 10/03/2007 11:56 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

"Can hell or judgment or even death (in its own way) be preached? Hell yes".

That made me smile.

As for point 10, I think the logic of Barth's soteriology and Christology leads to universalist conclusions, but Barth himself avoids this strictly logical conclusion.

All the best to you, Jason, and thanks for your comment.

At 10/04/2007 12:27 AM, Anonymous Mike Aubrey said...

How in the world can you all have this insignificant discussion when there are things as important as Karl Barth dancing like MC Hammer going on?!?!?!

I really don't understand...

At 10/04/2007 6:18 AM, Anonymous Judy Redman said...


One of the expectations of the children's address in our congregation (where I am not the minister, incidentally) is that it will be short. The children get to come out the front and sit on the front pew where they are in full view of the rest of the congregation, and it is also expected that they will either speak into the hand-held microphone or have their comments repeated by the person doing the address. I don't see this as an opportunity for doing anything other than moralising and/or doing the "be good or God will get you in the end" kind of presentation of something such as the Luke 16 passage. That, and five and six year olds are very concrete thinkers and I'm not sure that this passage lends itself well to concrete thinking.

I'd be prepared to have a go at it with more time and in a less public setting, so that we could explore together what it was saying and what it might mean in terms of their behaviour and that of their parents and other loved ones. I really wouldn't like to have some small child having nighmares because the lady in church said that people who don't help the poor will go to hell and be burned when a recently deceased and much loved grandparent had said that s/he was sick of the blinking Red Cross doorknockers disturbing her/him on Sunday mornings and they didn't deserve to be given anything. In a different context I could check family backgrounds of giving before launching into my spiel. :-)

At 10/04/2007 3:06 PM, Anonymous Jason Pratt said...

{{How in the world can you all have this insignificant discussion when there are things as important as Karl Barth dancing like MC Hammer going on?!?!?!}}

This is admittedly true... {g} And freaky. Superfreaky. I think my mind was incapable of retaining it for any length of time, and so I just blanked it from my memory in order to protect myself.

Thanks for reminding me!! AAAHHHHH!!!!!

"This must be what going insane feels like..." Doc Simon staring at a statue of Jayne on an episode of Firefly "No... this must be what going insane feels like..." Simon on hearing a peppy folk ballad being sung in a bar about Jayne, a few minutes later, same ep.

Personally, I would like to request a Crusader doing the MCHammer dance next. (The Crusader painting is quite aweome in itself, but just imagine...)

At 10/04/2007 11:23 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Nothing wrong with a bit of bloody crusading. Seperate the men from the boys, the heathen from the wanting to live.


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