Karl Barth on Hell

Reflecting on the Apostle’s Creed in Dogmatics in Outline, Reformed theologian Karl Barth offers the most incisive teaching I’ve heard on hell when he comes to the line “He [Christ] descended into hell.” Pay attention to his dialectical theology, marked by his “on one hand” versus “on the other hand” reasoning. He doesn’t miss a beat, reckoning with human sin and divine righteousness.  The emphasis is always on the right place: the Cross.

Barth’s account of hell is successful because it avoids the pitfall that C. S. Lewis warned against in Surprised By Joy:

While it is true to say that God’s own nature is the real sanction of His commands, yet to understand this must, in the end, lead us to the conclusion that union with that Nature is bliss and separation from it horror. Thus Heaven and Hell come in. But it may well be that to think much of either except in this context of thought, to hypostatize them as if they had a substantial meaning apart from the presence or absence of God, corrupts the doctrine of both and corrupts us while we so think of them.

Barth writes:

In the Old and New Testaments the picture of hell is somewhat different from what developed out of it later on. Hell, the place of the inferi, Hades in the Old Testament sense, is certainly the place of torment, the place of complete separateness, where man continues to exist only as a non-being, as a shadow. The Israelites thought of this place as a place where men continue to hover around like flitting shadows. And the bad thing about this being in hell in the Old Testament sense is that the dead can no longer praise God, they can no longer see His face, they can no longer take part in the Sabbath services of Israel. It is a state of exclusion from God, and that makes death so fearful, makes hell what it is. That man is separated from God means being in the place of torment. ‘Wailing and gnashing of teeth’ – our imagination is not adequate to this reality, this existence without God. The atheist is not aware of what Godlessness is. Godlessness is existence in hell. What else but this is left as the result of sin? Has not man separated himself from God by his own act? ‘Descended into hell’ is merely confirmation of it, God’s judgment is righteous – that is, gives man what he wanted. God would not be God, the Creator would not be the Creator, the creature would not be the creature, and man would not be man, if this verdict and its execution could be stayed.


But now the Confession tells us that the execution of this verdict is carried out by God in this way, that He, God Himself, in Jesus Christ His Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God’s judgment is executed, God’s law takes its course, but in such a way that what man had to suffer is suffered by this One, who as God’s Son stands for all others. Such is the lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands for us before God, by taking upon Himself what belongs to us. In Him God makes Himself liable, at the point at which we are accursed and guilty and lost. He it is in His Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us. And in this way He makes an end of the curse. It is not God’s will that man should perish; it is not God’s will that man should pay what he was bound to pay; in other words, God extirpates the sin. And God does this, not in spite of His righteousness, but it is God’s very righteousness that He, the holy One, steps in for us the unholy, that He wills to save and does save us. Righteousness in the Old Testament sense is not the righteousness of the judge who makes the debtor pay, but the action of a judge who in the accused recognizes the wretch he wishes to help by putting him to rights. That is what righteousness means. Righteousness means setting right. And that is what God does. Of course without the punishment being borne and the whole distress breaking out, but through His putting Himself in the place of the guilty one. He who may and can do this is justified in the fact that He takes over the role of His creature. God’s mercy and God’s righteousness are not at variance with each other.

‘His Son is not too dear to Him,
He gives Him up; for He
From fire eternal by His blood
Would rescue me.’

That is the mystery of Good Friday.

But actually we are looking away beyond Good Friday, when we say that God comes in our place and takes our punishment upon Himself. Thereby He actually takes it away from us. All pain, all temptation, as well as our dying, is just the shadow of the judgment which God has already executed in our favour. That which in truth was bound to affect us and ought to have affected us, has actually been turned aside from us already in Christ’s death. That is attested by Christ’s saying on the Cross, ‘It is finished!’ So then in view of Christ’s Cross we are invited on one hand to realise the magnitude and weight of our sin except in the light of Christ’s Cross. For he alone understands what sin is, who knows that his sin is forgiven him. And on the other hand we may realise that the price is paid on our behalf, so that we are acquitted of sin and its consequences. We are no longer addressed and regarded by God as sinners, who must pass under judgment for their guilt. We have nothing more to pay. We are acquitted gratis, sola gratia, by God’s own entering in for us (pp. 118-120).

3 Replies to “Karl Barth on Hell”

  1. Great post. Thanks for tracking all the relevant C. S. Lewis and Barth quotes. This is great stuff.

    Here’s a helpful passage from God Here and Now, in case anyone suggests that Barth was a universalist. Let’s let him speak for himself:

    God’s free grace. Because it is free, it has the power to do its work even among us miserable sinners, to set its word even in our foolish and wicked hearts, and even on our filthy lips. David the adulterer and murderer was no hindrance to it, nor was Peter the denier, nor Saul the persecutor. Even the Church, which one might sometimes have reason to think of as the darkest of all dark places, even the Church is no hindrance to God’s grace. We may trust it as being more powerful than us Christians, than the ocean of nonsense which precisely we Christians commit individually and collectively. Why should we not rely upon it? It is and will prove itself once again to be much more powerful than everything which the children of this world, in their absurdity and disobedience, can set against it. Yet let us not forget that the Lord called them wiser than the children of light. Who knows what sort of “last” ones might turn out to be first again? The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? (“The restoration of all things,” expressing the belief that everyman will finally be saved. Ed.”) No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace (p. 41).

    Barth is inclusivist and not universalist, by his own admission. Having read substantial parts of the Church Dogmatics several times, over a decade now, I can confidently affirm that Barth was not a universalist and never intended to be. But he most certainly was not an exclusivist–at least not the strict kind that makes a false idol out of their own understanding of Christianity. Perhaps one of Barth’s abiding contributions is the way he showed the relativity of all human grasping upon the Truth of the Gospel. Barth’s theology had room for one absolute: Jesus. The rest is relativized (“relativized”…not in the sense of being made unimportant, but in the sense of being recognized as human and not divine).

    Just thought this quote was apt for showing that 1. Barth self-attested to the fact that he was not a universalist. Attributions of universalism to Barth are a sign of never having read him. 2. Barth’s views probably best fit with the inclusivist or relaxed exclusivist postion (taking Jesus as the only way seriously while recognizing that there may be a host of ways God’s Spirit uses to draw people to the only Way, Truth, and Life, the Son of God Himself.)

    1. @Bryce: Thanks for sharing the fantastic passage from God Here and Now. Stay tuned as I continue posting excerpts from Paul Griffiths’ book. Tomorrow there will be a post in which he argues that Barth is an exclusivist but not a restrictivist – a distinction with a difference! George Hunsinger has impressed upon me that Barth will be misunderstood if we forget that his theology is dialectical. On the question of the fate of every person who has ever lived, Griffiths maintains that Barth’s dialectic is between exclusivism, on the one side, and universalism, on the other side. Dialectic (or paradox) doesn’t work for those Christians who want everything neat and tidy, but it’s a tension that I’m willing to live with because it seems to better accord with scripture, reason, and experience.

  2. The distinction within exclusivism is new to me. So you are saying there are two ways to be exclusivist? Restrictive and relaxed? Is that right? How does relaxed exclusivism differ from inclusivism or does it?

    You are right to point out the dialectic in Barth’s thought. Right after the passage I quoted he asks:

    But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? (vacate hell) Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has He not according to 1 John 2:2, been sacrificed for the whole world? Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might some day prove to be empty! But if the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides, something else has to be said: that whoever and wherever he may be man is not only reached and blessed by grace, but in one way or another he is taken by grace into its service. Grace calls us into the decision of faith. Grace allows us no idleness, no neutrality, no standing aside….Grace does not ask for our judgment of ourselves or of others. Grace simply wants to have us: to have us as we are in the Church and as they are in the world, so that we may be its witnesses (God Here and Now, p. 41-42)

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