Thursday, April 07, 2011

Karl Barth on God's Judgement

In one of the online classes that I instruct the students are evaluated on their correct memorization of the Apostles Creed, and it so happens that someone lost a mark for forgetting the line "He descended into hell." To my chagrin, however, the student pointed out that the line did not appear in the course binder's copy of the Creed! So the mark was given back and we have corrected the situation. But it struck me: What is lost if we forget "He descended into hell"?

I don't know if I can answer that at the moment. However, before I get to the rest of my series I want to pause on two excerpts from Karl Barth that speak well to the kind of thinking I've had in the back of my mind lately. Tomorrow I'll post Barth's response to the question of universalism from the final volume of his Church Dogmatics. But first consider his account the judgement of God in his section on justification. Hopefully these excerpts speak for themselves, but let me know if any questions arise from reading them out of context.
[Christ] has therefore suffered for all men what they had to suffer: their end as evil-doers; their overthrow as the enemies of God; their extirpation in virtue of the superiority of the divine right over their wrong. They had to suffer this, but they could not suffer it, not one of them.

[And] even if it had been, or were to be, laid upon one of them really to taste and experience in his suffering and death the judgment of God on himself and his wrong, how could he experience it for others, for all others? And even if it were laid on all men really to taste and experience the judgment of God, even if they were willing and able to do so, how could they who have given offence, suffering merely what they have deserved, banish the offence from the world by their death, even their eternal death? For the offence would still be there. It would not be as though it had never happened. It would not be made good. As something which had been it would remain as an unerased blot on the world of God's creation, an element in its history.

And even if by their suffering of the divine judgment they were able to erase the blot, even if their suffering and death were costly enough for that, would not the will of God for elect and created man be given the lie by their destruction? To satisfy His righteousness they would have to perish genuinely and finally, to fall from His hand. But then God would not be the God who has sworn to be faithful to them. Or He for His part would not have kept His oath and covenant with them.

(Incidentally, this may explain why Barth would not have been an annihilationist. Not because of some abstracted Platonic belief on the irreversible immortality of the soul but because God made this covenant to be with people, and their total perishing would be his reneging on that covenant. God would be totally free and in His rights to wipe humanity out, but God has freely bound Himself to them, and therein lies our hope and our warning.)

Barth goes on to say that what we must suffer can be suffered for us only by God Himself as a human being, 'if it is to be suffered in accordance with the righteousness of God' and to 'the erasure of that blot from the world of God's creation':
And Jesus Christ was ready and gave Himself up to suffer and perish and die in that way—in accordance with the perfect righteousness of God. God judged the world in Him — and judged it in righteousness — by delivering Himself up in Him to be judged. To suffer validly and effectively for us His own judgment upon us, He condescended to us, He humbled Himself so profoundly, He was willing to be so lowly, and in our flesh the eternal Son, the man Jesus of Nazareth, rendered the obedience of humility to the eternal Father, thus fully satisfying the righteousness of God on its negative side, the side of wrath.

God identified Himself with man in Jesus Christ. In the person of this one man He set a term, an end, He was Himself the end which must come upon us all. And because of that our wrong has in fact become a thing of the past. It is no longer there. It is extinguished. It is present only as something which has been eternally removed and destroyed. And we men as the doers of it, as those who willingly identified ourselves with it, are dead and buried. We, too, are in fact a thing of the past. We are present only to the extent that our existence as such has this past. In Him our sin and we ourselves have perished....
Barth explains that this was not merely a matter of Jesus being the object of the Father's wrath. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is also the acting subject, the Judge, in this event.
He was lowly where we are proud. He condescended to us where we arrogantly try to rise up. He the Lord became a servant. He the Judge became the judged. He accepted what was laid upon Him by the Father. He let the will of the Father be His will. He drank the bitter cup instead of putting it from Him. He suffered the shame of the cross. And all this in freedom, in free obedience, in the obedience of humility....

He has not merely suffered for us, but suffering for us He has done the right for us, and therefore suffered effectively and redemptively for us. Judged in Him we cannot be to-morrow the proud men we were yesterday. Those men are no longer there, for yesterday we were delivered up to the divine judgment. As those who are freed from our past in Him, we no longer have the freedom (the false freedom) to return to our old pride.

Between us and our past there stands positively and divisively the act of right which is His death.... On the other side, the justification of man in Jesus Christ is the establishment of his right, the introduction of the life of a new man who is righteous before God.

(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 532-534, emphases and paragraph breaks added for clarity)
I take from this an important clarification. If (if!) one were to hold a reasonable hope for universal salvation it would not be to the detriment of the justice of God or the diminishment of the biblical view of God as an active Judge. Why? Because the reason for the hope would be that God's judgement has been carried out quite actively already. This not only according to the Father's will but also the Son's, thus not only carried out from the divine side but also already on ours.

Now, hopefully we all know -- and hopefully we all believe -- the line of the creed that follows "He descended into hell."

1 comment:

steveharris.org said...

It's also chagrin-worthy because it's a quite late addition to the Creed. =) But an important one!