I was going to write a new post on a doctrine of sin, and I still might later tonight. But I came across this one that I wrote in March 2020. I thought I would reshare it because I think it is still applicable and good. We now know the panic over Covid (which I knew back then) has been overwrought. But no matter, the fear of death clearly remains the fear that shapes the way a non-believing society takes formation.
Mark Lindsay offers a wonderful treatment of evil or das Nichtige or ‘nothingness’ in the theology of Karl Barth. I want to catch up with him in the midst of that treatment, and read along with him as he describes an implication of Barth’s thinking on evil and sin in the world. But I want to do this in a particular context, with the hopes of drawing out a certain application with reference to the current unparalleled and seismic upheaval we are currently seeing unfold before us in the COVID19 Panic. Let’s catch up with Lindsay, read along with him for a moment, and then attempt to distill and apply Barth’s doctrine of nothingness and evil in the world to our current catastrophe.
The second corollary is that, as the enemy of divine grace, Nothingness is primarily an assault upon God, with humanity as only the secondary target. Again, this is in contrast to Schleiermacher’s doctrine, according to which the sovereignty of God elevates Him above all violations. For Barth, however, the conflict with Nothingness is primarily and properly God’s own affair. Nothingness is the assault of the nonwilled reality against the elected creation. As such, it represents an attack not only upon God’s created covenantal partner but also and primarily upon God’s decision to elect and, therefore, on God Himself. In CD II/2, Barth makes clear that, in pre-temporal eternity, God is an electing God. “[I]n the act of love which determines His whole being God elects.” Moreover, the act of election “is not one moment with others in the prophetic and apostolic testimony”, but, enclosed “within the testimony of God to Himself, it is the moment which is the substance and basis of all other moments in that testimony.” This being the case, the violation by Nothingness of the act and decision of election is as such a violation of God. This means that God, in faithfulness to His covenant, must take up the battle against Nothingness. He must be “the Adversary of the adversary”, otherwise He would not be true, either to His covenant partner or to Himself. As Barth puts it,
We have not to forget the covenant, mercy and faithfulness of God, nor should we overlook the fact that God did not will to be God for His own sake alone, but that as the Creator He also became the covenant Partner of His creature, entering into a relationship with it in which He wills to be directly and [primarily] involved in all that concerns it…[This] means that whatever concerns and affects the creature concerns and affects Himself, not indirectly but directly, not subsequently and incidentally but primarily and supremely. Why is this so? Because, having created the creature, He has pledged His faithfulness to it. The threat of nothingness to the creature’s salvation is primarily and supremely an assault upon His own majesty.
Barth is not thereby implying that God Himself is essentially threatened and corrupted by Nothingness, as humanity is. The counterpart of humanity’s vulnerability to the power of das Nichtige, which we have already seen, is that we must not overestimate its power in relation to God. Indeed, if its power should be rated “as high as possible in relation to ourselves”, it must be rated “as low as possible in relation to God.” Nevertheless, God is not unmoved by radical evil. On behalf of His creation – which, in its encounter with Nothingness can only show itself to be the impotent victim of suffering – God opposes, confronts and victoriously crushes His graceless adversary. As may be expected from such a consistently Christocentric theologian, the locus of this triumph over evil is the incarnation or, more specifically, the cross and resurrection of Christ.
At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.
By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.
There are complexities—like Barth’s doctrine of election—that we will not have time to unpack here. But hopefully, you, the readers are able to at least see how asymmetrical this warfare is between God’s holiness in Christ for us, and His [last] enemy, which is: death (or nothingness or das Nichtige). The bottom line is this: for Barth, according to Lindsay, evil operates in a sort of Athanasian key. It is a non-reality reality that parasitically seeks to dissolve the very Good of God’s triune Life into nothingness. Because, for Barth, God has freely elected to not be God without us, but with us [Immanuel], when the non-graced side of contingent reality (or nothingness, or evil), along with its nothingness minions, like the satan or the demons represent (the principalities and powers in Paul’s Colossae theology), attempt to ‘kill, still, and destroy’ God’s creaturely reality (namely: us / humanity), this attack is an attack on the very Who of who God is. Barth is careful to retain the Creator/creature distinction in this framework, just as he has, as George Hunsinger identifies it, a ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ shaping his theology; but it is highly significant, in Barthian theology, to realize that God humbled Himself for us, in keeping with His Who character, that He might exalt humanity unto Himself in the resurrected and recreated humanity He assumed for us in the incarnation. This is significant, for Barth, just because, as we have been considering, in God’s Freedom, once again, for God to be God in His new creation, it means that He will not do that without us; this is God’s Grace, and represents the Divine No, and ultimate dissolution of what already is nothing in God’s Kingdom: evil and death. It is because God has so identified Himself with us in Christ, that we, the creatures are assured of being on the Yes side of God’s indestructible eternally triune Life.
How might the above consideration apply to the current panic, and unprecedented global upheaval we are currently seeing unfold before our eyes as the ostensible result of COVID19? Clearly, there has been upheaval, chaos, and conflagration the world over throughout the annuls of world history. Wars and rumors of wars; famines and destitution; pandemics, plagues, and paranoia have swept through the landscape like a scorched earth since the Great Lapse of Adam and Eve ‘in the beginning.’ What has sustained humanity through all of these tumultuous seasons of waning and wallowing?
The answer to this, should be clear by now: it is God’s Yes, and His decisive No in His Yes, to the das Nichtige that seeks to kill and destroy all that is good and holy in the world; all that has been taken up into God’s humanity for us in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8.18ff). It is this eternal reality, the ‘Lamb slain before the foundations of the world,’ that sustains this seemingly fluttering and futile earth-system. The Life in this world is not contingent upon this world, but the One who sustains it moment-by-moment through the Word of His power; who is the risen Christ! This is the victorious reality that cedes the nothingness that would desire to assume the life of God as its own; on its own non-terms, and anti-Christ ways.
When I look out at the chaos, fear, pain, and suffering this teetering world is currently experiencing; when I am tempted to fling myself into the nothingness and das Nichtige that seeks to dissolve God’s life, and make it its own; I fall back, moment-by-moment, into the reality that nothingness stands no chance against the everythingess of God’s triune and eternal Life. This is the hope that the Christian has in this world. And no matter what the exterior circumstances nothingness seeks to throw at us, as Christians, even in our own angst and experience of this nothingness, we of all people can bear witness to the fact that we know that we and all humanity can participate in the extra life of God for us in Jesus Christ. We can bear witness, even when ‘we have the sentence of death written upon us,’ to the reality that ‘we know the One who raises the dead.’ Isn’t this what the world is fearful of, and panicking over? Isn’t it ultimately fearful of having its current experience of life and satisfaction snuffed out? We can bear witness to the world, no matter how deep the terror of nothingness might seem, that there is a something reality that has penetrated nothingness and turned it on its head. We can give the world Hope, as they see that operative in our lives; as they see the Holy Spirit bearing witness that God is love, and that He has demonstrated that by taking nothingness to the cross of Christ and resurrecting a new day for all who will. Soli Deo Gloria
 Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52. Also see Lindsay’s Pdf of his whole chapter where this long quote is taken from entitled: Nothingness Revisited: Karl Barth’s Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust. In the book version that I’ve been reading Lindsay has the pertinent sections from Barth’s CD bracketed throughout for the reader’s reference. In the essay form he has all of the CD references footnoted; the reader will want to refer to his essay which I have linked here if they want to follow up further in Barth’s Church Dogmatics.