I just came across a mini-paper written by Richard Bauckham which provides a survey of Christian universalism (the belief that all people will eventually be “saved” through Christ, and hell will be emptied of at least its human occupants). Here is what he wrote of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner under this foci:
Barth and Brunner
Neither Karl Barth nor Emil Brunner was strictly a universalist, but both regarded the final salvation of all mankind as a possibility which cannot be denied (though it cannot be dogmatically asserted either). This is a significant step beyond traditional theology, which always asserted not only that final condemnation is a real possibility but also that some men will actually be lost. It is also a position which has probably had more appeal to conservative Christians (including Roman Catholic theologians) than dogmatic universalism; it allows us to hope for the salvation of all men without presuming to know something which God has not revealed.
Barth refashioned the Reformed doctrine of predestination by making it fully Christological. It is Jesus Christ who is both rejected and elected. The rejection which sinful man deserves, God has taken upon Himself in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ all men are elected to salvation. He is therefore in the true sense the only rejected one. Predestination thus becomes not an equivocal doctrine of God’s Yes and No, but a fully evangelical doctrine of mood’s unqualified Yes to man. The reality of man – of all men – is that in Jesus Christ the reconciliation of all men has taken place. The Gospel brings to men the knowledge of what is already true of them:
that in Jesus Christ they are already elect, justified, reconciled.
It might be thought that this line of thought logically entails universalism, much as Schleiermacher’s doctrine of universal election did, but Barth refuses to follow this logic. There remains an irresolvable tension between the election of all men in Jesus Christ and the phenomenon of unbelief. The unbeliever’s true reality is that he is elect, but he denies that reality and attempts to change it, to be instead the rejected man. In this perverse attempt (it is no more than an attempt) he lives under the threat of final condemnation, which would be God’s acquiescence in its refusal to be the reconciled man he really is.
Will this threat be carried out? Barth does not here appeal to man’s freedom to continue in unbelief: he is committed to the sovereignty of God’s grace. The reason why universal salvation cannot be dogmatically expected lies in God’s Freedom: ‘To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance…. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat end in this sense expect or maintain an apokalastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things…. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift.' But universal salvation remains an open possibility for which we may hope.
That universal salvation must remain an open question is also the conclusion that Brunner reaches by a different route. He stresses that we must take quite seriously the two categories of NT texts: those which speak of a final decisive division of men at the Last Judgment, and those which speak of God’s single unqualified will for the salvation of all men. The two are logically incompatible and are not to be artificially reconciled by attributing to God a dual will (double predestination) or by eliminating the finality of judgment. The texts are logically incompatible because they are not intended to give theoretical information. To the question ‘Is there such a thing as final loss or is there a universal salvation?’ there is no answer, because the Word of God ‘is a Word of challenge, not of doctrine’. It addresses us and involves us. Its truth is not the objective truth available to the neutral observer, but the subjective truth of existential encounter. The message of judgment, then, is not a prediction that some will be lost; it is a challenge to me to come out of perdition to salvation. The message of universal salvation is not a prediction that all men will be saved; it is an invitation to me to make the decision of faith which accepts mood’s will to save me. The Gospel holds the two together in proclamation. Theology may not objectify either. [read full essay here]
And here is what I once concluded at the end of an article I wrote on this topic for the blog in the past:
No matter what, in the end, the conclusion must be that Jesus did teach what some would call the Traditional view of hell as ‘eternal conscious torment’. How one places that, in its ‘universal scope’ is what still needs to be contended with (MacDonald has, I’m still working on it).
My personal conclusion, at the moment, is that Jesus’ teaching on hell should serve as the standard; I see it with ‘universal force’ and thus am not willing, as of yet, to annex it, or particularize it to his specific audience in the 1st century (which would be what MacDonald does, amongst others). I continue to hold to the trad teaching, but I also am willing to hold out that once we are present with the LORD in the consummation that he could surprise us in keeping with his life of grace and love. [You can read the full article here]
As you can see, then, I am somewhat in the Barth, Brunner tradition of a Christian hopeful universalism, but with the strong caveat that I believe that Jesus taught the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment, in regard to hell (or Gehenna, if the culturally prevalent language of hell bothers you); and so I currently believe that people outside of having a personal union with Jesus Christ, at their death, that they are eternally lost.