Barth, Brunner, Bauckham, and Grow on Christian Universalism and Eternal Fire

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 grunewald_crucifixionis 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.'[39] But universal salvation remains an open possibility for which we may hope.[40]

That universal salvation must remain an open question is also the conclusion that Brunner reaches by a different route.[41] 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’.[42] 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.

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21 Responses to Barth, Brunner, Bauckham, and Grow on Christian Universalism and Eternal Fire

  1. Thanks, Bobby. Could you specify where you think Jesus is actively teaching eternal, conscious torment? (I know there are a number of texts. For the discussion between the universalist and the particularist, it would seem to be all about the specific exegesis.)


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Darren,

    I hit upon the text I am referring to here:

    Matthew 25:31ff. I agree, this does come down to specific exegesis. It is hard teaching, but I am persuaded it is what Jesus taught. The linked article gives more of my reasoning (in bloggy form) why I think this is so.

    I know you aren’t a Universalist either, but I would be interested in hearing how you approach this as a Barthian (maybe the way that McCormack develops this in re. to Barth in his edited book with Anderson on Barth and American Evangelicalism?).


  3. Bobby,

    I’d love for you to include Jurgen Moltmann’s thoughts on the subject, especially in comparison with Barth.



  4. It is generally believed that the New Testament clearly teaches the eternal torment of the damned, yet the exegetical foundation for this belief may not nearly be as strong as believed. See especially *Terms for Eternity* by Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan. A brief summary of their research can be found here:


  5. The interesting aspect to this debate is that both Barth and Brunner belong to the Reformed wing of the Church, which has typically been very comfortable with efficacious grace and a doctrine of predestination, whether single or double. If all are elect in Christ, then one would logically expect all to be saved. Yet Barth refuses to draw this inference, appealing in the end to the freedom of God, which I do not understand at all. May God abandon mankind, to which he has fully committed himself in crucifixion and resurrection? May God cease to be love? Is not Barth, at this final moment, falling right back into the dark side of Calvinism from which he sought to rescue the Reformed Church?

    An eternal hell represents the failure of the unconditional love and grace of God. I don’t think there is any way around this. The exegetical case is not nearly as strong as typically believed (in addition to the Ramelli and Konstan book, see Gregory MacDonald’s *The Evangelical Universalist*); yet eternal conscious torment continues to believed with utter confidence. Why is it that we need to believe that God’s project of salvation will ultimately fail? It can’t be because the NT testimony is so decisive and clear. Calvinists believe that Scripture supports their Calvinism. Arminians believe that Scripture supports their Arminianism. Barthians believe that Scripture supports their Barthianism. Catholics and Orthodox believe that Scripture supports their respective theologies. But despite these major disagreements between the Churches on what Scripture teaches, we are certain that Jesus taught an everlasting hell. What is wrong with this picture? It’s easy enough to list the various texts that, if read by themselves, appear to clearly teach universal salvation; yet we insist upon reading them through a hermeneutic of divine reprobation and everlasting torment. Hmmm.


  6. Subscribe (sorry, i keep forgetting to check the notification box).


  7. Matt Frost says:

    To push on Darren’s italics, it’s definitely a live question as to where Jesus is teaching a doctrine of penal afterlife, and where he is simply citing and using an existing doctrine accepted by his audience. (And, further, where the authors of specific texts, Matthew especially, may be teaching an inauthentic one in Jesus’ name because they rely on a longer tradition of its acceptance.)

    I’ve recently come to the point where the connection made between every instance of judgment in scripture (and there are certainly many) and the few instances of speculation about versions of a penal afterlife (there really aren’t as many as it seems, once you differentiate the judgment passages from them) has ceased to be in any way obvious in scripture itself.

    We have good reason to hold to the doctrine of God as righteous judge of all human action and every human life. It is a necessary corollary to the apocalyptic reality that God’s justice and the ways of the world are discontinuous and at odds with one another. God is just; the world is not. And we, who are in the world, are held to the standard of God’s justice. Even Paul accepts that the judgment is real, because the dissonance between these two realities is real—and that the verdict is universally negative. No one is worthy. None escape being judged for their failures. There is no election that spares one the experience of God’s judgment. 1 Peter suggests that it will be so hard on us that he cannot imagine how hard it will be on those outside. The prophets repeatedly demonstrate that God’s judgment of the elect is unceasing and executed in real time. While the Wisdom tradition asserts that in this world, the good routinely don’t get what they deserve, and neither do the wicked, the Pentateuchal law codes all live within narratives where God executes judgment against the sins of the elect constantly.

    Scripture is practically univocal about that part, but it is deeply equivocal about what happens next! And again, it’s hard to realize that until you separate out the classes of stakes involved. Salvation as a matter of life-and-death is neither identical with, nor necessarily connected with, any particular verdict in the afterlife—or any afterlife at all. Our concepts of the heaven-and-hell binary of the afterlife are based more on the medieval period, and our contact with the visions of the afterlife in Islam in the same period, than on anything Semitic that might be contemporary with scriptural composition. Sheol and Gehenna belong to a rich strand of Judean/Semitic speculation in their own rights, and the ascent to the heavens (the abode of deity basically across the board) is ridiculously rare. Hero figures are so elevated. Moses and Elijah, for example. But for the mass of humanity, the hope is in the resurrection of the dead—and this (rather than any harrowing of “hell”) is what 1 Peter speaks of Jesus inaugurating. The dead are dead, and wait. Even the vilest of sinners (those who perished in the flood, as a type) is simply dead as a consequence of judgment. And even the most faithful will still die, and wait. Life and death are the most consistent stakes of judgment, and life is the most frequent result of “salvation” language—even when it is life after death!

    It is in the speculations of those who have enemies even among their own people, in periods of the greatest persecution, that we find the most convincing systems of eschatological judgment, reward, and punishment. But they are they the total and consistent voice of scripture.


  8. Matt Frost says:

    Nor, of course, is a negative judgment for sin in any way necessarily opposed to salvation, even in an eschatological sense. Paul manages quite nicely to hold both. What has to be decoupled to do it is 1) the sense that what we do in the world matters, and 2) the fate of our existence. People complain so routinely that disconnecting (2) from (1) negates (1). Our actions suddenly have “no meaning,” and our ethics no motivation, if they don’t contribute to our salvation or damnation. Which nobody in the wake of the Reformation has any right to say with a straight face!


  9. Matt Frost says:

    Bugger it, typo: “But they are not the total and consistent voice of scripture.”


  10. Bobby Grow says:

    Thanks for the feedback, guys; I will get back to you soon.


  11. Thanks, Matt — lots of stuff to chew on, and you’re right to note the direction I’m heading in with the emphasizing of “teaching.” If the universalist position is right about anything, it’s that there are two threads present in Scripture — the universalist and the particularist, the conviction that all creatures will be reconciled to God (perhaps whether they like it or not) and the conviction that some simply will not be (whether because they were “prepared for judgment” as signs of God’s grace, or because they failed to live up to Jesus’ high ethical standards).

    The challenge for the canonical exegete is to make sense of these scriptures together. We either read the universal through the lens of the particular, or vice versa. And certainly, in the tradition, the particularist reading has dominated.

    There is another theological paradox buried in passages such as Matt. 25, though: Are men and women ultimately saved by God’s grace or by good works? Jesus seems to be suggesting that this eschatological judgment that separates the sheep and the goats is based upon each person’s proper ethical performance (what you have done to “the least of these”). How do we let this text say what it has to say without squeezing it through the prefabricated mold of Lutheran, sola gratia et fide soteriology?

    If in her exegesis the theologian is, indeed, not to conclude that Jesus is teaching salvation by works, then the nature of this and like passages must be reconsidered. And here the universalist will pipe up and suggest that perhaps Jesus is not teaching prophetically what will take place in the last days, but rather issuing an ethical warning: “Even if you think you have been accepted by God, if you do not love the poor then you cannot count on what you think you have by right” (cf. Matt. 3:7-10 — “… out of theses stones God can raise up children of Abraham”).

    The OT analogue would be to Ninevah, not Sodom: through the prophet God issues a warning of judgment in order to bring about a change in these people, not a simple statement of the judgment that will happen regardless of their response.

    [I’ll be back online tomorrow. This thread sparked my interest because I’m prepping to discuss these very issues in class tonight.]


  12. Bobby Grow says:


    I haven’t read much Moltmann, so that won’t work out so well for me :-).

    @Fr Kimel,

    As you know, Barth is dialectical; so I don’t see the tension in his theology on this to be all that remarkable. I know that there are studies on the lexical level in regard to the language of “eternal” etc. available, and have read some of the results of such studies. As usual, though, I don’t think grammar is going to solve this one; all it can really do is provide semantic range.


    Yes, as Darren said, a lot to chew on indeed (as usual).

    You wrote:

    To push on Darren’s italics, it’s definitely a live question as to where Jesus is teaching a doctrine of penal afterlife, and where he is simply citing and using an existing doctrine accepted by his audience. (And, further, where the authors of specific texts, Matthew especially, may be teaching an inauthentic one in Jesus’ name because they rely on a longer tradition of its acceptance.)

    Yes, I understand this point, which is what I note in the article I link to after my personal quote in the body of the post. I don’t accept the text-critical or form-critical judgments–i.e. I take all of the Gospels as authentically canonical, Apostolic, and thus Scriptural–so this point will have less, to no bearing on my final decisions here.

    The rest of your points (and argument) really resonate (in your own Matt Frostian way) with the kind of argumentation that Robin Parry engages in in his book The Evangelical Universalist. And yet, there is evidence in the Second Temple period that there was a prominent (even dominant) rabbinic tradition that hell was eternal conscious torment (or a penal after-life), and that Jesus followed this tradition. Now I agree, that for other theological reasons, we could (as Parry as you do[es]) relativize Jesus’ teaching to his particular and contextual period, and thus argue that Jesus was only imbibing to make a particular point about God’s judgment in general, instead of offering teaching that is universally in force and applicable in the present (like in the perfect tense); and for me this is where the interpretive dissonance comes in. How much weight am I going to give our present theological considerations (hermeneutically) juxtaposed with ‘what it meant’ then and in Jesus’ context. In the end, and currently, I just don’t think I am persuaded that contemporary theologizing ought to overturn a very live tradition that was present for dominical teaching then. So I have concluded as I noted in my post that I am open to the idea that Jesus in the consummation could surprise us (and this based upon current theological reflection about who God is).


    So what you have described in re. to Matt, sounds almost verbatim to me with how McCormack deals with this in Barth’s theology in his edited book Barth and American Evangelicalism. I’ll look forward to hearing more, and maybe fresh insights you might get from feedback and discussion in class.


  13. “As usual, though, I don’t think grammar is going to solve this one; all it can really do is provide semantic range.”

    I agree, but once the semantic range is acknowledged (which it often is not), fresh exegetical alternatives become available for the “Gehenna” texts. If one is committed to the unconditionality of the love of God, as I believe you are, then it seems to me that one will want to bend over backwards to find an alternative to “eternal conscious torment.” If we are going to interpret Jesus as pretty much going along with Jewish views that were contemporary to him, then we probably should go the whole nine yards–namely, eternal retributive punishment; but I don’t know how eternal retributive punishment can be reconciled with unconditional love. And a free will defense of eternal damnation would be historically anachronistic.


  14. Bobby Grow says:

    Fr Kimel,

    I think all I can get to at this point is this:

    God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. ~T. F. Torrance, “The Mediation of Christ”, 94.

    And so I remain hopeful V. dogmatic, and not dogmatically hopeful as Robin Parry is.

    I still have to continue to wrestle with this further, though, Fr. Kimel. I will say that I am much further along than many of my Evangelical brethren and sistren, and so this should be somewhat laudable with you :-).


  15. I agree with Matt, that there are many passages traditionally assumed to refer to eternal conscious punishment, that could easily be otherwise. I have quipped that there was never a Bible character that the Reformed are not delighted to eternally damn. Take Esau, whom “God hated”. Esau also welcomed his brother, with a whole tribe in tow, back home, a sign to me, that he was accepted by God as a brother in the faith, just not a patriarch of the faith.
    So I believe that there are a great many passages which have be interpretively re-assigned. This helps explain the whole calminian bent toward semi-pelagianism.
    Where I can’t go with you, is the idea that Jesus just went along with the contemporary ethos to make a point. No-one can deny that He was revolutionary in His doctrine and revelation, and He was fearless in his presentation. He affirmed the sentence of the woman caught in the act, but He added a stipulation to the law “Let him among YOU who is without sin cast the 1st stone.” I believe He was in the habit of disabusing people of their mis-interpretations, especially those of such dire importance. :O)


  16. Bobby Grow says:


    Go along with who? My point is that Jesus didn’t just go along with the “ethos” to make a point, but that he actually affirmed the point, and in fact universalized it.


  17. Sorry Bobby, I was addressing Matt’s ( or it may have been Fr Kimel, or maybe I imagined it, I can’t find it now [uncomfortable chuckle] ) proposal that maybe Jesus was simply using the extant belief at that time in eternal conscious torment to make another point, without affirming that particular belief.
    Here it was you! 😉 You were relating Perry’s inclusion of the plausibility of Jesus using the current belief of his time to press another point:
    “Now I agree, that for other theological reasons, we could (as Parry as you do[es]) relativize Jesus’ teaching to his particular and contextual period, and thus argue that Jesus was only imbibing to make a particular point about God’s judgment in general, instead of offering teaching that is universally in force and applicable in the present (like in the perfect tense); and for me this is where the interpretive dissonance comes in.”
    It seems from your statement that Perry was not proposing that view, just relating it from others. And I know you aren’t proposing it, I was simply opposing it, in case anybody else here proposed it.
    I think it would be opportunist for Jesus to use such a radical misinterpretation of revelation to everyone’s great fear, if indeed it was a misinterpretation. Like a father telling his son: “If you do that again I’m going to permanently disable you [fill in the blanks]”. It would be like Jesus coming here now and using double predestination in an illustration without disabusing folks of the belief. :O)


  18. Matt Frost says:

    @Darren, to back up the thread a bit, I certainly agree that one of the values of the discussion of universalism is the illustration of the split in mindset within scripture. I specialize in taking that presumed binary and enhancing the resolution so that we see all the cracks, not just what appears to be one big one when viewed from space.

    And, since you pushed the “Lutheran” button, I’ll be glad to push back. I don’t think it’s a paradox at all, much as I’ve seen more than a few wrestlings with this locus classicus of faith vs. works. People are saved by God’s grace, and they are judged for their deeds. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s not a sequential pair; it’s a logical AND. It’s perfectly reversible. And Paul reverses it in Romans. People are judged for their deeds, and they are saved by God’s grace.

    Obviously I won’t make much headway with Bobby using higher-critical arguments about the social locations of Matthew and John as opposed to Mark or Luke. I’ll leave that be. Still, it can be said that Matthew is oriented centrally around the thematic of recognition and acknowledgment of God. The rhetoric of Matthew 25 trades on the existing Judean understanding of the judgment of the nations. And in that connection we have to get that this piece of Matthew, situated after the fifth discourse and the revelation of the fate of Jerusalem, is about the judgment of the elect on the basis of ther actions. It is not enough to be Judean; one must do Judean, and do it correctly. The prior parables all illustrate this. The virgins are Judean. The servants entrusted with the talents are Judean. But at this exact point Jesus breaks form: the sheep and goats are ta ethnē. And, in classical form, the nations are judged for how they have treated God’s people. This is the trope. But Israel/Judea is also judged for how she has treated God’s people. This is the twist. The theological challenge Matthew is issuing is that there are not only Judean goats, but also gentile sheep. And that twist, that remapping of the assumed dividing line across the world, hinges on a recognition that isn’t even conscious, a recognition of God that has nothing to do with culture or piety, but only with concrete actions.

    Of course, our dialogue here (like most on the topic) is totally ignoring the central issue of identity, which both Matthew and Romans are making interventions in. It’s not actually a “faith vs. works” dichotomy at any point. It’s a dichotomy of presumed vs. demonstrated identity. It’s an essence/existence conflict. And here both Matthew and Paul agree with James. We are obliged, all the time, to be in our actions what we really are as people of God. We who do not demonstrate by our actions what we are in fact will be judged negatively, and they who demonstrate by their actions even what they do not know that they are, will be judged positively. The best passage I have to explain how this coheres with the fact that we are nonetheless saved is Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3:

    “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

    This is what I mean about differentiating life-and-death stakes of judgment from eschatological fate. The transition from the audience’s implicit “they’re gonna get it” to the teacher’s “you’re gonna get it” is designed to push the class onward to the next point: the promise of God’s action, on which we rely, that is in fact bigger than we have presumed. Ethics is everyone’s business. And it has real, serious stakes. We’ve always been willing, on the whole, to make those stakes eschatological as long as we have a guarantee for ourselves.


  19. Matt Frost says:

    The proper (Barthian) answer is that our identity is real regardless of our actions. And that it is precisely our identity in Christ, constituted prior to and apart from all of our actions, that enables our ethical work. And our identity is that of the saved, whether or not we demonstrate it, and whether or not we are conscious of it. But faith is important. Faith, in those who are apparently “elect” within elect humanity, is that consciousness of our real situation, and that reliance upon it, that enables moral action based on what is really the case rather than what simply appears to be the case. Faith is that knowledge of and trust in the accomplished and prior fact of our salvation that gives all of our moral strivings a compass that at least works. The apparently “rejected” within elect humanity are a new class of goyim in Barth. They are precisely those who are what we are, and yet go about their moral strivings having pitched a fit, chucked that compass into the lake, and stormed off.


  20. Matt Frost says:

    Bobby, I’m not going to argue that there never was a tradition of penal afterlife—that concept goes back much farther than anything we’re discussing. But it is always embedded in systems, and those systems differ significantly from one another in many cases. While there are genetic relations that can be traced, the system in which we modern Christians are having this discussion bears basically no resemblance to the Hebrew and Judean systems in which Gehenna and Sheol made sense together. Harmonizing tendencies here are as useful as they are anywhere—and as harmful for understanding what is actually going on in any one place.


  21. Bobby Grow says:

    Matt, I will get back.


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