The Imminent Return of Jesus Christ in Barth’s Theology. Where’s Jesus?

Even as a little kid, Baptist Fundamentalist that I was, I believed in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. I remember one summer day, in the Pacific Northwest, as a seven year old I was laying out in a field of grass hay that had yet to be cut. I was looking up into the sky with its white cumulous clouds made ever so much more vibrant by the bright blue background of the sky with the sun
resurrectionjesusrays ever so ubiquitously breaking through and hitting me on the face. As I lay there I thought to myself “this would be a perfect day for Jesus to come back.” I pondered that reality for awhile that day, and I haven’t quit pondering since.

As I stated, as a kid, I grew up Conservative Baptist, as such the attendant theology with that was of the typical North American variety: I was a Pre-Tribulational, Pre-millennial, Dispensational Christian (some folks only know of this “type” of “theology” through LaHaye’s  and Jenkins’ best selling series Left Behind). A central pillar of that hermeneutic is the belief that Jesus could come again ‘at any moment,’ as such adherents to this perspective read current events and socio-cultural and geopolitical movements through the lens of Jesus’s “any-moment” return; believing that the worse things get, particularly in the Middle-East and Israel, the more likely Christ’s return is upon us.

Without getting further into that stream of thought I will simply say that I have since repudiated the dispensational hermeneutic that gives rise to the pre-mil/pre-trib-rapture theology embedded in it. What I haven’t given up is the biblical and orthodox belief that Jesus is indeed coming again; the belief that his return is imminent and upon us. Karl Barth had this belief, in his own way, informed by his own theory of history and revelation; it is rather apocalyptical and actualist. But even without getting into that too deeply, I simply want to share the way Robert Dale Dawson describes Barth’s ‘imminent return of Christ theology.’ Dawson writes:

The Imminent Return of Christ

With the perspective gained by this insight we are able to see more clearly why the unshakable and persistent hope of the New Testament community was for the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. If Jesus Christ was the resurrection and the life, if he was the King who is the fullness of the kingdom, how could the kingdom be anything but close at hand? As Eberhard Busch has it: ‘In joyful hope, we may expect in the future the One who has come already. Thus, or waiting upon him – impatient and at the same time patient – is “expectation of what is near”.’ Claims Barth, ‘If this is the One whom we expect, we cannot expect Him the day after tomorrow, but to-morrow.’ We must not grow weary in hope as did some according to 2 Peter. Having forgotten the promise of the yesterday and today of the Lord, they grew suspect of an imminent expectation of tomorrow. We must rather eagerly await the summing up of all things in his return:

Like the apostles and prophets, like Christians themselves, the angels wait for the consummation of the process inaugurated by the resurrection – a consummation which according to I Pet. 4:7 will also be ‘the end of all things.’ The word used to denote the ‘looking into’ of the angels (parakufai) is the same as that which in Jn. 20:5 is used of Peter when he looks into the empty tomb.

Hence Barth’s eschatology takes shape as a further development of his threefold depiction of the perfect time of Jesus Christ. He is really past, present and future, but now in a way more specific to the perspective of the church – He is past in his Easter time, present in the time of his Spirit and future in the time of his consummate parousia.

According to Barth, once we recognize that the event of Easter and that of the parousia are different moments of one and the same act, we will see that the supposition that ‘there was unforeseen delay in the parousia, or that hope in the parousia was repeatedly deferred, or that the primitive Church … [was] disillusioned or mistaken on the subject in consequence of an exaggerated enthusiasm’ is baseless and ‘condemned from the very outset.’ The New Testament has no need for recourse to such a ‘thoroughgoing eschatology.’

But what then shall we say of our present experience of the kingdom of God? According to Barth:

The kingdom of God is real but not operative. It has come, but not come. It has still to be prayed for. It is present in reality, but not in revelation. To the extent that the New Testament contains good news, but not yet Easter news, the prophetic history of the Old Testament is continued in the New.

The Gospels, says Barth, look not only to the past revelation of Jesus but also to his future revelation. According to Barth, the goal of Jesus was not the saving event of his death alone, but also ‘the subsequent revelation of the meaning of His death, and therefore, the putting into effect of the salvation won in Him for men, for the community, for the whole world.’ We must not see the death of Jesus as an end in itself, but rather as the securing of his kingdom which is yet to be made visible in glory. Busch aptly explains that for Barth the ‘Kingdom of God’ might be called the ‘revolution of God’ for it introduces something entirely new vis-à-vis the given world, ‘something that inaugurates its total renewal.’ For Barth, the New Testament community of believers exists in the movement from commencement to conclusion. That is, ‘it has the completion of inaugurated with the resurrection of Jesus as a driving force behind it and the consummation in His parousia as a drawing force before it.’[1]

What we see in Barth, according to Dawson, is a theology of the Return of Christ shot through with the ‘now/not-yet’ conception of the Kingdom of God in Christ. What we get though in particular with Barth is an emphasis upon the continuity of the coming and resurrection of Christ; such that Easter resurrection is corollary and one-for-one in actuality with what will happen when Jesus comes again. In other words, it is the same primal event—Incarnation, Easter, and Parousia—but with different aspects and thus realized consequences for those living within the event of God’s life in Jesus Christ.

A Personal Turn

Because I like to read theology for spiritual and discipleship reasons, primarily, let me opine a minute on the way this theology of the imminent return of Christ impacts me; particularly in the way that Barth understands it. The same point, although much more raw when I first started contemplating it, that Barth holds to in regard to the continuity between Christ’s “comings” and “resurrections” is a conclusion that was impressed upon me back twenty-one years ago or so. I went through a horrific season (over a span of years) of anxiety, depression, doubt, and spiritual warfare; of the type that I can only now describe as “apocalyptic.” I would have such deep doubt about God’s existence that reality itself seemed to be slipping from me; this would, of course, throw me into deep anxiety and depression—unbearably so. But over and over again, as I walked through this season of dark nights, Jesus always showed up, he always broke through the dower-ness of my heavy and besmirched soul and brought times of refreshment; he would give me a peace that was indescribable. What I came to realize was that this same resurrected Jesus who was breaking into my life personally was the same Jesus who resurrected from the grave, and the same Jesus who would someday break into this world and bring times of refreshment unending.

I see this type of correlation between Easter hope and Second Advent reality in Barth’s theology. I think Dawson has done a good job describing something that sounds technical, but in all reality is very personally oriented in regard to the implications of what Barth is rightly developing in his theology. Maranatha.

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 80-1.

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One Response to The Imminent Return of Jesus Christ in Barth’s Theology. Where’s Jesus?

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