Karl Barth: We Believe in Eternal Life, not in Eternal Hell


The Apostles' Creed is among the oldest universally accepted symbols of the Christian faith. In Karl Barth's commentary on the Apsotles' Creed, he observes that there is no mention of Satan, Hell or Eternal Death in the Apostles' Creed, there is only mention of Eternal Life. And although this creed mentions Judgement, Barth says, it is not a Judgement until Eternal Hell, but to a restoration of justice.

I've selected two quotations from The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostle's Creed According to Calvin's Catechism that include firstly, Barth's statement that we must not believe in Hell, Satan or Eternal Death, and secondly, Barth's statement that Judgment in the creed does not necessitate Hell, Satan or Eternal Death. These are not objects of faith for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church:

John Calvin

Question 110. Why, then, is there mention only of external life and not of hell?--Since nothing is held by faith except what contributes to the consolation of the souls of the pious. Hence there are here recalled the rewards which the Lord has prepared for his servants. Therefore it is not added what fate may await the impious whom we know to be outcasts from the Kingdom of God. 

Karl Barth

For the third time, it is a question of human life under the aspect of the future that is promised to it by God, under the aspect of its eternity. Our life in the light of eternity is the life everlasting. Justified through the forgiveness of sins, sanctified through the resurrection of the flesh, human life is glorified through the life everlasting. (Cf. Rom 8.) The Holy Spirit communicates to us communion with God not only in justifying us and in sanctifying us, but in glorifying us, that is, in communicating the glory of God to us. Glory means the splendor of God, the glory of God in the life and the revelation of God such as he is. God has but to show himself to make light and to dazzle. (Cf. Question 2.) Do note that, though it is a question of glorification, this does not mean that there is a glory within us that might start to shine, but it means that we shall partake in a glory other than ours, in the glory of God. We shall be, so to speak, draped in his light. We ourselves shall shine because we shall be lighted. God will have his glory in us and that is the goal of his creation: God does not want to remain alone. It is not enough for God to shine by his own power. He wants to shine in others and he chose us to live in us. He wants to be glorious in us and through us. The "veil" of which we spoke will be removed and human life will meet its final destination visibly.

In the sense of the Bible, the term everlasting (αἰώνιος) does not mean "which has no end," but quite simply: "which belongs to the world to come." Eternity is, in the Bible, the time of this new world. Hence it is not defined first by its unlimited characteristic (indeed it is unlimited) but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious Kingdom of God.

According to Calvin, the Creed does not speak of hell and eternal death because its author was nice enough to be willing to speak only of comfort. But Calvin, as if to restore things, reminds us that there is also hell, although the Creed did not mention it. I think that, here too, Calvin must be slightly corrected. It is not only out of kindness, out of good nature, that the Creed does not mention hell and eternal death. But the Creed discusses only the things which are the object of the faith. We do not have to believe in hell and in eternal death. I may only believe in the resurrection and the judgment of Christ, the judge and advocate, who has loved me and defended my cause.

The Creed discusses the things to be believed. To believe. It is important to finish with faith. We believe in the Word of God and it is the word of our salvation. The kingdom, the glory, the resurrection, the life everlasting, each one is a work of rescue. Light pierces through the darkness, eternal life overcomes eternal death. We cannot "believe" in sin, in the devil, in our death sentence. We can only believe in the Christ who has overcome the devil, borne sin and removed eternal death. Devil, sin, and eternal death appear to us only when they are overcome.

And let us not add: "Yes, but sin is a grievous thing" --as though hell and so many horrors were not on earth already! If one does really believe, one cannot say: "But!" this terrible and pitiful "but." I fear that much of the weakness of our Christian witness comes from this fact that we dare not frankly confess the grandeur of God, the victory of Christ, the superiority of the Spirit. Wretched as we are, we always relapse into contemplation of ourselves and of mankind, and, naturally, eternal death comes up no sooner than we have looked on it. The world without redemption becomes again a power and a threatening force, and our message of victory ceases to be believable. But as it is written: "The victory that triumphs over the world, this is our faith (1 John 5:4)

Barth, Karl. Ed. Jean-Louis Leuba. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostle's Creed According to Calvin's Catechism. Trans. Gabriel Vahanian. New York: Meridian, 1963. 171-4. Print.

If anyone were to object, "it may not mention hell, but it does mention judgment", here Karl Barth also responds that Judgment is about restoring what is right, not about punishing those who are in the wrong.

John Calvin

Question 84. Since the day of judgement is not before the end of the world, how do you say that there will be some men still alive, when it is appointed to all men to die? (Heb 9:27). --Paul answers this question when he says that they who survive will pass into a new state by a sudden change, so that, the corruption of the flesh being abolished, they will put on incorruption (1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:17) [...]

Karl Barth

As to the judgement (Question 84), we must consider that the sense of this word is objective. Judgement means: to establish, to setup, to proclaim the lawful right. This entails two consequences: a ruling on men, some of whom will be acquitted, others condemned. But also and first: the establishment of order in the world, the public and irrefutable and victorious proclamation of the truth. In our world and time, the Gospel is proclaimed, death is overcome. But we still live as if all that had not been clarified. Good and evil, justice and injustice, seemingly amount to the same for us. But this false belief shall be refuted definitively. Publicly and irrefutably, the judge shall declare what is just, and everyone shall see it.

This judgment shall be pronounced on the living and the dead, that is, on men of all times. It will not be just any event, one historical event, nor even the last of historical events. It will be the event par excellence, the disclosure of the whole perfect truth accomplished in Christ, the judgement of all men and everyone of their lives. It is interesting to note that Calvin, who was still enough of a lawyer, did not speak of this judgment in strictly juridical terms, but presented the last judgement right off from the much broader angle of the manifestation of the truth.

Barth, Karl. Ed. Jean-Louis Leuba. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostle's Creed According to Calvin's Catechism. Trans. Gabriel Vahanian. New York: Meridian, 1963. 115-7. Print.


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  1. Great post, Wyatt!

    God is all about restorative justice.

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