Does Karl Barth believe in an afterlife? Barth answers Nein! Barth says that believing in an afterlife is "pursuing pagan dreams of good times after death" and that the New Testament teaches that time comes to an end on the last day at the "final trump", when "time shall be no more." Karl Barth's argument against afterlife appears at the end of the Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation, Vol. III/2 (CD III/2) and explained well in the following quotation from CD III/2 §47.5. It is a hard word from Karl Barth, and I don't like it.
(I've modified the quotation from the original small print to make it easier to read by breaking it into smaller paragraphs, adding bold to important sentences, and providing the translations of the original Greek words.)
Karl Barth's Argument Against Afterlife
But the question seriously arises whether the New Testament form is really distinguished from that of the Old by the fact that its content and contents are to be understood as new beginnings, developments and continuations of human life in the time after death. For in the crucifixion of Jesus is not the end of time, both for the individual and all time, accomplished? Does not His resurrection usher in the last day, when even the believer in Jesus can only live a life hidden with God in Christ? Do not His coming again in glory and the consequent revelation of this hidden life mark the end of this last day and time, the handing over of the kingdom of the Son to the Father?
Even in the chapter he devoted so expressly to the resurrection of the dead in its connexion with the resurrection of Jesus. Paul can see beyond this end only one further prospect: God being all in all (1 Cor 15:28). lt is clear enough that the end of the last time is a historical and therefore a temporal event. But as the event of creation took place in a present without a past, so this event is that of a present without a future, in which, as in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, there does not follow any further information or promise of further occurrence but only the sounding of the "last trump" (1 Cor 15:52).
In this unique moment of time, when the secret of Calvary will be revealed as indicated in the forty days, there will be raised up in incorruption, glory and power, as this last temporal event, that which was sown in corruption, dishonour and weakness (1 Cor 15:43). At this moment it will be necessary for this corruptible to put on incorruption and this mortal to put on immortality (1 Cor 15:53). But nothing further will follow this happening, for then “there shall be time no longer” (Rev 10:6).
There is no question of the continuation into an indefinite future of a somewhat altered life. The New Testament hope for the other side of death is very different from that. What it looks forward to is the "eternalising" of this ending life. This corruptible and mortal life will be divested of its character as "flesh and blood,” of the veil of corruption (1 Cor 15:50). lt will put on incorruption and immortality. This earthly tabernacle, which is doomed to destruction, will be "clothed upon" with the building prepared by God, with the house in heaven not made with hands. This mortal will be swallowed up in life (2 Cor 5:1f). Our past and limited life, which did not begin before time and does not continue beyond it, our real but only life, will then fully, definitively and manifestly participate in that "newness of life" (Rom 6:4).
It will then be eternal life in God and in fellowship with Him. To be sure, the past life of every man in its limited time has a place in this fellowship with God, the Eternal who was and is and is to come. It can only be a matter, therefore, of this past life in its limited time undergoing a transition and transformation (1 Cor 15:51) and participating in the eternal life of God. This transition and transformation is the unveiling and glorifying of the life which in which in his time man has already had in Christ. It is the resurrection of the dead, which according to the indication given after the resurrection of Jesus is our participation in His future resurrection. This is our hope in the time which we still have.
The Old Testament never said this explicitly, nor could it do so before Christ. It simply refers transitory man to the abiding existence and faithfulness of God. And it does this so emphatically that there can be no doubt as to the positive implication of the reference. But it never makes it openly. It never actually says that transitory man with his temporal life will one day have a share in the eternal life of God. It never says anything about resurrection, about that transition and transformation, about that manifestation of this life of ours in the glory of God.
The New Testament speaks of this as and because it speaks of the saving event whose Subject is the man Jesus. Yet it also confirms what the Old Testament says. For it places transitory man as such, his life in his time, his being with its beginnings and end, in the light of the promise vouchsafed in the death, the resurrection, and second coming of the man Jesus. It [the New Testament] has not abandoned the sober realism of the Old Testament. On the contrary, it has shown how sound it is, and given it its real force. For as it takes the majesty of God not less but more seriously, because concretely, than the Old Testament, so too it takes the littleness of man in his creatureliness and finitude more seriously. It agrees with the Old Testament that this lowly and finite creature, man, in his time is affirmed by the Most High God and that power of this affirmation is the secret of his beginning and end, his true help and deliverance in and from death.
If we wish the New Testament had more to say about this than the Old, it may well be that we are pursuing pagan dreams of a good time after death, and not letting the New Testament say the radically good thing which it has to say with the realism which it has in common with the Old Testament.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.2 The Doctrine of Creation. Trans. G. W. Bromiley, J. W. Edwards, O. Bussey, Harold Knight, J.K.S. Reid, R.H. Fuller, R.J. Ehrlich, A.T. Mackey, T.H.L. Parker, H.A. Kennedy, J. Marks. Vol. 16. London: T & T Clark, 2009. 184-5. Print. Study Edition. [624-5]
A Summary of Karl Barth's Argument Against Afterlife
This CD III/2 quotation may be summarized as follows:
- Afterlife is a dream of Paganism: The hope that after death we will experience good times, where our plates and beer steins are always full is the dream of paganism like the vikings dreaming of dining with the gods in the halls of Valhalla. The Reformers, including John Calvin employed a similar criticism against the Chiliasts.
- Eternal life is not the dead are dead of Atheism: Eternity is not "a gray monotonous sea". We are to hope for eternal life. It is a hope for the new life that is already present, yet hidden in God.
- Human life is finite: There is a beginning time and ending time for each person, and our life is given and allotted between these bookends in history, such that we did not exist before our beginning time and will not exist after our ending time, because we are finite.
- Creation is finite: There was a first moment of Creation in history, for which there was no previous moment, and likewise there will be a final moment, in a twinkling of an eye, for which there will be no subsequent moment.
- Time is limited: Time will not go on for ever, and as there was a first moment of time, there will come a final moment of time, such that there will be no more moments of time after this ending time, and after which "time shall be no more".
- Time does not continue after the last day: There are no more happenings or occurrences in time once the final trump sounds, such that there will be no future consciousness or continuation of life beyond the last day. Eternal life means the "eternalizing" of our past life, because there will be no continuation of time in any way.
- Our past temporal life will be eternalized in God: The key phrase is "eternalized". Our past life, is not our final moment, but all the moments lived from the beginning to the end. Our temporal life will not continue indefinitely.
- The Old Testament did not inform us of what was revealed in the New Testament: The Old Testament was before Christ, so it could not speak of the transition and transformation from our temporal existence to our "eternalized" life revealed in the New Testament
- The New Testament has not abandoned the sober realism of the Old: The New Testament affirms what was said in the Old Testament and augments it with what was not yet revealed.
- All temporal existence will transformed and transitioned to eternal life in god: Our past life will undergo transition and transformation to participate in the eternal life that is hidden in God. The transitory man will not share in the eternal life of God. Flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God.
A Critical Response to Barth's Argument Against Afterlife
Not all appreciators of Barth have said amen to his argument against afterlife. One such example is G.C. Berkouwer, who has written a book thoroughly lauding Barth's theology: (Berkouwer, G. C. The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. Trans. Harry R. Boer. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1956. 161. Print.) Berkouwer's arguably strongest criticism of Barth is his chapter devoted to criticizing Barth's argument against afterlife: "Chapter XII: The Triumph of the End."
Berkouwer says that "it is not surprising that the idea of the 'eternalizing' of human life as contrasted with its continuation attracted wide attention" (329), because he sees (via H. Vogel) "the confession of the Church with respect to eternal life threatened" (329) and "Barth's idea of 'having-been' is in conflict with the positive teaching of the Church, namely, the life everlasting" (329). Yet, Berkouwer agrees with Barth that common notions of afterlife are pagan rather than Christian when he writes, "Obviously this reaction to pagan dreams of glory and immortality does not bring us a step further in the understanding the problem of the 'vita eterna' (eternal life)'" (330) Berkouwer also says this distinction between pagan afterlife and Christian eternal life has always been acknowledged in the church when he writes,"also Calvin warned against the 'diabolical furor of immortal fame" (330). Berkouwer explains his agreement with Barth, "Our concern is not with dreams, or with subjective projections on the screen of an endless-time idea, or with a repristination of the conception of immortality as the Enlightenment understood it, but with the reality of eternal life about which the Scriptures speak with so much emphasis" (330).
Barth is correct that "eternal life" was a late addition to the creeds. The phrase "eternal life" did not appear in older forms of the Apostles's Creed or the Nicene Creed (325 AD) and it was until the end of the fourth century that it was added to the official forms of the creeds. Berkouwer responds as follows, "The Apostolicum in its original form did not contain the words 'vita aeterna.' This does not indicate hesitation on this subject in the early Church, for from the beginning she had in defense against gnostic errors of various kinds confessed the 'resurrectio carnis.' We will not err when we say that the Church in later adding the words 'vitam aetenam' was not at all conscious of having added a new element. The 'vita aeterna' had always been understood to be included in the 'resurrectio carnis.' For this reason the debate in our day about the eschatological triumph touches the faith of the Church in every age." (345-6)
Berkouwer also reminds us that Barth's Church Dogmatics is unfinished, and that Barth may have returned to affirming 'eternal life' in some circuitous way in this final volume (that never came to be written), so we cannot ultimately say that there will be no afterlife or continuation of temporal existence whatsoever. Berkouwer says, "We shall have to await the last volume of his Dogmatik to see how his eschatological conception will finally formulate his understanding of the 'vita aeterna.' Will he maintain his idea of 'limitation' or will this yield place to the scriptural witness concerning God's promise for our future?" (346) I recommend reading Berkouwer's The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth hear all he has to say about Barth's eschatology that is beyond this analysis of Barth's argument against afterlife.
An Excursus on Karl Barth's Unfinished Eschatology
Karl Barth abandoned the Church Dogmatics before completing his planned fifth and final volume on Eschatology. Sadly, not even an outline exists of the Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Redemption, Volume V, so it is a mystery what this ending of the Church Dogmatics might have contained. This is an important point that must never be understated when speaking about Barth's eschatological beliefs.
Some Barth scholars are convinced that we know nothing of CD V's contents, pointing to the surprising conclusions Barth made at the end of CD IV, such as Barth's famous rejection of Infant Baptism (CD IV/4) and his allowance for a form of Natural Revelation in his Secular Parables of the Truth (CD IV/3.1). On the other hand, other scholars believe these were not surprising changes, but indispensable test cases of what Barth had believed throughout his mature theology (which most Barth scholars consider to be CD II/2 through CD IV/4.) These other scholars believe that Barth's eschatology may then be safely reconstructed from his statements in his mature theology.
The best material for defining Barth's eschatology from his mature works is substantially contained in Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation, Vol. III/2: "§47 Man In His Time." The last section of CD III/2 is about Jesus' lordship over time, and it is divided into five subsections of CD III/2: §47.1 Jesus, Lord of Time, §47.2 Given Time, §47.3 Allotted Time, §47.4 Beginning Time and §47.5 Ending Time. The most frequently discussed is Barth's analysis of the forty days between the Resurrection and Ascension in §47.1 Jesus, Lord of Time and his statements about Eternal Life and Afterlife in the final section §47.1 Ending Time.
Three publications are demarcated as the beginning of Barth's mature theology by Barth scholars: Romans II (1922), CD I (1932), CD II/2 (1942). Therefore, Barth's earlier writings on eschatology published before his mature theology period (conservatively speaking CD II/2 onward), such The Resurrection of the Dead (1926), cannot be relied upon for reconstructing Barth's eschatology or speculating about the contents of CD V. (Some have utilized Credo (1935) as another debated source for Barth's eschatology.) Another factor is that Barth's conclusions on eschatology and the resurrection are notoriously hard to interpret, and at times he appears to contradict what he had written earlier or later in the Dogmatics. Many people, such as Rudolf Bultmann, believed Barth was inconsistent at this point of his theology, but Barth protests against critics who say he's inconsistent. The conclusion is that Barth's eschatology may be substantially reconstructed from his mature theology (especially CD III/2), but we will never know what Barth's final volume of the Church Dogmatics might have concluded on this subject.
Karl Barth's Argument Against Afterlife is disturbing because it is prima facie a hopeless eschatology, finding hope in the past without a hope for the future. The most difficult ramification is the potential end of consciousness for all people, making men to be like brainless jellyfish swimming in the gray monotonous sea of God's nostalgic eternal memories of Creation. It is difficult to understand how sin is positively dealt with on the last day, especially those victims who have known only horror in their lives. The positive aspect is Barth's call to listen to revealed eschatology, and not let paganism infiltrate our hopes. Even if Barth's eschatology finally becomes deplorable to some people, we may have hope and peace in the fact that his eschatology is unfinished, and no one ultimately knows what will happen in the end, or what eternal life or the resurrection will be like until it appears on the last day with the coming and appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Image Source: "Walhall by Emil Doepler" by Emil Doepler - Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin. Photographed by Haukurth (talk · contribs) and cropped by Bloodofox (talk · contribs).. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
Related: Afterlife, Apostles's Creed, Credo, Eternal Life, G.C. Berkouwer, Karl Barth, Nicene Creed, Romans II, The Resurrection of the Dead, Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, Vanhalla, Vikings