Blogosphere prefers Viking’s Valhalla to Karl Barth’s Eternal Life

will-you-please-read-us-againControversy erupted in the blogosphere this week in reaction to Karl Barth's Argument Against Afterlife. The response to Barth's rejection of afterlife may be summed up in one word: outrage! There were some who doubted this was Barth's final position, and some who tried to understand Barth, and even a few shocking exceptions who praised Barth, but overall the response was virtually one of outrage, anger, and protest. The sentiment may be described as "If Barth is right, then back to paganism!" or "I'd rather go to Valhalla than have Barth's Eternal Life"

I'd like to stick a finger in the blogosphere's open wound by demonstrating that Karl Barth's description of "Eternal Life" is even more dismal and hopeless than his rejection of afterlife. I don't like it either, but this is what our church father and the greatest theologian of the 20th century has to say about "Eternal Life." This quotation is from his book, Credo, published in 1935 (just before Barth published the first volume of the Church Dogmatics, Vol I/1):

Karl Barth on Eternal Life

If, finally, eternal life is the name given to this new form of our unity with Jesus Christ, we shall again have to be on our guard against all those abstractions which our philosophic arrogance delights in. When eternity of our life is spoken of in the Christian Creed, it does not mean a life of any super-temporal kind, or timelessness or infinite time. It does not even mean a life in any kind of carefully and boldly conceived perfection. Nor does eternity of our life mean that this life of ours is annihilated and its place taken by some other life in some other world, even if it be an eternal world. Finally, eternity of our life does not mean that our life becomes identical with the life of God. But eternal life in the sense of Holy Scripture is this life that is ours now in this world that now is, this life, still, as it has always been, distinguished from the life of God, since it is created, but now, as a life that has become new in an earth that has become new under a heaven that has become new,--life that has become new in its relation to God its Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer. Become new in this respect, that it is now no more a life differing within itself, as, on the one hand, our life in Christ and, on the other, as our own life, but now (let this "now" be emphasized) at once as entered life and as our own life, a life which is reconciled with God and therefore righteous and holy.

Barth, Karl. Credo. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962. 169-70. Print.

A Summary of Karl Barth's Doctrine of the Eternal Life

Barth is often difficult to understand, so I've broken down this quotation into the following ten point list:

  1. Barth claims his position is biblical and others are "philosophic arrogance"
  2. Eternal Life is not super-temporal
  3. Eternal Life is not timeless
  4. Eternal Life is not infinite time
  5. Eternal Life is not some other life
  6. Eternal Life is not in some other world
  7. Eternal Life is our past life lived that becomes new in relationship to God
  8. Eternal Life does not mean our life becomes identical with the life of God
  9. Our Eternal Life remains distinguished from the life of God
  10. Eternal Life emphasizes "now" in our own life that we have lived.

Reaction to Karl Barth's Argument Against Afterlife

Here are some reaction from twitter to Karl Barth's Argument Against Afterlife:

On Facebook, I received similar critical comments:

Karl Barth For Dummies: "Prompted by PostBarthian's blog on Barth's view on the afterlife, I read the end of CD III/2 and have to admit that Barth did seem to view death as the end of us. It's not what I want him to say, and it conflicts with what he preached at his own son's funeral. But it did seem to be what he said. However, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to read the whole of III/2 to confirm." October 15, 2015

Doug: "when I read through of some his writings, I took away the idea that our view of the afterlife is paganism because we are worshiping our idea and not what will be. We dont really know, we may have hints of what might come. But we have a positive hope of the future. btw, I think Barth's critics were a bit right about his views, he kinda contradicted himself. but, im not a Barth scholar."

Mitch: "yikes. I prefer Moltmann"

Frank: "Damn. Everybody getting rid of eternal consciousness. (frown emoticon)"

Zach: "If there is no hereafter, I don't find that to be scary personally, but I do find it to be rather boring and uninspiring (frown emoticon)"

John: "That sounds like a bad case of German Idealism."

Richard: "Things that make you go, 'Hmmmmm'"

Zachary: "It seems to me that he mainly rejects the Sunday School Sentimental view of the afterlife because it misunderstands eternity. The life after death is not merely this life extended into infinity. He doesn't reject the idea that, through the resurrection, humankind participates in eternity."

Samuel: "That said, I'm writing whilst finding tangential possibilities of arguing against and for what I'm saying! I think my conclusion is that I agree with the phrase 'It is a hard word from Karl Barth, and I don't like it.'"

And also from the comments on the postbarthian.com post:

Juan: "Thank God for Moltmann!"

George: "In essence, his dialectical approach separates God and humanity, to the joint where in the end, humanity and creation will have had their time, and God will be all. What he has done is “de-temporalize” eschatology, so that eschatology is not a real judgment and redemption of this time. His eschatology becomes abstract at that point. The eternity of God means that every moment of human time is the “end.”"

Kevin: "Moreover, the 'brainless' description is precisely the way that Buddhist and even Gnostic mysticism describes the annihilation and absorption of the ego into the divine. This is the very consummation of the temporal into the divine in Gnostic mysticism. If this is where 'radical' Barthianism leads, then fuck it. "

I've saved the best for last. There were two bloggers who responded to Barth's rejection of afterlife, and here's what they said:

Kevin from After Existentialism, Light posted this response, "I'll take a beer in Valhalla". His post received "hell yes!" comments in his "combox" that are worth reading as well.  In his post, Kevin made the following statement:

"But I am grateful that Wyatt Houtz has addressed the doctrine of the afterlife in Barth’s theology: “Karl Barth’s Argument Against Afterlife.”

I do not agree with Wyatt, and you can read my brief comments in the combox for further indications of why. I am not in the least convinced that Barth believes in such a depressing afterlife, where the temporal is absorbed and annihilated into the divine — where the individual consciousness is decisively negated. This is the very worst of Gnostic speculation, and it makes the eternal-finite dialectic the end-game of Barth’s dogmatics. If this is true, then Barth is a truly terrible theologian, scarcely worth our time and energy.

In contrast to one of Wyatt’s reflections, I am perfectly happy with a “pagan” image of heaven as a “Valhalla” where beer is on demand and abundant. At the very least, I hope that heaven is nothing less! By way of illustration, let me offer you the country-rock song, “Dirt Road,” by Kip Moore"

Kevin also responded with this video:

Eclenctic Orthodoxy Response

And on Fr. Aidan Kimel's post at Eclectic Orthodoxy titled: "Barth, Valhalla, and the Feasting of Heaven" that also received several comments, wrote the following quotes:

"However life beyond the grave is to be understood, the crucial claim is life beyond the grave, in personal wholeness."

"I cannot pretend to have grasped Barth’s essential point and invite you to visit the blog article and take a look yourself. Tell me what you think Barth is saying. The discussion is also interesting."

"Protestant Christians are at a real disadvantage at this point.  Perhaps this disadvantage explains the apparent “hopelessness” of Barth’s eschatological vision."

"Third, whatever heaven may be, it will not be less raucous, less boisterous, less jubilant than Valhalla. The dreams of paganism will be fulfilled in the Kingdom. But instead of being gathered around Odin, we will be gathered in the Holy Spirit around the risen Jesus Christ. Our feasting will be glorious, our joy infinite, our ecstasy rapturous. It will be the wedding supper of the Lamb."

One of the comments responded with this video:

Conclusion

The quotation from Credo quoted above leaves us with a hopeless and dismal view of Eternal Life according to Barth in my honest opinion. Are we like books, such that Eternal Life is God's rereading our autobiographically with a nostalgic tear? With no real future life for us after our final breath and our only comfort being that God will always have a nostalgic memory of us? Is our only hope, like Mo Willems, "We are in a Book", where we hope that God will remember us fondly someday in the same way the characters of our favorite book come to life when we re-read our favorite book? Is the blessed hope ultimately like "We are in a book" where we believe that God will reread our autobiography one day? Has reconciliation really occurred if God remembers us in a positive light with a tear in his eye?

 

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Comments (11) Trackbacks (1)
  1. But eternal life in the sense of Holy Scripture is this life that is ours now in this world that now is, this life, still, as it has always been, distinguished from the life of God, since it is created, but now, as a life that has become new in an earth that has become new under a heaven that has become new….

    But is all of this an argument against “afterlife”? I understand (I think) the points in the previous sentences where Barth is rejecting the “abstract,” “timeless” conceptions, where there is discontinuity between temporal/created life now and a life beyond (“that this life of ours is annihilated and its place taken by some other life in some other world”). Barth is rejecting this “some other life in some other world,” which is conceptually determined and filled-out by apophatic ratiocination (or any other means of determining “perfect being” outside of creation). In other words, he is rejecting the way in which this “in some other world” has been conceived and purportedly known.

    Instead, he points to the creature as creature redeemed in the Lordship of Christ here and now — this is how we must give “eternal life” its meaning and proper concepts. But, does this mean that Barth believes our consciousness ceases when we die? Does it mean that Barth does not believe in any sort of “afterlife,” however mysterious? That is where I am questioning the conclusions you are drawing. I see Barth as making strong epistemological claims, per usual, with some obvious metaphysical purchase, but you see him making (in addition) these other metaphysical claims.

    To be clear, I am not entirely serious about conceiving heaven literally as a Valhalla in Dixie or whatever! I am, in fact, much more modest about what we can say about the afterlife. I like N. T. Wright’s statement that the Bible’s images of heaven and the new creation are “signposts pointing into a fog.” They are accurate signs, but they are not photographs.

    • Kevin, great comment! To clarify, I don’t agree with Karl Barth but I do think this is what Barth believed. Barth said in the quote: “When eternity of our life is spoken of in the Christian Creed, it does not mean a life of any super-temporal kind, or timelessness or infinite time.”. When I read this, I see Barth rejecting all forms of afterlife, especially when Barth says that Eternal Life excludes “life of any super-temporal kind”. This means that our life has an Ending Time that corresponds to its Beginning Time, such that we have no existence before or after the bookends of our life. The positive side of Barth’s Eternal Life, is that our whole life lived is resurrected, such that nothing is lost or no moment is gone forever.

      I’m happy adding Barth’s doctrine of Eternal Life to the list of things I disagree with Barth on such as Infant Baptism, Patriarchy, and how he views Women rights. I’d like to go through Barth, even when disagreeing with him (being postbarthian.) I’d be glad to follow NT Wright or Moltmann or others who disagree with Barth from time to time. I am concerned how his view of Eternal Life may compromise my appreciation for Barth’s doctrine of Election.

      • But, what does Barth mean by “time” and the “temporal,” in relation to the “eternal” or “God’s time,” as he likes to say elsewhere? I blogged about this here (and a few other places):

        https://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/true-infinity-is-also-finite/

        Yes, Barth is doing some dialectical trickery perhaps, but it is in order to underscore the point that neither “finite” nor “infinite,” neither “time” nor “eternity,” can receive their determinate meaning outside of God’s revelation in the covenant of grace. And the result, for Barth, is that these two contraries are closer than would otherwise be the case, i.e., apart from our knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. None of this is negating an afterlife altogether. Thus, I have to reject you comment below, “The problem is that Barth doesn’t believe that creatures who are temporal will experience God’s eternity due to the Time/Eternity distinction and Creature/Creator distinction.” If that is true, then Barth is first and foremost a philosopher, only secondarily a theologian.

        I do realize that you are not endorsing Barth (or, I would say, your interpretation of Barth) on this topic, which I appreciate. But you should be happy that I am showing you how to reconcile yourself with Barth on this topic! 😉

        • Kevin, I appreciate your approach and I hope you are right. I’d love to have my interpretation of Barth disproved. I think its good to remember that his eschatology is unfinished. I’ll need to scour CD IV. In twitter discussion, a good point was made that Barth would disagree with the quote from Credo. Credo was pre-Church Dogmatics, and I’ve heard that Barth developed a different doctrine of participation in CD IV/2.

          • Yes, without CD V, we are not likely to arrive at any definitive resolution. Nonetheless, I am fairly convinced that “my approach” is indeed adequate to account for this material. At the very least, in the context of CD II.1 my interpretation is fairly well-vindicated. (Interestingly, CD IV.2 is my other favorite part-volume in the CD!) This whole discussion requires an adequate reckoning with Barth’s doctrine of God’s perfections (attributes) in II.1, where he engages with simplicity, immutability, eternity, and all that jazz. I am convinced that students of Barth today are deficient in their understanding of Barth because they have not closely attended to CD II.1.

          • I suppose that’s why Hans Ur Von Balthasar thought CD II/1 was the best volume in the Church Dogmatics! Thanks for your help Kevin.

          • Yep, Balthasar got it right, minus a few minor details.

  2. Nice job on the Mo Willems analogy. Reading that book is almost as depressing as reading Camus’ *Myth of Sisyphus.*

    • It’s a very depressing kids book! They realize the book is going to end, and their only hope is that the reader will one day reread the book again. Is this our hope for eternal life? That God will re-read our life once we gone? Thanks Scott!

  3. “Eternity is the negation of time only because and to the extent that it is first and
    foremost God’s time and therefore real time. in the way that God’s omnipresence is
    not simply the negation of our space, but first and foremost is positively God’s space
    and therefore real space.”

    ‘The Eternity and Glory of God’ from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: (Edinburgh:
    T. & T. Clark. 1957) Volume II. Part I. The Doctrine of God, p. 613.

    Barth is not denying the afterlife, the life after death, or eternal life. He is addressing the concept of time from our perspective and from God’s.

    • Hi Mike, thanks for sharing the quotation from the Church Dogmatics II/1. Barth believes that Eternity is the realm of the Creator God, and we are his Creatures. God possesses eternal life, that is animated and qualitatively different than the time we experience as a creature. Our time is fleeting, with each moment disappearing as the next appears. Barth says a motionless God would be a dead God. God is not a principle or like a mathematical truth, he is alive. The problem is that Barth doesnt believe that creatures who are temporal will experience God’s eternity due to the Time/Eternity distinction and Creature/Creator distinction. That’s what my quotation from Credo explains. CD II/1 speaks to how God has Eternal Life, but it doesnt demonstrate that Barth believes we will experience God’s Eternal Life. From the quote: “Finally, eternity of our life does not mean that our life becomes identical with the life of God. But eternal life in the sense of Holy Scripture is this life that is ours now in this world that now is, this life, still, as it has always been, distinguished from the life of God, since it is created”


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