Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium

You know, all the most interesting topics. Although Barth often confessed that he didn’t find these questions particularly interesting. At best they might draw sideways glances, as it were, as one travels the theological road.

But I found a number of places in the records of Barth’s later conversations that I thought folks might find interesting, so I’ve collected them here. And if you aren’t familiar with the term “florilegium,” here you go!

All these texts are from the first volume of Barth in Conversation, with pages numbers given in parentheses along the way. As usual, italics are in the text and bold is mine.


“Now we come to hell. You shouldn’t laugh! There is nothing to laugh at! What does hell mean? I think hell means to be in the place where you are once fore all damned and lost without ceasing to exist, without losing the image of God, being what you are but being damned and lost, separated from God, whose creature you are, separated also from your neighbor, from the cohuman being, and separated in yourself – because there is such a thing as separate, a division, an opposition in our own existence. I think that what we are told about the fire of hell means this dissolution, this separation of man. That is hell: an existence in contradiction to the purpose of our Creator and in contradiction to our existence in itself; not a dissolution of our existence, but a contradiction of our not-to-be-destroyed existence.

Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation the Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so to have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! Teaching of hell can only mean belief in God, and then you have no reason to fear hell. Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ! Hell can only be where there is no faith. But you are invited to believe, and then hell can only be, so to speak, the limit of a life in faith, not something to be looked at but something to be left behind you. We are invited, if I may say it, to show our backsides to hell! (76)

“Is there a hell? This is as though I were to ask, Is there a God? In such cases I say, No, there is not. God is not ‘something’ that ‘is.’ Plums and cakes are, but one cannot say that God ‘is.’ One can and must say: God has spoken; God has acted. Likewise, one cannot say about hell that it exists. One can only say that it looks as though it does. The heavenly places are full of principalities and powers of darkness (cf. Eph. 2:2; 6:12). But it also says in Scripture that hell is locked, overcome; it is now Christ’s.” (131)

The Devil

I must confess that I know so little of the devil that I cannot give a definition of him. I know of the effects of his existence, but I have never met him in person as Luther did. So I find it is asking too much to give some kind of definition. Perhaps the devil is even the being who cannot be defined because of his nature, because he is the devil. He is certainly not a creature of God. He can only be, perhaps, the reason of the unreasonableness of sin. The devil is, as I like to say, the impossible possibility that cannot be defined. What is the relation between him and our sin? I am sure that I am responsible for my sin, but I also know that my sin is greater than myself, stronger than myself, and maybe this reason of sin and this force of sin may be called the devil. But, as with hell, we are not invited to make reflections on the devil! Please don’t! It isn’t necessary, it doesn’t help, to make a picture of the devil. We can’t deny him, but don’t busy yourself with him. Live with God in Christ, obedient to his Holy Spirit, and then the devil will fly away like an evil beast who can’t live with you. Chase him out, as Luther did. Perhaps even with the help of a little ink! Writing dogmatics, for example!” (77)


“[Demons] are puzzling explosions of Nothingness. Demons always gravitate in the vicinity of Christ as signs, as indicators of a type of ‘counterrevolution.’ But caution is required: they make their appearance only at the moment they are cast out. Actually, the New Testament is interested only in their suppression, and we should follow suit.” (112)

The Christian task is much rather to ‘demythologize’ the demons than to hunt down still others. This fantastic notion must be reduced to its serious core. There is a divine reality and a reality of manifold darkness. … This is our life down here on earth – to suffer and to fight while we receive help from above.” (113)


[Ed. Note: I played a little fast and loose here. The first quote is really about apokatastasis, specifically.]

“The resurrection of the dead and the restoration of all things are not quite the same, are they? They are not interchangeable terms. There can be resurrection of the dead without restoration of all things. … What do we mean by apokatastasis? It is a theory that finally and ultimately all men, and possibly the devil too, will be saved, whether they wish it or not. It is a theory first propounded by Origen and then by many others. It is a very agreeable theory: it is pleasant to imaging that everything turns out right in the end. I have never upheld this theory and never shall. On the other hand I should certainly not uphold the converse: I should not say that the end will be as we see it portrayed in the early paintings: some people in heaven and the rest in hell. But what we can do is realize that complete reconciliation and salvation are prepared for all men in Jesus Christ, that all men are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, that all men will one day have to appear before Jesus Christ as their judge, and the judge will be free to pass judgment. … We shouldn’t try to solve this problem of the future automatically, but can only say: there is full salvation for all men in Christ; we are invited to believe in him, we want to do the best we can, and it shall be revealed to us before his judgement throne (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10) what we have done in our mortal life, good and bad.” (76)

“Will all people be saved? Like someone observing a building under construction, and then asking How will this come out? Let this be the word to us that we should proclaim: Christ is the Savior of the world! With that we shall have our hands full. With that alone we are also given a tremendous vision of the future. Surely it will be a huge affair so that we will open our eyes and ears wide indeed! But ‘universal salvation’ – such a curious term! … I cannot even say about myself whether I am saved. That will be God’s free grace.” (130)


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castaway said…
Fun to read ... thanks.
De Tinker said…
The great thing with Bart's statement on apocatstasis is that it is logically consistent. Most "hopeful" universalists state that they hope God will save all but then state some must perish forever. This is a big problem. One cannot be uncertain in one destination and yet be certain in an opposite destination. If you deal in the possibility of one option, then you must do so with the other one. Its like an atheist saying that God could exist but it is not possible for him to exist. The atheist must either deny the possibility of God's existence or deny his atheism and become agnostic. That is not to say he can't have a certain inclination to an option but he can't be a certain atheist and yet believe it is possible for God to exist.
Pilgrim said…
I like Barth's intellectual humility (at least in so far as the above passages suggest it). He recognizes his fallibility on religious matters. He also exhibits a complete acceptance of his fallibility - rather than being plagued with scruples. He seems to recognize that he is not failing in some moral obligation to have a well-laid-out systematic theology.

Those who speak as if they have all the answers (and answers of which they are completely sure of) could perhaps consider their limitations more fully like this man.

The rigidness of religion can be more of a stumbling block than a means to be set free. Perhaps our poetic understandings of God are closer to the mark. Perhaps.

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