Apocatastasis: A Twitter Essay, Extended

I wrote this as a Twitter storm of sorts, and one piece out of the middle struck a pious note that has been repeated. But that note seems to me no less than a death knell, the annihilation of the old for the sake of the new, and so I'm putting it together here to show why.

"This question belongs to eschatology, but two delimitations may be apposite in this [i.e. non-eschatological] context." CD IV.3.1, 477.

So much of our discussion of Barth on universalism presumes that the answer that follows, on reconciliation and its end, is eschatological. This requires that we simply ignore that reconciliation is explicitly not eschatological, and does not lead to eschatology, in Barth!

When Barth speaks to apocatastasis, the question is whether, short of the eschaton, the kingdom will be actualized in mercy upon the earth. The question is whether human actors, in their impossible and absurdly self-ordered worlds, will not actually reap what they have sown.

Because we assume that judgment is the gateway to eschatology, we misunderstand Barth's insistence on giving just the immanent answer here. And the immanent answer to how the world will look when it ends is, "I don't know, and we have insufficient data to say." This is not leaving open the possibility of eternal damnation. This is refusing to assert that accounts will be settled "fairly" at last. Barth's openness to grace here is the possibility, in other words, of universal reconciliation, without making a statement on redemption.

This is what it means when we pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This is the grace we request. "Undo our worlds, O Lord, and restore creation to your order as though ours had never been."

Of course, this is not the grace God has chosen. This is the grace God has in fact renounced, having tried it once, to universal horror. Apocatastasis is a truly bloody-minded universal apocalypse. It's the Flood. Apocatastasis is the logic of Job, at the end. "There, all better, and twice as good as before."

We only pray for it either out of sheer desperation, or because we (falsely) believe we're anything like close to God's perfect order.

In apocatastasis, the whole of world history will cease to have been. You will just disappear, like in a sci-fi movie when the past changes. To say anything less is to say that there is something here which does not deserve God's total judgment, which can stand on its own.

This is the mistake we make, when we talk about creation and eschatology as the termini a quo and ad quem of the present moment.

Now, here is the context, and what Barth continues with:
A final word is demanded concerning the threat under which the perverted human situation stands, in spite of its limitation by the powerful and superior reality of God and man, to the extent that from below it is also continually determined by the falsehood of man in a sinister but very palpable manner. Can we count upon it or not that this threat will not finally be executed, that the sword will not fall, that man's condemnation will not be pronounced, that the sick man and even the sick Christian will not die and be lost rather than be raised and delivered from the dead and live? This question belongs to eschatology, but two delimitations may be apposite in this context.

First, if this is not the case, it can only be a matter of the unexpected work of grace and its revelation on which we cannot count but for which we can only hope as an undeserved and inconceivable overflowing of the significance, operation and outreach of the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ. To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things. No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift.

Secondly, there is no good reason why we should forbid ourselves, or be forbidden, openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained much more than we might expect and therefore the supremely unexpected withdrawal of that final threat, i.e., that in the truth of this reality there might be contained the super-abundant promise of the final deliverance of all men. To be more explicit, there is no good reason why we should not be open to this possibility. If for a moment we accept the unfalsified truth of the reality which even now so forcefully limits the perverted human situation, does it not point plainly in the direction of the work of a truly eternal divine patience and deliverance and therefore of an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation? If we are certainly forbidden to count on this as though we had a claim to it, as though it were not supremely the work of God to which man can have no possible claim, we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it as we may do already on this side of this final possibility, i.e., to hope and pray cautiously and yet distinctly that, in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is "new every morning" He "will not cast off for ever." (Lamentations 3:22f., 31)
Barth clearly does not share my horror at apocatastasis, even though his rejections of it in CD II.2 are based on the same foundation: it proceeds as though creation and eschatology were the logical endpoints of the current state of the world's existence.

But what he proposes as universal reconciliation is not the same as apocatastasis, either. Apocatastasis is universal restoration; Barth proposes instead that the world may by God's grace finally become the solidary creature in spite of its lapse. That the kingdoms of the earth might by grace finally become what the kingdom of the heavens has been for so long.

By grace we may pray that when God's kingdom comes, and God's will is done on earth as in heaven, the whole creation as it has become through its long historical wandering might finally be the free creature as it was intended. This is not the undoing of sin and the Fall by force. This is not analogous to the Flood. This requires no wiping away—except of the tears from every eye. This is mercy deployed as God clearly intends to deploy it, if only we were willing. We do not deserve it. Even as the good creature we cannot deserve it. But we may hope for it, and in faith we may work in the meantime as though we were participants in it.


Popular Posts