A Reasonably Comprehensive Note on Apokatastasis in Barth

To understand Barth's objections to apokatastasis, as not merely proceeding from naturalism but doing so on the basis of a false consciousness of the world, it is first necessary to understand what he thought it was. The most commonly adduced reference, from CD IV.3.1, §70.3, 477–8, is generally cited in order to show that Barth does not believe in a total scope for redemption. However, in this context Barth only addresses apokatastasis as synonymous with Allversöhnung, universal reconciliation or atonement, which he rejects as a claim about "the goal and end of all things." For Barth, this teleological version of the doctrine of reconciliation at once (1) disingenuously minimizes the scope of the evil in which we are implicated, and (2) commits God to a Sisyphean future of patiently delivering the unrepentant. It posits, in other words, that universal atonement is possible in history without an eschatological break, and sets that as the logic behind the delay of the parousia. Should God choose indefinitely to sustain the work of reconciliation, we can accept it as grace—but while we may hope for that continuance, Barth reminds us that we have neither right to it nor guarantee of it. What we do have is a history of human falsehood and merited condemnation, a history that does not deserve to be carried out to a logical conclusion.

The problem is that apokatastasis as a doctrinal proposition, for Barth, frames salvation as oriented toward the perfection of the world. And it does so, as Barth explains in CD III.3, §50.2, 299–302, because we have confused genuine, uncreated evil—das Nichtige, which originates in the creature's choice against both God and what God chose to create—with the legitimate negative side of the creature by contrast with the positive. The historical discussion of apokatastasis, in which the salvation of the devil is characteristically raised, thus involves treating genuine evil as though it belonged to God's good creation, and as though its opposition to that created good could therefore necessarily be resolved into a higher and more perfect unity. This is of a piece with Barth's prior critiques of apokatastasis, in CD II.2, as proceeding "from an optimistic estimate of [humanity] in conjunction with this postulate of the infinite potentiality of the divine being" (§34.4, 295) and as asserting the necessary coincidence of the scope of "the election of Jesus Christ and His community" with "the world of [humanity] as such" (§35.3, 417).

However, while that might appear to be argument in favor of the limitation of soteriological scope, Barth also explicitly states that the number of the elect cannot be treated as a fraction, the remainder of which are rejected, because of "the impossibility of reckoning with another divine rejection than the rejection whose subject was Jesus Christ, who bore it and triumphantly bore it away" (CD II.2, §35.3, 422). In handling his most consistent case example of this problem throughout the CD, Barth goes on to claim that "the situation between Jesus and Judas … is only a heightened form of the situation between Jesus and all other [people]" (§35.4, 476). Since scripture does not demand restitution of the fallen Judas in order to be saved, we cannot either; being an object and recipient of the grace of God is sufficient regardless of human opposition. So "the Church will not then preach an apokatastasis, nor will it preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a [human] wickedness which is too powerful for it. But without any weakening of the contrast, and also without any arbitrary dualism, it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it. For this is how the 'for' of Jesus and the 'against' of Judas undoubtedly confront one another" (§35.4, 477).

To the extent that Barth does accept some version of the ἀποκαταστάσεως πάντων, he does so in independent interpretation of its sole New Testament appearance in the sermon of Peter in Acts 3:21. (The remaining appearances of ἀποκαθίστημι as a verb in the NT pass uncommented.) Barth takes this as a simple reference to the second coming of Jesus Christ. He will develop this into the third form of the parousia, the coming in judgment; but by connection to this passage it is also bound up with "times of refreshment" (CD I.2, §14.2, 73) or "seasons of refreshing" (CD III.2, §47.1, 495) because the second coming is still the coming of the Messiah, and takes place "to complete the announced redemption" (I.2, 73). This is "a future of joy" that "awaits the one addressed in the task given to the community," a future not yet completely revealed, but which will be in line with the realities of Christmas, Easter, and Advent (IV.3.2, §72.3, 810).


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