Monday, January 7, 2013

"Tohu Wa-Bohu" or Karl Barth and Hell pt. 2

"Who knows what sort of "last" ones might turn out to be first again?  The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace.  Apokastasis Panton?  No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace.  It would certainly not be God's grace.
 "But would it be God's free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that?  Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins?  Has he not, according to 1 John 2:2, been sacrificed for the whole world?  Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God's grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might some day prove to be empty!" ("The Proclamation of God's Free Grace," from God Here and Now, Nook location pp.49-50).
As I wrote in my last piece, Karl Barth would certainly find it odd that I would set aside all other studies in his theology to try and find a "theology of damnation" in his thought.  And I will admit, it is not as enjoyable to dwell with Barth in the depths of sin and hell as it is to soar with him on the heights of Christ, his Person and his work.  But my respect for Barth is too deep not to press him on this point.  The beauty of Barth is his passion that the Bible be allowed to speak for itself, that the Spirit be given free reign to take the words of these witnesses and speak the Word of God to us again.  And the Word of God includes judgment.

I also mentioned that the beauty and challenge of Barth's thought lay in his total personal sense of freedom from any human constraints, such as the law of non-contradiction.  The Word of God assaults us from the outside, and all our petty little rules have no authority there.  This makes Barth's thought look like a five-sided square, or a square circle.  One constantly finds oneself arguing with Barth, not because he's wrong but because he's a rule breaker.  And in a different, frustrating, but beautiful sense, Barth is staggeringly consistent.

A lot is said about Barth's personal theological development, and how his theology changed over the years.  To me, what is remarkable is how much his theology stays the same.  I believe this is because Barth's theology is just the result of a constant return to Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (hebrews 13:8).  My way of making sense of Barth's christocentrism is to say that, for Barth, God only goes one way.  All that God does is grace.  God himself is grace.  He is light.  He is life.  He is love.  And underlying all of the apparent tension in Barth's thought is this overwhelming singleness.  Barth's take on what God says and does, and who God is, seems contradictory according to our rules.  But if the revelation of God in Jesus Christ becomes the key to everything, then the apparent contradictions melt.  It is us who are the contradiction.  It is our sin that looks like a square circle.  And this leads me to an understanding of sin, hell, and damnation in Barth that personally, and I think pastorally, is becoming significant for me.  But it all begins with Barth's exegesis of Genesis 1:1-3.

In his Church Dogmatics III/1, The Doctrine of Creation, Barth spends a significant amount of time exegeting the opening verses of the Bible.  He is quite detailed in his thought and a pleasure to read.  As I was reading his take on Genesis 1 for a sermon I was preparing, it struck me that Barth's understanding of the phrase in Genesis 1:2, "And the earth was waste and void [Hebrew: tohu wa-bohu]," had profound implications for the doctrine of hell.

For Barth, creation does not begin in Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."  That is a preamble to the following narrative.  It is a heading for what is about to be described.  And in verse 2, which he exegetes in the light of Babylonian and Egyptian myth (by way of contrast, not by way of comparison) and source-criticism, Barth takes the position that what is being described is a sort of negation.

"What v.2 in contradiction (we can only say, in glaring opposition) to the created reality of heaven and earth summarily described in v.1, and in glaring opposition to what is later described as God's 'good' creation.  There is only 'chaos'... In v.2 there is absolutely nothing as God willed and created and ordained it according to v.1 and the continuation.  There is only 'chaos.'" (CD III/1, p.104, T&T Clark Edition).

It's important to realize that Barth is approaching Genesis 1 as a theologically true saga.  He is not treating it as a "myth," but he is also not treating it as scientific history.  It is theological history.  What is important is what Genesis 1 tells us about God.  And Barth is careful to point out that God is never said to "create" the darkness, or even the waters (a biblical symbol of chaos).  In fact, says Barth, God is portrayed as placing limits on the darkness and chaos.  God never creates at night.  He only creates in the day.  God does not call the dark good, only the light.  And so on.  True, other Old Testament texts credit God with "creating" the darkness, but God only creates the darkness by creating light.  By creating something God in a sense "creates" the "nothing" that contrasts it.  Darkness is now "something," but only in contrast to the "light" that God has made.

All of this lined up with what I already knew about Barth's view of sin and evil as nihil, "nothing."  Sin is negation.  It is the "impossible possibility," to quote Barth.  And even in his own exegesis of Genesis 1:2, Barth already points forward to a doctrine of judgment when he observes that these ominous Hebrew words, tohu-wa-bohu, appear in the context of judgment elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.

"What tohu and bohu mean in practice can be gathered from the two prophetical passages where they are mentioned together as in Gen. 1:2.  All the horrors of the approaching final judgment are summed up in the vision of Jer. 4:23 : 'I beheld the earth, and, lo, wehinneh tohu wa-bohu, and the heavens, and they had no light.'  And, according to Is. 34:11, in the prophecy about Zion : 'And he shall stretch over it the line of tohu (confusion) and the plummet of bohu (emtpiness).'  Thus the condition of the earth depicted in v.2 [of Genesis 1] is identical of the whole horror of the final judgment." (Ibid., pp/104-105).
It is important to realize, of course, that Barth's focus is on God in all his exegesis.  The point, Barth would say, of Genesis 1:1-3 is that God says "No!" to the darkness and the chaos.  Genesis 1 is itself already gospel.  It is already redemption.  It is already pointing us to the God who shines the light of Christ into our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6).  Barth specifically denies that Genesis 1:2 posits a pre-creation evil that needed to be conquered, a la ancient myth.  What Barth affirms is, again, the theological point of the creation account - Who is this God?  He is the God who makes life, whoo creates light, who calls all things into being through his powerful Word, who says No! to chaos and who sets limits on the darkness. 

The question remains for us whether we will respond to this God, and say Yes to him who has already said Yes to us in Creation, in Covenant, and in his eternal Word, Jesus Christ.


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