‘I do not believe in universal salvation, but I do believe in Jesus Christ the universal Saviour.’ Karl Barth

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On May 16, 1961 (7 ½  years before he died) at the spring district meeting of preachers from Methodist churches in Switzerland, Karl Barth answered questions in morning and afternoon sessions for a total of 4 ½ hours. The excerpt below is taken from volume 1 Barth in Conversation 1959 to 1962, Eberhard Busch – Editor, published by Westminster John Knox Press in 2017, pp 129-30.

On the question of universal salvation Karl Barth was asked: “The main thesis in the Church Dogmatics II/2 states ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God- Jesus Christ is the elected human being’. ‘Election is that election which is accomplished by and through Jesus Christ, and it is the election that happened in him’. Does not the future fate of human beings depend upon their decision of faith? Will all people be saved (universal salvation)? Is there a hell?”

Karl Barth replied:

‘Does not the future fate of human beings depend upon their decision of faith?’ I do not like the term ‘fate’. It should not come up in Christian language. There is no ‘fate’ that stands before us – (rather,) ‘providential occurrences’, if you wish.

Does our eternal future depend upon our decision of faith? I would never say that. Our temporal and eternal future does not depend upon our decision but rather upon that which happened on Golgotha, and our decision of faith is our response to it. But one cannot now take our response to this event and make it a condition for our salvation’s becoming real. As soon as the question is posed in such a way that now my faith is brought in and becomes, so to speak, an achievement, with the result that it makes true for me what happened on Golgotha, then the whole affair becomes almost blasphemous. My goodness, my little bit of faith, with which I should now make it possible that salvation is also mine – this cannot be! This is precisely what we cannot say! We can only leave ourselves open to being summoned by this call, that Christ is my salvation just as he is salvation of all people.

‘Are all people going to be saved (universal salvation)?’ Also, one cannot pose a question like this. We cannot place ourselves alongside the salvation of Christ, of whom Scripture says: ‘In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19), and then look about and ask, 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 Saviour 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! In Colossians chapter 1:20 we do hear about something like this; nevertheless, I am not fond of the concept. I was good friends with Inspector Imberg in Gűmlingen (1]. He was such a preacher of universal salvation. I said to him once: ‘I do not believe in universal salvation, but I do believe in Jesus Christ the universal Saviour.’ Yes indeed, I believe in Christ, the soter tou kosmou (John 4:42. 1 John 4:14), the Saviour of the world. I cannot even say about myself whether I am saved. That will be God’s free grace.

The title of the book The Triumph of Grace, which was written about me,[2] should be better named The Triumph of Jesus. The hymn by Friedrich Traub that we sang earlier this morning is a good hymn: ‘Jesus lebet, Jesus siegt (Jesus lives, Jesus is victorious), Hallelujah, Amen!’[3]

[1] Richard Imberg (died 1958) was the director of the Deaconess Home Siloah in Gűmlingen, Bern, of whom Barth said, ‘whose warm humanity opened up to me a whole new side of the community movement.’ CD IV/3:xii.

[2] G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (London, Paternoster, 1956).

[3] Friedrich Traub (1873-1906). The hymn can be found in Philadelphia-Hymns, published by the Old Pietist Community Association in Wűrttemburg, Reutlingen (1935), no. 659.

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