MacArthur, Barth, and the Second Coming of Christ

Recently, a friend contacted me to tell me that he had been listening to MacArthur preaching on the second coming of Christ and he heard MacArthur make some pretty harsh remarks regarding Swiss theologian, Karl Barth and his thoughts regarding the second coming. Being a fan of Barth, this piqued my interest and I immediately began to search for this sermon so that I could hear for myself what he said regarding Barth. At first, all I could find was a Q&A with Pastor MacArthur about the historicity of Genesis 1-11. (https://www.gty.org/resources/pdf/sermons/70-29) Sadly, his comments regarding Barth were, let’s just say, less than friendly. The first problem that caught my eye was that MacArthur called Barth German. Barth was born on May 10, 1886 in Basel, Switzerland. He was Swiss not German. The second problem that caught my eye was that he said that the whole world of German theology was liberal in the 19th century, including Karl Barth. You may have noticed that Barth was born in 1886 and cannot be considered with 19th century liberal theology because he was 14 when the century turned! He sharply said that the Germans keep resurrecting Barth and if “he would just stay dead, we wouldn’t have to deal with this stuff.” For MacArthur, Barth is a problem and says “It’s always the same with him. It is not orthodoxy. It is not orthodoxy. It is called neo-orthodoxy, it is liberalism in another dress.”

But, this is not the focus of this post. I want to focus on the sermon from MacArthur and Barth’s views of the second coming. In his sermon, MacArthur says,

Karl Barth, a well-known purveyor of what came to be known as Neo-Orthodoxy, held to what he called a timeless eschatology in which the coming of Christ is no longer understood as a future literal return of Christ. But said Bart, quote, “It is a timeless symbol for the endless earnestness of eternity in every existential situation.” End quote. Whatever in the world that means. (https://www.gty.org/resources/pdf/sermons/61-23)

 

MacArthur doesn’t appear to want to give Barth the time of day. He has already made up his mind that Barth is bad and does not make sense. So in this post, I seek to give a fair, listening ear to Barth to examine what He believes about the second coming. I think that MacArthur would be surprised by our findings.

MacArthur’s Critique           

Before we can begin to explore Karl Barth’s theological understanding of the millennium, let us first attempt to understand what exactly MacArthur’s critique of Barth is. The sermon in which this critique takes place is in a series of messages called The Certainty of the Second Coming. In this specific sermon, MacArthur is beginning to preach through 2 Peter 3. He opens saying, “The church of the Lord Jesus Christ has always lived in anticipation of His return to gather His redeemed people, one. To destroy the wicked, two, and to establish His glorious kingdom, three.”[1] This is the glorious hope of the church. MacArthur continues arguing that because the second return of Christ is such a great hope for the church, Satan is doing what he can to get the church to look away from this. For this reason, MacArthur is unsurprised that throughout church history there have been skeptics “who felt it was their role to deny the second coming of Christ.”[2] Those who fit into this category are those, for MacArthur, who spiritualize the second coming. He summarizes them by saying, “The significance of the kingdom of Christ is nothing more than Christ ruling within you, and Jesus is never coming back to this earth. It will never be any different than it is really, we’ll just keep on living and we’ll die and we’ll go to heaven in some sort of unending cycle of human birth and death.”[3] Those that he puts in this category are scholars such as Adolf Von Harnack, C.H. Dodd, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Jurgen Moltmann. He concludes that, “this small group of men have, as much as anybody, influenced modern contemporary theology in the church. And the bottom line is they deny the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. They deny the Day of the Lord’s judgment. You say, “Why are you telling us this?” Because it is very important for you to understand that what Peter is dealing with in this chapter, we are dealing with today. The false teachers who were plaguing the believers to whom Peter writes are also plaguing the church today.”

So, MacArthur argues that theologians like the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, denied the second coming of Christ and the day of judgment and therefore can be considered false teachers who are robbing the Church of it’s hope. So now, let us turn to the theology of Barth to see if indeed MacArthur’s claims can be considered true.

Millennial Expectation: A Three-Stage Parousia

            Sadly, Karl Barth passed away before he was able to write his final volume of his Church Dogmatics. This final volume was supposed to be on his understanding of eschatology. Because we do not have a volume written by him on eschatology, the task of understanding his eschatology becomes just a bit harder. Thankfully, there are plenty of researchers out there who have examined his writings to begin to compile research to understand his eschatology from what he has written. My goal, here, is not to fit Barth into an eschatological box and give him a millennial title to his theology, but rather, explain his understanding of the three stage parousia, which is a Greek term for the arrival of Jesus Christ. Stage one has to do with the coming of Christ in the incarnation. The second stage has to do with the coming of Christ after his ascension through the outpouring of His Holy Spirit. The third and final stage has to do with Christ’s final return at the end of history.

 

 

Stage One: The Coming of Christ in the Incarnation

            The focus of the first stage of the parousia is on revelation. However, revelation is not exclusive to this first stage. As Dr. Rajaonarivony writes in his doctoral thesis the parousia runs throughout the whole parousia since, according to Barth, “the reconciliation which takes place in the second stage of the parousia is at the same time revelation; the third stage of the parousia, on the other hand, is earmarked by final revelation.”[4] Revelation takes a front seat in the first stage because the first stage includes Christ’s resurrection. For Barth, the Easter event represents “his new coming as the One who came before.”[5] By this he means that Jesus’ resurrection is a “fresh coming,” he is finally revealed for who and what he truly is. Barth says, “The Resurrection is the revelation: the disclosing of Jesus as the Christ, the appearing of God and the apprehending of God in Jesus Christ. The Resurrection is the emergence of the necessity of giving glory to God: the reckoning with what is unknown and unobservable in Jesus, the recognition of Him as Paradox, Victor, and Primal history.”[6] In the incarnation, Christ and his kingdom are now present on earth. The kingdom is both now and not yet.

Stage Two: The Coming of Christ with the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit

            The second stage of the parousia is focused on God’s turning to the world. It is a heavenly reality and a heavenly covenant breaking into space and time and history to establish itself among us. For Barth, the kingdom of God has come to earth in Jesus Christ and, through the work of the Spirit in the lives of the elect, and salvation history until the end of time is the maturation of that kingdom. So, Christ’s parousia is God’s love expressed for the world. Barth argues that “It is not that man ‘goes to heaven,’ but rather that God’s kingdom comes to us in matter and on earth. ‘The Word became flesh’ and not the other way around! The heavenly Father’s love and justice come to rule over all things external and earthly. His will is to be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’[7] But, Dr. Rajaonarivony is clear to point out “Barth does not teach that the world is moving towards a ‘golden age’ from a postmillennial perspective.”[8] Barth does not mean to argue that the earth is becoming God’s kingdom but rather that “the world is being prepared to receive the kingdom of God in its fullness and will be thereby transformed.”[9]

Stage Three: The Coming of Christ at the End of Time

The third and final stage of the parousia of Christ focuses on the coming of Christ at the end of the age. In the first two stages, Jesus Christ enters time and is united to believers and in this final stage we see the consummation of this unity. Even though Barth believes that this reality is already real it is “under a veil. The veil of the present time.”[10] Barth does not deny the second coming as MacArthur argues, but, rather, argues that the second coming will be both repetition and consummation of the death and resurrection of Christ. He says, “we cannot look back upon this event…without having still to look forward to the event in which it will be repeated and renewed and consummated in another form, namely, in the coming of Jesus Christ in evident lordship over the creatures of all times and places and for the evident judgment of the quick and the dead and their evident subjection by his judgment.”[11] Barth summarizes the second coming by saying that it will be a “comprehensive context of the final redeeming act of God in full manifestation of the reconciliation of the whole world accomplished in Jesus Christ, of the conclusion of peace between the Creator and the creature established in Him, of the alteration of the whole human and cosmic reality effected in Him.”[12] The second coming of Christ brings the fulfillment of the covenant and the maturation of the parousia that began with his first coming.

Conclusion

            This was a very brief attempt to explain Barth’s understanding of the parousia, or “arrival of Christ.” He understands it to one event with three stages. Christ arrived in the incarnation and began preparing the world for the maturation of the kingdom in the second stage through the Holy Spirit. And in the third stage, the second coming of Christ eradicates the problem of sin and reveal’s the fullness of the kingdom. Barth does not deny the second coming and firmly believes in it. MacArthur’s claims against Barth are completely unfounded. It seems that MacArthur condemns him for not having a premillennial eschatology like himself. But I think that it is fair to say that Barth’s eschatology does not rob the church of hope as MacArthur accuses it of doing. The church still has the hope of the second coming and eradication of sin at the maturation of the inaugurated kingdom of God. I am not arguing that I believe that Barth’s seemingly amillenial eschatology[13] does not rob the church of hope and Barth should not be condemned for not being premillennial. What MacArthur has shown us is how we should not interact with other Christians when they differ from us in our own theological convictions.

 

[1] https://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/61-23/The-Certainty-of-the-Second-Coming-Part-1. Pg, 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jean De Dieu Rajaonarivony, “Transcendence and History in Karl Barth’s Amillennial Eschatology.” (Ph.D. Thesis, Calvin Theological Seminary, 1997), 165.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV\3.1, 293

[6] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 30.

[7] Barth, “Movement for Social Justice,” in Barth and Radical Politics, 27.

[8] Rajaonarivony, “Transcendence and History in Karl Barth’s Amillennial Eschatology.” 200.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Barth, Faith of the Church, 166.

[11] CD IV\3.1, 319.

[12] CD IV\3.2, 931.

[13] This is the argument of Dr. Rajaonarivony’s Ph.D. thesis.

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