Against the background of the perplexities of contemporary engagements with the future, be it in a utopian or dystopian mood, and in conversation with the ‘apocalyptic turn’ in theology, this paper sketches Barth’s only complete eschatology in the Göttingen Dogmatics. It reconstructs Barth’s thesis that Jesus Christ is the subject of all eschatological statements so that in Christian eschatology, everything else has to be understood as predicates of this subject. While Barth polemicizes against a view that sees the end as the outworking of the beginning in creation and seems to opt for a view of conceiving eschatology as the beginning of the end in Jesus Christ, the understanding of the election of Jesus as the ground and matrix for the whole history of salvation makes it clear that the eschaton, understood from this subject of eschatological statements, must also be understood as the end of this beginning. The Christological focus of Barth’s eschatology has therefore considerable diagnostic and promissory power for dealing with the perplexities of contemporary attitude towards the future.
This study focuses on Barth’s interpretation of Romans 13:11–14, as a case-study in his ground-breaking interpretation of Paul’s eschatology. Through close analysis of his reading in the 1922 Römerbrief, it highlights the importance of his use of the dialectic between time and eternity, and his insistence that eschatology concerns the limits of time, not a final period of time, nor events that take place after the end of time. Barth proves to be a very close reader of Paul’s text, and is more attentive to its dynamics than many of his critics have acknowledged. In a context where New Testament scholars were emphasizing the early Christian expectation of an imminent end, Barth’s interpretation enabled a theological reading of this feature of the New Testament at a critical point; by taking eschatology seriously, he laid an important foundation for Bultmann and for twentieth century New Testament Theology as a whole, even if he disapproved of the direction Bultmann would go. The weakness of his reading lies in denuding Paul’s text, and early Christian eschatology, of their inescapably chronological elements, and in the difficulty of connecting the time-eternity dialectic to our embodied experience of the duration of time.
Karl Barth did not finish the fifth and final volume of his Church Dogmatics, part of which was to be devoted to eschatology. There is, nonetheless, much material on eschatology in the completed volumes of the Church Dogmatics, most of which occurs in sections on themes and passages from the Old Testament. In general, Barth envisages a great deal of material continuity between the Old and New Testaments as regards eschatology, and this chapter explores those points of continuity that Barth finds in the Biblical canon.