Karl Barth, Valhalla, and the Feasting of Heaven

A Twitter discussion last week directed me to an article on Karl Barth and the afterlife. Barth apparently rejected all notions of afterlife, identifying them as a pursuing of “pagan dreams of good times after death.” No Elysium. No Valhalla. No Vaikuntha.

It has now become glibly commonplace for preachers to declare that Christianity does not teach that we go to heaven when we die—the gospel knows only the resurrection.  Or as N. T. Wright has memorably phrased it, the Bible proclaims not “life after death” but rather “life after life after death” (Surprised by Hope, pp. 151-152). I affirm the point but question its homiletical and existential import. However life beyond the grave is to be understood, the crucial claim is life beyond the grave, in personal wholeness.

Barth, however, appears to be less concerned about the corporeality of resurrection life than with the nature of the Eschaton itself and the relation between time and eternity: “There is no question of the continuation into an indefinite future of a somewhat altered life. The New Testament hope for the other side of death is very different from that. What it looks forward to is the ‘eternalising’ of this ending life.”

I cannot pretend to have grasped Barth’s essential point and invite you to visit the blog article and take a look yourself. Tell me what you think Barth is saying. The discussion is also interesting. I had three initial reactions:

First, I do not know how we can begin to speak about these matters apart from the eucharistic life of the Church catholic. In the Church we invoke the living saints and venerate their icons. In the Church we pray for the departed. Lex orandi, lex credendi. What this means is that all of our speculations about life after death must be informed by the Church’s liturgical experience of the Kingdom in her midst. Protestant Christians are at a real disadvantage at this point.  Perhaps this disadvantage explains the apparent “hopelessness” of Barth’s eschatological vision.

Second, I believe that the vigorous critique of “heaven,” which one sees all the time now on Twitter and elsewhere on the net, is misguided. Will the lives of believers be dramatically transformed if the word “heaven” were to be excised from the ecclesial vocabulary. I doubt it. Of course, catechists and preachers should correct misunderstandings and direct attention to the resurrection hope, but that need not entail a belittling of the popular hope for heaven. Heaven is simply a traditional, and pastorally handy, name for the eschatological destination of the redeemed. Of course there will always be questions about the intermediate stage, that “time” between death and the general resurrection. These questions are not merely speculative but very personal: “Where is my dead husband?” “What kind of life does my wife now enjoy?” “Is my son in heaven?” “What will happen to me when I die?”

Third, whatever heaven may be, it will not be less raucous, less boisterous, less jubilant than Valhalla. The dreams of paganism will be fulfilled in the Kingdom. But instead of being gathered around Odin, we will be gathered in the Holy Spirit around the risen Jesus Christ. Our feasting will be glorious, our joy infinite, our ecstasy rapturous. It will be the wedding supper of the Lamb.

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11 Responses to Karl Barth, Valhalla, and the Feasting of Heaven

  1. You wrote, “Heaven is simply a traditional, and pastorally handy, name for the eschatological destination of the redeemed.”

    But the point is, that popularly conceived “destination” is simply not correct! We **don’t go to heaven**. We go to hades. That was not God’s original plan, but it’s where death puts us.

    Nor is that “pastorally handy” idea actually “traditional”. There is nothing in the church’s traditional liturgy about the dead being in heaven. They’re in the grave. “Grave”, writ large, is “hades”. Hades is where Christ descended to give life to the dead, and the place from which he will eventually raise us.

    Apparently there are different experiences, or areas, if you will, in hades— if the story of Lazarus and the rich man can be taken as any kind of description— there’s the rich man, who was “buried” and that’s pretty much that, and who experienced great thirst. And then there’s “Abraham’s bosom”, where Lazarus rested. But our icons properly show Abraham in hades along with Adam and Eve, David and all the others. They are all dead. They’re in hades. They haven’t yet been raised. And when they are raised, they will be raised in a new creation, not in heaven.

    The Bible nowhere speaks of “going to heaven”, except for the single exception of Elijah, and part of the point about his fiery chariot was that he didn’t die. Neither, by the way, does it speak of “hell” (despite the confusions of the KJV). We owe our conceptions about all that more to Dante than to anyone else, with some substantial admixture of Romantic ideas about the Elysian Fields which became popular in the past couple hundred years.

    Heaven is not and never was our destination. Ps 115.16: “The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’S: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.” That is God’s original plan, and the one he brings to fulfillment in Christ.

    We need to stop repeating the popular idea of “going to heaven” and actually start telling the story that’s in the Bible. Death brings us down to the grave. That’s what Jesus came to fix.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I’ve been mulling over your comment for a couple of days. I respectfully and quite emphatically disagree with you. You speak of Hades as if Pascha had never happened, as if Hades had not been harrowed and its captives liberated.

      This place of Hades, dark and joyless, had been eternally deprived of light; this is why the gates are called dark and invisible. They were truly dark until the Sun of righteousness descended into Hades, illumined it and made Hades Heaven. For where Christ is, there also is Heaven (St John Chrysostom)

      We can quibble over terminology, of course, but I personally find that unhelpful. In popular Christian parlance, “heaven” simply means “being with Jesus.” It need not entail a specific theory of the finality of the particular judgment, and it certainly need not in any way deny the far greater happiness and bliss the righteous will enjoy at the General Resurrection.

      You emphasize that the dead are dead. What does that mean? I immediately think of the Munchkin coroner who pronounces the death of the wicked witch of the East:

      As coroner, I must aver
      I thoroughly examined her
      And she’s not only merely dead
      She’s really, most sincerely dead!

      Are you endorsing something along the lines of soul-sleep? Do not the saints eternally praise and worship the Father. Do they not pray for us? Are they not alive in Christ and present with us by the Spirit? And do we not pray for the faithful departed, indeed for all the departed, and think of them as alive and as benefitting from our prayers?


  2. Jonathan says:

    So, for Barth, is the relation between time and eternity dialectical or analogical? That is the basic question at stake here, as far as I can tell. I don’t know Barth’s work first-hand, but from what I understand about him, he is not a fan of analogical thinking. If temporality and eternity are indeed poised against each other dialectically, which is to say almost agonistically, then “eternalizing” means one thing — no better-than-Valhalla-feasting, I fear. If temporality is, rather, folded within eternity, or if eternity lies within the heart of temporality (after all the Kingdom of God, we are told, is within us), then eternalizing time would, I imagine, work out to something rather different, something more capable of what we might call dynamism.

    A pop culture reference: Consider the Talking Heads’ classic song “Heaven.” I’m not generally a Talking Heads fan, but this song is perfect, and pertinent here. A lot of people I know, Christians and non-Christians, are bored by Christian faith because it seems to point to a Beatific Vision which the Talking Heads (rightly, I’d say) treat ironically in the song. You can listen to it on Youtube, or here are the lyrics:

    Everyone is trying to get to the bar.
    The name of the bar, the bar is called Heaven.
    The band in Heaven plays my favorite song.
    They play it once again, they play it all night long.

    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
    Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

    There is a party, everyone is there.
    Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.
    Its hard to imagine that nothing at all
    could be so exciting, and so much fun.

    Heaven is a place, etc.

    When this kiss is over it will start again.
    It will not be any different, it will be exactly the same.
    It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all
    could be so exciting, could be so much fun.

    Heaven is a place, etc.


    • Cal says:

      This is where Gregory of Nyssa infinite movement on account of an infinite God (who, on account of His infinity, is not restricted by His own distance) can lead to an ever-reaching. One day we will see Face to Face, and the glory will shine every brighter. The Wedding Feast will bring on better and better meals. A lame-duck beatific vision, the popular conception of ‘Eternity’/Heaven/Glory/Resurrected-Life, fails because it believes it can place God in a box. But this is not to deny an extension onward.

      I look forward to a better Valhalla, a feast not of melancholy and remembrance (a happier banquet than that at the river Lethe), but of joy and unity forevermore. Barth’s dialectic (if this is indeed his mature thinking) is only an Iconoclast in Apollo’s temple. But the thought remains pagan, only a different kind.



  3. Grant says:

    I don’t think I agree that Christians (or even most Christian preachers) have stopped talking of ‘going to heaven’ instead at a popular level they remain as committed to it as ever with all the consequent knock on effects in how they think about the future, present, how they relate this to their embodied lives now, to creation and the world around them, to society, environment and to perceptions and understanding of human life how it interrelates to the universe of space, matter and time and all it’s aspects around them. Of both the purpose and end and meaning of humanity and the universe and consequently how it is then approached and treated.

    To get into my point, I was reading a journal article on aspects of Old English/Anglo-Saxon mythological concepts as relates to the association of places and environments with certain ‘fey-like’ beings, of how for the old English and ancestor people of the English the physical world was intertwined, interwoven and pervaded by the unseen realities of spirits, demons, elves, monsters, gods etc. Then the author contrasted this view of the world with what he asserted was the Christian view that in his words was are souls going off, leaving the world for a disembodied heavenly existence elsewhere (presumably outside of space or time in some eternal non-corporal spirit world far away from this universe and leaving it behind for a non-spatial existence somehow beyond time and space). Now this left me somewhat gobsmacked reading this, as this assertion might describe gnostic, to an extent at least popular conceptions of Platonism, or spiritualism or pretty much any current popular view of ghosts and ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ good afterlife people conceive of.

    But none of this related to the Christian view of either creation and certainly not human ultimate destiny, and certainly not in the earliest records that first few generations of Christians left, of the loud and powerful declarations that death was defeated, and will be destroyed, of the universe being rescued from subjection to futility and being restored, completed and allowed to be finally become fully itself and what it is meant to be when the sons of God are revealed in the resurrection, when humans through Christ and being raised by Him finally become actually fully human and so the image and likeness of God reflecting His love, life and glory into the rest of the universe and drawing it to Him through the resurrected humanity. That this had began, but would be completed, and God would be all in all. And this driven by the witness and belief in the Resurrection of Jesus and how this had changed everything, and how they saw in the Lord’s resurrection not a better form of death, or a consolation prize for humanity that after death claimed them they might be granted a existence in a non-spatial (and non-human and sub-human existence, since on the fundamental aspects of being human is being embodied within a reality both seen and unseen, heaven and earth, of matter, space, time and extra-physical or spiritual mind and soul, interwoven and pervading each other as a larger holistic whole) paradise experiencing some kind of bliss (there were other movements that had began to offer at least some ideas along this line, and of course beyond this time many more have arisen), but of death defeated and to be destroyed. Not death redescriped and made some accommodation and treaty with. Death for them was not a friend, it was not a pathway to a ‘better world or hereafter’ but rather their hope, that which galvanised them was here, resurrection is (or was) very earth-centric, the certainty that death was overcome and to be destroyed and that they and this world would continue and have continuity changed how they viewed life and focused them more on life here and now, not less (since they didn’t think they were going to be somewhere else but that the earth was and ever remain their home. Equally, resurrection took away the ultimate threat of the tyrant, or the need to resort to ‘necessary evils’ in the face of the more terrible things that happen, they would be undone and healed.

    But to get back to my point, this view, though not at all correctly describing the Christian view, cannot be waved away as just a non-Christian’s misunderstanding of what Christians believe. He or she (if they actual are non-Christian, for all I know they are) believed such despite their education because that is what essentially allot of Christians either explicitly or at least in practice actually believe and think. That Christ came to give them (at least a chance) at leaving this temporal and temporary world to some better ‘non-material’ world elsewhere, their ‘real home’ (which strangely still involves thinking of it in physical terms, almost as if humans were meant to only think in embodied terms and our bodies aren’t just a temporary and less real phase of our real existence. Earth is like a breeding world for souls to populate God’s real world, and this universe is a shabby, second rate temporary place, a plan gone wrong and destined for the scrap heap (and it’s clear how this view has effected how allot of Christians relate to the world and nature around them and the influence they have had on how people and governments have approached and used the world).

    For many Christians the goal is to leave earth and move onto a better and real life, and this life us a holding pattern trying to make sure they are ready to go to the real destination. For many, the resurrection and completion of creation are stated as statements of belief but they have no impact on their life but are also a strange thing bolted onto their belief. It doesn’t really fit to the going to heaven idea that they believe and talk about and is usually collapsed into going to heaven itself as just another way to talk about it. And so far this has been the majority of rank and file (and some not so rank and file Christians I have encountered), with even those knowing more doctrine and theology and having the time for it and officially stating the 2nd coming and the resurrection of the dead, default straight back out of it to just talk of ‘going to heaven’, and structure their life, worship and view to that perceived reality and that of those around them and relate to the world from that view. Essentially like any popular view of a disembodied afterlife but with Christ at the centre and some odd resurrection happening in some almost beyond time eschaton for some reason that is vague since they already in heaven. Mainly because they guess Christ rose and early Christians seemed to make a big deal out of this resurrection of the dead thing and it seems something God is going to do (often essentially ending the current world in process, only driving more the perception that this world is not to important in the eternal frame of things with only peoples souls really mattering).

    For many there would be difficulty in answering why Jesus was raised from the dead, and didn’t just appear as a spirit to confirm that they could now have heaven open to them and a way to God away from this world. Sometimes it amounts to proving God exists or Jesus was who He said He was, or to show the way to heaven is open. Hardly necessary if that were the case, there was already a rich language and view concerning and describing some existence, including positive hopes of a good afterlife that abounded in the ancient world both outside and within Jewish society. Jesus hardly needed to be raised at all for that, if simply creating a better result from death and it’s redescription was the goal, nor explaining why the resurrection of the dead was so important to early Christians if what was really important was survival after death in whatever manner. Again there was plenty of ways and language to describe this, which they largely both avoided and didn’t see to important to reference.

    Resurrection was a different category and though related it was and is distinct claim, and wasn’t a new way of talking about life after death but the destruction of death itself, in all it’s forms and raising out past death (and any existence that entails) back into full (and more full, incorruptible and indestructible) embodied life, one more full then it already is, and with it the restoration and completion of the world around them, for which in part we are made. It is one that brings the focus on the continuity of embodied life now to that we will have in the future, to how live in the world and in regards to it, to the environment as it is our home now and forever, rather the discontinuity of going to some other form of existence somewhere else leaving this world behind. Rather our future is found both in others embodied lives and in the world around us and focuses attention on how we live in and through our bodies because we shall be raised to embodied life out past death in this universe.

    It is only on light of this that much focus of on holy living and Christian life makes the sense it does rather than in many cases seeming like some arbitrary rules. Particularly so on light of a view that this life and mode of existence, that of bodily life is temporary and the spirit is all that matters eternally, such things seem pointless. And this was what St Paul answered to those Corinthians who were thinking exactly along these lines, that there was no resurrection or it was already here and there was raising beyond death and out of it into full embodied immortal life, that all that mattered was the spirit and spiritual enlightenment and not what they did in and through their bodies (since those would pass) leading to allot of the problems in behaviour and lack of growth in holy living. St Paul’s answer was to explain and assure the truth of the resurrection, and that since Jesus had been raised with resurrection of the dead beginning with Him it would be brought to completion and death’s destruction, and explaining some the nature of the transfigured and Spirit empowered body to come. And therefore explains that they body is for the Lord because it will raised by Him, they will continue with it and so what they do in and through it matters allot, and concludes it with a call to charity to take a collection for the church in Jerusalem to care their physical needs in facing famine. The logic of which going from resurrection to needing to care for the physical needs of those around and close to us and of growth in holiness become clear and organically part of the gospel itself and not just a nice add-on from the focus on souls. The fact of resurrection shows to be the gospel itself and not just and happy outflow from it.

    Resurrection also assured the full turn around, rescue, restoration and healing of all and everything around us. For death being overturned and abolished and wiped from reality, no longer to haunt or restrain it. It promises that every hurt and damage will be healed, no matter the route and how long it takes, resurrection assures all will be healed, reconciled and restored. Humanity in Christ on this Earth will become the image and likeness of God they are called to be, and that this beautiful but incomplete and hurting creation around us will be raised and released with our resurrection. Like a woman in labour it will give birth and we will see and enjoy it as never before. Resurrection is the defiant rejection of any lasting effect of grief, injustice, dehumanization, poverty, crippling sickness and it’s humiliation and degradation of the person, and is the fact that brings even in those situations the beauty of it’s present victory and reality already there and to come. It assures that the world itself, subject to such abuse will also be restored and reminds us to focus on caring for our home, to become more the stewards we are meant to be and begin now to see God reflected out into creation through us, as that is part of the high calling to humanity renewed in Christ, as a reminder of who we are really meant to be.

    It is a revolutionary idea and truth, it denies to tyrant his last threat, and was why political elites among 1st century Jews tended to reject it, and why the Christians who affirmed it as well were persecuted over others such as gnostic Christians who weren’t. Resurrection is a challenge any currently in power, it denies and cast aside their final threat promising it will be overthrown and undone, and focuses life and action in orientation towards all aspects of life around us, bringing and anticipating the full resurrection to come. Resurrection is a denial of the tyrant’s final weapon, taking away it’s power, and rejects the final destructive and dehumanizing effect of any action, abuse, pathology, disease or disaster or even the most heinous crimes or events will be undone, overturned and the hurts restored and healed. All is denied any victory, and their threat and ultimate power is removed, moving people to move more towards fearless love bringing light into the dark and hurting areas of the world and people’s lives, facing hatred, injustice and dehumanization with love, compassion, forgiveness and restoration, going into the places of suffering, sharing and living the truth of the resurrection in Christ in their midst, denying the threats of all forces against to stop it as something already defeated, no matter whether institution, social, or reactionary. It is revolutionary in more fundamental way, and is a direct challenge to life and power structures now, as it focuses in life here, while focusing on some disembodied hereafter that is a compromise with death is a threat to no one, least of all those in power. Their ultimate threat remains, and those focusing on a life out there somewhere else who see themselves as only brief visitors here with this mode of existence being unimportant to final things are neither a threat or of any public importance. Their claims are safely off in some disembodied existence elsewhere that others are more than happy for them to retreat to, as long as they toe and live to the official line and keep the status quo in their public lives, insuring their claims have no effect on public life.

    Resurrection also denies any recourse to necessary evils as having justification to them. In the light of Christ’s resurrection and defeat of death we are called to act in unflinching love knowing and proclaiming the victory of life in all things, with every evil, hurt and grief to be healed and restored.

    With St Paul only with resurrection clearly in sight can we join him in his smack down taunt of death itself, where o death is your victory, where oh death, is your sting?. Only with resurrection centre can we confidently and definitely face death in all it’s forms and reject it’s conquest over people, it’s power is undone and it will be destroyed and gone utterly, all to be raised here for us to meet again here in this world. Death’s hold does not and will not hold anyone, but everyone will be brought out beyond death and all it’s marring. It will have no place at all all, and our loved ones, our world, all will be restored in full. Restored back to full and vital embodied human life, in this world brought to full, dynamic completion, alive in this world of beauty. There is no compromise to be had with death in the light of resurrection.

    And as St Paul observed if there is no resurrection Christianity is false, and makes no sense, resurrection lies at it’s heart, and I would suggest allowing the collapse of resurrection into some going off to heaven.

    Resurrection drives and informs Christian life and vision, gives it sense and meaning that is just incomplete otherwise so it’s pastoral effects are to be found there.

    And I can’t speak for others but some dis-embodied idea never helped to much with the loss of my close loved ones, of my brother and my baby nephew, those evil remained unchallenged and permanent on them and me. They would remain dead and less than fully human, and any general belief in spiritualism could get me that far, but a conviction on the truth of Jesus’ resurrection instead means those deaths will not have any final say or permanence. They are defeated and they will be undone, healed and destroyed and will be raised put beyond death to full life in this world restored and completely to it’s full beauty transfigured in the glory and love of God in the Messiah with life bursting with it’s full unrestrained glory that we can only dimly see now.

    To me victory over death is far more powerful and helpful in seeing and engaging the suffering and hurt in the world than talk of going to heaven. For me bringing resurrection to the centre of my thought about not just Christianity but all things, social, environmental, biological, cosmological, evolution, political, personal as well as theological and philosophical has revolutionized my thinking on so many things. And in it’s light much more about Christianity makes organic sense. And if early always talked of resurrection of the dead and saw it as centrally important and to often Christians now talk of ‘going to heaven’ which brings even when it isn’t intended to all the grave misconceptions I noted at the beginning then perhaps Wright is far from going to far, but instead we should continue to talk and live it more and going to heaven less.


  4. Kevin Davis says:

    For what it’s worth, you can read my comment’s at Wyatt’s blog and here: https://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/ill-take-a-beer-in-valhalla/


  5. Dante Aligheri says:

    I’m still working out my thoughts on this. But, in the mean time, I would agree that heaven is just as boisterous and jubilant as Valhalla. I think there are people who are turned off by the idea of heaven because it seems boring, milquetoast, and, quite frankly, populated by uninteresting people. By contrast, this rabbinic saying reminded me of that great Valhalla image you posted in its frank earthiness:

    “The Holy One, blessed be He, will act as the head dancer for the righteous in the Age to Come…Righteous on this side and righteous on that side of the Holy One, blessed be He in the middle…and each pious man with see God’s Glory [at the feasting table, who has gotten off the Throne to sit with them] and each of them will point his finger and say, ‘This is our God, our God, forever and ever!’ and they will eat and drink and rejoice…”


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    What of St. John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, III, 27-29, in this context (I have been led by Charles Williams to this, and have read the Watson & Pullan translation as revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight)?

    Is the epektasis explicated (so I understand) by St. Gregory of Nyssa temporally sequential as well as sequential in some other way(s)? Do blessed souls awaiting the general resurrection already undergo it?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I am not yet sufficiently acquainted with St Gregory’s eschatology to comment. I hope one day within the next year to have read enough of the Nyssen’s works to at least have a comment. 🙂

      One Eastern possibility is that of Sergius Bulgakov. Bulgakov firmly rejected the claim that souls in the intermediate state are reduced to a position of utter passivity: https://goo.gl/xw6FLm. Dumitru Staniloae would seem to agree with Bulgakov here, while at the same time rejecting Bulgakov’s universalist views: https://goo.gl/Of7VUM.

      For a view that seems similar to what John Burnett describes above, see this article by Fr Thomas Hopko: http://goo.gl/WnNlB0.


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