According to theologian Roger Olson, yes, he was. Or, rather, his doctrine of election logically leads to universalism.
Roger Olson just published an essay on his blog on this question (“Was Karl Barth a Universalist? Another Look at an Old Question“), after a year or so digging into Church Dogmatics. He says ”I do not claim that this article contains anything previously undiscovered or unheard of. However, I do not know of anything in print that covers precisely the same ground (e.g., including Barth’s views regarding free will).”
Olson states that Barth was quite coy on the subject (and denied being a universalist), but that
I will argue here that Barth’s doctrine of God’s gracious election necessarily, logically requires a peculiar kind ofuniversalism. To say the things Barth said about it and then deny universalism was, or would be, a logical contradiction—something that makes any system of thought incoherent and thereby nonsensical. But I will also argue that Barth did not explicitly deny universalism. What he denied was the necessity of universal salvation—that God must save everyone.
For the nearly uninitiated, such as myself, Olson provides a great overview of Barth’s doctrine of election. I won’t even attempt an overview of Olson’s overview, I’ll leave you to read his essay. (Which is really the point of this post, to direct you there. The rest of what follows here is filler. )
Quite frankly, I’m not in a position to comment about Barth’s views on election. I will, however, highlight some material that stood out for me and some thoughts arising from it.
1. Barth’s doctrine of election begins and ends with Christ, which Olson sees leading inevitably to universalism. I’d like to see him connect the scriptural dots, as it were, on his view, so I guess there’s another reason for me to get into Dogmatics. Having said that, it does make a great deal of sense to begin and end with Christ, and the way Barth goes about it (as explained by Olson) makes a great deal of sense viz-a-viz universal salvation. And, if I may get a little subjective here, it’s quite theologically and spiritually moving. There are, of course, some tensions or paradoxes that neither Barth nor Olson clear out of the way, but on this subject in particular I think paradox is almost a given, no matter what position one takes.
2. Barth argues that Christ is the Elect (in whom all humanity is elected), even in the double predestinarian sense of being also the one who is rejected (or takes on that death and rejection on our behalf). That sentence doesn’t quite do Barth (or Olson) justice. Let me quote Olson (who, incidentally, needs to learn about blockquotes to make a clearer distinction between his own words and Barth’s) in a couple of places I was particularly struck:
What singles [Jesus] out from the rest of the elect, and yet also, and for the first time, unites Him with them, is the fact that as elected man He is also the electing God, electing them in His own humanity. In that He (as God) wills Himself (as man), He also wills them. And so they are elect “in Him,” in and with His own election. (Emphasis mine.)
and (definitely quoting Barth):
“The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath of God under which all men lie, the death which all men must die, God in his love for men transfers from all eternity to Him in whom He loves and elects them, and whom He elects at their head and in their place.” (p. 123) [in CD II/2]
This understanding gives Jesus’ teaching that “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” a whole new (or deeper) meaning: greater love has no one than God in Christ who took on damnation on behalf of his friends. (Perhaps a bit strong, but that’s where this seems to lead.)
3. Barth understood the term “salvation” on two levels:
One is what happened for all people in Jesus Christ, in his election and reprobation, in his incarnation and atoning death, and in his resurrection. It is finished—for everyone. The other is coming to know it and live in the new being of it—which is what makes one a Christian. But, for Barth, being “saved” in the first sense, objectively reconciled, forgiven, justified, is a “done deal” for all people in Jesus Christ whereas being “saved” in the second sense—something to be sought and found—corresponds to actualizing salvation in knowing, living and witnessing.
Perhaps not two understandings of salvation, rather one understanding of salvation with a subcategory of those who are aware of the salvation which is theirs (that is, Christians). Thus we have the saved (everyone?) and we have Christians as a subcategory of the saved.
This leads to this:
Barth argued that a person who fully understands his or her unworthiness for election cannot look upon anyone as rejected by God:
The believer cannot possibly confront the unbeliever with the suspicion that the latter is perhaps rejected. For he knows who has borne the merited and inevitable rejection of the godless, his own above all. How can he possibly regard others as perhaps rejected merely because he thinks he knows their unbelief and therefore their godlessness? If he does what becomes of his own faith? What of his own election? (p. 327)
Quite a wonderful insight, if you ask me, a grounded reason for not having an “us and them” view of the world.
4. I think this is also a good response to the common evangelical concern with universalism, namely, the Great Commission, the call to witness, to make disciples, to preach the Gospel. Does not the idea of universalism make the Great Commission, the notion of proclamation, of the call to make disciples sort of a moot point? If all people are saved anyway, why bother with proclamation?
The Great Commission is not nullified by a universalist doctrine. In fact, one can still speak of “converts” when holding a universalist position, but in the context of converts to the truth of the world, namely, that Jesus has saved and is saving. I see echoes here in Bonhoeffer in Ethics, at least as far as I can recall: you are saved, embrace that reality! This, it seems to me, is equally good reason to proclaim the gospel as the traditional urgency about hell and damnation, etc. The message is effectively the same. The difference is that the threat of hell is essentially erased in the Barthian (as explained by Olson) position. But why is the threat of hell a necessary part of proclamation of the Gospel (note I say the threat of hell, not hell itself, in which existence Barth appears to have believed)? It need not be (and some argue that the hell piece is not ultimately part of the Gospel proper, such as McKnight in The King Jesus Gospel).
5. Finally, I found it odd throughout this essay to hear of Barth scholars insisting on denying universalism in his thought. The impression I get is that they’ve rejected universalism already and then insisted that Barth couldn’t possibly be a universalist, because universalism is “heresy”. It seems to me they (and we) should take Barth on his own words, whether or not universalism is “heresy”, to see if what he says has the ring of truth to it. In the end, the feeling I get (again, from Olson’s representation of things) is that Barth scholars are looking for even the tiniest hint of non-universalism in Barth simply because they’re of the opinion that universalism is bad, not because Barth is clearly not a universalist. They’re trying to “save” Barth from something he doesn’t need saving from. He thought what he thought.
Those are some of my thoughts. Olson’s essay is a long (but enjoyable) one, with lots of material from Dogmatics covered, and there is much more worth commenting and reflecting on that I’ve already forgotten! (A shortcoming of reading online [no underlining] and me not taking notes as I read the article on my iPhone.)
Go, read the essay. Tell me what you think.