Home » Extras » Book Reviews » David Lauber. Barth on the Descent into Hell: God, Atonement and the Christian Life.


David Lauber. Barth on the Descent into Hell: God, Atonement and the Christian Life.


David Lauber. Barth on the Descent into Hell: God, Atonement and the Christian Life.
Burlington , VT : Ashgate, 2004. Pp vi + 186.         cloth, us$89.95. ISBN 0-7546-43341-1


The purpose of David Lauber’s book is an investigation of Karl Barth’s understanding of Christ’s suffering of the wrath of God on our behalf and in our place.

The foil for this book is Wayne Grudem’s article, “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed” [Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991) pp. 103-13.] Contradicting Grudem at al points, Lauber asserts relentlessly that the descent into hell is intrinsic to a complete understanding of the substitutionary suffering of Jesus.

The immediate conversation partner throughout is Hans Urs von Balthasar in his perspective on the descent.

Lauber explores Barth’s grasp of the divine condemnation that Jesus Christ bore on behalf of humankind.  While Barth has affinities with Anselm, his understanding of the atonement moves beyond the static, mechanical – even non-biblical transactional – aspects of the Latin view of the cross.  Insofar as Barth relocates the descent in the doctrine of God he avoids the liabilities that have haunted the Latin view of the atonement and its espousal of penal substitution; namely, how the sacrifice of an innocent human changed God’s nature from wrath to love and allowed grace to succeed judgement. Love, rather, provides the sacrifice even as grace precipitates saving judgement.

With Calvin, Barth insists that the curse, punishment and ordeal that Jesus endured in the cross as God’s reaction to sin – specifically, the humanly incomprehensible horror of the dereliction – is the descent; for here Jesus, the ever-obedient Son, was cast into an abyss that no one else can mine or measure.  Unacceptable, then, is any notion that the descent is the exalted Christ’s “journey” wherein he “harrows hell” as he engages the devil and releases captive believers. Neither Friday’s finished work nor Easter’s disclosure of it lends the Church anything to say concerning Holy Saturday.

Lauber contrasts the lattermost point with Balthasar’s exposition of Holy Saturday wherein Balthasar affirms the descent to be distinct from the cross (albeit never separated from it), viewing the descent as marking the defeat of sin and death and acting as a transition from death to resurrection.

Balthasar distances himself from the language of “descent”, arguing that Jesus qua dead can do nothing. Jesus, rather, is taken to the dead. Jesus’ “descent” is first to Sheol of the Older Testament.  In Sheol Jesus, the God-forsaken one, fulfils the judgement that was adumbrated in God’s judgement on covenant-breakers, the judgement that had been pointed to in God’s abandonment, e.g., of Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job and the Suffering Servant.  Beyond Sheol, however, Christ’s “descent” is an experience of the ‘second’ death. Here Balthasar departs from Barth, as Balthasar insists that God-forsakenness prior to Jesus’ death (“Why have you forsaken me?”) is not the same as God-forsakenness after death.  While diverging here from the Reformed tradition, Balthasar maintains nonetheless that there is nothing insufficient or incomplete in Friday. Still, on Friday Jesus, actively obedient, endures God’s wrath; on Saturday, utterly passive, Jesus is one with the poena damni. In complete solidarity with the dead, he, alone the Son of God Incarnate, is uniquely subject to the arch-torment of rejection at the Father’s hand – which rejection forges hell; i.e., hell is a product of the world’s redemption.

What are the implications of the descent for the Trinitarian life of God? Having exposed Karl Rahner’s discussion of the descent briefly yet convincingly as disguised naturalism, Lauber criticizes Juergen Moltmann at length. Moltmann maintains that the dereliction introduces a rift into the divine life.   At the cross God “becomes” or “turns into” (p. 122) what God formerly was not. God isn’t love eternally. God becomes love only as there is a creation to be loved; i.e., God creates the world as an act of divine self-completion.  More to the point, God has to suffer at the hands of the world in order to be God. Lost here is the particularity of the dereliction as the enacting of sin-bearing atonement. Instead God is now qualified to be an empathic fellow-victim of creaturely brutality even as God is fully constituted God.

Upholding the distinction between immanent and economic Trinities, Barth and Balthasar assess the dereliction regarding Trinitarian implications while avoiding Moltmann’s divagations. Balthasar insists that the eternal intimacy of Father and Son assumes another modality in the economy of the Incarnation as the dereliction occasions a new expression of the eternal love of the Triune God.  Unlike Moltmann, Balthasar maintains that the mission of Jesus is grounded in the eternal procession of Father and Son, even as mission is never collapsed into procession. In this way the effectual specificity of the dereliction is recognized as an event in the life of the Triune God (the dereliction enacts; it doesn’t merely illustrate) while the eternal Tri-unity of God is preserved.

The book concludes with an application of the descent for Christian discipleship.  Disciples can’t bear Christ’s cross, and he won’t bear theirs.  While his is atoning and theirs isn’t, his mandating theirs invites a conversation with Balthasar’s sounding of Colossians 1:24, wherein disciples’ sufferings “complete” what is “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, even as Christ’s are deficient in nothing.

One mark of a good book is the protracted discussion it catalyzes with its principals and its topic. In this regard Lauber’s book is exemplary.


Victor A. Shepherd

Tyndale Seminary