The only two tenable (i.e. biblically and theologically defensible) positions available for the soteriological question are either (i) a robust reaffirmation of limited atonement (the negative side of which includes the possibility of annihilation), or (ii) some form of christological universalism (with various degrees of agnosticism). Barth, of course, was rightly suspicious of ‘isms’, whether universalism or any other –ism, and would not affirm a dogmatic doctrine of universal salvation, although he does join a tradition of both Eastern and Western theologians going back to Origen of Alexandria (185–232), Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Gregory of Nyssa (335–394?), Ambrose of Milan (337?–397) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389) who all affirm a strong hope in universal salvation.
Barth famously concludes IV/3/1 by again urging that we have no good reason why we should be forbidden, or forbid ourselves from an ‘openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained much more than we might expect’, including the ‘unexpected withdrawal of that final threat’.
If for a moment we accept the unfalsified truth of the reality which even now so forcefully limits the perverted human situation, does it not point plainly in the direction of the work of a truly eternal divine patience and deliverance and therefore of an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation? If we are certainly forbidden to count on this as though we had a claim to it, as though it were not supremely the work of God to which man can have no possible claim, we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it as we may do already on this side of this final possibility, i.e., to hope and pray cautiously and yet distinctly that, in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is ‘new every morning’ He ‘will not cast off for ever’ (La. 3:22f., 31).
The creature cannot impose anything upon God because God is sovereign and free. That is why universalism equals the elimination of God’s freedom. But if God in his sovereignty and freedom has revealed himself in his being-in-act – that is, in Jesus Christ – then ought – nay, must – this not have radical implications for all doctrinal issues, and no less this one. We have no reason to presume that God in his total freedom will act other than he has acted in Jesus Christ – full of grace and truth.
Therefore, we may reasonably hope for a full Apokatastasis. Few have expressed this hope more beautifully than the nineteenth century Congregationalist minister, James Baldwin Brown: ‘The love which won the sceptre on Calvary will wield it as a power, waxing ever, waning never, through all the ages; and that the Father will never cease from yearning over the prodigals, and Christ will never cease from seeking the lost, while one knee remains stubborn before the name of Jesus, and one heart is unmastered by His love’. Or consider these words from Thomas Erskine,
I cannot believe that any human being can be beyond the reach of God’s grace and the sanctifying power of His Spirit. And if all are within His reach, is it possible to suppose that He will allow any to remain unsanctified? Is not the love revealed in Jesus Christ a love unlimited, unbounded, which will not leave undone anything which love could desire? It was surely nothing else than the complete and universal triumph of that love which Paul was contemplating when he cried out, ‘Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
In Jesus Christ, the Triune God has bound humanity to himself in such a way that even if we refuse him and damn ourselves to hell, God in his love will never cease hunting us down. So even if the church cannot affirm the apokatastasis panton, we can hope for it, and pray for it, and stop denying the possibility of it in the grace of God. Hans Urs von Balthasar was right when he said that there is all the difference in the world between believing in the certitude of universal salvation and hoping for it.