Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #2, Christendom's Cost — Worship Satan

Yesterday I posted the beginning of Karl Barth's exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations. He does a masterful job of explaining how Christ was tempted, not to violate the Law or commit a moral infraction, but to abandon his role as the obedient, Perfect Penitent. Put differently, Barth clarifies that Jesus' sinlessness is not a vague moral perfection, but rather obedience and repentance.

Christ's first temptation was to turn stones into bread, thereby using divine power as a "technical instrument" to save and maintain his own life. Today's temptation contains an incisive critique of Christendom's desire for influence, relevance, and power.

The Second Temptation: Christendom's Cost — Worship Satan (CD IV/1, 262)

"According to Luke, the second Satanic suggestion is that Satan, to whom the world belongs, should give him lordship over it, at the price of His falling down and worshipping him.


Barth gets right to the point, interpreting this temptation. Notice again the theme of abandoning repentance:

"What would it have meant if Jesus had done this?Obviously He would have shown that He repented having received the baptism of John and that He did not intend to complete the penitence which He had begun. He would have ceased to recognise and confess the sin of the world as sin, to take it upon Himself as such, and in His own person to bring to an issue the conflict with it (as with man's contradiction against God and himself).

Terrible, right? But consider how pragmatism rears its ugly head!

"He would have won through and been converted to a simpler and more practical and more realistic approach and way. He would have determined to drop the question of the overcoming and removing of evil, to accept the undeniable fact of the overlordship of evil in the world, and to do good, even the best, on this indisputable presupposition, on the ground and in the sphere of this overlordship.

OK, so even then, the phrase "undeniable overlordship of evil" sounds quite nasty. But Barth is driving home an incisive critique of Christendom — the unholy marriage between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of humanity and the Devil.

The following question is haunting. I am particularly struck by the inclusion of the word "ecumenical." If we are not careful, isn't this almost exactly what many Christians desire? How far are we willing to go to obtain influence and power?

"Why not set up a real kingdom of God on earth? an international order modelled on the insights of Christian humanitarianism, in which, of course, a liberal-orthodox, ecumenical, confessional Church might also find an appropriate place?

And we can still fall prey to this temptation, without completely giving up our God! Just worship God and bow the knee, even secretly, to Satan. Sure, you can still be pious. Just achieve your piety's ends through the gears and cogs of the world-machine! You want to be relevant? Hitch your goals to a movement, a political party, a military!

"Note that to do this He was not asked to renounce God or to go over to atheism. He had only to lift His hat to the usurper. He had only to bow the knee discreetly and privately to the devil. He had only to make the quiet but solid and irreversible acknowledgment that in that world of splendour the devil should have the first and final word, that at bottom everything should remain as it had been.
However, Barth's point is that, in doing so, Christ would have completely given up the redemptive mission. We must take heed, especially in our ostensibly "Christian" nation (according to some in the US, at least), lest we do the same.
"On this condition we can all succeed in the world, and Jesus most of all. In the divine and human kingdom set up on this condition there would have been no place for the cross. Or rather, in this world ostensibly ruled by Jesus but secretly by Satan, the cross would have been harmlessly turned into a fine and profound symbol: an ornament in the official philosophy and outlook; but also an adornment (e.g., an episcopal adornment) in the more usual sense of the word; a suitable recollection of that which Jesus avoided and which is not therefore necessary for anyone else.
Christ succeeded at this point where every other human would have failed.
"What other man in Jesus' place would not have been clever enough to close with this offer? But what He had to do and willed to do in place of all would not then have been done. He would again have left them in the lurch and betrayed them, in spite of all the fine and good things that the world-kingdom of Satan and Jesus might have meant for them.
Attractive realism vs. repentance and obedience. Will we take Christ's example and Barth's critique to heart, as the Church constantly faces the temptation to give allegiance to the powers, empires, and corporations of this world?
"For of what advantage is even the greatest glory to a world which is still definitively unreconciled with God? Of what gain to man are all the conceivable advantages and advances of such a kingdom? But Jesus resisted this temptation too. He refused to be won over to this attractive realism. As the one great sinner in the name and place of all others, without any prospect of this glory, quite unsuccessfully, indeed with the certainty of failure, He willed to continue worshipping and serving God alone. He willed to persist in repentance and obedience. This was the righteousness which He achieved for us."

Stay tuned for tomorrow's temptation, which Barth considers the most astonishing: "to commit an act of supreme, unconditional, blind, absolute, total confidence in God-as was obviously supremely fitting for the Son of God."

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