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A. J. Conyers

The Renewal of All Things

Jürgen Moltmann's journey of hope.

Every age has its own genius, its own peculiar insight, that comes out of the bowels of its own suffering or its own dreams. Theologians and historians of a later age will see, more accurately than we might, how it was that the twentieth century produced such a Christian thinker as Jurgen Moltmann.

Only a decade before his birth in 1926, Europe was spiraling down from an incredible peak of optimism in its own civility and its lease on the future. Over 10 million soldiers—German, British, French, American, Russian, Italian, and Turkish—lay dead. After the Battle of Verdun, those who bore the "white man's burden" and had announced the "Christian century" awoke to news of staggering casualties, 600,000 lives lost in a single engagement.

Tidal waves of misery and conflict spread through the following decades. Economic collapse was followed by heightened bitterness, greater preparations for war, and the rise of ideologies of race and class that heretofore would have been dismissed as mere superstitions confined to fringe elements in society. Living patterns were disrupted; the delicate fabric of morals and manners was torn.

Philosophers such as Nietzsche had partly convinced Europeans that the replacement of those gentle, but deceptive, "Mediterranean values" was inevitable. Scapegoating on a vaster scale than ever before threatened to destroy the Jews of a half-dozen of what were considered the most civilized nations on earth. The pogroms of the Middle Ages paled in comparison. The slaughter of civilians in warfare moved from being a shocking casualty of high-tech warfare to a routine strategem of modern total war. And today, as the century comes to an end, old scores are still being settled.

The future "theologian of hope" grew up in the midst of this turbulence.

In 1943, Jurgen Moltmann and his entire class of 16-year-old gymnasium students were drafted to stand guard with the antiaircraft guns in Hamburg, waiting for the Royal Air Force. "At first they did not come ... and then they came," and in the firebombing of Hamburg, many of his classmates were killed, including a lifelong friend. Sent to the front, he was captured by the Al lies and spent more than three years in POW camps in Belgium, England, and Scotland. From a Bible given him by an American chaplain he read the Psalms. "These psalms," he has re called, "gave me the words for my own suffering." Whenever he tells the story of how he arrived at the themes of his later famous "theology of hope," he begins with this prison experience where "hope ... made the soul rub itself raw on the barbed wire, making it impossible to settle down in captivity or come to terms with it."1

Released from prison, or "repatriated" as they said then, he decided to study theology instead of mathematics as he had originally planned. At Gottingen, among professors who were themselves emerging from the devastation of war and the revelation of crimes committed in the name of the Third Reich, he pressed forward with questions of why, and indeed, if, there should be hope in the midst of a world that held such suffering, that had witnessed such crimes, and had looked with uncertainty on a future clouded by a nuclear threat.

In the middle sixties, Moltmann be came a principal figure in the recovery of Christian eschatology as a key to theology, especially with his writing of the Theology of Hope (1964; English translation, 1967). He argued that the eschatologies of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann were false eschatologies. In one way and then another, they dehistoricized the Christian gospel, leaving it without future and thus without hope. Barth had been on the right track when he said in his early writings, "Christianity that is not al together and without remainder eschatological has nothing to do with Christ."2 But he failed to follow through with that early insight. Bultmann had traded a mythical return of Christ for a psychological eternal "now." In both cases the anticipation of God's new work was lost. And ever since Moltmann's midsixties tour de force, along with the work of Wolf hart Pannenberg, it has been more difficult for theologians to ignore the significant part eschatology plays in the work of Christian theology.

In The Coming of God we find Moltmann returning, at an important milestone in his career (he celebrated his 70th birthday in 1996, a year after he retired from his long-held chair in theology at Tubingen), to the topic of Christian eschatology with which he began. But he returns to the topic in a quite different way. This follows a series of "systematic contributions to theology" that began in 1980 (ET, 1981) with The Trinity and the Kingdom, a doctrine of God. This first volume was followed with his Gifford lectures, God in Creation (1985); a volume on Christology, The Way of Jesus Christ (1989; ET, 1990); and another on the doctrine of the Spirit, The Spirit of Life (1992). Now, in this volume, a study of Christian eschatology in reference to its more traditional categories (resurrection, the kingdom of God, the Judgment, and the glorious return of Christ), we are reminded of why he began, and why, during all these years since Theology of Hope, he has sustained his focus on the hope engendered by the promise of the Christian gospel.

In Moltmann, it is the large sweeping lines of thought that both surprise the reader and energize the writing. He has not forgotten being caught up in the tragic gotterdammerung of Germany's Third Reich, the fiery ordeal that mostly destroyed his city, or the protracted days in Allied camps for prisoners of war. But at the same time, he sees the continuation here of multiplied ages of suffering humanity, the continent of Africa emptied of large populations to feed the avarice of Europeans gone mad over the prospects of fortunes in the New World. This was accompanied by the destruction of Native American communities, by their drastic depopulation and displacement, by the growing power of a nation that saw itself with a Manifest Destiny to occupy the land as Israel occupied the land of the Canaanites and Amalekites.

The reason we often do not recognize these multiple disasters, disasters of such unimaginable scale, of the modern age is that they were habitually represented to us in a more positive form. But the "theological justification of 'the modern world' with its intentions and hopes overlooks," Moltmann says, "the victims on the underside of history—in the Third World, in nature, and among women." These "political eschatologies" assume a purpose in history (and the purpose is necessarily an eschatological justification); but they also turn history into a struggle for power. The Western assumption that "progress" provides reason to take an optimistic view of history also encourages those who are oppressed by those whose destiny is "manifest" to take the view that power and violence is also their remedy. Moltmann quotes the proverb, "Better an end with terror than a terror without end" as the re verse image of the publicly acclaimed mythologies that justify the prolongation and use of power by those who have it. Popular mythologies such as this have their theological counterparts:

The apocalyptic eschatology which Bultmann considered "mythical" is more realistic than his faith in the inexorable onward course of history. The belief that things will "always go on" and that no end is in sight—at least not for us—is one of the fairytales of "the modern world," the fairytale of its endlessness and its lack of an alternative. This is secularized millenarianism. Anyone who declares "the modern world" to be his millennium, his "golden age," in which it is only a matter of refining the methods of power ... is really making the world for other people "the beast from the abyss," "the whore of Babylon," the voracious "dragon" of Revelation 13; and that person is actually preparing the modern world's downfall.

Moltmann has never divorced his treatment of theology—and especially eschatology—from the social, political, and economic concerns of society. In the late sixties, however, about the time I first began to read him, it seemed that he reacted so strongly to the dangers (and the actual results, especially in the West) to a thoroughly privatized relig ion, that he failed to speak very clearly, if at all, on matters such as prayer and the questions about life after death. I remember asking him once if he prayed to this God who had "future as his mode of being" (a phrase he adopted from the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch). I was almost surprised that his answer was yes.

But in later years he had much more to say on prayer, Christian experience, personal hopes, and the like. By 1986 he was dealing seriously with the question "What becomes of the dead?" In conferences sponsored by the Trinity Foundation in New York, Saint Louis, and San Francisco, scholars were more than a little surprised by Moltmann's outspokenness on this particular question. Was he answering his critics who said that he had nothing to say on this subject? Or was he actually changing course in some significant way? At this distance, it is perhaps fair to say that he had merely focused on an aspect of eschatology that he previously had neglected out of his desire not to write theology as an apology for private religious hopes.

"Christian eschatology must be broadened out into cosmic eschatology."

Since the principal error of a noneschatological, and therefore hopeless, theology is that it condemned the suffering to their lot, the poor to their poverty, the prisoners to their prison, then any neglect in theology that overlooks or gives no support to the dignity of human beings is to be confronted. Thus on the issue of abortion, which some had wanted to confine to a "private" sphere of concern, he wrote,

Each temporal Gestalt has the same dignity in God's sight, and hence the same rights before human beings. Every devaluation of the fetus, the embryo, and the fertilized ovum compared with life that is already born and adult is the beginning of a rejection and a de-humanization of human beings. Hope for the resurrection of the body does not permit any such death sentence to be passed on life. Fundamentally speaking, human beings mutilate themselves when embryos are devalued into mere "human material," for every human being was once just such an embryo in need of protection.3

Moltmann had always been, in similar ways, both consistent and surprising. In the early days, a well-known Southern Baptist theologian was announcing far and wide that "the problem with Moltmann is that he has no doctrine of the Spirit and he has no doctrine of the church." Little did he know that within a year, the German professor would write a book entitled The Church in the Power of the Spirit.

The surprise of his theology came in many forms; the consistency, I think, lies in his consistent reading of the Bible as a promise of God to vindicate the dignity of his creation, and thus to be glorified. This is a recognizably Reformed theme, but it is also a weighty critique of national or racial ambitions that deny dignity to some, and that raise a standard against the messianic (as opposed to power-brokering) intentions of God.

In The Coming of God we have evidence that Moltmann is still on track from his original intention. "This eschatology," he writes, "written thirty years after the Theology of Hope, is entirely in line with that doctrine of hope." Only here we find not an argument against the ahistorical theologies of Barth and Bultmann, but rather an attempt to put things in order according to the classical topics of Christian eschatology: eternal life, the kingdom of God, cosmic eschatology, and divine eschatology.

Here the two emphases of personal eschatology and social eschatology appear side by side, one supplementing and expanding the other; the resurrection of the dead supplements and expands the kingdom of God in the context of the resurrection of the dead. Immortality of the soul can be thought of in terms of a private destiny; but not so the resurrection of the dead. The resurrection, because it means God raising us up in all our relatedness, our past, and our hopes is more than "personal survival." It is "an event belonging to the whole of life." Therefore, it does not partake of the narcissistic, self-protective nature that is most often the case when we think of mere personal survival. Instead, all of life—with its history, its friendships, its conflicts, and its hopes—is affirmed by God. The result is that persons are released from fear of death and of life, and enabled to risk everything, living to the full. For nothing will truly ever be lost.

In a similar way, the idea of the resurrection of the body affirms our connectedness with nature. The immortal soul might be thought of as alien from nature, but the hope of the resurrection means that our place in nature is not a prison sentence but fully God's intention. Even before, but especially since God in Creation, Moltmann has endeavored to show the importance and power of an ecological theology, one that refuses to divorce humanity from nature. What God has joined together, let not human philosophy or theology put asunder.

Hence, "Christian eschatology must be broadened out into cosmic eschatology." The Christian hope is most comprehensively expressed as hope for a New Heaven and a New Earth. It is therefore not a redemption from the world, but a redemption of the world. The former is, in fact, the gnostic error in its most concise form, while redemption of the world necessarily includes the created order.

The gnostic error, as Eric Voegelin has reminded us, is more than an artifact of antiquity: it is modern in the sense that it is still with us in mass movements that reject the world-as-it-is in favor of some vision of total revolution in the order of being. Thus the rise of Herculean efforts to bring in a "Third Reich," or a Marxist-Socialist age of absolute freedom. Moltmann's theology, in spite of its admitted sources in the thought of esoteric Marxists such as Bloch, is actually good medicine against the gnostic dream of deliverance from the created order. And it is so precisely because of his turning of an eschatological theology (his concern of the 1960s) toward an ecological theology (his express concern of the 1980s).

Once the turn away from gnosticism has been made, however, another critical fork in the road stands in the way. The gnostic notion is one of a creation that excludes and prevents the goal and purpose of human existence. But a creation that contains within itself whatever there is of purpose and meaning is also a closed creation. One can fall off the horse on either side: gnosticism lies on the one hand, Epicureanism on the other. This is where the doctrine of hope and the doctrine of creation come together. For Moltmann, Christian theology is neither creation without hope, nor hope without creation, but both: a creation open to hope, and hope that includes creation. "If God created the world not in time but with time, then creation is creatio mutabilis, a creation subject to change, and a system open to the future, not a closed system complete in itself."

Readers of Moltmann will be familiar with his conceptual linking of Jewish and Christian hopes with the term messianism.4 The idea itself is not unique to Moltmann, certainly; but perhaps no Christian thinker has exploited this link theologically as effectively and as expansively. It becomes natural, then, for him to explore theories of the millennium (that ever-elusive image from Revelation 20) emphasizing the criteria of messianic eschatology. Does the return of Christ precede that millennium (premillennialism)? Succeed it (postmillennialism)? Or is the millennium figurative for this age in which we live, between the first and second advent of Christ (amillennialism)?

Moltmann approaches the question by assuming, first, that Christian eschatology is messianic, and therefore it is a martyr theology. Messianic means that hope lies not in deliverance from pain, especially when that means surviving off of the pain of others; instead, hope lies in the way of the Cross. In these hopes, Christ sides with the downtrodden and the abandoned: He lives and dies in solidarity with them. Amillennialism tends to affirm the orders of this world; and if the kingdom of God is in some sense already realized, from the standpoint of those who are oppressed, this is not good news. The idea that this age is the messianic reign of Christ fits well with the post-Constantinian linking up of church and state. Postmillennialism differs from amillennialism only in that the ideal age is postponed to the future; it nevertheless grows out of this age and the gospel that gradually pervades and transforms it.

Before Constantine—before the church was officially adopted, and in some occasions co-opted, by the Empire—a majority of Christians, Moltmann says, were premillennial. The Christian hope was not identified with this world, but stood over against it as hope and judgment. And it also stood on the side of those who are disadvantaged by the world as it stands. In medieval and modern times, however, this "chiliastic" view was subjected to ceaseless critique: it became seen as the province of radicals and fanatics. From the point of view of the oppressed, however, Moltmann argues that neither amillennialism nor postmillennialism conveys both the hope of a new world and a judgment of this world that one finds in premillennialism. In the first is the spirit of apathy, in the second is mere optimism, and only in the third do we find both the Cross and the Resurrection, both judgment and hope.

The modern world, since the religious wars of the seventeenth century, or since the exploration and settlement of the New World by Europeans, and since Descartes said we should be come "the masters and possessors of nature"—in short, since conquest became the civilizing method, and oppression its inevitable result—is drawn by the love of power instead of the power of love. Once again, argues Moltmann, we need to see the coming of God as a promise to those who are dispossessed and judgment against the human tendency to live by domination and conquest. In this way, the coming of God makes sense of the sacrifice of martyrs, the hopes of those who are imprisoned and those who are bereaved.

Thus Moltmann's project has come full circle. And while it returns to its beginning, it has yet changed and grown. The very first words of this volume are: "In the end is the beginning." Thus Moltmann reiterates his conviction that eschatology is not simply about how things, in the end, turn out, but also about where theology necessarily begins, with the promise of God.

A. J. Conyers is professor of theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He is the author of six books on theology and biblical studies, including God, Hope, and History: Jurgen Moltmann's Christian Concept of History.

1. Experiences of God (Fortress Press, 1980), p. 8.

2. Karl Barth, Der Romerbrief, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1922), p. 298; ref. Romans 8:24.

3. The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (HarperCollins, 1990), p. 268.

4. This goes back at least to his early essay on "Jewish and Christian Messianism," published in The Experiment Hope (Fortress Press, 1975), pp. 60–68.


Richard Bauckham, ed., God Will Be All in All: The Eschatology of Jurgen Moltmann (T&T Clark, 1999).

Jurgen Moltmann, translated by Margaret Kohl, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology (Fortress, 1999)

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