Tag Archives: the end of the world

God To The Future: A personal theological reflection on Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope: On the Ground and Implications of A Christian Eschatology

A clip of the Dolorean from Back To The Future:

Back To The Future

The Way of the Moltmann

In June of 2006, I made the decision to read up on the best contemporary works on the doctrine of the Trinity.  I took the advice of a theology professor and checked out Jürgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God. I learned a new language, and the gift to speak another tongue with such terms as Kenosis and Theosis, Perichoresis and Hypostasis, mutuality and self-giving, as well as solidarity and liberation.  As I have studied Moltmann’s work in my free time (I have never been assigned any of his books for my course work), I have learned more about God, myself, and the world.  His approach to theology opened up a new way of thinking about the Christian life for me.  Moltmann’s theology cannot be fit into a box: we can hear the sounds of a process theist in his work one moment, and the next, he comes off looking like a radical Lutheran.  The nature of his work is very ecumenical, and that is the appeal for me.  Moltmann does not just have conversations with people that look and think like him; which is what we often see in liberal Protestant theology as well as conservative Evangelical folds.  In Moltmann’s works, what we witness is a tapestry of a faithfulness to Christian tradition, critical inquiries of questionable doctrine, as well as a generous dose of biblical proof-texting.  Given that Moltmann’s Theology of Hopeis the preeminent work of his scholarly career, I must warn the reader who finds the time to read and enjoy ToH that this post may be full of SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT!

Personally, I wish that I had read Theology of Hope seven years ago when I was an undergrad.  In those days, I had a large concern for the social injustices taking place in the world but at the same, I was more of an Arminian and soft Preterist in my Christian thinking.  I was completely unable to integrate my political concerns with my theology.  Dispensationalists, to their credit, brought back eschatology (the Last Days), as a concern for Christianity as opposed to the German and American liberal Protestant tradition’s complete rejection of Jesus of Nazareth’s as well as the apostle Paul’s Second Temple Jewish apocalypticisms.  Like a young teenaged boy who falls in love with a girl at the first sign of hello, I was won over when Moltmann said, “From the first to last, and not merely in the epilogue,  Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.  The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything in the dawn of an expected new day,”[1]

A lot of persons who do systematic theology just assume that Christians can afford to discuss the “Last Things” last as something of an afterthought, sort of like running backs in football (with the exception of Barry Sanders) can give themselves all the glory without thinking about the offensive linemen’s hardwork.  We can just open up those theology textbooks, and first hear about either the ontological, cosmological, and/or existential evidential cases for the existence of God, and then from there, we go to the story of creation, the fall, Christology, the Church, the Holy Spirit (albeit always the shortest chapter), and then maybe the last things at the very end right before we reach the index.  That has to be a reason why the book of Revelation is placed last in the New Testament, right?

The Story of Israel’s God

The beauty of ToH is that Moltmann starts with the First Testament as the beginning point of his conversation while avoiding both the history of religions approach as well as the “reading Jesus into every Old Testament passage” method.  The chapter entitled “Promise and History” presents a theology of history and revelation which maintains hope as its center.  Taking his cue from Hebrew Bible scholar Walt Zimmerli, Moltmann argues that the word of God primarily comes in the form of promise.[2] With the word of promise, comes the freedom of human beings to obey or disobey, to live in hope or despair.  Despair, for Jürgen Moltmann, is a sinful state human beings suffer from in which due to our fail to strive to become divine on our own terms, we fall into resignation and fear.[3] The religion of Israel, as God of Scripture’s way of curing human despair, is, in Moltmann’s words ‘the religion of expectation.’  Promise gives human beings something to live for; it provides purpose for our lives, and human trust in the promises of God pre-supposes God’s faithfulness.[4] History, then, is redefined as the history of events in which God has acted to fulfill God’s promises.  God’s self-disclosure, then, is an act of God’s faithfulness to the covenant made between God and humanity.[5] Knowing God means re-cognizing God in the midst of God’s history of promises; God is present with us in God’s promises and God will be present with us in the fulfillment of those promises.  Truth, then is a reality, that we can know only in the future, and not something we can prove in the here and now.

The Resurrected Messiah

If the Truth of God is something that is part of a future reality, that which we are unable to receive in our present existence, then the Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah serves as the revelation of who God really is, as well as a “sneak peek’ into who humanity and creation will become.  The God of promise in the First Testament, according to Moltmann, is the deity responsible for the raising of Jesus the Messiah from death.  The God who gave the law to Moses, that same law which is bound up with the promises of God from God to Abraham, is the God who inspires the apostle Paul to declare that Jesus the Messiah to be the end (telos) of the Torah.[6] Far from being just another Hellenistic cult in its early days, Christianity is the religion where God has given Christ-followers the very same Spirit who raised the Savior and who quickens the dead according to Romans 8:11.[7] Because of Moltmann’s theology of history, historical/scientific proofs for the raising of Christ from death fall into the errors of modernist biases and into irrelevancy.  Rather, the resurrection is a history-making event because it is a hopeful-remembrance responsible for the transformation of human social existence; it also provides us hope for the history of the world.[8] This proposition is only binding on the part of the Christian who wishes to remain faithful to the God of promise and of Jesus Christ.  The Easter narratives take the Church beyond history and into the future that God has promised.

Ministry and Mission

Moltmann’s Theology of Hope would be meaningless for me if his notion that “Christianity is eschatology” did not have any practical application.  As I was reading the final chapter, “Exodus Church,” I kept thinking back to my call to ministry, my favorite Bible passage Judges 6:12, as well as my current job situation as the director of Children’s Ministries at a local church.  Normally, when one reads a book on constructive or systematic theology, these texts have nothing to do with day-to-day church life.  ToH is one of the exceptions for me, particularly as I reflect on God’s call on my life.  One of the modern ideas that Moltmann objects to is the notion that the Church remain an institution that promotes stability and order in the broader society, relegating church leaders to nothing more than the apologists of fixed traditions.[9] Existence is never questioned because security and certainty are valued above all else.  Moltmann calls the Church to reject this mode of being in favor of a community which raises the question of meaning in each generation:

“If Christianity, according to the will of him in whom it believes and in whom it hopes, is to be different and to serve a different purpose, then it must address itself to no less a task than that of breaking out of its socially fixed roles.  It must display a kind of conduct which is not in accordance with these.  That is the conflict imposed on every Christian and every Christian minister.  If the God who called them to life should expect of them something other than what modern industrial society expects and requires of them, then Christians must venture into an exodus and regard their social roles as a new Babylonian exhile.”[10]

Like Gideon in Judges 6, God calls Christians to reject our social roles imposed on us by the powers that be (in Gideon’s case, the son of the least ranked family in the least ranked clan in the least ranked tribe).  The God who joins us in and as well as who stakes God’s claim in our future at the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah is the same God who calls that which is what it is not yet; Gideon was hiding in terror from the Midianites when the Angel of YHWH called him a “mighty warrior.”  Gideon refused to accept the marginalization that his culture had placed on him and became a great judge.  The church, defined by the American government is nothing more than another 501c3 charity organization which provides stability for American society; if the church steps outside that role, it is punished through taxation for not knowing its role so to speak.  Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope provides North American Christianity with a good starting point, to break away from Constantinian, imperialist churchianity and into practicing and living out the hope of the resurrection as well as the politics of the cross!

Truth and Peace,


Works Cited.

Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Hope : On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. 1st Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope : On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, 1st Fortress Press ed.(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). Page 16

[2] Ibid. page 104.

[3] Ibid. page 24.

[4] Ibid. pages 103-106.

[5] Ibid. page 116.

[6] Ibid. page 146.

[7] Ibid. page 162.

[8] Ibid. page 180.

[9] Ibid. page 322.

[10] Ibid. page 324.

Hell, it’s better than annihilation.

To be honest, I normally do not waste my time writing on my ideas about the afterlife (since it almost always leads to abstract thinking away from the concrete problems in the world) but Rob’s and Joel’s recent posts have gotten me thinking about the topic of hell.  Also, recently someone at a Bible study was almost laughing at the possible fact that a person of a different religious background was burning in hell.  This was not the first time I had heard of Christians getting all giddy because there are persons condemned to Gehenna (one of the greek terms translated as hell); I do recall there was a five-point Calvinist one time who sent me a facebook message who told me to also rejoice because there were persons in hell because of Christ’s limited atonement.  Just the other day, I heard of a pastor who preached in a sermon that hell is when a person refuses to be part of a community.  It goes to show the reason why Christians steer away from discussing the topic of hell because it is sounds like sadomasochistic and cruel, with the saints in heaven rejoicing (since there will be no more tears in the new creation according to Revelation) as they observe sinners burn in the lake of fire below them.

Eternal torment is currently the least popular doctrine in traditional Christianity.  In fact, a recent survey suggests that 59 percents of Americans believe in hell as opposed to 74% who believe in heaven.  Pope John Paul II, stating the Roman Catholic teaching on the topic in 1999, said that hell was the state of being separated from God.  Many evangelicals got into an uproar because they opposed the idea that eternal damnation is only a “state of mind.”  What they do not realize is that the official Catholic teaching is just not about a “state of mind,” it is a state of the soul after a person dies (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035).  While I agree that hell can be a state after the soul dies, I disagree with the Apostles Creed and the traditional teaching that says that Jesus descended into hell; Jesus did not descend into hell according to the New Testament witness—he descended into Sheoul, which is a totally different concept than the idea of hell/eternal punishment (1st Peter 4:6).  According to Peter, the Gospel was preached to the dead, the righteous and the unrighteous, even going back as far as Noah’s generation (1st Peter 3:18-22).  This makes Jesus the Messiah’s victory over sin, death, and the Enemy transcendent; Jesus the Messiah’s sacrifice surpasses any concept of time that humans know because his death was not only made relevant for his generation and subsequent generations, but also for all people who lived in the past.  The biblical text suggests that the Good News can be preached to persons even after they leave this world.

I do not believe that Scripture teaches us that we live in a three-tiered world, where there is this place called heaven up there above us and hell right below us.  Three-tiered universes are reserved for people who adhere to dualism, and I am definitely not a fan of dualism because it makes the Enemy out to be an all-powerful, all-knowing rival of God.

Instead, the doctrine of eternal punishment should be examined through the lens of the New Testament author’s testimony and the doctrine of the Resurrection.  The apostle Paul even preached that he had “hope in God—a hope that they [the prophets of the First Testament] themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.”  The righteous, according to Paul will receive new imperishable, immortal bodies at the Second Coming (1st Corinthians 15), but he does not say anything of the bodies of the wicked.  All we know is that the unrighteous rise up in their bodies to be judged by the Son of Man.

The lake of fire is not a place, but a metaphor for what John of Patmos calls “the second death”; those who experience the second death are still on Earth, but they experience the presence of God, who will be “all in all,” as death just as the righteous experience God in their bodies as eternal life.  There are some Christians such as Open Theists Clark Pinnock and John Sanders as well as Anglican theologian John Stott who teach the heresy of annihilationism, which is the idea that rather than eternal torment, the wicked will be completely destroyed: spirit, mind, and body.  This god of the annihilation is not the God of the bodily resurrection.  Annihilationism contradicts God’s ultimate aim for the reconciliation for all of creation as well as God’s own ordinance that the human body is good as we see in the Incarnation of God’s very word.  Annihilationists dismiss the hope of the resurrection as well as the hope that the Triune God’s forgiveness and mercy brings.  The wicked still have their subjectivity and body in Hell as they experience God at the new creation; they even have their hands, feet, teeth, and tearducts from their eyes for weeping as Jesus graphically tells us (Matthew 22:13). Jesus bore all the sins of the universe in his body; he was raised from the dead in his body by the Father and Holy Spirit so that he may judge our ancestors, contemporaries, and our descendants.  The same God who tells us that the body is the Holies of Holies of the Living God would not be the god who destroys the bodies his enemies completely.

Finally, what do my thoughts on eternal judgment mean for the here-and-now?  It means that hell can possibly also be experienced here in this world.  Hell is Darfur.  Hell is Iraq.  Hell is an abortion clinic.  Hell is death row.  Hell is Guantanamo Bay.  This understanding also means that like Christ, the Church is given the authority to invade the gates of Hades and death (Matthew 16:18) to proclaim life to dead bodies.  The politics of the cross permits Christians to resist death-dealing forces nonviolently as they preach the Word of the LORD.  It means that the power of the resurrection is possible in any instance or place because God’s Almightiness revealed in the raising of the Messiah supersedes all human notions of time and space; it is God’s eternal power that goes back in time to save even sinners who once had not hope in the past.  Even in hell, there is hope.

And for the record:  I am neither a Calvinist (obviously) or a Universalist.  I do not think that God has predetermined that anyone should go to hell prior to creation nor do I believe that God forces anyone to love God as universalists believe.  People freely choose with their own libertarian free will to either love God or to reject God’s love.  That choice is limited but it is still the choice of the individual person.

Truth and Peace,