Jürgen Moltmann: heaven on earth and my heresy
Jürgen Moltmann is 92 years old. He is of the same generation as the well-known theologians I have posted about recently, such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. Like them, he was born in Germany and came of age in Nazified Germany. Unlike them he stayed, served in the Wehrmacht (Nazi army, not the SS), and seems to have experienced profound guilt and remorse when he learned about the concentration camps after the war. That’s his story, and I have no reason to doubt it.
In some ways he is the most interesting of the five German theologians I have posted about (Barth, Niebuhr, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich). I wish I understood why the most influential Christian theologians in the United States grew up in Nazified Germany, but I don’t.* Moltmann is interesting not because he is right, but because he is different. Moltmann is different not only because he believes in heaven, but in heaven on earth.
Heaven on earth and the theology of hope
Eschatology is the study of last things, the eschaton, the end of this world and the beginning of the next. Central to Moltmann’s eschatological vision is that life in heaven is embodied. It is marked by the physical resurrection of the dead, who will be joined by those still living in what can only be called heaven on earth.
Heaven on earth is important because the salvation of our disembodied selves would deprive us of bodily experience, a central part of being human, and a source of great pleasure as well as pain.
The reduction of salvation to souls is a gnostic vision that disregards the social, political, and physical needs of human beings. (Morrison, loc 632; Moltmann, Theology of Hope)
The Gnostics were a sect that regarded all things having to do with the body as evil.
At first this makes sense. Physical experience is central to being human, so heaven, being good, should preserve that experience. In fact, it’s a bad idea, for it leads to a world in which mortal humans are no longer mortal. If, as Moltmann argues, death and transience are no more, then we no longer live under the horizon of mortality. But it is mortality, transience, the makes human life human. We value experiences such as love precisely because they will not go on forever. Even the most loving relationship will be parted by death.
Moltmann believes that original creation was incomplete.
Death and transience will be no more, not because of sin, but because the original creation was incomplete. The new creation is not the return to a primordial state of perfection, but the redemption of creation into a new state of being, which includes overcoming death and transience. (Morrison, loc 3314)
The result is that life, or rather life on the other side of the eschaton, becomes a festival without end. I can’t think of anything more awful. Moltmann’s fundamental error is his view that we can’t truly love if love is not forever.
Ought we to accept death as a natural part of life? If so we must do without love, for love desires life, not death. (Moltmann, Christ for Today, loc 900)
More on this aspect of his thought in my next post on Moltmann. For now, the best thing to say about Moltmann’s view of the eschaton is that it is not about a terrible and terrifying end of the world, but the glorious beginning of a new one. It’s too bad that we can’t have it all: the intensity of experience that depends on the fact that it will end, and a guarantee that the good stuff will never end. But we can’t. Moltmann brings us too close to immortality. Not just the immortal soul, but human immortality.
The crucified God
The idea of the crucified God is that God suffers with those who suffer.
The central concept of The Crucified God is love which suffers in solidarity with those who suffer. This is love which meets the involuntary suffering of the godforsaken with another kind of suffering: voluntary fellow suffering. (Bauckham, p 11; Moltmann, The Crucified God)
From this viewpoint, the theodicy question (the justice and fairness of God) is misplaced. It’s not a question of God making the world better. It’s a question of his willingness to suffer with us in this world.
God either causes pain, is indifferent to suffering, or God suffers with us in our suffering. The first and second possibilities result in an apathetic monster-god, but the third is the crucified God, the God revealed in Christ’s cross. The suffering God alone is our solace; only the crucified Christ has anything to offer humanity in the midst of suffering and death. (Morrison, loc 992)
Christ’s experience of abandonment on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” means that no one dies alone. (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34),
My heresy: many have suffered more than Christ
I understand that the suffering of Christ is deeply symbolic. From one perspective he suffered for humankind. On the other hand, if we view Jesus as both God and man, it seems to me that he suffered less than millions of men and women. Suffering isn’t just measured by torture. It’s also measured by an understanding of the reason one is being tortured. Christ knew exactly why he was tortured to death. It was, in a real sense, the purpose of his life. Though he felt momentary despair, it was likely less, or at least different, than the despair felt by the inmates of Auschwitz, or the parents of a dying child. What purpose is served by their suffering? Many martyrs have suffered willingly because their suffering had meaning. What is the meaning of a dying child? It has no larger meaning, even if some are able to give it one, such as “it was God’s will, which we will never understand.” Christ understood God’s will perfectly (John 12:20-33). In that respect, at least, he suffered less than millions of humans throughout history.
The social trinity
My favorite aspect of Moltmann’s thought is his reinterpretation of the trinity so that it becomes a holy family, not simply the three faces of God. If we think about God from the perspective of the New Testament, we encounter the trinity as the narrative history of Jesus, in which God is Abba (father), and Jesus is the son of the father. They are separate beings. John 17:21-24 captures this relationship well. Jesus never calls God Lord, for Christ is Lord and God is God. Richard Bauckham (p 173) argues that if we start with the doctrine of the one God, then the trinity is about the different aspects or modes in which God presents himself. But if we start with the New Testament, we get a narrative of a relationship between three divine persons. As usual, the Bible is the best place to start.
For Moltmann, this means that the trinity is open, leaving space for human participation. Perichoresis is the fancy term that means the participation of each of the three persons of God in one another. It is often represented by a chalice pouring into another chalice which pours again into a third chalice, the circle of wine, or love, continuing forever.
God is a community, and within this community there is room for humans. The modern Western world thinks of people as separate individüuals. The communal trinity reminds us that as the essence of God is community, so is it the essence of humans to belong with others, including God. Moltmann goes about as far as one can go with the trinity without abandoning monotheism. In so doing he highlights the communal nature of Christianity at its very core. (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom).
In a previous post I characterized what the five theologians mentioned above shared, as well as what divides them. It’s harder for me to characterize Moltmann, so I think I will just continue to tell you more about him. My next post will include a discussion of Moltmann’s ecological writings, which grant to this earth its own creaturely perfection.
* Stanley Hauerwas is the exception. He grew up in Texas.
The picture accompanying this text is a section of “Crucifixion in Yellow,” by Marc Chagall. Moltmann says he keeps this picture over his desk.
Richard Bauckham, The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann. T&T Clark, 1995.
Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World. Fortress Press, 1994.
Jürgen Moltmann, “The crucified God,” in Jürgen Moltmann: Collected Readings, edited by Margaret Kohl. Fortress Press, 2014.
Jürgen Moltmann, “Theology of hope,” in Jürgen Moltmann: Collected Readings, edited by Margaret Kohl. Fortress Press, 2014.
Jürgen Moltmann, “The trinity and the kingdom,” in Jürgen Moltmann: Collected Readings, edited by Margaret Kohl. Fortress Press, 2014.
Stephen D. Morrison, Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English. Beloved Publishing, 2018.