Jürgen Moltmann’s ecological God

Jürgen Moltmann’s ecological God.

In Theology of Hope, Jürgen Moltmann’s most well-known work, he argues that the man who hopes will hope to transcend this earth, including death.

All this must inevitably mean that the man who thus hopes will never be able to reconcile himself with the laws and constraints of this earth, neither with the inevitability of death.  (Hope, loc 272)

As I argued in my previous post on Moltmann, this means that the eschaton (end of this world and beginning of the next) will be realized on this earth, on which immortal beings will dwell.  I find this seriously weird. 

More than weird, it denies what it is to be human, which is to be finite and mortal.  Heaven there may be, but it will not be here (as if heaven were in time and space), and it will not be populated by immortal earthlings.  More than this I do not know, and even about this I am far from certain. 

The resurrection of nature

The core of the ecological crisis, says Moltmann, is subject-object thinking, which inevitably leads to the subject (man) dominating the object (nature).  Moltmann sounds like the utopian Marxists who founded the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory,* but Moltmann’s quotation from Karl Marx on the resurrection of nature tells us all we need to know.

Karl Marx called this “the true resurrection of nature,” and hoped that it would come from a “naturalization of man” and from the “humanization of nature.” (Creation, loc 2427) 

The humanization of nature and the naturalization of man is the work of the Holy Spirit, which dwells continuously in nature.  God resides not in heaven, but in this world, which he is constantly creating and recreating.

The inner secret of creation is this indwelling of God . . . If we ask about creation’s goal and future, we ultimately arrive at the transfiguring indwelling of the triune God in his creation, which through that indwelling becomes a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21) . . . in which the whole creation will find bliss.  (Creation, loc  2474

Here truly is the resurrection of nature. 

The trinitarian vision and panentheism

Moltmann’s claim is that the open nature of the Trinity, which has room for man (see last post), also has room for earth.  God not only creates the world.  He is in the things of this world.  This isn’t pantheism, because he doesn’t claim that that things of the world are deities in themselves.  They become holy because God is present in them, the meaning of panentheism. 

An ecological doctrine of creation implies a new kind of thinking about God. The center of this thinking is no longer the distinction between God and the world. The center is the recognition of the presence of God in the world and the presence of the world in God. (Creation, loc 2655)


There is another way of looking at the natural world, and the great utopian ecologist Herbert Marcuse put it this way. 

The world was not made for the sake of the human being and it has not become more human. (Aesthetic, p 69) 

We live in a complex relationship to nature: it is an inspiration, a wonder, and the source of life itself.  At the same time, nature wants to kill us: the black plague killed between 30% to 60% of the population of Europe.  Malaria kills about 3,000 children every day, mostly in Africa.  Humanizing nature means fighting a nature that would kill us before our time.  Nature is wasteful; millions of lives mean nothing to it.  Nature isn’t hostile; it does not care because it cannot care.  Only humans and God care.   

A doctor friend of mine says health isn’t the natural condition of man; sickness is.  Or as a character in Albert Camus’ The Plague, puts it “What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of the human will.” (p 235)  An earlier world might have lived closer to nature, but the life span in England at the dawn of the twentieth-century was 40 years; for the world it was 31 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy).  

Modern medicine has done more for the happiness of the average man or woman than most other things.  Religion brings meaning, even more important, but there is no conflict between them.  We just should not imagine that God is in nature.  Nature is in nature.

Albert Camus, The Plague

The Plague, by Albert Camus is a novel about human courage and cowardice  in the face of a fictional plague during the World War Two era.  The narrator, Dr. Rieux devoted himself to fighting the plague, which meant fighting against nature.

Rieux believed himself to be on the right road—in fighting against creation as he found it.  (p 120)

In talking to Father Paneloux, a Catholic priest who says we should love what we can’t understand, Rieux replies that “until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” (p 203)   When a child dies a torturous death, another character named Tarrou says a Christian should either lose his faith or consent to having his eyes destroyed (p 213).  He means that one can hardly look at the heartlessness of this world and still believe in God.

Tarrou is wrong.  We can still believe in God, even a benevolent God, but that means a God who shares our suffering.  This is the meaning of Christ.  What I cannot believe in is a God who is active in nature.  God created a beautiful world, but not a tender one.  


Moltmann’s deep interest in ecology makes him unique among the modern Protestant theologians.  At the same time, it reveals the flaw at the heart of his theology: heaven on earth requires the cooperation of earth, and the earth lives a life of its own, in which humans are just one more species.  We serve nature best when we leave it to alone, just to be.  Sometimes this requires human intervention, such as nature preserves, but we need not draw nature into our plans for salvation. 


* The leading utopian Marxists of the Frankfurt School were Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, both of whom Moltmann cites.  But it was Herbert Marcuse, the most utopian of them all, who imagined that death itself might no longer be a natural necessity (Eros).  Moltmann says that Ernest Bloch, another utopian Marxist, inspired his Theology of Hope (Hope, loc 814).


Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert (Vintage Books, 1972).

Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Beacon Press, 1966).

Herbert Marcuse. The Aesthetic Dimension (Beacon Press, 1978).

Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, in Jürgen Moltmann: Collected Readings (Fortress Press, 2014).

Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, in Jürgen Moltmann: Collected Readings (Fortress Press, 2014).

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