Moltmann’s Crucified God in light of the recent death of my wife

Jürgen Moltmann, a German theologian about whom I’ve written a couple of posts looks at God not from on high, but from the perspective of a God broken on the cross.  God is a God who suffers for us and with us. 

I think this is the best way to think about God, but I’m not sure how much comfort it provides.  I write this post within several weeks of the death of my wife after a long and painful illness.  I’m sure it makes a difference in my attitude toward Moltmann.

The Crucified God, the work Moltmann claimed as his favorite, wrestles with Christ’s cry of abandonment, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani).  It is with these words, and the image of a dying Christ on the cross, with which all serious thought about God must begin.

The claim that God, and not only Christ, died on the cross depends on the doctrine of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Only if God can be sundered from God, so that God can suffer as humans do, does a crucified God make sense. 

Christ was quite deliberately abandoned by the Father to the fate of death . . . . To express the idea in its most acute form, one might say in the words of the dogma of the early church: the first person of the Trinity casts out and annihilates the second   . . . . A theology of the cross cannot be expressed more radically than it is here. (CGR, loc 960)*

In the forsakenness of the Son the Father also forsakes himself (CGR, loc 990).  God suffers doubly: he suffers the suffering of his son, and he suffers the separation of his son from himself.  God is torn from God.  God abandoned God while remaining God.  This way of putting it seems correct, but cryptic.  Further explanation would require a study of the doctrine of the Trinity, which is for another time.  Suffice to say that:

  • God suffers the loss of his son, and the son suffers the cross and the experience of God’s abandonment. They are two different beings. 
  •  Jesus Christ is in and of God, and so God suffers the abandonment of himself. This is also true.

God suffers when humans suffer

God is interested in his creation.  One sees this clearly in the Old Testament, where God is deeply affected (pleased, angered) by the deeds of his chosen people. When people suffer God suffers.  If God could not suffer when humans suffer, says Moltmann, God would be a “demon.” (CG, p. 274) 

Phil Klay wrote a novel about soldiers in the Iraq war, Redeployment.  One of the characters, a chaplain, talks about the prayers so many soldiers ask for.  “Twenty centuries of Christianity,” he says to himself.  “You’d think we’d learn . . . In this world, He only promises that we don’t suffer alone.” (p 167)  I think that’s just about right.

But what does this mean for those who suffer?  For Moltmann, it means that the loneliness and God forsakenness of suffering is met with the co-suffering of Christ.  As with Klay, no one suffers alone. (CGR, loc 1025)

A new world?

Moltmann writes his autobiography that

Without hope for the ‘new earth in which righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3:13), this earth, which has suffered Treblinka and Maidanek [Nazi concentration camps] would be unendurable.  (A Broad Place, p 84)

What if it is unendurable?  In the end the suffering of billions of people will not be redeemed by a new heaven on a new earth, Moltmann’s ideal.  It’s just not true that “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” (quoted in Morrison, loc 1030)  The eschaton (the end of history) has already happened with the intervention of Jesus Christ into the history of the world two-thousand years ago.  Realized eschatology it is sometimes called.  Christ taught us how to live and how to die.  Needed is a theology that can use the life and teachings of Christ to help make this a better world.

Christ didn’t just die; he lived

It’s an odd thing about Moltmann’s theology (and in this he is not alone).  The life and teachings of Christ get short shrift.  Hardly a word about the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), which are briefly mentioned in The Way of Jesus Christ.  In giving us a new commandment, Christ taught us how to live.  “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)  He also gave us the example of his life.  Both sophisticated theologians such as Moltmann, as well as fervent evangelicals, seem far more interested in the death of Christ than his life. 

We don’t know what Christ said on the cross

Of the four gospels, only Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46) have Christ say that he has been forsaken.  Luke (23:46) has Christ say several things, but that last is “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  In John (19:30) Christ says simply “it is finished.”  The first Gospel, Mark, was written around 70 CE, about forty years after the death of Christ.  It relies on an oral tradition going back two generations.  In staking his argument on one particular saying of Christ, Moltmann is building on a fragile foundation (more on this in my next post).  Christ’s life and teachings, on the other hand, are multiply attested.  

Conclusion

I write this post in a spirit of sadness and anger.  My anger is not with Moltmann’s image of a suffering God.  A God who was unaffected by human suffering would indeed be a monster.  A suffering God can be a comfort.  But human suffering will never be redeemed.  Our tears will not be turned to laughter, and the new world is this world. 

There will always be unavoidable human suffering.  Our task is the bring human comfort to the suffering, and prevent needless suffering.  That’s the best humans can do. God’s presence is reassuring, but it’s far from heaven on earth.

———————————————-

* Moltmann is quoting Wiard Popkes here

The picture accompanying this text is a section of “Crucifixion in Yellow,” by Marc Chagall.  Moltmann says he keeps this picture over his desk.

References

Phil Klay, Redeployment Penguin, 2015.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions.  Fortress Press, 1993.

Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place.  Fortress Press, 2009.

Jürgen Moltmann, “The Crucified God,” in Collected Readings, edited by Margaret Kohl.  Fortress Press, 2014.  [CGR]

Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God.  Fortress Press, 2015.  [CG]           

Stephen Morrison, Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English.  Beloved Publishing, 2018.

2 thoughts on “Moltmann’s Crucified God in light of the recent death of my wife”

  1. So touching to read and meditate on this beautifully composed essay
    You are right about too much emphasis on Jesus’s death.I’d never thought of that before

  2. It’s heart breaking to think of God forsaking himself.Yet it seems a powerful way of thinking about Jesus’s time on earth

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