During my time in a prisoner-of-war camp I came to realize the importance of hope. Hope was what sustained us; we expected little from the present but a great deal from the future. Because of the hope we shared there were few suicides in our camp.
But this dimension of hope has been neglected in the free world with its emphasis on physical well-being and economic security. Even in churches, relatively little has been said about Christian hope. Now a painful sense of the meaninglessness of existence, portrayed in much contemporary literature and drama, again brings the concept of hope to our attention. So it was not really surprising that Jurgen Moltmann’s A Theology of Hope (1967) was picked up eagerly and reviewed quickly—and favorably—in popular magazines like Time and Newsweek, even though it was a theological work. With the thoroughness characteristic of many European theologians, Moltmann reinterpreted the whole Bible from the viewpoint of hope, reworking just about every major Christian doctrine around the promise motif.
To theologians and philosophers who question the resurrection of Christ on scientific and philosophical grounds, and to men who assume that they and their fellows have an almost God-like control over the future, Moltmann’s book offers a straightforward challenge to focus again on Christ. Such affirmations as “Jesus meant what he said” and “the resurrection is the key to the understanding of the Bible” seem a clarion call.
Moltmann explains that the hope element is what distinguished Judaism from other religions that also claimed epiphanies. While other religions were preoccupied with the presence of the eternal, the Old Testament is primarily interested in the future and what is promised. Thus Moltmann says the calling of Moses from the burning bush can be properly understood only in the future tense: God reveals himself in the form of promise and in the history that is marked by promise. With this new interpretation, faith once again becomes something dynamic because it is born out of promises and can be defined essentially as hope, confidence, and trust in God, who will remain faithful to his promises.
Moltmann’s hope motif also sheds light on man’s self-understanding. Self-knowledge came for Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah as they faced a future opened before them by God. They realized the discrepancy between the divine mission and their own mediocrity and discovered that only as God pointed them to a future could men rise above their mediocrity. Thus, says Moltmann, man learns his human nature not from himself but from the future to which God leads him. As man adjusts to the universal rectifying future of God, he is gripped by the needs around him and in him and may anticipate the redeeming future of being; in the light of the coming justice of God, man becomes open for loving, expending himself to humanize inhuman conditions.
Here is a way to relate the Scriptures to modern society. If hope was the key to what motivated Old Testament people, then it should be the key to our motivation. Theology based on hope is free from all kinds of world views and utopian schemes, for now world history can be experienced in the light of the future of truth. Christians are called upon to point out the difference between a scientific and technical millenarianism, which seeks the end of history in history, and an eschatology of history, which arises from the event of promise in the resurrection. This, to me, seems to be the important and clear message of Moltmann’s hope, as he expressed it in his first book. The world can be changed by Christ, in whom we anchor our hope. This does not mean that the Christian message sanctions the present. Rather, it calls for a break away from the present toward the future. God is not “pie in the sky” or totally removed in the beyond but the One who is coming, and as the coming One he is present.
However, there are some questions that careful readers cannot escape asking—especially since the appearance of Moltmann’s second book, Religion, Revolution and the Future (1969). Is Moltmann overemphasizing hope to the exclusion of other elements, such as fear, that help account for the apostles’ zeal and success? Is not God the God of the past and the present as well as the future? We must not become blind to the fulfilled messianic presence and already fulfilled promises. The church of the future, which Moltmann describes so well by the term Exodus, is also described as the temple of God and as the body of Christ. As we attempt to make the Scriptures speak to our day, the temptation looms to remove more obstacles than necessary and thereby falsify the message. Is this Moltmann’s pitfall?
Is it true that the resurrection is historical only because of its effects, that is, because it produces a history in which one can live and move and opens up an eschatological future? Can one talk about the historicity of the resurrection without mentioning the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection? Moltmann writes: “Only when our own consciousness of history takes the form of a consciousness of mission can the raising of Jesus from the dead be called historic” (p. 202). For centuries the Church may have stressed the historic event of the resurrection without emphasizing adequately the resultant changes in human lives, but disregarding the historical event altogether will make of the resurrection something different from what it was intended to be. Scripture and theology cannot be harmonized in this manner.
Little is gained by sidestepping the issue of historicity. As important as hope is, we dare not attach it to less than the historic data of an empty tomb and eyewitnesses. Moltmann’s refusal to take seriously the question of historicity suggests an attempt to build a socio-ethical structure by capitalizing on the ready-formed sympathies implicit in the name Christian. Under that structure Moltmann seems to give support to radical students at Tübingen, the university where he teaches. Student activist groups there have openly attacked the professors and denounced the New Testament, particularly the death of Christ. Everything in the Bible that is not in line with improving society or outright revolution is, they have said, meaningless and irrelevant. During homiletics seminars they have been known to take over when sermons do not advocate revolution.
Moltmann’s views lend support to these radical students by reviving Hegelianism. Moltmann is guided by an optimistic faith in the future as the standard by which Christianity is to be understood and guided. In his first book this was covered up, but in the second it comes out clearly. God is subject to the process of time. “The God of history is changing into the God of the future” (Religion, Revolution, and the Future, p. 7). Out of this new creation will arise a new being that will put an end to the ambivalence of all created beings between being and non-being. In such a new being God himself will come to his rest (p. 36).
Evangelical Christians are concerned with how the Gospel can bring about needed changes in society. By and large they have felt that, however slow the process may be, society can be changed through individual repentance and conversion. Moltmann, however, advocates revolutionary change. He reasons that, since struggling factions have become tired of appeals to conscience and verbose sermons on morality, totally new ways of producing change have become necessary. He sees new paths to change in a church that demolishes all the barriers men erect between one another. And the way toward this new humane community, he says, is a revolutionary way.
What this reasoning amounts to is an application of the future principle to ethics. If God and Christ have their basic significance in the future, then men’s actions should also be judged by the future. Thus any action that produces the desired result is justified, and the criterion for deciding between violent and non-violent action is the measure of possible transformation. “Any means may be appropriate, but they must be different and better than those of the opposition, if they are to bewilder the opposition,” Moltmann says (p. 145), in language reminiscent of Karl Marx. But the important question is this: If the theology of hope removes all finality from everything present or past and becomes the final word explaining reality, then on what is that final word based? If that final word is a word of God spoken in the past, then the future gets its meaning from the past. But this line of thought reverses Moltmann’s sequence; for him, the past gets its meaning from the future.
Moltmann’s theological program seems to provide a system for a restless generation for whom the state rather than the church provides the key to the future. But, as David Scaer notes (review of Religion, Revolution, and the Future, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Dec. 19, 1969), “belief in this program demands a naïve, unwarranted, and untested faith in man and his future that completely avoids the ideas of the fall and original sin.” Radical behavior like that of some Tübingen students is quite alarming. But when professors like Moltmann give them theological support, we may expect increasing disruption and even attempts at restructuring the whole theological curriculum along Marxist lines.
Moltmann’s treatment of hope offers many good points. In this light the Bible can be interpreted dynamically and, often, more fully. However, without the historical event of the resurrection as an objective basis for it, hope is betrayed and becomes something less than Christian hope. When the credibility of the written Word of God is undermined, when the Scriptures cease to be considered the revelation of God, and as such normative, then the espousal of highly questionable revolution-oriented solutions may be the next step. As prisoners of war know, any hope will make a difference. Those who embrace revolutionary doctrines may be carried a long way and even be induced to offer their lives for their hope.
What does Christian hope look like? It needs to be in harmony with the Word of Scripture and with the life and death and resurrection of Christ. Only this twofold anchor will safeguard our hope from impatience, unfounded optimism, and recklessness in using unchristlike methods. Positively, such hope will rely fully upon Christ’s victory and his overcoming resurrection life.
Herbert R. Dymale is associate professor of religion at Malone College, Canton, Ohio. He received the Th.M. (Princeton Seminary) and Ph.D. (State University of Iowa). During World War II he was a medic in the German air force and was captured in the Normandy invasion.
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