The theology of hope first appeared as a beacon of light amid the dark and uncertain waters of contemporary theology. Here was a renewed faith in man’s future, a renewed belief (evidenced especially in the works of Wolfhart Pannenberg) in a historical resurrection, and a new hope for struggling humanity. Questions have arisen of late, however: exactly what kind of future is here offered to man, and by what means is he to bring it about?

This question becomes particularly acute in the works of Jürgen Moltmann, the guiding light of the revolutionary trend in this new theology. Moltmann’s views are sparked by Marxist thought, particularly as expressed by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch; they tread the narrow catwalk of espousing violence as a means to implementing man’s hope.

The theology of hope, to go back to basic assumptions, offers the following tenets derived from Bloch, as summarized by Bernard Ramm (Toward a Theology For the Future, edited by Clark H. Pinnock and David F. Wells, Creation House, 1971, pp. 190–92):

1. “The universe is not fixed … or determined.”

2. “History is as open-ended as the universe.”

3. “Man has no fixed nature.”

4. “If the world, history and man are open-ended, then the true novum can appear.”

5. “Because there is the possibility of the novum, there is also the possibility of utopia.”

Jürgen Moltmann adds to this philosophical skeleton the flesh and bones of Marxist-Christian dialogue and of revolutionary philosophy.

Moltmann emphasizes that Jesus was and is the Christ of the humiliated and the downtrodden. Christ thus becomes, in Moltmann’s thinking, a typically Marxist-humanistic saviour of humanity, championing the cause of the downtrodden masses against the existing power structures.

While there is a measure of truth in this view of our Saviour, Moltmann gives this truth a certain slant, a lean toward Marxist philosophy. Christ becomes the forerunner of a new freedom for man and the inspiration for a new hope in a future that is eschatologically open, where the “novum” has become possible, and where man is acutely aware of his responsibility to bring this future to pass. “Today,” Moltmann states with characteristic optimism, “the possibilities of consciously controlling the evolution of nature and the progress of history are proliferating immeasurably for the first time” (Religion, Revolution, and the Future, Scribner, 1969, p. 26; succeeding quotations of Moltmann will be from this work unless otherwise noted). Society can therefore be changed, for “we no longer view the structures of society as given by nature or by God, but know that because they are made by man, they can also be changed by man” (p. 135).

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Man, then, is confronted with a task. His faith is called to action. As Moltmann states:

We are confronted here with an eschatologically oriented faith.… It is oriented … to a new future and hence wants to change the world rather than explain it, to transform existence rather than elucidate it. This eschatological attitude toward the world creates history instead of interpreting nature [p. 5].

The hope of men, as viewed by Moltmann, is the hope for a humanitarian utopia on earth, a coming of the kingdom, and a new freedom. This is a hope shared by the Marxist and the Christian, and is typified by Ernst Bloch, whom Moltmann calls a “Marxist with a Bible in hand.”

Both the Marxist and the Christian have, however, as Moltmann admits, failed in the past, their pure philosophies becoming corrupted. Both the power structure of the Church and the power structure of the Stalinistic bureaucracy have failed to achieve the glory of their philosophical goals. Moltmann’s thoughts here (expressed on page 70 of Religion …) may be illustrated as follows:

While both Marxism and Christianity have failed, on the authoritarian side at least, they yet, according to Moltmann, possess a common kernel of hope. There is common ground, as the chart illustrates, between the two philosophies, and on this common ground Moltmann would join Christian hands with Marxist in the hope of realizing a new freedom, a new future, for mankind.

But how, the question arises, are we to realize this new freedom when the power structures of the world seem so obstinately opposed to giving in to the voices of men crying for change? We must, Moltmann feels—and here lies a crucial issue in this new theology of Christian hope—resort to revolution, for a time at least, in order to force the old out and the new in. We can no longer wait for the world to change, for the hoped-for future to realize itself. We must act, and act, if necessary, with violence and power, considering the risks of revolution worth the goal of a new humanity, and the sins of our violence less than the sins of the tyranny and oppression that we overcome.

In this thinking Moltmann follows in the footsteps of Ernst Bloch, for “in view of Bloch’s writings,” comments Bernard Ramm, “Christians have taken a new look at revolution. The liberal’s (political and religious) belief in gradual progress and the belief of those who see in pacifism a kind of transforming force are judged inadequate. Present evils are too great to be handled in any other way than by that of revolution” (Pinnock and Wells, eds., Toward a Theology For the Future, p. 194). “We are,” as Moltmann himself says, “compelled to take responsibility for man’s future in a revolutionary way” (Religion …, p. 132). The call is thus issued for Christians to become freedom fighters for humanity, prophets with guns in hand who not only will foresee the new freedom but also will take part in the fight for its immediate realization.

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This advocacy of the Christian’s involvement in political and social revolution springs from Moltmann’s theological system, a volatile mixture of truth and error, of Christian precepts and Marxist ideology.

In evaluating this system, one must first object that Moltmann presents us with a philosophical Weltanschauung that overcasts and colors all of history, Scripture, and Christian doctrine with the dialectics of Marxism. Old Testament history, for example, becomes a classic illustration of the struggle between bourgeois and proletariat. The Exodus, through Moltmann’s eyes, is “an event of religio-political liberation and is even today effective as a symbol of coming liberation” (p. 136). And the Apostle Paul is seen as a precursor of the new humanity, proclaiming the Cross “which in the ‘power of the resurrection,’ as Paul expresses it, follows the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a being who labors and is heavily laden. Paul has done this for his time, when religion and idols repressed mankind, with the gospel of free justification” (p. 96). Somehow, as we can see here, the New Testament in the hands of Moltmann takes on the shape of a political book of revolution, and its heroes the forms of political activists who sow, by their doctrines, the seeds of a Marxist-Christian dialectic.

This view of Scripture must be seen in connection with Moltmann’s plea that Christian theology of today should “turn away from a dogmatic theology to a critical one, from beginning with answers about God to the unsolved asking for God” (p. 65). Theology must, therefore, become as open as the future so that, to extend the thought logically, theology may well have to be interpreted by the future, rather than the future by it. It becomes evident at this point, of course, that great danger lurks here.

Further, under this new critical theology, dogmatic Christian truth must step aside. Hence, the resurrection, according to Moltmann, “escapes historical verification, since there are no historical analogies. Here the historical question reaches not its objective limit, but its categorical limit. We can verify historically who is involved in the alleged resurrection event but we cannot verify the event itself” (p. 50).

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Besides the theological perils inherent in Moltmann’s thought there is also the danger, as in any revolutionary movement, of political shortsightedness, of a certain over-optimism concerning the nature and capabilities of men, and of a carefree abandonment of the lessons of history. To ignore these concerns is to allow humanity to move carelessly toward a “new” future that may become, in spite of the optimistic denial of the revolutionary, merely a repeat of past horrors; a bitter exchange of one form of bondage for another.

This apprehension is eloquently expressed by Wolfhart Pannenberg, a more cautious advocate of the theology of hope:

The history of modern revolutions illustrates the fatal flaw in living so exclusively for the future that all cherishing and celebrating of the present are precluded. In the name of the future the values of past and present are disdained and destroyed. The mediocre realities of our present, although they have no ultimate claim on us, are to be nurtured for the intuitions of the ultimate which they possess [Theology and the Kingdom of God, Westminster, 1969, p. 126].

An even more basic objection, however, from the Christian’s standpoint, is that Jürgen Moltmann’s theology is based on an equation in which the hope of the Marxist for a kingdom of man, political and material, is equal to and not qualitatively different from the hope of the Christian for the Kingdom of God, in fulfillment beyond the scope of man’s achievements, and available to men only in part until Christ himself returns to complete the work he has begun.

Moltmann, however, expresses an inordinate confidence in man, a kind of blind faith in the evolution of man’s hopes. This faith is expressed in statements such as this: “Now that it is really possible to eliminate hunger in the world and to control overpopulation, the systems which hinder the realization of these possibilities must be radically changed” (p. 131). However, even if Moltmann’s faith in the technological progress of the human race were justified, the question would be not only can man cure the evils of the world but will he? This question, perhaps, is what prompts Wolfhart Pannenberg to state, again tempering the rampant optimism in the theology of hope with caution, that “hope for the coming kingdom knows that ultimate fulfillment is beyond human powers to effect. Yet, far from being condemned to inactivity, we are inspired to prepare this present for the future” (Theology and the Kingdom of God, p. 126).

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Here, at least, in this more realistic evaluation of the Christian’s eschatological hope, we come near to the two arms of the dialectic of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom, paradoxically, that we never cease to work for and yet that in the end is beyond our powers to bring to complete fulfillment.

Moltmann does not miss this point altogether. He concludes at one point in his writings that “the future must come toward us in order that our activity be ‘not in vain’ … against the paralyzing impression of the mortality and transitoriness of all things” (p. 220). Despite this, however, Moltmann’s theology seems to run more consistently toward a future that man creates rather than awaits, and that man must force into being, not shunning revolutionary means where necessary, so as to ensure that what man creates is that which he anticipates.

Moltmann thus, in pursuing a future of man’s creation, distorts rather than elucidates Christian eschatology. He ignores definitive prophecy as to man’s ultimate failure in bringing in the Kingdom of God and bypasses the possibility of our Lord’s direct future intervention in history. Part of this failure is the result of Moltmann’s failure to accept a historically verifiable resurrection; this causes him to miss the significance of that event in foreshadowing a future in which God, acting within the confines of historical precedent, again breaks into history with his own “novum” for mankind.

Moltmann’s failure to interpret correctly the nature of the Christian’s hope allows him to make the philosophies of Hegel, Marx, and Bloch, rather than biblical eschatology, the real foundation of his theology of the future.

A final objection to Moltmann’s theological system is that in attempting to bring to pass a future of man’s creation, he also runs the risk of creating a God of the future: a God who is, like the future he inhabits, a product of man’s creative will. As Moltmann describes this “God who is before us”:

God is present in the way in which his future takes control over the present in real anticipations and prefigurations. But God is not as yet present in the form of his eternal presence. The dialogue between his being and his being-not-yet is the pain and power of history. Caught between the experiences of his presence and of his absence, we are seeking his future, which will solve this ambiguity that the present cannot solve [p. 209].

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It seems from here a short distance to a place where we create a god, call him “God,” and then give him a kingdom and a future that are not significantly different from those of mankind. In fairness to Moltmann, however, it must be stated that he does strain to make a difference “between eschatological theology which speaks of the ‘coming God,’ and teleological metaphysics and process philosophy, which speaks of the ‘becoming God’ or of God as the finis ultimus (‘the final end’) of all things” (p. 210). The line of demarcation, nonetheless, between a transcendental God with an independent future and a God and future of man’s own creation becomes singularly blurred and indistinct as one follows Moltmann’s development of thought.

Moltmann’s theological system, however, despite its serious flaws, is not without redeeming value, especially as it concerns itself with the other arm of the dialectic of the Kingdom—man’s political and historical responsibility to his world. Moltmann warns, rightly, that Christians cannot, as they have so often done before, abandon the world of the present in order to withdraw, tortoise-like, within the shell of the Church. The Christian cannot, in light of his calling, ignore injustice, suffering, and pain; nor can he withdraw from the world to wait passively until the Kingdom of God comes to him. Suffering when the world suffers, the Christian is called to action, to involvement, to healing that which hurts mankind. Thus, in breathless, active anticipation the Christian is to run his race, pursuing, in the now, the Kingdom that God will bring into history.

Moltmann not only chastises the Christian for his withdrawal from the world and challenges him to involvement, but also reminds him of an issue that has torn at the heart of man for centuries: the age-old mystery of suffering, the question of theodicy. As Moltmann states the issue and its relevance to his theology:

We ask the question: An Deus sit? on grounds of history and its crimes, and we must struggle with the question of God in historical knowledge and political action. Following the victory of science over the mythological world-views, the theodicy question and the debate with atheism in the context of this question lead us to the development of a political theology [p. 205].

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The theodicy question is, of course, one that no Christian can ignore. As for Moltmann, he proposes as a solution his theology of the future, a theology that lets God off the horns of the dilemma by placing the responsibility for, and the solution of, man’s suffering within the grasp of man himself. Man, according to the theology of hope, is responsible for his future of hope, and, looking toward the God of the future, he will, he must, be the one to bring in the Kingdom, and to conquer the bondage, suffering, and misery of the world.

We may ask, however: Is not this solution inadequate? Can man ever answer for God? Would not man suffer even in the best of man’s kingdoms?

But we must remember (and Moltmann will not allow us to forget) that the world does suffer, and that we are responsible, to the limits of our abilities, for its healing.

Moltmann also reminds us, as we peer into the darkness about us, that the Christian message is one of hope. In company with other theologians of hope, Moltmann keeps before the eyes of modern theology the importance of eschatology, its critical relevance to the now of our living. In the past, “relegating these events to the ‘last day,’ ” he says,

robbed them of their directive, uplifting and critical significance.… Thus these teachings about the end led a particularly barren existence at the end of Christian dogmatics. They were like a loosely attached appendix that wandered off into obscure irrelevancies [Theology of Hope, Harper & Row, 1965, p. 15].

The Kingdom does indeed, as Moltmann states, force itself into the now of our living, rescuing us from the inertia of despair and inspiring us to move outward, to act, to become involved; for if, as many believe, the Kingdom of God begins wherever the will of God is done, then we are indeed procurators for that Kingdom, beacons of its hope, and freedom fighters, of a sort, for its triumph over the suffocating evils of the world in which we live.

“Thy kingdom come,” we pray, in the imperfection of the now, as well as in the fullness of the future; and though we cannot now fathom the depths of the theodicy question, neither can we fail to strike back at its encroachment of despair into our world about us. As Jürgen Moltmann poignantly states:

The critical question was formed by Walter Rauschenbusch: Ascetic Christianity called the world evil and left it. Humanity is waiting for a revolutionary Christianity which will call the world evil and change it. Under the conditions of modern times, the eschatological symbolism of Christian hope appears to be myth. But it dare not dream away any longer about an eternity beyond time. It must bring the hoped-for future into practical contact with the misery of the present [Religion …, p. 139].

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This may well mean involvement of Christians in politics. Here Moltmann challenges us:

It is … well known that the retreat of theology and faith out of politics into the private dimension has conceded the field of politics to Godless and inhuman powers. That faith which no longer seeks God and his righteousness in the world but only on the soul has allied itself with a practical atheism which seeks the world without God and righteousness, and with it has contracted an alliance of death, of the “death of God” in the world [p. 219].

Although we may argue that we cannot, as Moltmann would have us do, join political hands with Marxism (the kingdoms we seek are not the same), neither dare we “concede politics to godlessness”; we must seek to become in politics, as in all of life, the salt of the political process, involving ourselves in its control and direction in accordance with the nature of the kingdom we seek. We may begin, perhaps with the directions of Wolfhart Panenberg that the Church, in order to perform its critical function in society, both “prevents the political organization and its representatives from claiming ultimate human significance for themselves” and witnesses to “the future fulfillment of humanity in God’s kingdom” by helping to “stir the imagination for social action and to inspire the vision of social change” (Theology and the Kingdom of God, p. 75).

This approach, however, is not radical enough for Moltmann. He would have us seek to be not only salt but also dynamite in the political process, as we work to bring about revolution or, as Moltmann defines the term, “a transformation in the foundation of a system—whether of economics, of politics, or morality, or of religion. All other changes amount to evolution or reform” (p. 141).

In order to realize this radical change—and here is the real stabbing point of Moltmann’s philosophy—we can no longer be satisfied with peace platitudes or moral pronouncements; we must raise the battle cry of revolution—now! We must, in other words, take up our swords and attack the structures of authority and repression that frustrate the coming of the kingdom.

At this point the Christian is forced to raise serious questions. Moltmann raises some of them himself, but he does not, unfortunately, adequately answer them. Moltmann asks, for example, “If Christians take sides in the political struggle, will they not lose sight of God’s love for all men?” His response is that “I do not think that they need to lose it. The goal of Christian universalism can be realized precisely through the dialectic of siding with the humiliated” (p. 141). Going on, Moltmann speaks of a “new people of God,” of whom it may be said: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Greek nor barbarian, neither master nor slave, neither man nor woman [and if we may proceed with modern relevance: neither black nor white, neither Communist nor anticommunist] for all are one in Christ Jesus’ ” (p. 141).

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This new thought logically leads to a reevaluation of the Christian message, and to a bold new interpretation of salvation in universalistic terms. Indeed, Moltmann himself states that “only through the dialectic of taking sides can the universalism of salvation make its entrance into the world” (p. 143).

But can we accept universalism? Can we take political sides in a way that compromises our Christian doctrines? Are we able, to state the ultimate issue plainly, to equate our Gospel with Marxism? It seems evident that we cannot, that we can make no political commitment that compromises our doctrinal stand or that overrides the central tenets of our faith. We have a right to suggest that “taking sides” in the political struggle, joining hands with the Marxist hope as Moltmann advocates, might indeed cause us to lose sight of God’s love for all men, might distort our view of God’s Kingdom, and might give us a one-sided look at the world and its problems, so that we would eventually come to see men only in terms of the Marxist dialectic—and love only those who see the world as we do.

This brings us to the issue, raised by Moltmann himself, of the means to be used in establishing the new order promised by Moltmann’s theology of hope. “The problem of violence and nonviolence is an illusionary problem,” Moltmann says in tackling this issue. “There is only the question of the justified and unjustified use of force and the question of whether the means are proportionate to the ends” (p. 143). He then goes on to say:

Those who advocate nonviolence today are usually those who control the police power. Those who embrace revolutionary violence are usually those who have no means of power. This is a paradox. It is fully clear that the transformation of the conditions of power will come only through the use of power and the assumption of authority. The sole problem consists of the fact that power must be justified; else it is nothing but “naked violence.” The use of revolutionary violence must be justified by the humane goals of the revolution and the existing power structures unmasked in their inhumanity as “naked violence” [p. 143].

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Here, unfortunately, Moltmann pushes out into a theological nether world where the end justifies the means. His definitive statement is that “the criteria for action is the measure of possible transformation” (p. 143). In an attempt to soften this blow, Moltmann cautions that “only with great restraint can revolutions enter the diabolical circle of violence and counterviolence if they are ever to conquer and abolish it as a whole” (p. 144). Further, “revolutionary means must constantly be reconciled with humane goals, else the revolution threatens to end in terrorism and resignation” (p. 144). But the nagging question haunts Moltmann:

How are we to bring about the kingdom of nonviolent brotherhood with the help of violent actions? This is the inner aporia of revolutionary activity. Those who allow the law of the opposition to prescribe their own course are, in any case, not yet the new humanity [p. 144].

This issue, the shedding of blood in the name of the Kingdom, is the point where the wedding band by which Moltmann joins Marxist and Christian wears thinnest. Is there anything in the kingdom teachings of Christ to indicate that we may shed blood in order to bring in the Kingdom of God? Is there not, we may ask, something strangely incongruous about the image of a Christian, with a raised and bloody sword in hand, repeating “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”?

Moltmann does see some incongruity:

Christians will be strange birds in the revolution. Perhaps they are deeply committed to it and laugh about it because they are the forerunners of a yet greater revolution, in which God will abolish even greater oppositions than human revolution can envision [p. 146].

But are not Christians even stranger birds in this kind of revolution than Moltmann imagines? If, indeed, the Christian seeks what the Marxist seeks, a kingdom of man, then perhaps he could find vindication in shedding blood in order to clear the way for the new order (although even here the Marxist-Christian fails to see the ominous shadow of Stalinism hanging overhead). But the Christian does not seek a kingdom of man; he seeks the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that provides (and this is the crux of the argument against Moltmann’s philosophy) a radically different conception of the future of man’s hope.

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What, then, we may ask in conclusion, is the true nature of the Kingdom that the Christian seeks, and how may we work toward its future installment in human history? Must the Christian sit idle, piously awaiting the coming of the Kingdom, while others fight the injustice and tyranny in the world today—or does he act? And if he does act, attacking social and political evil, what means does he use? These are serious questions, and their answers do not come easily. The Christian, in light of the New Testament, is an activist, working toward the day when the Kingdom, in its fullness, arrives in history; and as an activist the Christian needs to formulate (although he may reject Moltmann’s proposals) some sort of revolutionary program—a “manifesto,” to borrow a term, of truly Christian revolution.

This manifesto might begin with a commitment to examine the means and ends of revolution, and to think seriously about the nature of the Kingdom we seek. Then we must recognize that there is a basic incompatibility between Christian and Marxist views of the Kingdom, and that any attempt to join the hands of these two philosophies stretches the arms of both too far, distorting the true implications of each for the future of man. Marxism is activism directed by man toward a coming kingdom of man. Christianity is also activism, but directed toward a Kingdom that God himself initiates, completes, and rules.

Christian eschatology is not a set of blinders, designed to shield the Christian from his responsibility to the world. It is a dialectic of waiting and of acting, and a realism that perceives the nature of man to be such that even if man were able to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, he would not do so but would corrupt the nature of the Kingdom, as God intended it to be, into something more comfortable for man to live with. Christian eschatology does not, however, lead to despair. Rather, it generates a hope that conquers dread, a recognition that God is here, in his fullness, as he will be in our future, challenging us to involvement, social and political, in a world where we work to prepare the present for the future that God brings towards us.

Our revolution, however, is a cautious one. We cannot become reckless with history and its lessons, nor dare we imagine that all change is progress. Our revolution must be a nonviolent one, born of Christ’s love. We are called to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” or, as Martin Luther King often paraphrased the reference, to have “tough minds and tender hearts.” We are, in other words, to move the world without cutting it, to stab the political process without killing it, to seek and to prepare for, in practical, specific ways, a kingdom that is distinctly the Kingdom of God.

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Unfortunately, the theology of hope, at least as proposed by Jürgen Moltmann, does not seem to lead us in that direction.

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