What does Moltmann believe about the afterlife? Why??

grunewald_crucifixionI have been reading and studying the work of Jurgen Moltmann for some three years now. I have read (and re-read) some +15 books. I have also studied the work of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. This I have done because I wanted to better understand how Moltmann’s Theology of Hope came into being, as well as what exactly he embraced and rejected from these two great theologians’ respective schools/legacies.

I am profoundly grateful for the work of both Barth and Bultmann, but when it comes to eschatology (especially in regards to an afterlife) I must humbly yet firmly side with Moltmann. This is a move that will no doubt be unpopular to all who like Barth and Bultmann believe that there is no afterlife. This life of ours is basically everything there is. Although I disagree with those who hold Barth and Bultmann’s take on eschatology, I respect, learn much from, and fully embrace them as my brothers/sisters in Christ. And I am very much open to the possibility that they may in fact be right. As Pannenberg stated time and time again, all truth claims now have yet to be verified/confirmed by God in the Eschaton.

What I want to show in this inaugural post is that 1) Moltmann affirms universal salvation; 2) Moltmann believes that life could rightly be called absurd and meaningless if there is no hope-enducing & joy-producing afterlife to look forward to. We will tackle criticism thrown at Moltmann more in depth in posts to follow. Today I just want to state what Moltmann’s position is why he chose to hold it.

All humans (along with the rest of creation!) will be saved according to Moltmann.

He ultimately embraces universal salvation because of his understanding of the righteousness of God. The best (and shortest) place to prove this is chapter 13 of his masterful book Sun of Righteousness, Arise! In this book he compares and contrasts the way justice was understood in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel. He then proceeds to show the ways in which Christians have understood the righteousness/justice of God and how they have envisioned it working in the final judgment. He finds conflicting accounts of the righteousness of God both in scripture as well as in the Christian tradition. How is the righteousness of God to be understood? What implications follow from this for our understanding of the future judgment of God?? Moltmann goes on to argue that the judgment of God ultimately means salvation for all human beings. Judgment has to do with our transformation rather than with a punishment of sorts for us.

Listen to how he closes that short chapter:

In this outline of a new version of the expectation of the last judgment, I have only entered into the biblical tradition of Paul and the deutero-Pauline epistles Ephesians and Colossians. I recognize that Matthew, the Synoptic Little Apocalypse [Matt 24–25; MK 13], and the book of Revelation talk about an anthropocentric dualism rather than about a theocentric universalism. For me, the casting vote was given by the Old Testament concept of divine justice for victims and the all-rectifying judgment of God. The different biblical traditions about judgment cannot be harmonized. A decision has to be made on the foundation of theological arguments.

There you have it. Moltmann says yes to universalism because he accepts as definitive one of the understandings of the justice/righteousness of God in the Old Testament scriptures: the justice of God is that which rights wrongs, especially those committed against the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.

So far so good, right? Well, not exactly. There are many who believe Moltmann needs to be demythologized. I’ll come back to this point later. For now I just want to show you a number of quotes from Moltmann’s In the End–the Beginning where he explains his yes to an afterlife with God:

What awaits us? However we may think of eternal death or eternal life, it cannot surely be the eternalization of our unsuccessful beginnings or failed attempts at life.

And:

I am thinking about the life of those who were unable to live and were not permitted to live: the beloved child who died at birth, the little boy run over when he was four, the 16-year-old friend torn to pieces at your side by the bomb which left you unscathed-and the countless people raped, murdered or ‘liquidated’.

The idea that for these people their death is ‘the finish’ would plunge this whole world into absolute absurdity, for if their life had no meaning, has ours? The modern notion about a ‘natural death’ may be appropriate for the life-insured denizens of the affluent society, who can afford death in old age; but most people in the Third World die a premature, violent and by no means affirmed death, like the millions of young people in my generation who died in the Second World War. The idea that death is ‘the eternalization of life as it has been lived’ doesn’t at all take in the people who were not able to live or were not permitted to do so. So mustn’t we think the thought of an ongoing history of God’s with lives that have been broken off and destroyed in this way, if we are to be able to affirm life in this world in spite of its destructions, and love life in spite of all its cruelties, and protect it against these cruelties and acts of inhumanity?

Later he concludes:

I think this, not for selfish reasons, neither for the sake of a personal completion, nor for the sake of a moral purification or refining. I think it for the sake of the justice which I believe is God’s own concern and his first option.

Again, why does Moltmann affirm an afterlife? Because the understanding of the justice from God he has accepted as definitive from the Hebrew Bible pretty much obliges him to say that wrongs cannot go unrighted, that victims will be vindicated, and that death is not the end of God’s dealings with us. Our histories with God will continue. Otherwise, the lives of millions of people today and more millions throughout history would be rendered meaningless and absurd.

Conclusion:

Moltmann affirms an afterlife and the universal salvation of all people as a consequence of his embracing/accepting a redemptive, creative, justice-creating understanding of the righteousness of God.

Let’s close this post with his words on the Final Judgment as found in his eschatology The Coming of God:

This judgment has to do with God and his creative justice, and is quite different from the forms our earthly justice takes. What we call the Last Judgment is nothing other than the universal revelation of Jesus Christ, and the consummation of his redemptive work. No expiatory penal code will be applied in the court of the crucified Christ. No punishments of eternal death will be imposed. The final spread of the divine righteousness that creates justice serves the eternal kingdom of God, not the final restoration of a divine world order that has been infringed. Judgment at the end is not an end at all; it is the beginning.

10 Comments

  1. I am a bit at sea at your notion that afterlife doesn’t feature with Barth. Bonhoeffer whose theology is on the whole synchronous to Barth could wave goodbye to physical life but was wholly convinced that upon death a new and fuller authentic life lay in store. Moltmann likewise has many neo Reformed underpinnings though his ultimate optimism in eschatological end times remains conjecture or surmise. In the end God in Christ will determine things.To trust that judgment makes all things foreign into a medium of filial dependency, troth and respect.

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  2. Several of us have tried to show posbarthian that he has not accurately understand Barth at this point, especially at the link provided. In fact, Barth may comes close to the realistic eschatology of NT Wright. In any case, I think the problem I have Moltmann on this point is that it would be nice of it were true, but that does not make it true. When I read Moltmann on this topic, he seems to offer wishful thinking. I suppose that is why I prefer the direction of Pannenberg, who I think offers a broader philosophical and biblical perspective.

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    1. Moltmann is nowhere as rigorous in his methodology as is Pannenberg. This is certainly true. The theodicy question always looms large in Moltmann’s eschatological thought. I would argue that Moltmann affirms both an afterlife & universal salvation because otherwise the theodicy question cannot be satisfactorily answered.

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  3. It also occurs to me that I am note sure universalism is the natural result of justice for victims. In fact, it might be the opposite of universalism! The biggest argument against universalism is two-fold. One is our natural inclination for justice. Granting that any salvation is the result of grace, justice seems to demand the judgment of some (serial murderers, mass murderers like Stalin and Hitler). In addition, the freedom and independence of creation would seem to be abrogated by universalism. I do not say any of this as an opponent, but only to put out there the wrestling many of us go through.

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    1. Key here is how we understand justice. Moltmann views God’s righteousness as his power to make things right, to heal, and to redeem. He does not accept a punitive interpretation of it.

      Is anything too hard for God? Often times I think we project our inability to forgive and rectify the deeds of others unto God. The gospel is scandalous indeed. Yes, even Hitler can be saved, and God can see to it that just this happens.

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  4. Juan, this is an excellent post, I really enjoyed the quotations, and the OP is written very well! I read a couple places in Moltmann where he appears to be following Barth. I’ll see if I can find a quotation, and maybe you could do a part two on it.

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