Lebewohl, Jürgen

Canon Michael Hull, our Assistant Priest, writes:

Jürgen Moltmann passed away on Monday 3 June 2024, aged 98, at his home in Tübingen. Moltmann was one of the most respected Protestant theologians of the twentieth century.

Moltmann’s work ranged widely, but his special concern was eschatology, the branch of theological speculation considering the last things (death, judgement, heaven and hell), yet his overall vision fused the horizons of present and future.

Moltmann lived a long and productive life, and a fascinating one. Born in Hamburg, he was drafted into the German military, aged 16, in 1943, and surrendered to the British in 1945. He was interned from 1945 to 1948 in Belgium, Scotland and England before returning to Germany where he studied theology at the University of Göttingen, was ordained in the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in 1952 and served as Pastor at Bremen-Wasserhors until 1957 when he began an academic career. Eventually appointed Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen in 1967, he lectured there until retirement in 1994 and remained an energetic theologian thereafter until his death. Moltmann wrote over forty books. His ‘trinity’ of Theology of Hope (1964); The Crucified God (1972) and The Church in the Power of the Spirit (1974) is a staple in the study of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Moltmann’s Theology of Hope focusses on the resurrection of Christ as the basis for hope in the present and future for us all. Resurrection is our ultimate end, not death, because we too will be raised from the dead like Jesus. As Moltmann writes, ‘the Christian hope for the future comes of observing a specific unique event—that of the resurrection … of Jesus Christ (p. 194). Moltmann sought to recover a proper theology of eschatology on the back of Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope (1959). Bloch was an atheist, a philosopher and a Marxist who championed a utopian hope for a socialist society, as he understood socialism, along the lines of a horizontal messianism. Using themes from the Holy Scriptures, Bloch envisioned humanistic communism as our future ideal. Moltmann’s messianism is similar in the sense of hope for humanity, but very different in terms of how such hope is realised. Moltmann’s Christian theology of hope is vertical, looking not only forward but upward to the true Messiah destined to return in glory. There is no utopia for humanity outwith God because the Kingdom of God has already been inaugurated by the Resurrected Christ. Christ is the firstborn of the dead and we are to follow (Col. 1.18; Rom. 8.29). Christians are perforce hopeful in the present and for the future.

A proper theology of eschatology for Moltmann bespeaks a call for radical change in the present because the present is all about promise. God is with us, and identically to God in history, God is leading us, bringing us closer to Himself and to a future in Him. Radical change has profound ethical considerations for us. Moltmann relies heavily on Romans, First Thessalonians and Hebrews, seeing eschatology not so much in the last things as in an authentic life of faith here-and-now to advance the Kingdom of God. To be sure, we await the Lord’s return; but in the meantime, we act on His behalf in the world: socially and politically. We are unlike those who would despair of humanity. We work to be agents of change for the good because we are disciples of Jesus. We can neither sit idly by nor withdraw from the travails found in the present world. Rather, energised by our Christian hope we dare to transform public life and to campaign for justice.

Hope, according to Moltmann, is living and acting in such wise as to affirm that God is healing and transforming the world. Such hope can never deny evil, suffering or injustice, yet it must ever affirm our ultimate happiness in God now and in the future. Moltmann was steadfast in preaching a gospel of hope for decades, for example, in his 2020 Charles Gore lecture ‘A Theology of Hope for the 21st Century’.

‘Lebewohl’, a formal salutation in German, means ‘live well’. There is much to be learned from the teaching and example of Jürgen Moltmann for our lives to be well lived. Two things come to mind. First, Moltmann taught us to put God’s hope at the centre of our theological reflection. Second, Moltmann worked tirelessly and ecumenically to spurn Christians to their noble calling of transformation. Many of Moltmann’s books and articles were written for academics, and Theology of Hope is no easy read, but the lion’s share of his work was written for accessibility by all. Moltmann understood theology in its root meaning as ‘the study of God’, a love he sought to share with us all. 

Lebewohl, Jürgen.

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also the Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.