Lessons for Living Found in Views of the Last Judgment
By PETER STEINFELS
The New York Times
January 20, 2007
“Eschatology” is not exactly your everyday word. If you had read every word of this newspaper every day for the last five years, you would have encountered it fewer than 20 times. Half those times were somehow referring to fundamentalist religious beliefs about the final battles between good and evil, the coming of Jesus (or other messianic figures), the Last Judgment and the eternal assignment of the saved and the damned to heaven or to hell.
Defined as “beliefs about the ultimate future,” eschatology is very real for biblical literalists, even if they have never heard of the word. It inspires, for example, the complicated scripts and detailed timetables featured in the best-selling “Left Behind” series of novels. Liberal believers may also ponder questions of personal life after death, but many are inclined to shrug off as striking but disconcerting poetry the cosmic end-times dramas that capture the fundamentalist imagination.
Not Jürgen Moltmann. For four decades he has been influencing Christian theology in radical directions with his conviction that eschatology is central to understanding God, humanity and all the basic teaching of his faith. An emeritus professor of theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, he will be a featured lecturer next week at a conference titled “God’s Unfinished Future: Why It Matters Now,” sponsored by the Trinity Institute of Trinity Church on Wall Street in Manhattan.
Professor Moltmann, 80, grew up in a secular German family and was captured as a young soldier in World War II. Shaken by the deeds of his own country, he converted to Christianity while a prisoner of war in Belgium and England.
In the 1960s, his “Theology of Hope,” subtitled “On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology,” became one of the most widely translated and read theological works, stirring enthusiastic responses among Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, and among religious radicals in the developing world as well as dissident Marxists in Eastern Europe.
At the core of this theology were the principles that human consciousness is not shaped only by the past and present but also by anticipation of the future, that biblical revelation is centered on God’s promises, and that hope for the future does not rest on extrapolations of past or present trends but on something truly beyond them, namely those divine promises.
In more recent books, Professor Moltmann has incorporated ecological and feminist concerns into this eschatological theology. He has elaborated further in terms of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
His lectures next Tuesday and Wednesday will offer an alternative to the eschatological thinking that dwells on catastrophic signs, violent tribulation and warfare, rewards and punishments and a division of humankind into friend and foe. Professor Moltmann has little use for the view of a wrathful God that would chastise the world with famine, epidemic and earthquake. In a text prepared for his lectures, he calls such a God “a world terrorist,” and says, “I can’t see anything divine or Christian or righteous here.”
Similarly, he complains that the Christian idea of a Last Judgment came to resemble the mythology of Egypt’s pharaohs, in which the god Anubis weighed souls and the god Osiris pronounced verdicts. Medieval portraits of the Last Judgment substituted Christ for Osiris and the archangel Michael for Anubis, and inculcated a fear of hell that “poisoned the idea of God in the soul,” Professor Moltmann says.
“The image of the God who judges in wrath has caused a great deal of spiritual damage,” Professor Moltmann will be telling his listeners.
But he is not satisfied with the alternative that makes eternal destiny simply a matter of the individual’s own choice of whether to reject God. In that case, Professor Moltmann says, the Last Judgment becomes no more than “the ultimate endorsement of our free will.” God really has nothing much to do with it beyond implementing the human outcome; in short, “we are the lords, and God is our servant,” he says.
The alternative, in Professor Moltmann’s view, is to put Jesus Christ at the center of this final drama. “It is high time to Christianize our traditional images and perceptions of God’s Final Judgment,” he says.
Any Last Judgment with Christ at the center must answer the cries of human victims for justice, without simply meting out vengeance on the perpetrators of injustice, Professor Moltmann suggests. A Christian eschatological vision would involve not the retributive justice of human courts but “God’s creative justice,” which can heal and restore the victims and transform the perpetrators.
The goal of a final judgment, in this interpretation, is not reward and punishment but victory over all that is godless, which he calls “a great Day of Reconciliation.” Professor Moltmann argues for the universal preservation and salvation not only of humans, as individuals and as members of groups, but also of all living creatures. It has been “a fatal mistake of Christian tradition in doctrine and spirituality,” he argues, to emphasize the “end of the old age” rather than “the new world of God,” the beginning of the “life of the world to come.”
This resurrected life will be bodily and worldly, and its expectation, he says, should teach people to “give ourselves wholeheartedly to this life here and surrender in love” to its “beauties and pains.”
In a phone conversation from Germany, Professor Moltmann acknowledged that his was a reinterpretation of traditional teachings, to which objections could be raised. Of course, it is not likely that his audience next week at Trinity Church, and by simultaneous broadcast at Episcopal institutions around the country and overseas, will be thick with devotees of the “Left Behind” series.
The greater challenge may arise from listeners for whom his political undertones and his generous spirit resonate, but who inhabit a science-minded and skeptical culture. Some of them may wonder what force they can give to the language of faith, especially of the cross and resurrection, that Professor Moltmann uses in as undiluted and vigorous a fashion as any evangelical preacher, even while giving it a different interpretation.