In the end the beginning

In the End – the Beginning The life of hope, Jürgen Moltmann, Translated from the German by Margaret Khol, SCM Press, ISBN 0-334–2961-9

In the End – the beginning explores what three beginnings: natural birth; new life after catastrophe, and resurrection teach us about the nature of God. In writing that retains something of the oral character of the lectures which were in the beginning of the book’s own life Jürgen Moltmann unfolds his views with simplicity and elegance.

Part one opens with a swift but stunning exposition of the ‘promise of the child’. Moltmann explores the biblical history of the messianic ‘child of promise’, reaching into the tradition of Israel to explore the implications of the idea of the’Wisdom Messiah’ which conflated the prophesied coming Christ with Wisdom who was ‘like a craftsman God’s side’ (NIV) during the foundation of the earth. The text then outlines how the birth of the Messiah in principle might abolish: patriarchy; the cultural tying of hope to male descendents and the religious necessity for procreation, while celebrating the validity of voluntary celibacy and shining the light of hope onto every new born child. He writes: “If children are God’s creation, they are also created for the future of his creation. They must be viewed and accepted in this transcendent dimension, in which they themselves exist and in which they can develop.”

Part two opens with a brief personal insight into Moltmann’s experience of war and his escape from the disaster of both the dictatorship of the Third Reich and the shattered and defeated Germany. He turns from this personal experience of catastrophe, in the aftermath of which he was born as a Christian, to the theology of catastrophes in general. The biblical account of the flood, the Assyrian conquest of Israel, and the death of Christ at Golgotha form the pattern for his discussion. These apocalypses are contrasted with the modern tradition of the apocalyptic about which the author says: “today we have to make do with self-made apocalypses, for which human beings have to take responsibility, not God”

He continues into an excellent discussion of the relationship between justice, righteousness and salvation. There is a swiftly sketched, analysis of some reservations about both the traditional Catholic and Protestant doctrines of Justification. The account of what God’s righteousness and justice means in practice for a world of victims and perpetrators embraces the perspectives of both solidarity and representative Christology. In an interesting, and possibly contentious, conclusion Moltmann ends by exploring the consequences of this fuller understanding for God ‘Justifying faith is not just a faith through which human beings are justified; it is a faith through which God is justified too’.

Part three, which physically accounts for the second half of the book, addresses death, which Moltmann sees as a ‘beginning without ending’, resurrection, and the Last Judgment. Included with some conventional questions about Hell, Purgatory, and the nature of the soul, Moltmann discusses the implications of belief in reincarnation, and addresses the question of what happens to humans whose life is apparently ‘cut short’. On this topic he writes: “I believe God will also complete the life which he has begun with a human being … So I believe that God’s history with our lives will continue after our deaths, until the completion is reached in which a soul … will find rest and happiness.” There is an interesting discussion about mourning, or the lack of it, in modern culture and this trends naturally into an exploration of the ‘community of the living and the dead’. Here the experience of the church in countries which venerate ancestors is explored. Addressing the common question about praying for the dead Moltmann writes: ‘I myself do not believe that we can or must do something for the salvation of the dead through our prayers. But I do believe that the Christ risen from death also has his means of salvation in the realm of death too.’

The final chapters of the book look at the Last Judgement and the promise of Eternal Life of which Moltmann says: ‘Where men and women perceive Christ’s resurrection and begin to live within its horizon, they themselves will be born again to a living hope which reaches beyond death, and in living love will begin to experience eternal life in the fulfilled moment’.

The book’s origin as lectures, which were given to both theological and secular audiences, is a mixed blessing. On the positive side there is something thrilling about watching Moltmann propelling his arguments with such drive. However some will find the lack of detail and almost complete absence of references a source of frustration. Equally because of the excellence of the best parts of the book the variety in the quality of the content of the chapters comes as a slight disappointment.

Jürgen Moltmann is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology on the Evangelical Faculty, University of Tubingen, Germany