Jürgen Moltmann stands at a podium and speaks into several microphones

The Fullness of Life: Remembering Jürgen Moltmann

The Protestant theologian's writing, like his demeanor, was humble, self-effacing, and quietly revolutionary.

By Janna Gonwa|June 7, 2024

On June 3rd, after 98 years on this earth, Jürgen Moltmann entered his eternal rest. It is impossible to summarize Moltmann’s legacy in a handful of paragraphs. A prolific writer, he produced more than forty theological monographs over a span of six decades. He was on par with Barth and Pannenberg as one of the great Christian systematic theologians of the twentieth century, but it was not primarily his systematicity that had a profound influence on those of us whose work—or whose lives—he changed. Instead, one piece or another of his theology slipped into our heads and our hearts, under our skin. His writing, like his demeanor, was humble and self-effacing. It was, one could say, quietly revolutionary: the unsuspecting reader might flip a page, stumble upon an unassuming sentence, and catch themselves thinking, “This changes everything.”

The quiet revolution caught me as a Master of Divinity student fresh out of college, making my way through a required reading from The Crucified God. I knew of no Christian framework other than substitutionary atonement for understanding Christ’s crucifixion, no lens other than the judiciary lens of guilt, just wrath, and necessary punishment. Moltmann saw the crucifixion through the lens of God’s loving determination to come and find humanity and remain with us, whatever hell (or hell on earth) might swallow us: “He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” Moltmann, who claimed that Jesus “found him” in a World War II P.O.W. camp, believed along with the psalmist that even when we make our bed in Sheol, God is there (Ps. 139).  When God sits Godself down in the place of God’s absence, then nowhere in existence can be truly cut off from God’s love. As I held The Crucified God in my hand that summer, I saw in an instant that such a theological idea could transform not only a person’s thoughts about atonement but their entire experience of faith practice. I became a theologian because Moltmann showed me that theology could be an act of ministry.

First and foremost, Moltmann’s theology was living theology, the reflection that arises from within the challenge of living to be found faithful. For this reason, Moltmann’s work resists categorization. He is called a German Reformed theologian, but he embraced ecumenism, and his theology was not defined by commitment to the dogma of any one denomination. He espoused liberation theology and social trinitarianism, but he did not wear these positions as labels. He made essential contributions on the topics of eschatology, divine passibility, and kenoticism, but he had little time for the technicalities of academic theology in isolation from their lived consequences. He addressed questions of ethics and social justice, but not from a platform of ideology or political partisanship.

Moltmann’s theology was defined, instead, by his convictions about God’s character and the indelible marks that it leaves on those who have encountered God—hope, joy, passion, fullness of life. He believed that God’s transformative presence could fuel dedication to peace, justice, and liberation, including the ecological liberation of the earth, which groans in expectation of its recreation. Moltmann’s eschatological imagination saw the earth itself transformed by God’s coming, re-formed and resurrected into God’s home, when God will once again renew a place of suffering and death by coming to dwell within it.

Moltmann believed that nothing in all creation is ultimately greater than God’s love. This conviction grounded the cautious, yet firm, hope of universal salvation that he expressed in his essay “The Logic of Hell.” Surely, he reasoned, God’s love must be broader than death, stronger than the most hardened human stubbornness, willfulness, or sin. No hell, not even the godless human heart, can remain a hell in the face of the persistent love of Christ: “God’s last word is ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ From this no one is excepted. Love is God’s compassion with the lost. Transforming grace is God’s punishment for sinners.” The capitulation to the immensity of God’s love that Moltmann envisioned resembles process theology’s hope in love’s persuasive power, but to be clear, it is not the bending of one’s will to the compelling claims of another. It is the unstoppable eruption of joy when you come face-to-face with that for which your soul has been made.

“Joy is the meaning of human life. Human beings were created in order to have joy in God,” Moltmann asserted in The Living God and the Fullness of Life. He insisted, however, that Christian joy is not naivete or escapism. The hope that God’s purpose for creation will prevail provides the courage to acknowledge and resist the evils of the world. Moltmann spoke thus of eschatological anticipation: “Life in joy is already an anticipation of eternal life . . . . In joy over the hoped-for future, we live here and now, completely and wholly, weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice . . . . Life in hope is not half a life under a proviso; it is a whole life awakening in the daybreak colors of eternal life.”

Rest in peace, Dr. Moltmann—or better yet, live in the fullness of eternal joy.

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Janna Gonwa

Janna Gonwa (AM ’13) is Assistant Professor of Theology at Gannon University. Her current research incorporates dynamic systems theory and self-organization theory into Christian theological discourse about the development of personal identity.