Reason 2: He rescued eschatology from irrelevance.
It’s not easy to talk about the end of the world. Jesus followers have been debating and discussing these matters for over two thousand years with a wide variation of answers. To put these diverse views on a scale, we can say there are two polarizing dangers: One, we can focus so much on what’s coming that we trivialize the present. (You’ve heard that phrase that some people are “of such heavenly mind they’re no earthly good.”) Two, we can focus so little on what’s coming that we trivialize the future.
In the modern period of Enlightenment, eschatology (the study of the ‘last things’) fell upon especially hard times. Theologians argued that no rational thinking person could have faith in a religion based on some superstitious view of what God will do in the future. Rudolf Bultmann famously embodied this understanding when he recast eschatology as something inherently personal and exclusively individualist; eschatology is the event of our own sense of judgment. Others chose to make eschatology a caricature of itself- one with charts and fatalistic predictions. Many of us understandably look at these options and consider giving up on eschatology entirely. The problem, of course, is that Judeo-Christian faith is by very definition an eschatological faith. And it is corporately, and even cosmically so.
Into this overly individualistic, self-indulgent, rational-overdrive environment, Moltmann birthed a theology of hope. He refused to say that eschatology didn’t matter. In fact, he did the opposite. When all other theologians began with creation and (much like their treatment of the Spirit) ended with a few vague paragraphs about eschatology, Moltmann exploded onto the scene by writing his first major theological work through the lens of eschatological hope. He writes, “The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day” (Theology of Hope, p.16).
What of superstition? Moltmann says our question is not “What can I know of historical facts?” but “What may I hope for?” There is a questionableness to all history and all human existence, and our task is to trust in the promise of God, which is above all a promise of redemption.
What of heavenly preoccupation? Moltmann says that a Jesus follower “does not find himself ‘in the air’, ‘between God and the world’, but he finds himself along with the world in that process to which the way is opened by the eschatological promise of Christ” (p.69 TOH).
Thank you, Professor, for showing us the third way between eschatological irrelevance and eschatological hyper-vigilance…and for showing us that redemptive, transformative hope is breathtakingly beautiful.