A Review of Literature on Eschatology

Future and Hope

A Review of Literature on Eschatology,
with special reference to Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope

Rob Yule, minister of St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, is Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aoteoroa New Zealand for 2000-2002. He was installed at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Dunedin on 30 September 2000, which had as its theme ‘The Power of Hope’. This scholarly article on the Christian hope, published when Rob was a theological student, shows his longstanding interest in the theme of hope and its creative power to motivate people and energise social transformation in times of suffering and difficulty. It was originally published in Commentary, journal of the New Zealand Theological Students Fellowship (April 1968), pp. 5-9.

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Immanuel Kant stated, ‘The whole interest of reason, speculative as well as practical, is centred in the three following questions: (1) What can I know? (2) What ought I to do? (3) What may I hope?’ Philosophy and theology since Kant have mainly been preoccupied with the first, the epistemological question, and to a lesser extent with the second, the ethical question. Schleiermacher attempted to avoid the force of the epistemological question for Christian theology by assigning faith to an independent and irreducible element of human experience that he termed ‘feeling’. Ritschl, in response to the second question, interpreted religious statements as judgements of moral value. But the third question, prejudiced maybe by the notion of the immortality of the soul which was the answer that Kant formulated to it, has since then been almost completely ignored in modern theology, with the notable exception of some German Lutherans. Faith and love have received abundant attention, but hope has almost dropped out of the trinity of classic Christian virtues.

Transcendental Eschatologies

Certainly, there has been a renaissance of eschatology in Biblical studies since Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer recognised that the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels are the distinctive legacy of the historical Jesus, whom they viewed as a somewhat imbalanced apocalyptic enthusiast. But these discussions have been confined mainly to technical questions of Biblical interpretation, such as the alleged delay of the parousia, the nature of the resurrection body, the Biblical conception of time, the ‘Son of Man’ sayings in the Gospels, and the relationship of present fulfilment and future expectation in Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. However valuable these studies have been in points of detail, they have not really yielded answers to Kant’s third question, ‘What may I hope?’, but only to the historical question, ‘What did Jesus or the early church hope?’ They have not addressed the hermeneutical question of how to move beyond what the Biblical text meant to what it means.

The eschatological views of Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich are defective in many respects, but these modern theologians deserve credit at least for attempting to make Biblical eschatology relevant for human self-understanding and a central concern of theology in our time. In 1921 Barth made the programmatic announcement: ‘If Christianity be not altogether and unreservedly eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever to Christ.’ When we analyse the language of Barth’s theology, however, it soon becomes apparent that the Christian hope has undergone a major transformation. ‘The end of history,’ he writes in his early study of the resurrection, ‘must be . . . synonymous with the pre-history, the limits of time . . . must be the limits of all and every time and thus necessarily the origin of time.’ Here, in what is little more than a tautology, ‘end’ becomes the equivalent of ‘origin’ and the eschaton becomes the transcendental boundary of time and eternity.

Even the mature Barth, when he comes to his definitive discussion of the goal of human life in the section on ‘Ending Time’ in the Church Dogmatics, concludes that the New Testament hope is not ‘the continuation into an indefinite future of a somewhat altered life’, but ‘the "eternalising" (Verewigung) of this ending life.’ ‘Man as such,’ he states emphatically, ‘has no beyond’: he ‘belongs to this world’, and is thus ‘finite and mortal’. ‘One day he will only have been, as once he was not.’ The later Barth has a reputation for being more respectful of traditional theology than the early, but the conclusion we are driven to after studying the highly ambiguous language of this section is that he does not believe in a hereafter, that human life is bounded by death, and that human beings have only this mortal life to live. Contrary to St. Paul, it appears that Barth’s hope in Christ is ‘for this life only’ (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Bultmann and Tillich also transpose the Bible’s future hope into the transcendental openness of Existentialism. For Bultmann, God is the God of ‘constant futurity’, the ‘ever coming God.’ But like Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play, he never comes. God’s coming as envisaged by Bultmann is a purely transcendental ‘coming’ that evokes ‘faith as openness to the future.’ The dimension of the temporal future is so minimised by Bultmann that in his 1955 Gifford Lectures History and Eschatology, subtitled The Presence of Eternity, he can identify the end or eschaton with the moment of existential decision: ‘every instant has the possibility of being an eschatological instant.’ Similarly, though more portentously, Paul Tillich can say, ‘The fulfilment of history lies in the permanently present end of history, which is the transcendental side of the Kingdom of God: the Eternal Life.’ Past and future meet in the present, and both are included in the eternal ‘now’.

Thus, whatever their differences, the three leading theologians of the first half of the twentieth century share the same secularist premise, that human beings have just one life to live - and that it is this present, finite, earth-bound one. With that common presupposition, their treatment of eschatology ceases to be the expectation of the believer’s future in Jesus Christ, and becomes instead the transmutation of Christian hope into what Georg Picht has termed the ‘epiphany of the eternal present of being.’ Faced with such a widespread denial of future expectation by the leading theologians in our time, it is therefore refreshing to encounter Jürgen Moltmann’s seminal book Theology of Hope, which unashamedly calls for a recovery of the dimension of futurity, and for a reconsideration of the great themes of theology in the light of hope.

Futurist Eschatology

Moltmann is perhaps the leading figure among a group of younger theologians, including Wolfhart Pannenburg, Walter Zimmerli, Gerhard Sauter and Ulrich Hedinger (in Germany) and Dietrich Ritschl (in the United States) who are determined to relate the thorough-going eschatology of the Bible to the experience of contemporary human beings living in a time of rapid social change. One of their chief partners in this concern has been the eighty-two year old Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, author of the as yet untranslated two volume work Das Prinzip Hoffnung (1959).

In contrast to the Existentialist philosophers with their understanding of the human condition as bounded by death, Bloch emphasises futurity and possibility, the creative orientation of human life towards a ‘still unpossessed homeland’. Bloch does not accept the transcendent God of Judaeo-Christian faith, although he acknowledges that ‘man is indebted to the Bible for his eschatological consciousness’. As a Marxist he advocates, in Moltmann’s words, ‘hope without faith’, ‘humanism without God.’ Nevertheless, Moltmann is one of a number of Christian theologians who have been inspired by their interaction with Bloch to develop an eschatology that is true to our historical experience, genuinely creative, and open to the future.

Moltmann is refreshingly explicit about the Christocentric character of Christian eschatology, in distinction to abstract ideologies. ‘Christian eschatology does not speak of a future as such. . . . Christian eschatology speaks of Jesus Christ and his future. . . . Hence the question whether all statements about the future are grounded in the person and history of Jesus Christ provides it with the touchstone by which to distinguish the spirit of eschatology from that of utopia.’ (p. 17). He sees the resurrection of Jesus as the anchor of hope in history, the bridge between the universal hope of Jewish prophecy and apocalyptic and the eschatological mission of the church in world history.

Christian eschatology is based on the history of God’s promises and their fulfilment. God’s promise does not correspond to reality as we find it. Rather it contradicts present experience, and awakens ‘hoping against hope’ (Romans 4:18). It evokes the believing hope that, as Calvin puts it in his commentary on Hebrews 11:1, ‘hastens beyond this world through the midst of the darkness’ of suffering, guilt and death to a future in which these ambiguities will be resolved (pp. 15-36, 102-6). The very fact that God’s promise contradicts present reality puts the believer in a state of tension until the time of fulfilment comes (Romans 8:18-25), with the real possibility of lapsing into doubt, temptation, or despair. On the other hand, for the hearer of the divine promise, ‘the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of promise.’ (p. 103).

The fact that Christian eschatology points to a future in which our present experience of reality will be superseded, has important consequences for our knowledge of God and for the current debate about natural theology. At present ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5:7). The eschatological perspective discloses that the proofs of God’s existence cannot have full validity until everything is made manifest at the consummation of history. ‘All proofs of God are at bottom anticipations of that eschatological reality in which God is revealed in all things to all.’ (p. 281, cf. pp. 89-94, 272-82). Hence, as Hans Iwand remarks, ‘The reform that is required of theology today consists in assigning revelation to this age, but natural theology to the age to come.’

Christian eschatology, with its historical horizon of promise and fulfilment, stands in direct contrast to the ‘epiphany of the eternal present’ (p. 29) or ‘mysticism of being’ (p. 30) found in the Hellenistic mystery religions, Eastern mysticism, and poetic inspiration. Insofar as Barth, Bultmann and Tillich reduce the historical future of Biblical eschatology to the nunc aeturnum (eternal now) of monistic religion and philosophy, Moltmann believes they have seriously distorted the nature and focus of Christian hope (pp. 26-69, 84-94). In making the eschaton a present reality, they have in fact accepted the outlook of the ancient pagan epiphany religions and reversed the standpoint which Paul took against Hellenism (pp. 154-65).

Moltmann’s temporal understanding of eschatology enables him to make a significant contribution to contemporary discussion about the relationship of Christianity and history. He emphasises the linear-developmental view of history that is the distinctive legacy of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in contrast to the cyclical-recurrence understanding which is the worldview of ancient and modern mythopoeic cultures (pp. 245-70). Moreover, Moltmann exposes the limitations of such conceptual tools of the historian as universality and analogy when approaching history understood in this genuinely historical manner, especially when treating a unique, unparalleled event like the resurrection of Jesus (pp. 172-82, 270-2).

Christian eschatology, through the God who calls ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (Revelation 21:5), opens human beings to genuinely new historical experience. The God ‘with whom all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26), who ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Romans 4:17), discloses a horizon of new possibilities for those who believe, delivering us from despair, and freeing us for loving service and hope-filled mission in society (pp. 32-6, 304-38). The Christian hope calls us to become involved in the renewal of the world, and gives us courage to transform institutions, economics, society and politics in a service that cannot rest satisfied with any of its accomplished achievements. ‘Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, and assume the form of a servant,’ says Moltmann, ‘because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.’ (p. 338).

© 1968, Robert M. Yule

© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand