When I first became aware of the question of universal salvation, one of my friends took note of it and recommended that I read some of the works of Jürgen Moltmann. My friend told me about one of Moltmann’s statements that he is not a universalist, but believes that God may be a universalist. (This reminded me of a saying attributed to Karl Barth: “I don’t preach universalism, but I don’t not preach universalism.”) As a result of that, I decided to investigate Moltmann and his theology.
Moltmann was born in 1926 – he is still alive today at ninety years old! – and was raised in an atheistic household in Hamburg, Germany. In his youth, he dreamed of becoming a scientist. He fought in WWII and was taken as a prisoner of war to Scotland. He met some Christians in the prison and received a Bible containing the New Testament and the Psalms, which had a strong influence on him. In particular, he was moved by Christ’s “cry of dereliction” (Mark 15:34). Moltmann ultimately became a Christian in prison.
After the war was over and he was released, Moltmann studied theology and became a pastor in rural Germany for several years before returning to school to continue his theological training. Moltmann, along with many other Protestant German theologians at the time, was actually under the impression that Karl Barth had basically figured out the whole of Christian theology. (Considering that Barth’s multi-volume book, “Church Dogmatics,” exceeds 8,000 pages in length, one can easily imagine why German Protestants in the mid-twentieth century might well think that Karl Barth had finished the theological task.) However, as Moltmann continued to study Barth, he realized that eschatology – the doctrine of “last things” – was seriously under-emphasized by Barth. (I would guess that that probably had more or less to do with Barth’s Kierkegaardianism and the fact that Barth lived in a post-Bultmannian theological climate, but I digress.) Moltmann, accordingly, made eschatology one of the distinctive centerpieces of his own theological project. This can be seen in “Theology of Hope,” which, fascinatingly enough, was largely inspired by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s work, “The Principle of Hope.” For this and other reasons, Moltmann is often referred to as today’s “theologian of hope.”
The first book I read by Moltmann was “The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology,” for which he won the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2000. (One of Moltmann’s students, Miroslav Volf, who now teaches at Yale Divinity, once won the same prize, also.) Hands-down the most stimulating section in the book was “The Restoration of All Things” in pages 235-255 of the book’s English translation (for alas, I cannot yet read in German). In “The Restoration of All Things,” Moltmann embarks on a dialectic that spans Patristics (mostly Origen and Augustine), the Bible, and historical and contemporary theological discourse before concluding with a moving meditation on Christ’s descent into hell. Moltmann suggests that because of Christ’s sufferings, the proclamation of the last judgment comes from one who was himself judged in the stead of sinners. Moltmann thus strongly espouses a strongly universalist eschatology.