Theology of Hope

Hope Theology

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Professor of systematic theology at the University of Tubingen, West Germany, since 1967, Jurgen Moltmann, b. Apr. 8, 1926, is one of the leading proponents of the "theology of hope." He believes that God's promise to act in the future is more important than the fact that he has acted in the past. What is implied by this focus on the future, however, is not withdrawal from the world in the hope that a better world will somehow evolve, but active participation in the world in order to aid in the coming of that better world. Moltmann's works include Theology of Hope (1964), Hope and Planning (1971), Man (1971), The Experiment of Hope (1975), Experience of God (1979), On Human Dignity (1984), and God in Creation (1986).

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A J Conyers, God, Hope, and History (1988); M D Meeks, Origins of the Theology of Hope (1974).

Theology of Hope

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In the late 1960s a new approach to theology emerged. Its early leaders were Germans who attempted to do theology and understand the mission of the church from a shift in interpretative perspective. This new approach is a resurrection - centered theology, in the awareness that Christ's resurrection is the beginning and promise of that which is yet to come. The Christian is to be seen as a "hoper," who is impatient with evil and death in this present age. The church is seen as a disquieting entity, confronting society with all its human securities, empires, and contrived absolutes. The church awaits a coming city and, therefore, exposes all the cities made with hands. This form of theology exists in dialogue with other visions of the future, especially Marxism, and it stands against the individualism of liberal pietist and existential theologies. In some ways it is orthodox, and yet politically it can be quite radical. Third World churches have been deeply influenced by the theology of hope.

Undoubtely a central figure of this new theology is Jurgen Moltmann. The most influential work by Moltmann is his Theology of Hope, published in English in 1967. This book is merely part of a wealth of material now being produced by Moltmann. It is a work of sustained spiritual force and systematic power, written when Western culture was in great ferment. Theology of Hope speaks of an understanding of God as being ahead of us and the one who will make all things new. He is known now in his promises. It speaks to a world vividly aware of the "not yet" dimensions of human and social existence, and of the fact that hope at its human level is of the stuff of meaningful existence. Within this sort of situation, sustained by a renewed confidence in the eschatological or apocalyptic vision of Scripture, and reacting to the individualistic exaggerations of theological existentialism (e.g., Bultmann), Moltmann has sought to rethink theology.

Eschatology is not to be seen as the last chapter in a theology textbook but the perspective from which all else is to be understood and given its proper meaning. For Moltmann eschatology is the key or central concept from which everything else in Christian thought is set.

Moltmann sees the entire story of Israel as a unique historic pilgrimage as Israel is confronted by the God of promise. Israle's entire identity is in light of the promises of God. In Jesus Christ the future kingdom is present, but as future kingdom. His resurrection is the firstfruits of the resurrection and can have meaning only within that universal horizon of meaning. Christian life and salvation are firstfruits, living in the promise of the future of God in Christ.

The church is to be seen as the people of hope, experiencing hope in the God who is present in his promises. The coming kingdom gives the church a much broader vision of reality than a "merely" private vision of personal salvation. The church is to contest all the barriers that have been constructed by man for security; it challenges all structures that absolutize themselves, and all barriers erected between peoples in the name of the reality that is to come in Jesus Christ. The coming kingdom creates confronting and transforming vision for the mission of the people of God.

Although Moltmann is perhaps most conspicuous, he is not the only theologian of hope. Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg is another who has become quite well known in the United States since the late 60s. His editorship of a programmatic work, Revelation as History (1968), and his Jesus, God and Man (1968) have already given him a significant place on the theological map. In Revelation as History, Pannenberg has produced a key essay containing "Dogmatic Theses on the Doctrine of Revelation." In this work we find an understanding of all reality in terms of the eschaton, the Christ event as the beginning, proleptically, of that future, and of the concept of God as the God of the future.

Apocalyptic is the key theological category, for only at the end will God be seen as God, and only in the light of this end is the resurrection of Jesus Christ seen in its proper universal context. Pannenberg's massive work on Christology is a further attempt to rethink this crucial doctrine "from the end." Jesus Christ is defended as very God and very man, and the resurrection is defended as an event in history and given meaning by placing it within an apocalyptic conceptual horizon. Here, indeed, is a new and promising attempt to defend and affirm the church's witness to Christ as God and man.

From a much more political emphasis comes the work of Catholic theologian Johannes B Metz. In his Theology of the World (1968) we have a serious attempt to rethink the mission of the church in light of the future orientation of bibical faith. Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten is perhaps the leading American advocate of this sort of theology and its meaning for theology and church. His programmatic work is The Future of God (1969).

It is, of course, true that since the publication of Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus at the turn of the century, the church has been vividly aware of eschatology. But what was to be done with it? Was it merely a first century conceptual "husk" (Harnack)? Was it the vivid mythological language of existential ultimacy (Bultmann)? Was it merely a mistake replaced by the church (Loisy)? No, say the theologians of hope. They have studied the bibical witness long and hard. They have listened seriously to the philosophical climate of their time, especially sharpening their historical awareness through the left wing of the Hegelian tradition (Feuerbach, Marx, and Bloch). They contend that the time has come to rethink theology in light of the telos.

Theological reflection can take several styles. One approach is to take one doctrine as central and think from it to the rest of one's theological agenda. The central doctrine becomes the hub and other doctrines are the spokes of a conceptual wagon wheel. Luther did this with great power with the doctrine of justification; Barth, likewise, with the incarnation of the Son. Theologians of hope have made eschaton their conceptual center. Their first move is to use this center to affirm the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ. The eschaton is not an embarrassment; rather, it gives Christianity both personal and universal significance in a world that thinks, plans, and dreams in terms of future fears, hopes, and schemes. Further, this form of doing theology provides a way of seeing the mission of the church in terms of the larger issues of man in community and the question of revolution. The promise of this effort remains to be fully seen. Surely from their own perspective no theological model can be absolute.

On the critical side, questions certainly arise. It seems that with all the focus on the end, a simple question arises about the beginning. How does the creation and fall fit in? Would it be as easy to conceptualize a sort of dualism with God finally "winning" in the end? Surely this is not contemplated, but what is? Further, Moltmann seems to have much difficulty incorporating any thought of a future judgment as condemnation. But if the Christ - event is the "presence of the future" and if it is the clue to the destiny of all, then is the church in its witness and mission anything more than the harbinger of the truth of all men? Is there no real discussion to be made? Is there no real discussion to be made? Is there no condemnation in the future?

Resurrection in the Bible is unto either life or condemnation. Finally, is this theology no more than a sign of the times? Because our materialism and narcissism have blinded us to God as a living presence, have we now conjured a theology to somehow account for this by putting him into the future? Has virtue (hope) become the child of tragic necessity? Criticisms such as these, however necessary, need not keep us from exploring the possibilities of thinking "from the telos."

S M Smith
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

F Herzog, ed., The Future of Hope; M E Marty and D G Peerman, eds., New Theology No. 5; W Capps, Time Invades the Cathedral; J McQurrie, Thinking about God; D P Scaer, "Theology of Hope," in Tensions in Contemporary Theology; J M Robinson and J B Cobb, eds., Theology As History.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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