The future can be filled with hope, Moltmann and Gomes tell Trinity Institute

January 23, 2007

The 37th Trinity Institute National Theological Conference concluded January 24 with presentations by Jürgen Moltmann and Peter Gomes on the conference theme of "God's Unfinished Future: Why it Matters Now."

The Institute is offered by Trinity Church and St. Paul's Chapel in New York City.

Jürgen Moltmann spoke on the theme "The Final Judgment: Sunrise of Christ's Liberating Justice"

Moltmann, emeritus professor of theology at Tübingen University, Germany, is widely considered to be one of the most important theologians of the last 50 years. Moltmann has been committed to the unceasing exploration he calls "the adventure of theological ideas. More about Moltmann is available here.

Moltmann argued during his presentations on January 23 and 24 that Christians need to "rethink our expectations of the final judgment," arguing that western Christianity and all of society has been infused with images of a world-ending apocalypse centered on retribution for evil-doers and unbelievers.

Those who anticipate the end of the world live in the long evening of death and anticipate the final night, he said, rather than living in the hope of the resurrection and anticipating the final morning. They postulate a "glorious end" to the earth rather than anticipating the "beginning of eternal liveliness" on earth.

"If we live in God's unfinished future, we're looking forward and greeting the coming morning -- every coming morning -- in the light of the coming day" of God's new creation on earth, he said.

Moltmann argued that Christians can and must live life fully because the resurrected Christ pioneered a new humanity in which death is not the end. The risen Christ, who was not just a reanimated body but a new creation, became the "power of protest" against all the ways that death stands in the way of the new creation. Those forces include violence, oppression, exploitation, sickness, alienation, the threat of hell and separation from God, he said.

Moltmann said Christians are now called to join the risen Christ in his protest so that everyone can see that this life is worth living now, rather than marking time in anticipation of future glory.

A world-ending apocalypse centered on retribution leads to a friend-or-foe mentality, as Moltmann called it, which sanctifies any action against those who are perceived as "against us." It also is part and parcel of the attitude that the human being is at the center and can choose to accept or reject God. This belief is the "ultimate endorsement of our free will and makes human beings the masters of their own fate or their own executioners."

"In both cases the role of God is reduced to that of an executor of human beings' free choice. Heaven and hell become religious images which endorse human free will," he said.

"I think it's high to Christianize our images" of the end time, Moltmann said, instead of focusing on images that have their roots in Egyptian pharonic expectations and Roman law, which he called perpetrator-based.

"If you expect Doomsday, you will look for catastrophes here and there in anticipation of that day. If you expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, then you are looking for positive signs, but these are only minor signs," he said.

"The main signs of Christianity are the coming and the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the one sign in which we have to interpret our lives and world history."

Moltmann said it is imperative to counter the world's friend-or-foe attitude by "considering everyone whom we meet" to be a believer because God believes in them and Christ died for them, "as well as us."

"We should be reminded all the time that God is embracing them," he said.

Moltmann recalled hearing a Taliban leader in Afghanistan say that Western young people love life but that his young people loved death. Christians must love the lives of terrorists and anyone else who has an "apocalyptic death wish," acknowledging that the world faces a dilemma if a group or nation that loves death more than life acquires nuclear weapons.

Christians must remember that Christ "took sides with the victims and redeemed the perpetrators from their violence," he said, noting that He healed sinners and loved everyone -- victim and perpetrator alike -- and bore the sins of the world, suffering what humans suffer. "We must carry this memory of Christ otherwise none of us will be able to recognize him" when He comes again, he said.

When Christ comes again, Moltmann said, "the victims of injustice and violence are first judged so that they may receive their rights."

"The perpetrators of evil will afterwards experience the justice that puts things for right," he said. "They will thereby be transformed in as much as they will be relieved or be forgiven with the victims. They will be saved by the crucified Christ who comes to them together with their victims."

This judgment is not about reward and punishment but "the victory of God's creative justice" and the transformation of the world.

All will be "united for God's great day of reconciliation on this earth," he said. "On that day all the tears will be wiped away from their eyes -- the tears of suffering as well as the tears of remorse."

"The victims [will] stand there together with the perpetrators and the perpetrators with the victims ... the rich with the poor, the violent with the helpless, the martyrs with their murderers," he said. "I am certain that all flesh ... and we together with all the living things will see the glory of the Lord -- but only together."

Thus, we are to see "every human being as embraced by the mercy of God -- whoever they are, God loves them, Christ died for them and the Holy Spirit is working in their lives," he said.

Moltmann also said that congregations need to "revitalize the audacity of hope," remember and try to emulate those people who loved life so much they fought the powers of death, and "then go and stand up as a congregation and see where your front [against those powers] is."

Peter Gomes spoke on the theme "Can We Afford a Positive Future?"

Gomes is Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals. He has written several books and published collections of sermons. More information about Gomes is available here.

The conference's theme was a timely one, Gomes said, because it attempted to help people catch up on a conversation -- indeed a fascination -- with the end times that has been going on in the culture for a long time. To counter doomsday visions, Gomes offered a view of the gospel of hope.

First, he distinguished hope from optimism which, he said, these days is a "creed" and "as American as apple pie."

"The spirit of American religious optimism was deeply ingrained in the American conscience," he said.

Optimism seduces us into looking at the bright side without taking into account the dark side -- which is reality, Gomes said.

Hope, he said, is first of all ambiguous. It is not a policy, a doctrine, a theology or a memory, he said, but "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul," as poet Emily Dickinson wrote.

"Hope can seem a wimpy word," but hope must also be muscular, he said, of the kind St. Paul describes in Romans 5 when he writes that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope.

"We must look first, if we want to know hope, to those who suffer," Gomes said.

Saying that he does not subscribe to what he called a "cult of victimhood" as he said do some fellow African-Americans, Gomes argued that it is instructive to examine how the religion of white slave owners became an instrument of liberation for slaves, rather than the instrument of docility the slave owners hoped.

"The Christian faith was stronger than the Christians who used it," he said, because white Christians could not corrupt Jesus' truth.

Gomes also pointed to the perseverance of hope among Jewish people as evidence that "suffering is the necessary antecedent of hope."

All suffering can be borne because "their ultimate hope is in God who will never abandon them," Gomes said. He said he was not arguing that adversity is a good thing, but instead that adversity is a reality and that "hope is forged on the anvil of adversity."

The Book of Revelation has received much attention during the conference and Gomes said that the vision of the New Jerusalem described in the book's last two chapters show that "reconciliation, not vengeance, is the core of Scripture" and "points to a redeemed and not a doomed future."

Gomes then gave the members of the audience five things to do to point themselves and their congregations towards hope.

* "Do not let the fundamentalists have a monopoly on the future." Gomes said too many non-evangelical Christians move forward with their eyes glued to the rearview mirror.

* "Preach and teach the Book of Revelation; don't avoid it." There is "vast ignorance" about the book and its vision, he said, urging preachers and teachers to use resources such as conference participant Barbara Rossing's book "The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation" so as not to re-iterate bad interpretation.

* "Do not confuse hope with optimism." Christians, especially preachers, must acknowledge that hope comes as a response to the experience of suffering, he said.

* "Acknowledge the reality of inadequacy." Gomes said: "I don't think we're just sick; I think we are sinners -- perverse, wicked sinners -- even the best of us." He urged preachers and pastors to "help your people acknowledge that they need help, which is to be found in the Good News of Jesus Christ which is to be found in the Gospel."

* "Preach to the future [because] there is no salvation in the past. There is no hope in history." Gomes warned against a nostalgia that longs for what he said is a non-existent time in the past when all was right. "The only place worth going to for believers is to the place where we have not yet been," he said. "Preach the future then not as a place of terror and fear and intimidation but as the place where we shall finally be fully known even as we; where we shall see God face to face."

Pentacostals may have no past, Gomes said, "but, boy, they know how to sell the future and that's where I want to be, that's where we want to be, that's where God's people want to be."

All conference sessions can be viewed here.