Tonight I had the privilege of meeting the ex- Nazi soldier - turned world famous Christian theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, professor emeritus of Tübingen at Emmanuel College in Cambridge. His life story is to say the least incredibly significant and relevant for all Christians.
Here are a few moments in his journey which I found fascinating tonight:
• His best friend died next to him under the shelling of Hamburg by the English.
• He asked himself two questions: Why am I not dead? Why am I alive?
• Having been caught by the British, an English soldier gave him baked beans to eat – till this day he loves baked beans (at this point the crowd laughed).
• He lost interest in life until an unforgettable moment in 1945 when he stood in front of a full blossoming cherry tree. As he looked at the tree the spirit of life touched him.
• A British chaplain gave him a Bible. Initially he wasn’t interested in it until he found Psalm 39! Later the passion narrative of Mark’s Gospel had a profound impact on him. He read the passion narrative over and over and eventually found “his little story in His great story”. When Jesus said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Moltmann finally found someone who understands. This realisation did not happen in a moment, it was a gradual process.
• In 1947 he was invited to speak at a British conference reflecting on what had happened during the war and also his POW experiences. He meat a Dutch student group who introduced him to what they called the “bridge” which Jesus Christ's death and resurrection provides for us. Without that bridge, they said, they would never have been able to speak to a German again, given what they did to the Jews in the Netherlands.
In the second half of the lecture, Professor Moltmann focused on the more theological aspects of how he moved from Physics to Theology. The lecture was recorded and will be available in a few month’s time, so I won’t describe the details further here. I found professor Moltmann’s answer to one particular question from the audience afterwards particularly insightful. The question was: “Did Christ rise from the dead, or do we need him to rise from the dead in order to have hope?”
Professor Moltmann: “There are dimensions of resurrection which are contrary to your wishful thinking. You will never wish to be confronted with the victims of your people, and they will be raised first – the victims of injustice and violence. And this is against wishful thinking. If you would follow wishful thinking, go to the consumer paradise, but not to the church”.
The above question clearly took aim at Professor Moltmann’s long standing and firm belief in the bodily resurrection and the hope which it brings to humanity and creation. I managed to buy Professor Moltmann’s new book: Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, and started reading it the moment I got home. Amazing stuff (though I would not agree with him on everything). This particular section about the resurrection is really worth quoting:
“Many people think that, somehow or other, life will go on after death, but they find it difficult to believe in a resurrection of bodies, fragile, weak, sick and mortal as they are ... How can anyone believe in the resurrection of the body, and what consequences could this belief have for our dealings with the body?
The patristic church inserted the phrase about the ‘resurrection of the body’ into the Apostles’ Creed although even then this idea ran counter to the general spiritualizing trend of Hellenistic and Roman culture. In our Western civilisation, where everything is objectified, it appears even incomprehensible and offencive. Why did the ‘the resurrection of the body’ make its way into the context of Christian hope and find a place in the creed?
An initial reason, I believe, lies in the general thrust of all biblical statements about God’s purpose: ‘All the works of God end in bodiliness’, declared Friedrich Ötinger, and I would add: on this earth. God created human beings out of earth, we are earthly beings, God’s Word became ‘flesh’. How should God’s history with those he has created not end in a resurrection of the body and an eternal bodily life? ... what comes into being after death in the place of mortal life is not a different life. It is this mortal, this lived, and this loved life which will be raised, healed, reconciled, completed, and thus find its divine destiny; for ‘God created man for eternal life’ (Wis. 2.23)” (my emphasis, 59, 62).
I must admit that I found professor Moltmann's view of the bodily resurrection and the future hope connected to it really encouraging. We had a few minutes to talk afterwards, and he gladly signed my copy of his new book. I was quite surprised to learn that he has a South African friend whom I also knows: Adrio König, emeritus professor of Systematic Theology of UNISA. He told me how in 1978 he gave lectures at the then Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa and stayed over at Prof König’s house.
What an enriching evening we had! Thank you Lord for world-class scholars who believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and believers and the future transformation of creation!