Moltmann and the Annihilation of Hell

Jurgen Moltmann in his foreward of Nicholas Ansell’s The Annihilation of Hell – Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jurgen Moltmann:

20150213_200619“A foreward is not an afterward and also not a critical review.  A foreward should open the door and point out the worth of a book so that it can be properly read and discussed.  Nicholas Ansell’s book on The Annihilation of Hell and Universal Salvation is so far-reaching and profound a theological and philosophical work that a brief foreward can’t really do it justice.  I’ll limit myself here to some biographical references, a few factual observations, and then an attempt to bring the theology of grace and the theology of faith into a theological dialogue.

Any theology of grace will be oriented for God’s sake to the universal triumph of grace.  Any theology of faith, however, will start from the human decision of faith and will result in the separation of believers from unbelievers.  The universalism of salvation, on the one hand, and the particularism of faith on the other hand, are on two different levels.  What is important is to closely connect them.

Since my theology studies in Gottingen, where I wrote my dissertation in 1952 on the “hypothetical universalism” of the Calvinist theologian Moyse Amyraut, who taught at the theological Academy of Saumer in the 17th century, the idea of universalism has not let go of me.  Amyraut’s idea, that the universal offer of grace is merely hypothetical until faith grasps it, I considered inadequate.  Then I read Karl Barth’s new doctrine of election which appeared in his Church Dogmatics 2/2 and became convinced by his theology of the cross:  On the cross of Christ, God took the guilt of sinners upon himself in order to give them his gift of grace.  I continued to think through this dialectical universalism of salvation and found in Christ’s resurrection from the dead the beginning of the destruction of death and thereby “the annihilation of Hell.”  Many Easter hymns in the German Lutheran hymnal celebrate the “destruction of Hell” by means of Christ’s descent into Hell and resurrection from Hell.  In the Orthodox Easter liturgy, the destruction of Hell through Christ is also celebrated.  Those who descend into Hell should “abandon all hope” according to Dante.  But the Christ who descended into Hell is the “hope of the hopeless” (spes desperatis).

I then took up an old desire of Karl Barth and Helmut Gollwitzer, namely to reform the doctrine of the LAst Judgment from the perspective of the crucified one who will come to judge the living and the dead.  Here I had the Old Testament notion of “divine judging” for help.  According to Psalm 96, God will come to judge the earth, and the earth will rejoice and the fields will make merry.  In this instance, “judge” means raise up, set straight, heal, and bring to life.  How could it be otherwise in the Christian anticipation of God’s Final Judgment and coming kingdom!  In fact the so-called “Final Judgment” is penultimate; what is truly final is the new, eternal creation in which God becomes “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

At this point another thought came to me:  with the forgiveness of sins and the overcoming of death, God is concerned primarily with the expulsion of the godless powers of evil, of sin, of death, and of Hell from his beloved creation.  Isn’t our question as to whether all or only a few will be saved not an anthropocentric and in many cases even a selfish one?  For God, it is about God’s glorification of all his creatures.  The salvation of the new humanity is only a part of this.  If we look to the glory of God, then the universalism and particularism of human salvation are relativised.  The “annihilation of Hell” is an action of the cosmic Christ, whose reign is universal.  “Universal salvation” is only the human part of the “salvation of the universe.”

I must stop here, since I’m only writing a forward.  But you can see how stimulating this study by Nicholas Ansell has been for me.  I hope the same holds true for his other readers.  There is much to be gained by considering this work and then thinking further on one’s own.”

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BMS Catalyst Live – Reading, UK

catalyst live

Not Catalyst Olive, as one guest poet humourously suggested, but Catalyst Live!

Anyway, I’ve digressed already!  The event held in Manchester and Reading this week by the BMS team has been very well received.  There were many highlights, many of them great, some funny and some weird, but that’s a bit like me so I was happy with that.

There was a stupendous tumbleweed moment during the Q&A with Jurgen Moltmann and John Lennox.  Moltmann was asked a question about his universalism (I forget the details of the question even though it was stated twice – and quite differently both times),   and his reply caused a reaction in the gathering as if someone had let off a stun-grenade!  SILENCE….then murmering, then another question was asked.  The two men behind me were talking about it the whole while we spent trying to get our coffee.

Moltmann’s reply also seemed to cause the wonderful John Lennox to contort his face in some kind of disapproving horror (was he surprised by this reply?  Had he never read any of Moltmann’s writings? Have I over-interpretted his face and the crowd reaction?).  Maybe, but for now, I’ll assume not.

How does Moltmann’s theology of ‘hope’ interact with faith as a pre-requisite for securing one’s eternal security/destiny? “Do you believe all will be saved?”

“Yes.  Yes I do!”  Boom.  Silence.  Tumbleweed.  Murmerings.  Next question…

This was very exciting.  Had the Catalyst Live team forgotten that arguably the world’s greatest living theologian was well known for his universalism (Baptist supremo Nigel Wright has written on universalism in the theology of Jurgen Moltmann)?  Had they bargained for Moltmann’s brutal but refreshing directness, his honesty?  Well I say “bravo” to the BMS and Catalyst Live team for inviting a theologian who you must have known would not shrink back from his conviction.  In fact, why not invite speakers around this subject alone for next years Catalyst?  You’d have to find a bigger venue and expect a lot of nasty people, writing nasty letters on why they are upset that hell, in the end, will be empty – according to Moltmann (and many others I might add)!

It is a curious thing, that when we come to Scripture, the hell texts really do mean what traditional theology has taught; whilst when we come to universalist texts (of which there are many), traditional theology tends not to deal with them in the same way.  So what tends to happen is we latch on to certain texts, believe a certain theological eschatology around them and ‘fix’ ourselves like oak trees in the ground of certainty.  Or we don’t think too much about it and live with a kind of mushy eschatological agnosticism: we can’t really know and God will sort it out in the end.

But in reality, the hell texts and the universalist texts (not to mention John Stott’s position – the annihilation texts), sit there, in our Bibles, inter-mingling with each other.  All the while we fail to see that the universalist texts offer us hope that perhaps all will be saved; and the hell texts warn us not to take this for granted.  And so it is the Bible, not we, who are the controllers and masters of Scripture, for here is evidence of Scripture controlling and mastering us, as it should!

The Bible, by offering us both visions, will not allow us to settle down with a comfortable scheme of how the future will pan out (we are such control freaks)!  Instead it invites us to respond with hope yet without complacency.  This was Moltmann’s emphasis, he taught us about biblical hope – in Christ no less – a hope that given his personal standing, credentials and sheer theological genius, could never be accused of being complacent.

Nigel Wright himself in the above mentioned essay wrote, “Scripture is given not to bestow upon us all the answers but to create a narrative context in which we may live and which certain matters remain constructively if agonizingly open.”  The wisdom outlined by Wright can help to preserve us from complacency and self-satisfaction.  God truly does know the human heart.

Finally, the reason why I find this Scriptural and theological tension not only fascinating but challenging is because most Christians in the Western world do advocate that the vast majority of humanity will be punished for ever in a hell of fire.  What is tragic about this is the temperature of their blood, twice as hot as hell, as they defend their view against the one that God might actually accomplish the salvation of every person, as He declares in Scripture.  They seem to want people there and they would be disappointed if there wasn’t.  Of course, it goes without saying they know where they’re going!

Here is a quote I found on the Baptist Times web site in response to an article that suggested we need to talk about hell – If Jurgen Moltmann is world-class, likewise Anthony Thiselton who wrote, “…we should not characterise the Augustinian tradition of eternal torment as “the orthodox view.” At least three very different views competed in the early church, all of them seeking some support from Scripture” quoted in The Last Things, pg.148.

I end with something Moltmann actually said yesterday, in contrast to Dante’s words written over the entrance to Hell ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here,’ Moltmann said, “The abandonment of hope is to be in the entrance of hell.”  And it is precisely because he understands the hope offered in God, a God who does not abandon, a God known to us as ‘The God of Hope’ that he can say, with no shame, that this God, revealed in Christ Jesus, will rescue his people, his grace will trump our weak faith and petty lives and neat theology.  I love that he added sometime later in his talk, “We are expected by God.”

Indeed we are.

Thank you Catalyst Live 2013