Through a glass darkly – 44

A Journey towards the Cross

We are rapidly moving through Lent towards Passion Week and Easter. Lent is, as preachers often tell us, a journey towards the Cross. In both Christ Church, Duns, and in Lyon we often arranged things so that Easter Day was an all-age Family Communion service. Which called for some creativity in our presentation of the Easter message. But which rarely provided an opportunity for a more in-depth exploration of the Cross. So it seemed a good time to have another look at Jurgen Moltmann, this time at his 1972 book, The Crucified God.

This book, as Richard Bauckham acknowledges in the introduction to my 1974 edition, is a theological classic; theo-logical in that it is concerned with who God really is. It takes up theology in the light [in the shadow?] of the Holocaust. It is about God’s impassibility. The book is about the cross of Jesus, and his apparent abandonment by the Father. It asks the question: ‘Who is God in the cross of the Christ who is abandoned by God ?’

Jürgen Moltmann

The Crucified God

In the preface Moltmann acknowledges that the cross cannot be loved. But he insists that the church and the theologian must try to understand the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. The church must demonstrate what it really believes about Jesus from Nazareth who is crucified under Pontius Pilate; and what practical consequences we draw from this. Where his earlier book Theology of Hope [see TaGD – 12, June 2020] began with the resurrection of the crucified Christ; this book looks at the cross of the risen Christ. “Unless it apprehends the pain of the negative, Christian hope cannot be realistic and liberating.”

The Cross is the central symbol of the Christian church. Christianity has been described as ‘the religion of the cross’. What does that mean ? We have too easily turned the scandal of the cross into a theory of salvation. The symbol of the Cross points to God, “who was crucified not between two candles on an altar but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong.” But as the church grew it left the cross behind, and gilded the cross with the ideas of salvation.

The idea of following Christ has been neglected in particular by bourgeois Protestantism; it no longer recognised the suffering church, the church of the martyrs. 

The word ‘theology’ does not appear in the Bible. The theology of the cross originates with Paul; in 1 Corinthians 1 he develops his understanding of the Cross, which, though a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks, becomes for believers the power of God for freedom. The theology of the Cross is central to Luther’s thought; contrasting it with the theology of glory of the Catholic church.

Questions about Jesus

Christian faith is essentially a profession of faith in Jesus. So – the first task of Christology is to determine ‘Who really is Jesus of Nazareth ?’ But the more the early Church emphasised the divinity of Jesus. the more difficult it became to hold that that the Son of God was of one substance with Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate. Consequently a mild docetism runs through the Christology of the early church. That Jesus was not quite fully man.

The current Christological question, Moltmann insists, is more about the true humanity of Christ, about his awareness of God, and about his inner life.  In modern Jesuology the attention is turned away from his suffering and death and concentrated on his life and teaching.

Moltmann wants to engage with the question asked by Judaism; the Messianic question ‘Are you the One who is to come ?’ is the earliest question asked about Christ. The Bible brings an eschatological awareness into the world; the universe longing for redemption becomes a future hope. “Faith lives by the anticipation of the kingdom through and in Jesus.” The Christian answer is that God brings the sinner, whether Jew or Gentile, to repentance through his suffering in the cross of Jesus.

Who do you say that I am ?’ is the question is not only asked by others of Jesus, but by Jesus  himself. When the disciples proclaimed the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, they were proclaiming the future of the crucified Christ. Christianity looks forward to the new age and the new creation, in which the crucified Christ can no longer be a scandal and a foolishness; because he is the basis of the proclamation ‘I make all things new’. [Rev. 21.5]

The Way to the Cross

How did Jesus who preached become the Jesus who was preached ? What is the relationship between the primitive gospel of Christ and the historical Jesus ? Paul recognised the danger of preaching about a spirit in the heavenly world, which is why he preached Jesus crucified. The preaching of both Jesus and of Paul is eschatological preaching; but where Jesus preaches the kingdom of God, Paul preaches the righteousness of God.  Jesus speaks of the dominion of God which is to come; Paul speaks of the dominion of God which has already been inaugurated in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The eschaton changes from the future to an event which has already begun. The essential Christological question is “how the dead Jesus became the living, the crucified became the resurrected, and the humiliated became the exalted”. And Molmann concludes “the basic problem and the starting point of theology is the scandal and folly of the cross”.

Paul Gauguin: Le Christ Jaune

The death of Jesus is the consequence of his earthly ministry; and how his ministry was received and understood by the Jews and [differently] by the Romans.

For the Jews Jesus was a demagogic false Messiah, a blasphemer. First he set himself over and above [the contemporary  understanding of] the law. Further he withdrew from the circle of John the Baptist: both preached that the kingdom of God was at hand. But where for John the Baptist this meant judgement; for Jesus the kingdom came as the unconditional and free grace of God. Jesus rejects the notion that the kingdom is for the righteous, while there would be judgement for the unrighteous. The theological dispute with the Jews is between the gospel and the law.

But Jesus did not undergo the punishment for blasphemy which was always stoning. Jesus was crucified by the occupying Roman power. This was the punishment for rebels against the Imperium Romanum. Bultmann writes: “What is certain is that he was crucified by the Romans and thus suffered the death of a political criminal … … it took place because his activity was misconstrued as a political activity.” Moltmann goes in detail into the question as to whether of not Jesus was a Zealot. And emphasises that there was undoubtedly a political dimension to Jesus’s ministry.

Albrecht Dürer

But neither Jesus’s theological conflict with Judaism nor his political conflict with the Roman Empire can explain the inner pain of his suffering and death. The synoptic gospels agree that Jesus’s death was troubled; “he was greatly distressed and troubled” [Mark 14:33].And the words of the dying Jesus [from Psalm 22.2] are “My God, why has thou forsaken me ?”  NB Luke omits these words, and replaces them with the confident utterance of the Jewish evening prayer, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”. For Jesus the torment on the cross was his sense of abandonment by God; something that took place between Jesus and his Father.

Every Christian theology must come to terms with Jesus’s words on the cross. Moltmann insists: “The cross of the son divided God from God to the utmost degree of enmity … …  The resurrection of the Son abandoned by God unites God with God in the most intimate fellowship.

The Resurrection

In early Christian tradition there is no dispute over the resurrection. Talking historically about ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ binds him to his past; talking eschatologically about ‘Christ’ looks to his future. 

The disciples knew of the resurrection through the ‘appearances of Jesus’. And/but there are no witnesses to the process of resurrection from the tomb. Resurrection is not just revivification. Resurrection means a new quality of life which no longer knows death; “Christ being raised from the dead shall never die again” [Romans 6.9] It means the annihilation of death. Resurrection conforms to the Jewish apocalyptic promise that, at the end times, God would raise the dead; and thus demonstrate his power over the power of death. This is not the ‘language of facts’; it is the language of faith and hope, the ‘language of promise’.

The early church understood the resurrection as a preparatory act by God for the good of themselves and the whole world. An early form of confession is : “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures … “ [1 Corinth. 15.3-4]  Very early on the community understood that this was an event ‘for us’. Moltmann insists that this is not just about expiatory sacrifice: it is rather a sign of the coming, redeeming kingdom. “He died ‘for us’ in order to give us, ‘the dead’, a share in his new life of resurrection, and in his future of eternal life.”

The earliest Easter message is: “You killed him, but God raised him up” [Acts 2]. The Easter story is very similar to the Exodus story: God brings freedom to his people, first from a tyrant, and then from the tyranny of death. In their theology of the Passion, both Paul and Mark understand that the God when raised him from the dead was equally the God who crucified him and was crucified.  So, Moltmann concludes: “In the passion of the Son, the Father himself suffers the pains of abandonment. In the death of the Son, death comes upon God himself, and the Father suffers the death of his Son in his love for forsaken man.”

The Crucified God

To what degree is God affected by Jesus’s death on the cross ? Moltmann insists: “the death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology”. He rejects the phrase the ‘death of God’, preferring to talk of ‘death in God’. God’s sharing in the sufferings of the cross is a complete rebuttal of the impassible god of the Greek philosophers. This understanding is developed in and through the trinitarian doctrine of God. 

Chapelle de Trémalo

Moltmann suggests that many Christians fail to grasp the Trinity; their belief is little more than a weakly Christianised monotheism. But to understand the Cross, it is necessary to talk in Trinitarian terms: “The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son.” It is an event [exchange] between the Father who forsakes and the Son who is forsaken; the Father who loves and the Son who is loved

A God who is conceived as omnipotent and infinite cannot be the God who is love in the cross of Jesus. God is not only other-worldly but is also this-worldly.

Anyone who suffers without cause thinks that he has been abandoned by God. In these circumstances, the God of theism cannot help; he can neither love nor suffer. But a trinitarian belief draws us into both Christ’s forsakenness and God’s love. “God is, God is in us, God suffers in us ” The theology of the crucified God leads to a significantly changed anthropology. Abraham Herschel writes about the pathos of God; describing the way in which God is affected by human events and suffering in history. The Bible speaks of God’s lamentation and sorrow over Israel in exile. He is present with them in their suffering. There is a striking example in Elie Wiesel’s book Night about his experience of Auschwitz. When the SS hang two men and a boy in front of the whole camp, a voice cries out asking where is God. “And I heard a voice within me answering: ‘Where is he ? He is here. He is hanging on the gallows’ …” Moltmann insists: any other answer would be blasphemy. 

Stanley Spencer

God himself creates the conditions for communion with God through his self-abasement in the death of the crucified Christ, and through his exaltation of man in the resurrection of Christ. This is anticipated in the primitive creed in Philippians 2. The God-forsaken man can accept himself where he comes to know the crucified God who is with him and has already accepted him. A theology after Auschwitz may seem impossible to those who are stuck with a simple theism. But, as Moltmann concludes: “God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God – that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world.”

Going forwards

In the closing chapters Moltmann begins to enter into a dialogue with Freudian psychology, and with psychotherapy. And he looks too at the relationship of the Christian faith to secular, political movements. Again he emphasises the importance of the Trinity.  Politico-religious monotheism was overcome by the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Which insists on the essential unity of God the Father with the incarnate, crucified Son in the Holy Spirit. The crucified God is a stateless and classless God. But he is the God of the poor, the oppressed, and the humiliated.

The real presence of God liberates us from the vicious circle of poverty; frees us from the vicious circle of alienation; and liberates us from the vicious circle of meaninglessness and of god-forsakenness. He comes to us in the figure of the crucified Christ who gives us courage to be. 


I’m not sure whether I’ve done Moltmann’s book justice. Reading the book has certainly reminded me that I have never wanted to be a theologian. And I’m well aware that ‘theological’ is sometimes used in a derogatory sense; meaning arcane or of limited value. But I am grateful that Moltmann is forcing us [me] to think more deeply about the mystery of the Cross. He is wanting us to discard the notion of a remote and impassible deity. And encouraging us, against the gloomy backdrop of the COVID pandemic, to reflect on the secure basis for our Christian hope.

March 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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