Godless Theology

by Jurgen Moltmann

Jürgen Moltmann is a German theologian notable for his incorporation of insights from liberation theology and ecology into mainstream trinitarian Christian theology. He was Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 20-27, 2000, pp. 1328-1329. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. . This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christian theology does not belong solely in the circle of people who are “insiders.” It belongs just as much to the people who feel that they are “outside the gate,” for the atheist cannot get away from God whose existence they must deny in order to be atheists.

All who believe and think about what they believe are theologians. The theology of all believers is the foundation for every academic theology. But does that mean that Christian theology can be nothing other than a self-related "doctrine of faith," to echo the title Schleiermacher gave his modern theology? Does it mean that only people who are "believers" or "born again" can study and understand theology, and that they understand it because they are already in agreement with it from the outset?

Now, faith is of the essence for Christian theology, because theology does not purpose to be a theory about the Absolute, devoid of any determining subject, and the rebirth to a living hope is the subjective opening up of God’s new future for the world. But that still does not have to mean that theology is only there for believers. God is not just a God of believers. He is the Creator of heaven and earth, and so he is not particularist, in the way that human belief in him is particularist; he is as universal as the sun which rises on the evil and the good, and the rain which falls upon the just and the unjust, and gives life to everything created (Matt. 5:45).

A theology solely for believers would be the ideology of a Christian religious society, or an esoteric mystery doctrine for the initiated. It would be in utter contradiction to the universal God-ness of God, and his public revelation as the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ. It is not theology that has an absolute claim. What does have that claim is the one God, about whom theology talks in human terms. Neither the tolerance required of human beings, nor the situation of the multifaith society in which Christians exist today, can narrow down the universal offer of the gospel, and the eschatological invitation to the new creation of all things through God.

Ever since the 17th century, Pietist movements have repeatedly set up the ideal of a theologia regenitorum, a theology of the regenerate -- the reborn -- in which personal conversion was made the precondition for theology, and theology was turned into a sectarian in-group mentality. But this withdrawal into the devout self and the self-endorsing conventicle abandoned "the wicked world" to its godlessness, and was at odds with the gospel’s missionary universalism. The withdrawal of Christian presence and theology from society’s public institutions may -- as it claims to do -- preserve the purity of Christian identity, but it surrenders the relevance of the Christian message. This Christian relevance is not self-related. It is related to God’s kingdom and his righteousness and justice.

What the church is about is something more than the church. The church is about life in proximity to the kingdom of God, and about the experience and praxis of the justice and righteousness of that kingdom. So Christian theology also has to do with more than Christian self-presentation in public life. It has to do with the presentation of public life against the horizon of God’s coming kingdom. Christian theology is theologia publica. It is public theology for the sake of the kingdom. So it must be aligned and think not just intratextually, but also correlatively too. It has to be both "in accordance with scripture" and contextual.

In resisting the limitation of theology to believing Christians, we therefore ask: Is not every unbeliever who has a reason for his atheism and his decision not to believe a theologian too? Atheists who have something against God and against faith in God usually know very well whom and what they are rejecting, and have their reasons. Nietzsche’s book The Antichrist has a lot to teach us about true Christianity, and the modern criticism of religion put forward by Feuerbach, Marx and Freud is still theological in its antitheology.

Beyond that, moreover, there is a protest atheism which wrestles with God as Job did, and for the sake of the suffering of created beings which cries out to high heaven denies that there is a just God who rules the world in love. This atheism is profoundly theological, for the theodicy question -- "If there is a good God, why all this evil?" -- is also the fundamental question of every Christian theology which takes seriously the dying Christ’s question to God:

"My God, why have you forsaken me?" Dostoevsky splendidly presents the two sides of theology, the believing side and the doubting side, in two of the brothers Karamazov, Alyosha and Ivan. The one submits, the other rebels. The story which Ivan tells to illustrate his rebellion against God is a horrible one. A Russian landowner sets his hounds on a little boy. They hunt him to death, tearing him to pieces before his mother’s eyes. "What kind of harmony is that in which there are hells like this?" accuses Ivan, and replies, "Is there anyone in the whole world who could forgive, and who is allowed to forgive? I don’t like the harmony. I don’t like it because of my love for the world. I would rather keep the enduringly unreconciled suffering. . . . It isn’t that I refuse to acknowledge God, but I am respectfully giving him back my ticket to a world like this. Understand me, I accept God, but I don’t accept the world God has made. I cannot resolve to accept it."

Here Ivan does not simply pose the theodicy question with its indictment of God -- the question why God permits crimes like this. He asks the question about justice -- about guilt and expiation. He asks who could forgive guilt like this, and in doing so he gives Alyosha the word he needs: "That is rebellion. You say: is there a being in the whole world who could forgive and is allowed to forgive? There is someone, and he can forgive everything, all and everyone, and for everything, because he himself poured out his innocent blood for everyone and everything. You have forgotten him. It is on him alone that the building will be built [he means the "harmony" of the "divine world," the kingdom of God]. To him we can cry: ‘Just art Thou, Lord, for all Thy ways have been revealed."’

Protest atheism there -- the theology of the cross here. Rebellion over the "enduringly unexpiated suffering" there -- universal reconciliation through the crucified God here. In the dissimilar brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky portrays himself. Both can be found in every true Christian theology -- rebellion over the God who permits so much meaningless suffering in his world, and faith in the crucified Christ. And conversely, the person who does not believe in God and his justice ends up by no longer rebelling against the "enduringly unexpiated suffering" in this unjust world either, but gets accustomed to it.

Christian faith in God is not a naïve basic truth. It is unfaith that has been overcome: "Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief." In the fellowship of the assailed and crucified Christ faith grows up in the pains of one’s own suffering and the doubts of one’s own heart. Here the contradictions and rebellions do not have to be suppressed. They can be admitted. Those who recognize God’s presence in the face of God-forsaken Christ have protest atheism within themselves -- but as something they have overcome. So they can well understand the atheists who can no more get away from their atheism than they can get away from the God whose existence they have to deny in order to be atheists. Christian theology is theology for Christ’s sake, and in Christ it reaches out beyond the alternatives between simple theism and the atheism that corresponds to it.

In the fellowship of Christ the justification of God by way of an "unflawed world," and the calling God in question through the evil and suffering in this world which is so bitterly flawed, are no longer "the last word." So Christian theology does not belong solely in the circle of people who are"insiders." It belongs just as much to the people who feel that they are "outside the gate" (as Wolfgang Botchert puts it). A Christian theologian must not just get to know the devout and the religious. He must know the godless too, for he belongs to them as well.