Israel’s No: Jews and Jesus in an Unredeemed World

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.

His article is excerpted from The Way of Jesus Christ. Copyright & copy; 1990 by Jurgen Moltmann. Used with permission from Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. San Francisco. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 7, 1990, pps. 1021-Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Gospels understand Jesus’ whole coming and ministry in the context of Israel’s messianic hope. Yet it is the very same messianic hope which apparently makes it impossible for "all Israel" to see Jesus as being already the messiah.

At the center of all Jewish-Christian dialogue is the inexorable messianic question: "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" The messianic hope leads us to Jesus, but it also hinders Jews from seeing Jesus as the expected messiah who has already come. Jesus replies to John the Baptist’s messianic question through his proclamation and his signs and wonders. The Gospels understand his whole coming and ministry in the context of Israel’s messianic hope. Yet it is the very same messianic hope which apparently makes it impossible for "all Israel" to see Jesus as being already the messiah. Because earliest Christology grew up in this field of tension, every Christian Christology is forced to come back to this conflict, and has to struggle and come to terms with the Jewish No. This is the fundamental question at the center of Christian Christology: Is the Jewish No anti-Christian? Is the Christian Yes anti-Jewish? Are the No and the Yes final or provisional? Are they exclusive, or can they also acquire a dialectically positive meaning for the people who feel compelled to utter them?

Martin Buber formulated the Jewish objection to the messiahship of Jesus in his discussion with the New Testament scholar Karl-Ludwig Schmidt on January 15, 1933, in the Jewish school in Stuttgart, and formulated it in such classic terms that it has been continually repeated by other Jews ever since: "The church rests on its faith that the Christ has come, and that this is the redemption which God has bestowed on mankind. We, Israel, are not able to believe this." It is not a question of unwillingness or hard-hearted defiance. It is an "inability to accept." Buber had a profound respect for Jesus, and even for Christianity; but his admission of this inability was determined by a still more profound experience:

We know more deeply, more truly, that world history has not been turned upside down to its very foundations—that the world is not yet redeemed. We sense its unredeemedness. The church can, or indeed must, understand this sense of ours as the awareness that we are not redeemed. But we know that that is not it. The redemption of the world is for us indivisibly one with the perfecting of creation, with the establishment of the unity which nothing more prevents, the unity which is no longer controverted, and which is realized in all the protean variety of the world. Redemption is one with the kingdom of God in its fulfillment. An anticipation of any single part of the completed redemption of the world—for example the redemption beforehand of the soul—is something we cannot grasp, although even for us in our mortal hours redeeming and redemption are heralded. But we can perceive no caesura in history. We are aware of no center in history—only its goal, the goal of the way taken by the God who does not linger on his way.

Schalom Ben-Chorin adopted this argument early on:

The Jew is profoundly aware of the unredeemed character of the world, and he perceives and recognizes no enclave of redemption in the midst of its unredeemedness. The concept of the redeemed soul in the midst of an unredeemed world is alien to the Jew, profoundly alien, inaccessible from the primal ground of his existence. This is the innermost reason for Israel’s rejection of Jesus, not a merely external, merely national conception of messianism. In Jewish eyes, redemption means redemption from all evil. Evil of body and soul, evil in creation and civilization. So when we say redemption, we mean the whole of redemption. Between creation and redemption we know only one caesura: the revelation of God’s will.

So according to Ben-Chorin there is after all one Jewish caesura in the history of this unredeemed world: the revelation of the Torah on Sinai, given to the people of Israel through Moses.

Gershom Scholem, finally, also reiterates this reason for the Jewish No:

It is a completely different concept of redemption which determines the attitude to messianism in Judaism and Christianity. . . . In all its shapes and forms, Judaism has always adhered to a concept of redemption which sees it as a process that takes place publicly, on the stage of history and in the medium of the community: in short, which essentially takes place in the visible world, and cannot be thought of except as a phenomenon that appears in what is already visible. Christianity, on the other hand, understands redemption as a happening in the spiritual sphere, and in what is invisible. It takes place in the soul, in the world of every individual, and effects a mysterious transformation to which nothing external in the world necessarily corresponds. . . . The reinterpretation of the prophetic promises of the Bible which applies them to the sphere of "the heart" . . . has always seemed to the religious thinkers of Judaism an illegitimate anticipation of something which could at best come about as the inward side of an event which takes place essentially in the outward world; but this inward side could never be separated from that event itself.

So can there be an anticipation or "advance payment" of redemption in some particular sectors, before the final, total and universal redemption of the world? Can the Redeemer himself have come into the world before the redemption of the world has become a real happening? This is the question of Christian existence: can one already be a Christian in this unredeemed world, and therefore exist as a messianic person? . . .

The picture which Buber, Ben-Chorin and Scholem paint of Christianity is certainly true to a particular kind of historical Christianity; but it does not fit Jesus himself, nor is it essentially applicable to the authentic acknowledgment of Jesus as the Christ which is prepared for discipleship. For all these writers call in question only what they suppose to be the Christian "concept" of redemption. But in what historical era do we find this concept, which internalized redemption into the redemption of the saved soul? There is no doubt at all that we find it in the historical Christendom which abandoned the real futurist eschatology of the New Testament and internalized human salvation, at the same time banishing the future of God to a world beyond this one, so that redemption is no longer seen in the kingdom of God, the "new heaven and the new earth," but now only in the saving of the individual soul for the heaven of the blessed.

Scholem rightly points to the fateful role played by Augustine in this development. This reduction of eschatology is generally explained by the alleged experience of disappointment over the delay of the parousia. And it is to Albert Schweitzer, the theologian of this disappointment, and to his school of "consistent eschatology" that Buber and Ben-Chorin appeal. But the historical process was in fact quite different. What internalized eschatological redemption was not disappointment over the course of history. It was the political realization of Christ’s messianic kingdom in the Christian imperium of the emperors Constantine, Theodosius and Justinian. If this Christian imperium is interpreted as the "thousand-year Reich," then the saints must reign with Christ and judge the nations. In the millennium, resistance to Christ cannot be tolerated. So in the Christian imperium sacrum there was no justice for dissidents, people of other beliefs—and Jews. Enforced political Christianization solved the problem of the heathen. The mission to the Jews was supposed to solve "the Jewish problem." Later on the Inquisition was designed to solve the problem of the heretics. The appalling "final solution" of the Jewish question was projected by "the thousand-year Reich" under Hitler’s pseudo-messianic leadership. If the church exists in a chiliastically interpreted Christian empire of this kind, then it is bound to interiorize salvation and leave everything external to the Christian emperors: the church looks after people’s souls and their salvation; the emperor claims their bodies, and provides for the welfare of the empire.

This ancient chiliastic political theology has assumed continually new forms in the history of Christendom. But down to the present day, it still dominates all notions about the Christian West, "Christian civilization" and "the age of Christendom." The Christologies that are developed in theocracies like this are anti-Jewish, because these political theologies themselves are anti-Jewish. It is not in the Christologies for Jesus’ sake that we find anti-Judaism, as the other side of the coin. It is in the chiliastic Christologies of empire and domination. . . .

This means that all presentative chiliasm and all "fulfillment" must be banished from the Christology of the church as it exists in the world of history. Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah who has come, is the suffering Servant of God, who heals through his wounds and is victorious through his sufferings. He is not yet the Christ of the parousia, who comes in the glory of God and redeems the world, so that it becomes the kingdom. He is the Lamb of God, not the Lion of Judah. What has already come into the world through the Christ who has come and is present is the justification of the godless and the reconciliation of enemies. What has not yet come is the redemption of the world, the overcoming of all enmity, the resurrection of the dead, and the new creation. . . .

Even the raised Christ himself is "not yet" the pantocrator. But he is already on the way to redeem the world. The Christian Yes to Jesus’ messiahship, which is based on believed and experienced reconciliation, will therefore accept the Jewish No, which is based on the experienced and suffered unredeemedness of the world; and the Yes will insofar adopt the No as to talk about the total and universal redemption of the world only in the dimensions of a future hope and a present contradiction of this unredeemed world. The Christian Yes to Jesus Christ is therefore not in itself finished and complete. It is open for the messianic future of Jesus. It is an eschatologically anticipatory and provisional Yes—"maranatha. Amen, come Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20). This means that it cannot be an excluding and excommunicating Yes, not even when it is uttered with the certainty of faith. Anyone who confesses Jesus as "the Christ of God" is recognizing the Christ-in-his-becoming, the Christ on the way, the Christ in the movement of God’s eschatological history; and that person enters upon this way of Christ in the discipleship of Jesus.

The earthly Jesus was on the way to the revelation of his messiahship. This is what people call Jesus’ "messianic secret." The risen Lord is on the way to his rule, which merely begins here, and is by no means universal, and his purpose is at the end to hand over the completed rule to God, who will then be "all in all" (I Cor. 15:28) and will arrive at what Buber calls his "direct theocracy." . . .

If the Jewish No to Jesus’ messiahship is due to inability, as Buber said, and not to unwillingness or ill-will, then there is no reason for Christians to deplore this No or to make it a reproach. Israel’s No is not the same as the No of unbelievers, which is to be found everywhere. It is a special No and must be respected as such. In his Israel chapters, Romans 9 to 11, Paul saw God’s will in Israel’s No. It is not because it says No that Israel’s heart has been hardened. It is because God hardened its heart that it cannot do anything but say No. Hardness of heart is not the same thing as rejection, and has nothing whatsoever to do with a moral judgment. To harden the heart is a historically provisional act on God’s part, not an eschatologically final one. It is an act performed for a particular purpose, as the story of Moses and Pharaoh shows.

We therefore have to ask: what is the purpose? Why does God impose on the whole of Israel an inability to say the Yes of faith to Jesus? The answer is: in order that the gospel may pass from Israel to the gentiles, and that "the last" may be first. "Blindness has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in" (Rom. 11:25). Without Israel’s No, the Christian church would have remained a messianic revival movement within Judaism itself. But because of the Jewish No, the Christian community had a surprising experience. It discovered that the Spirit of God comes upon gentiles so that they are seized by faith in Christ directly, without becoming Jews first of all.

The mission to the gentiles which Paul himself began is an indirect fruit of the Jewish No. Paul emphasizes this to the Christian congregation in Rome, which was made up of both Jews and Christians: "As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the same of their forefathers" (11:28).

It is therefore perfectly correct to say that "we shall only put anti-Semitism behind us when we succeed theologically in making something positive out of the Jewish No to Jesus Christ." The "something positive" is the mission to the gentiles, out of which the church emerged. It is not just a matter of extracting something positive out of something negative—a making the best of what is really in itself bad. According to Paul, it is God’s will which is manifested in the Jewish inability to accept the gospel of Christ. That is why Paul, the Jewish Christian, can certainly deplore the Jewish No, and grieve over his own people (9:2-5), yet at the same time he can also praise the divine Yes which manifests itself out of this No: "Their failure means riches for the world" (11: 12), "their rejection is the world’s reconciliation" (11: 15).

There can be no question of God’s having finally rejected the people of his choice—he would then have to reject his own election (11:29)—and of his then having sought out instead another people, the church. Israel’s promises remain Israel’s promises. They have not been transferred to the church. Nor does the church push Israel out of its place in the divine history. In the perspective of the gospel, Israel has by no means become "like all the nations."

Finally, Israel’s No does not make it a witness in history to God’s judgment, so that it now exists merely as a warning to the community of Christ not to fall away from faith. Just because the gospel has come to the gentiles as a result of the Jewish No, it will return—indeed it must return—to Israel. "The first shall be last." Israel is "the last" toward which everything else draws.

For Paul this was an apocalyptic "mystery": "Blindness has come upon a part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob"’ (11:25-26). For Paul, Israel’s "Deliverer" is the Christ of the parousia, the messiah who will come in the glory of God and whose name is Jesus. The Jewish No, which as Saul he maintained so zealously against the early Christian congregations, was overthrown through a call vision of the crucified and glorified Jesus. That is why Paul puts his hope for his people in the Deliverer, from Zion, who is going io come in visible glory.

Paul does not expect of this Deliverer the Jews’ conversion, and that they will arrive at Christian faith. What he expects is Israel’s redemption, and that it will be raised from the dead: "What will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" (11: 15). Israel will be delivered because it sees glory; and this will not happen merely to the final generation. Cutting right through the times of history, it will happen to all the dead at once, "in a moment." The apostle’s hope of redemption therefore embraces all Israel at all times. His practical answer to the Jewish No is not anti-Judaism but the evangelization of the nations. For him, this brings the day of redemption closer for Israel also.

The same Christ Jesus is not the same for everyone, because people are different. He has one profile for the poor and another for the rich, one profile for the sick and another for the healthy. Accordingly the same Christ Jesus has one particular profile for Jews and another for gentiles: "For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the Jews to show God’s truthfulness, in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. . ." (Rom. 15:8-9a). According to this, Jesus is Israel’s messiah, the one who finally affirms and fulfills the promises given to it; and he is at the same time the one who has pity on the gentiles and is their savior, the savior who brings them to the praise of God. And in each case he is the one for the sake of the others.

As Israel’s messiah be becomes the savior of the gentiles. In Jesus, Israel itself encounters the gentiles—Israel with its whole history, in a nutshell and in messianic form. That is why Matthew tells the story of Jesus, not as an individual history but as the collective biography of Israel, from the flight into Egypt, the call out of Egypt, the days of temptation in the wilderness, to the story of the passion. Israel’s messiah is at the same time Israel’s representative. In Jesus Christ, Israel itself encounters believers from the nations in messianic form. Because Christ opens Israel to the gentiles, the gentiles for their part are gathered into the divine history of promise and faithfulness toward Israel.

On the other hand, Jesus encounters Israel as the savior of the nations, believed and worshiped by the many from all peoples. In this form—not directly but indirectly—he reveals himself to Israel as its messiah. In the risen Lord of the church of the nations, the peoples look toward Israel and remind Israel of the promise to Abraham and of Abraham’s faith. The only justifiable gentile Christian "mission to the Jews" is the reminder to the Jews of their own gracious election, and its promise for humanity. This is surely what Paul means by "making Israel jealous" for the faith that saves (Rom. 11: 14). The faith that is meant is the faith whose "father" is Abraham (Rom. 4:16), and which Paul proclaims as the justifying, saving faith in Christ. In the name of Abraham’s faith, Christians and Jews can already become one here and now; for, just like Jewish faith, Christian faith desires to be nothing other than the faith of Abraham.

If, then, the Christian Yes has to be looked for in this direction—if it is the Yes which discovers in the Jewish No what is positive, and God’s will—then this must also be the approach of a Christian theology of Judaism in a Christology which is pro-Judaistic, not anti-Judaistic. But this is possible for Christian theology only if Jewish theology tries on the basis of the Jewish No to understand what Buber calls "the mystery" of Christianity. After Auschwitz, that is asking a very great deal. But believing Jews too might nevertheless perhaps also ask the theological question: what divine will is really expressed in the mission and spread of Christianity? Since the name of the Lord is made known to the ends of the earth through the mission of the gospel, then Christians throughout the world pray daily with Israel for the sanctification of God’s name, the doing of his will, and the coming of his kingdom.

Cannot Israel, in spite of its own observance of the Jewish No, view Christianity as the praeparatio messianica of the nations, and thus recognize in it the way which its own hope for the messiah is taken to the nations? The messianic preparation of the nations for the coming of redemption would be without any basis if it did not proceed from the messiah himself. In the light of his future he comes into the present through his gospel, and opens men and women through faith for the redemption of this unredeemed world.

But this vista throws the question back to Christianity: would it not have first of all to be so lovely to look upon that Israel would be able to see it as just such a praeparatio messianica of the world of the nations? The answer requires a profound renewal of the church and a fundamental revision of its theological tradition, for Jesus’ sake.