Universalism: A “Certain” Hope (Jürgen Moltmann)

Stephen D Morrison
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PrintI’m currently reading Nicholas Ansell’s book on the universalism of Jürgen Moltmann, entitled The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann. (LINK) So far I am enjoying it tremendously, and I have no doubt that I will eventually have more to say about it later, along with a full review of the book once I’ve finished.

But from the first chapter there was an interesting idea Ansell brings up that I wanted to share here. I have said before that I am not a universalist, though I could rightly be called a “hopeful” one. With Balthasar I believe it is not only permissible but essential that we hope for all humanity, that in the end all will be redeemed. We cannot dogmatically assert this, but we can and should hope for it. 

This tension between dogmatic and hopeful universalism, one of which is heretical and the other of which is acceptable and encouraged, is something which Ansell clarifies through highlighting what he calls Moltmann’s “certain hope”. He writes:

This ‘certain hope’, as I have referred to it, and the “confession of hope” with which he [Moltmann] brings his discussion to a close, need to be carefully distinguished from the ‘hopeful’ universalism that finds approval in The Mystery of Salvation. In the latter, the universal salvation we ‘hope’ for is something that we desire, without knowing for sure what God will finally be able to achieve in the face of human freedom. Because there is no way that we can be certain, in this understanding, the best we can do is ‘hope’ for the best. ‘Dogmatic’ universalism is thus inappropriate. Moltmann’s ‘theology of hope’ is very different. While he would certainly agree that God’s eschatological Judgment is still to come, and is thus not something we can describe, at the same time, he insists that because the revelation of God’s purposes in the Christ event has already taken place, a hope that is rooted in the cross is not simply an expression of what we would like to happen. Given God’s decisive action in Christ, we can be confident of the outcome: “What Christ accomplished in his dying and rising is proclaimed to all human beings through his gospel and will be revealed to everyone and everything at his appearance.” The “confession of hope,” as articulated by Christoph Blumhardt, can and should be preached with conviction. This has nothing to do with merely ‘hoping for the best’. For hope, in Moltmann theology, provides the way to certainty. And the cross provides the way to hope. In “submerg[ing] ourselves in the depths of Christ’s death on the cross,” Moltmann writes, “… we find the certainty of reconciliation without limits.” 1

Here we see a distinction between hope as merely “hoping for the best,” and hope as certainty grounded upon God’s actions and will in Jesus Christ on the cross. While this does not affirm dogmatic universalism, it does refine what we mean by “hopeful” universalism. It is not the hope of what we want, over and against what God wants; it is a hope based on the certainty that this is what God wants for the human race, as revealed in Christ and His cross. God wills redemption, not destruction, salvation, not damnation, restoration, not abandonment.

This certain hope is not the hope of wishful thinking, but hope in the certainty of God Himself, of God’s consistency with Himself, and certainty in His work in Jesus Christ. We hope with certainty because, as Peter writes, God wills that none shall perish. (2 Peter 3:9) And furthermore, God has acted with this purpose in mind. Our hope is certain because it is a hope not against God’s will and work in Jesus Christ, but with it! Thus it is a certain hope.

I am looking forward to reading more from Ansell and this book. I highly recommend this book if Moltmann’s eschatology interests you, especially as it pertains to universal salvation. You can buy the book here.

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  1. Nicholas Ansell, The Annihilation of Hell,  2013 Cascade Books, pp. 39-40. (Bold text mine for emphasis)

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