The Crucified God

by Jurgen Moltmann
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Last Updated on September 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838

Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ As the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology is not a presentation of systematic theology. Rather, the eight chapters of his book are an attempt at reconsidering some of the central doctrines of Christian faith as they relate to our understanding of the God of the Bible, the cross of Christ, and suffering—both human and divine.

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The first chapter of the book deals with the issue of the identity and relevance of faith. Moltmann emphasizes that the identity of the church is intrinsically linked to the cross of Christ. And this is the answer to the question of Christian identification with human suffering and the church's relevance to the modern world. Christian theology, namely the theology of the cross, is “relevant only within the framework of human misery and of salvation.”

This brings the author to the discussion of theology proper (chapters 2–6). The discussion proceeds from the idea of the cross as defying its own interpretation:

Modern, post-Christian humanism has done a great service by bringing to the fore once again this original and natural dislike of the cross. In this way it has reminded Christianity, which has made itself so much at home in European civilization, of its original and fundamental alienation.

The theology of the cross is something radically different from mere theism or natural theology. It is something alien to traditional patterns of European thought. This assertion helps Moltmann to formulate the current task of Christian theology:

The task of theology is then no longer that of presenting itself as the self-awareness of Christianity as one of the phenomena of world history, but that of committing itself radically to the event which is the origin of faith in the cross; that is, of becoming a theology of the cross.

According to Moltmann, God cannot be only the object of human discourse. God must be conceived of as a subject who speaks his word. Theology “as speaking about God is possible only on the basis of what God himself says.” And in the cross of Christ, we see God simultaneously as subject and object. On the one hand, Jesus is God, on the other, he is abandoned by God the Father in the crucifixion.

Considering the person of Jesus, Moltmann says that to focus on the understanding of the first person of the Trinity too narrowly as on the historical Jesus, at the expense of his deity, is just as insufficient as to concentrate on his divine attributes to the detriment of human and historical dimensions of his person.

A large space in the book is dedicated to the historical and eschatological trials of Jesus, where the author considers such issues as Jesus and the Law, Jesus and authority, Jesus and God, as well as Jesus’s cross and resurrection in the light of history and eschatology.

The central part of the book (which bears the same title as the book itself) focuses on the issue of God’s suffering in Christ crucified. The cross of Christ represents not only Jesus’s suffering and death but also God’s identification with the suffering of the world. According to Moltmann, “God and suffering are no longer contradictions.” Moltmann challenges the idea of God’s impassibility, one inherited by Christian theology from Platonic thought. Moltmann’s view of the apathetic God of traditional theism as inadequate leads him to conclude that man can now open himself to God’s pathos (suffering) and sympatheia (compassion). Without resurrecting the ancient heterodoxical idea of God the Father suffering on the cross in Jesus (patripassianism), Moltmann asserts that God is capable of suffering and sympathizing with those who suffer.

Along the way, Moltmann deals with the question of atheism versus theism. He is convinced that our doctrine of God should transcend this dichotomy, because neither of the options as such adequately reflects the biblical teaching of God as he is revealed in the cross of Christ.

The last two chapters of the book connect the cross to man's salvation (Moltmann prefers the term “liberation”). Chapter 7 deals with personal liberation (here, Moltmann examines the relation between theology and psychology, with an emphasis on Freudian psychoanalysis), while chapter 8 expands the idea of liberation to the realm of the political. He talks about the vicious circles of poverty, violence, alienation, industrial pollution, social inequality, and mental illness. A practical application of a psychological and a political hermeneutics of the cross is to liberate people from such vicious circles. Though Moltmann makes it clear that socialism is not to be equated with the Kingdom of God, socialistic doctrine does, according to him, correlate to some extent with the theology of the crucified God, the God who is capable of suffering and sympathizing with those who suffer:

If and in so far as socialism in this sense means the satisfaction of material need and social justice in a material democracy, socialism is the symbol for the liberation of men from the vicious circle of poverty.


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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556

First published: Der gekreuzigte Gott, 1972 (English translation, 1974)

Edition used: The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, translated by R. A. Wilson and John Bowden. New York: Harper & Row, 1974

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Biblical studies; theology

Core issue(s): Atonement; the cross; God; Jesus Christ; redemption; the Trinity


In The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann states that though often misunderstood, the crucifixion of Jesus is central to the identity and the relevance of Christian faith. Because of the cross and Christ, people’s entire perception of God as well as humanity must be reinterpreted. Moltmann argues that this change in perception would rejuvenate Christology. Rather than sterile arguments about whether Jesus was “truly God” or “truly man,” which set the wrong framework, Christians should enter into dialogues with Jews about the meaning of “Messiah.” Who Jesus is must be defined by the Messianic future; Christology remains forever unfinished until the new Creation arrives, according to Moltmann.

Jesus’ trial and execution put his message into question. Coming as it did at the endof years of conflict with the law and the authorities, Jesus’ final cry of dereliction echoed a conflict even of God against God. Although close to God, Jesus was abandoned and then resurrected. In that terrible hour, the very deity of God was at stake, and believers were forced toward a new and more nuanced concept of the divine. Surprisingly, however, through the cross and the Crucifixion, God was disclosed in his very opposite. Moltmann concludes that not continuity and analogy, but contradiction and struggle, are sources both for people’s faith and moral life.

Moltmann states that the Resurrection indicates that we are in the midst of unfinished history; in that light we should reevaluate both the past and the future. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we look back on his sacrifice as an act of liberating love done for our sakes. We look forward because the “promise” is far more than just a resuscitation, rather it is a summons for us to the future already dawning.

Simple theism has proved inadequate, according to Moltmann. Together the cross and Resurrection drive us beyond even the monotheism revered in Christian heritage. Conventional theism is far too easily misused by worldly Caesars and institutional religions for their own purposes. Theology drawn from a “natural” knowledge of God is manipulated by human perversity and pride. However, the cross changes everything, shattering our self-serving presumptions. When we see God suffering in his despised humanity, it frees us to a new kind of love: love for the “other,” for those different from ourselves. This pivotal event has become the groundwork, both for a doctrine of Trinity, God’s self-differentiation amid unity, and also for a social ethic of compassion, as we seek solidarity with the wretched and those unlike ourselves.

Moltmann says that here atheism can render a service by unmasking the dubious foundations of conventional theism and insisting that the world is not yet transformed. However, atheism and theism alike make the mistake of viewing humanity and God through identical categories, so that whatever attribute is ascribed to the one must be subtracted from the other. That is, atheism depicts humans at the expense of God, so that divine traits are implicitly reassigned to feed our egos, while theism depicts God at the expense of humans, reducing us to alienated and compliant subjects of a cosmic emperor. It is only “protest-atheism” that should be taken seriously, because it agonizes over injustice and cries out on behalf of innocent suffering. Such protest, even from nonbelievers, helps us appreciate the triune life of God disclosed by the cross.

Traditional doctrines of the Trinity often lapsed into formalities of church dogma. However, as stated in The Crucified God, the true meaning is grounded in Jesus’ cross and his cry to God. At heart it reflects the painful separation yet mutual empathy of Father and Son, the profound self-sacrifice that was marvelously transformed through Easter. This interior event within God’s triune life also marks the life of Christians, for disciples are summoned to become vulnerable and impassioned for the sake of the unfinished created world. The inner division within God must take up into itself all the unfolding story of humanity, providing dynamism for our cooperation until the new creation arrives. Thus Moltmann sees parallels between the inner life of the divine Trinity and the outward progression of mortal history.

Because of the world’s suffering, human sin must be taken very seriously. Yet Moltmann is confident that the future, as illuminated by God’s promise, will bring fulfillment and salvation. Such confidence is far from humanistic optimism; rather it is rooted in implicit divine grace that has surmounted even the cross. “Dialectical panentheism” is a term Moltmann has used in describing our salvific destiny, a phrase almost hinting at divinization as we mortals retrace the inner history of the Trinity.

However, according to The Crucified God, this destiny requires a profound liberation of human nature on two fronts, psychological and political. The psychological liberation entails dialogue on analyzing how childish religion cloaks human anxieties and apathy. From this we are freed by hope grounded in God’s pathos on the cross. The political dimension of liberation calls for demythologizing state religions and grasping an iconoclasm empowered by the Spirit and eschatological hope. Liberation on this level is interdisciplinary as it addresses several interlocking vicious circles: economic poverty, political violence, racial/cultural alienation, industrial pollution, and the dread of meaninglessness in life. Genuine freedom must begin now, and it is enabled by God’s trinitarian history that points beyond itself to a glorious consummation of divine and human fellowship.

Christian Themes

Moltmann’s epistemology mistrusts simple analogy, the conventional “like is known only by like.” Instead he relies on dialectical thinking: paradoxes of seeming opposites. Revelation is not dogma or proposition but an event happening in contradiction; God is able to make use of whatever appears furthest from the divine. Thus Jesus’ cross becomes not an embarrassment but the epitome of God’s selfhood.

History is not to be defined by the positivists or materialists but is open-ended, an indeterminate flow until the grand climax of all things. Historical criticism should be welcomed, including studies of the historical Jesus, but criticism by itself proves inadequate. That is because historical and eschatological methods are reciprocal, each casting new light on the other. Jesus’ history must be read both forward and backward, relating him both to his Jewish heritage and his (and therefore our) resurrected future. The end calls forth the beginning.

Critiques of religion from various quarters are embraced by Moltmann, who sees how often in history religiosity has supported alienation. As his allies, he cites critics such as the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and especially liberal Marxists (Ernst Bloch, the Frankfurt school of social analysis), who detail how institutions and civil religion manipulate religion whenever it loses its primal dimension of hope. Theistic faith is hardly immune from this critique, but for years it has been the most susceptible to unholy alliances with autocratic regimes or mystical privatism.

So who is God? Not polytheism, of course, but the subtleties of trinitarian vision have shaped Moltmann’s doctrine of God—especially with the horrific tensions of Good Friday, first analyzed in this book. Because the triune One is both vastly transcendent and intimately present, and it encompasses from the far reaches of ancient Israel to our own daily lives, only a doctrine of Trinity can serve adequately. Moreover, it not only clarifies the inner life of God but also marks a paradigm for the unfolding of earthly history toward its goal. Moltmann has adopted the term “panentheism” to navigate between the extremes of austere theism and shapeless pantheism, and he openly admires Eastern Orthodoxy with its heritage of a “social Trinity” of divine persons (contrasting to Augustinian/Western emphases on divine unity). This vision undergirds Moltmann’s social ethic, for which he is well known, because humans are empowered by God’s presence and stretched beyond their failings by the gospel of hope.

Sources for Further Study

  • Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1995. Irenic British exposition of the major themes found in Moltmann, set against the background of his dialogue partners.
  • Meeks, M. Douglas. Origins of the Theology of Hope. Foreword by Jürgen Moltmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974. The best summary of early influences on the young Moltmann, by a colleague who helped introduce him to the English-speaking world.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. London: SCM Press, 1967. The author’s first major work, which has influenced all his subsequent writings. Across the world, this is one of the most significant theological works of the late twentieth century.
  • Müller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001. Weaves biographical details and some mild criticism with the most comprehensive analysis of Moltmann’s lifelong work.
  • Wakefield, James L. Jürgen Moltmann: A Research Bibliography. Foreword by Moltmann. ATLA Bibliography Series. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. Exhaustive, definitive listing of works by and about Moltmann, including doctoral dissertations and an essay by Moltmann, “What Is a Theologian?”

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