Wyatt Houtz: Jürgen Moltmann on the End of Time and Eternity

The history of modern theological eschatology is generally presented as the antithesis between consistently futurist eschatology (as represented by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer) and realized eschatology (C.H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann).

Jürgen Moltmann on the End of Time and Eternity

By Wyatt Houtz


Time and Eternity

Time and Eternity is a challenging theological puzzle to understand (and explain!) Biblical speaking, Eternity is not the same as endless-Time. Time is a one-way arrow of successive moments that started ‘in the beginning‘ (Gen 1:1) that runs irreversibly forward until the ‘last day‘ when ‘time shall be no more’ (Rev 10:6). One day, Time will end, on the ‘last day’ as abruptly as it started ‘in the beginning’ out of nothing (ex nihilo). In contradistinction, Eternity is timeless, without a beginning or end, or any succession of moments (forward or backwards).  Eternity had no ‘alpha’ moment in the beginning (like Time) and does not have a corresponding future ‘omega’ moment at the end either (like Time)—the Eternal ‘now’ is a present that has no past or a future. Time and Eternity are as different as Creation and the Creator. All of Creation is time-bounded, and every creature has its respective alpha and omega moments, but God the Creator is an Eternal being, as Jesus said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, . . . who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8) Time and Eternity are so different, that Lessing (c 18th century) said there is a broad ugly ditch separating Time and Eternity, that cannot be crossed (par.). Theologians since the 18th century have struggled to resolve this Time and Eternity paradox.

Eternal Life vs. Endless Life

Eternal life is not the same as endless lifeEndless life by definition is never a completed or fulfilled life, it is always an incomplete and ongoing life, that never ends. Even if time went on for ever, in an infinite succession of moments, endless life would not become eternal lifeEndless life is like a progress bar that advances forever, and never reaches the end. Endless life is like a student watching a clock, that continues to tick, but the bell at the end of the class hour never rings. Consequently, theologians describe endless life as endless “boredom”. Biblically, eternal life refers the fulfilled and perfect life of God, and it is never an incomplete life (like endless life). So endless time may only produce endless life, but not eternal life!  Eternal life is a great mystery, and there’s no analogies in Creation that we might compare to eternal life, without collapsing into deficient ideas of endless life.

The Problem of Ending Time

The disunion between Time and Eternity in the Bible has depressing ramifications for the future of humanity, because humans are time-bounded creatures, unlike God who existed eternally before the beginning of the world, and will continue to exist after the last day of the world. However, Time will run out for all people and eventually for all of creation. Science also teaches us that the world will not go on forever, and will likely end in a heat death, cold death or similar fate. How may we hope for Eternal Life, if it means the end of life for all? Is Eternal Life a future hope for humanity, or does Eternal Life bring hope today to this present life for humanity?

In Science and Wisdom, Moltmann has a chapter titled “The Origin and Completion of Time in the Primordial and in the Eschatological Moment” that is an excellent primer on the Time and Eternity enigma. In this essay, Moltmann explains the Time and Eternity problem, and its implications for eschatology, at first by retracing how the problem has been solved in the past two centuries, and then criticizing these proposed solutions, and at last provides his own answer to the Problem of Ending Time in the form of aeonic time.

Futurist, Realized and Inaugurated Eschatology

Moltmann says the eschatological problem of Time and Eternity has been solved in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis respectively as futuristic eschatology, realized eschatology, and inaugurated eschatology.

Futuristic Eschatology: In the Quests for the Historical Jesus in the early 20th century, theologians such as Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer were convinced the Bible presented an consistently futuristic eschatology that anticipated a future and sudden end of the world, with the advent of Jesus Christ, where the eternal God would break into time apocalyptically and this event would result in the end of the world (and of time). However, the Bible’s futuristic eschatology failed to happen, because Jesus was crucified and the end of the world did not happen. They described the course of world history like a massive boulder rolling out of control, that Jesus was unable to stop, and only managed to tilt it off course, but was crushed by in the process.  Ever since, time continues on forever without end.

Realized Eschatology: In the 20th century, other theologians such as C.H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann developed a realized eschatology that interpreted the Bible existentially. As futuristic eschatology looked only to the future, realized eschatology looks only to the present. They reinterpreted (and demythologized) the Bible’s eschatological statements, and applied them the Christian life experienced here and now (in the present), and abandoned hope for a future end of the world. Bultmann and Dodd realized eschatology was widely revered, praised and feared, because it breathed new life into the Bible. It helped me understand why John’s Gospel describes eternal life as something we already possess, and has provided many influential and new vistas into understanding the Bible Today. They did not expect a future end of the world, like the Questers, but interpreted the Bible as teaching us how to have your best life now.  Realized eschatology refers to “the event of the rise of easter faith” (Bultmann) that the Apostles experienced, and all Christians have experiences since the advent of Jesus. Our experience of faith is on par with that of the Apostles’, and we experience today what they also experienced.

Inaugurated Eschatology: Both futuristic eschatology and realized eschatology are presented throughout the Bible, so theologians like Oscar Cullmann solved this Time and Eternity problem with the compromise of “already/not yet”, that synthesizes a partial-realized eschatology with a partial futuristic eschatology. The concept of the Kingdom of God being partial present and partially future simultaneously was so widely adopted, especially among American Evangelicals, that many people today assume that the “already/not yet” schema devised in the 20th century is the one-and-only-way to interpret the Bible, as if the early Church believed this compromise between futuristic eschatology and realized eschatology 20th century theologians!

Moltmann discusses all three solutions in this essay in Science and Wisdom, and here’s a short quotation from this discussion (read the full essay for more details):

The history of modern theological eschatology is generally presented as the antithesis between consistently futurist eschatology (as represented by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer) and realized eschatology (C.H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann). It was considered that the two schools of thought could be reconciled according to the familiar mediating pattern ‘both-and‘ and ‘at one and the same time’, and that this offered the true solution for the eschatological riddle. ‘The kingdom of God’ —the quintessential subject of eschatology—is both ‘already‘ present in hidden form, and also ‘not yet‘ present in its full, visible form. That is to say, it is ‘at one and the same time‘ there and not there. (This was the position of Oscar Cullman, Werner G. Kümmel and Walter Kreck.) [1]

Criticism of the Already/Not-Yet

Futuristic eschatology taught us the futuristic nature of Biblical eschatology, but left us in bewilderment because the future came and went, and time continued on as before. Realized eschatology taught us that the Bible eschatological statements benefits the common Christian life today, demonstrating that the Bible has not failed us, and aids us here and now—however it left us without hope for a future resolution of lives cut short, and provided no hope for the nature, or the entire Earth (only individual’s present existence). Inaugurated eschatology helped us have a partial hope for the future, and partial benefit in the present Christian life, however due to the progression of time, any present benefit already present, eventually fades into the past, and any future benefit not yet present, will eventually come and go in time, and become a past benefit as well, such that nothing inaugurated will endure in time, and in endless time, nothing will be already/not-yet.

One of Moltmann’s most valuable insights in this essay is his criticism of inaugurated eschatology or the already/not-yet solution to the Time and Eternity problem that was so popular in Kingdom of God theology among American Evangelicals in the late 20th century. Here’s a selection from Science and Wisdom where Moltmann explains why inaugurated eschatology fails to solve the Time and Eternity paradox.

According to these ideas, the present and future of the kingdom of God are entered on the same temporal line: what is ‘not yet’ now, will one day be. But it is all too easily overlooked that everything that is already ‘now’ will later on no longer be. These ideas about the ‘now already‘ and the ‘not yet‘ appropriate to the kingdom of God the quite inappropriate category of transitory time; and then the kingdom of God cannot be comprehended at all. This state of affairs was the result of ‘consistent eschatology’—the result that shook Albert Schweitzer so profoundly: Jesus wanted to force the kingdom of God to come in his own time. ‘This imperious forcing of eschatology into history is also its destruction; its assertion and abandonment at the same time.’ Instead of bringing about the eschaton, Jesus destroyed it once and for all. The expected end of the world did not happen. History continued to run its course unwaveringly. If we were now to supplement or replace this realized eschatology by a futurist one, the result would be no more than an apparent solution; for ‘history’ will catch up with every conceivable historical future, and turn into the past. In this respect historical future is merely the future of the past. Unless the sense of time is remoulded, unless there is a new version of the concepts of time, eschatology in history cannot be conceived. [2]

Eternal Eschatology of Barth

In this Science and Wisdom essay, Moltmann says that Karl Barth rejected the three previous solutions I discussed and developed a superior solution that he describes as both/and. Moltmann believes that Paul Althaus developed the same solution independently from Barth, but the idea is that Biblical eschatology is fully realized and fully future simultaneously (it is not partially present and partially future as in the already/not-yet solution). I’ve discussed Barth’s eschatology extensively in previous posts such as the Extinction of Humanity, so I will defer to there to describe Barth’s views. Barth’s both/and differs from inaugurated eschatology’s already/not-yet, in that Barth believes that eschatology is fully present and fully eternal, where inaugurated eschatology is only partially present and partially future. Barth believes that the revelation of god is fully present, but it is hidden, until the last day when it is fully revealed.In Barth’s both/and solution, eternity is equally close to every moment of time, but in the already/not-yet solution, and infinite amount of moments separate every present moment of time from Eternity at the end of Time. Barth did not like the notion of “not-yet”, but believed that every moment of time is equally close to the eternal now, and eternal life is the eternal now breaking into every moment of time. So eschatology does not look forward to the omega moment of time only, but eschatology refers to Eternity breaking into every moment of time from the alpha moment to the omega moment.

Moltmann explains Barth’s both/and solution as follows in his Science and Wisdom essay:

The real alternative to realized eschatology, to futurist eschatology, and to the mediating eschatology of a ‘both-and‘ was the ‘eternal eschatology‘ developed independently by Paul Althaus and Karl Barth after the First World War. It is not ‘history which continues to run its course‘ unwaveringly which leads every eschatological future hope into the deadly crisis of its disappointment; it is the very converse: it is the eternity of God breaking in ‘from above‘ which plunges every human history into its ultimate crisis. ‘We arrive at the completion not by traversing the longitudinal lines of history to their end, but by erecting everywhere in history the perpendiculars. That is to say, just as every time is equally close to the primordial state and the Fall, so too is every time equally immediate to the completion. In this sense every time is the last time.‘ [P. Althaus]  ‘All the perpendiculars which we erect on the line of time in order to reach up to eternity, the parousia, the completion, meet in what is beyond time, at a single point. What divides itself up for us into a sequence of human death, the end of generations, nations, periods of time, is from this perspective the same act and the one simultaneous experience of the gathering up of history into eternity.‘ [P. Althaus] [3]

Moltmann’s Criticism of Barth’s Eternal Eschatology

Moltmann praises Barth’s superior both/and solution to the older futuristic/realized/inaugurated solutions, but Moltmann does not believe Barth has completely solved the paradox of Time and Eternity. Barth has aided us, at the expense of history, specifically in the biblical and historical remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’ve always been greatly helped by Barth’s eschatological both/and solution, yet at the same time completely distraught by it because Barth still affirms that Time will eventually come to a sudden end, and there will be no more continuation of life beyond the last day. God will remember all moments of time, but there will be no more moments of time after the last day. It solves previous problems, but does not leave me in hope for the future, and it leaves me in despair for the present. Moltmann expresses this same criticism of Barth as follows:

The ‘gathering up of history into eternity‘ does not merely lead to a de-historicizing of the biblical hope for Christ’s parousia. It also means a de-historicizing of the biblical rememberance of Christ’s death and resurrection. If the phrase ‘the resurrection of the dead‘ is supposed to be ‘nothing but’a paraphrase of the word ‘God‘ (which was the way Barth interpreted it in 1924, in a reduction formulation reminiscent of Feuerbach), then, on the other hand, the raising of Jesus from the dead too ‘cannot be an event of historical extension side by side with other events of his life and death. The Resurrection is the non-historical relating of the whole historical life of Jesus to its origin in God.’ [Barth, Romans. 195. cf. Resurrection of the Dead] If God’s eternity puts an end to history, then with eschatology it also puts an end to the history of Christ. Without a reshaping of the concept of eternity, eternity eschatology is a contradiction in terms. The ‘eschatological moment’ as it was formulated at that time permits neither the remembrance nor the hope of Christ. [4]

Moltmann’s solution to this eschatological riddle

Moltmann says he builds upon Wolfhart Pannenberg’s theology of history. It’s always been unclear to me whether Moltmann sided with Barth or Pannenberg in the Time and Eternity debate, and in the following paragraph, Moltmann sides with Pannenberg over against Barth as he develops his own solution to the Time and Eternity paradox in the concept of past-future, present-future, and future-future. Moltmann says the world will not pass away at the end of time, and disappear into transience. Moltmann believes that God also has a future, by appealing to Rev 1:4, where God is described as “who is and him who was and him who will come”. After all, a motionless god is a dead god.  The future of God, gives us hope, for a future for every moment of time, and it is not a triumph of death at the end of time.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s new ‘theology of history’ and my own ‘theology of hope’ start from a concept of the future which neither allows history to swallow up eschatology, nor eternity to put an end to history. This concept of the future is the advent concept of God’s future. In Rev 1:4 we read: ‘Peace [to you] from who is and him who was and him who will come.’ We would actually expect ‘and him who will be’. But instead of the future of the verb ‘to be‘ we have the future of the verb ‘to come’ . The linear concept of time is broken through in the third term. With this a future becomes conceivable which does not bring future-past. God’s Being is in his coming, not in his becoming (and his passing away). If God and future are bound together in this way, then God’s Being must be thought of eschatologically and the ‘future’ must be understood theologically. The future becomes the source and meaning of time. It does not put an end to time, like eternity, and it is not absorbed into time as transience. It rather opens up the time of history, and qualifies this historical time to be the End-time. Because it is a matter of God’s future, the times reach out for God’s eternity, and this outreach of the times is their future, a reaction to God’s coming, and a parable of his eternity. Time is no longer the irresistible tow of transience and the triumph of death. And then future becomes a new paradigm of transcendence. It is not just, in each given case, the temporal forecourt of the given present; it is the forecourt of past presents too. There is past-future, present-future and future-future. Eschatological future determines and ensouls all three modes of time. [5]

Moltmann’s Aeonic Time: Participation in God’s Eternity

Moltmann builds upon Pannenberg and also upon the patristic concept of aeonic time to answer the Time and Eternity problem. Moltmann says that the realm of the angels may be described as aeonic time, where the angels continually encircle the throne of God, in backwards and forwards motion. Aeonic time is diachronical time that is simultaneous to all times, moving forwards and backwards, like the motion of the angels. So Moltmann proposes that we have a future hope for Creation, where Time will become aeonic time in the New Creation. The New Creation will participate in a lesser form of the Eternity of God, in a similar way that the angels are in the presence of God, yet are not God. Moltmann also says that the New Creation includes more than individual people, because it will also include the entire Earth—The Earth will not disappear at the end of Time, but it will be transformed, such that there will be a New Heavens and a New Earth. In the New Creation, will participate in the Eternity of God, and will share in the future of God, but this will be a lesser Eternity that is not identical to the Eternity of God. (Karl Barth also developed a theology of participation in CD IV, that may be pillaged to support Moltmann’s concept of participation in the Eternity of God). I’ve picked the following selection from this essay in Science and Wisdom to describe Moltmann’s Aeonic Time of New Creation. I recommend reading the entire essay.   

Eternity, time without time . . . Beginning without end . . .‘ It was always difficult to think time and eternity together, especially when time and eternity were defined over against each other through a reciprocal negation. So it is helpful to take up again the patristic concept of aeon. Aeon is not the absolute eternity of God. It is the relative eternity of created beings who participate in God’s Being. Aeon is time, but a time filled with eternity. The time of the angels in heaven is aeonic. The time of the new creation is to be aeonic–the time of eternal life begins with the resurrection of the dead. . . . According to Dionysius the Areopagite, the angels circle round the throne of God in heaven in spiral movements of contemplation and praise. They are changed from glory into glory without perishing, without growing, and without diminution. The goal-directedtime of creation is consummated in the cyclical movements in which the eternal God is glorified in the new creation. The aeonic eternity of the new creation is full of mobility and vitality; if this were not so it would be impossible to talk about eternal ‘life’. [6]


Stage I
(pre-20th c.)
Time and Eternity
Stage II
(early-mid 20th c.)
(failed future)
Realized Eschatology
(here and now)
Inaugurated Eschatology
Stage III
(mid 20th c.)
Barth’s Eschatology
Stage IV
(mid-late 20th c.)
Pannenberg’s Theology of History
& Moltmann’s Aeonic Eschatology
(there and back again)



[^1] Moltmann, Jürgen. “The Origin and Completion of Time in the Primordial and in the Eschatological Moment.” Science and Wisdom. Trans. M. Kohl. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003. 98. Print.
[^2] Ibid. 98-99.
[^3] Ibid. 99.
[^4] Ibid. 100-1.
[^5] Ibid. 101.
[^3] Ibid. 109-10.

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