Jon Stovell’s Notebook


History as subject to the eschaton

After discussing the modern notion of history, which assumes that all the events that transpire in time and space are fundamentally similar and therefore always to be understood in terms of analogy with other events with which the historian is already familiar, Moltmann notes that such a view of history is essentially incompatible with the Christian belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Orthodox Christianity very much believes and proclaims that Jesus’ resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space, but not one analogous to other events. Therefore, an authentically Christian understanding of history must set aside the presuppositions of the modern, Enlightenment view and build instead on very different ones:

Only if the whole historical picture, contingency and continuity and all, could be shown to be in itself not necessary but contingent, should we come within sight of that which can be called the eschatologically new fact of the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ does not mean a possibility within the world and its history, but a new possibility altogether for the world, for existence and for history. Only when the world can be understood as contingent creation out of the freedom of God and ex nihilo—only on the basis of this contingent mundi—does the raising of Christ become intelligible as nova creatio. In view of what is meant and what is promised when we speak of the raising of Christ, it is therefore necessary to expose the profound irrationality of the rational cosmos of the modern, technico-scientific world. By the raising of Christ we do not mean a possible process in world history, but the eschatological process to which world history is subjected.1

Moltmann is correct here, and the implications are significant. Placing history (and thereby our experiences of the world) within a larger, eschatological framework relativizes and limits the authority of experiential similarity as a guiding principle. It is not the case that all things must be like what we already know. It is not the case that the world is now already fundamentally the way it will always be. Rather, the world is still on the way to its final form and final dynamic.

Now, we can also look at Jesus’ resurrection and see that there is much continuity between what was and what will be. The new creation is not a different creation but a transformation of this self-same creation we are part of now. The radical newness of the resurrection does not negate history and historical processes. Instead, it becomes part of history from the moment of its unprecedented occurrence. Moltmann does not address this latter aspect in this quotation (indeed, it is not a theme he pays much attention to in general, preferring as he does to emphasize the “otherness” of the eschatological intervention into history rather than the integration of that intervention into the history it invades), but the implication remains. If history is subjected to an eschatological process, then history has been, is now being, and will continue to be shaped by the eschaton. Conversely, therefore, the eschaton does not simply stand over against history. Eschatological reality becomes integrally involved in history any and every time it occurs. Whenever and in whatever way God acts in history to create conditions that more closely resemble his ultimate, eschatological goal for creation, those eschatologically directed events become part of the shape and course of history.

Thus we see the essential dynamic of Christian faith: God must act in history, but also God acts in history. Christians, however devoted we may be to God’s purposes, cannot bring the eschaton to pass in this world by our efforts. But when he acts and as he acts, Christians are able to participate in the reality that his actions bring into being, and even to further their effects. Only God can enact his reign in our world, but when he does, he calls us to help.