by Sara Loperana
April 2010

Christians have always placed prime importance on Jesus’ death on the cross, though theologians are often at odds on how to interpret the seemingly violent event. Questions arise such as; what does it say about the nature of God? Many theologians grappled, and do to this day, with the seeming pain, suffering, and abandonment that Jesus faces on the cross. As humans, those who study Christianity often attempt to define God’s nature by explaining away Jesus’ final line in Mark and Matthew, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and to focus on Jesus’ final lines in Luke or John, in which he seems to have more control of his destiny. However, the Son’s claim of forsakenness deserves more analysis. Jesus’ plea in Matthew and Mark is one of a person in pain, a man not in control of the moment, and certainly not of a person who is supposed to be a divine Christ. What do we make of this paradox? Jürgen Moltmann, a German contemporary theologian, attempts to confront this issue by highlighting the “suffering of God”1 as a way to experience the Holy Trinity in the crucifixion of the Son. Additionally, he puts at the forefront of his theology the need for the trinity to be experienced on earth.

Born in Germany in 1926, Moltmann was raised by secular intellectuals who venerated math and science and had little need for religion. As a peaceful man drafted into WWII, he surrendered to a British officer to escape the fighting and violence. In the POW camps in Great Britain, he read the Bible for the first time. Feeling as though Christ had found him in the camps, he returned to Germany after the war, earned his doctorate in theology, preached at an evangelical church, and settled into a profession in theological academia at Tübingen University. Due to his pacifism and the violence he witnessed in the war, his writings and theology focus on pain and suffering as an essential part of, not only the human condition, but of God’s love.

Initially, a view of God and the Trinity, which connects love and suffering, seems like a contradiction and brings about the issue of theodicy: if God is both all-powerful and all good, how could he allow suffering? Even more so, when applied to the crucifixion, people find it hard to grasp that the Father would allow real suffering to befall the Son, and by extension, the Father. Many theologians, including Cyril of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas, have attempted to explain Jesus’ tormented query, and his consequent suffering, as remote from God, and simply as a stand-in; a replacement for the people for which he opens the way to salvation.2 The Son therefore, is assumed to feel no suffering, and the pain is only an accident of his human form, not true spiritual anguish. In these interpretations, God is remote. The crucifixion, then, is truly a “passion play,” in which the characters act out this scene for the benefit of humanity.

In the Crucified God, Moltmann proposes a controversial, innovative way to approach Jesus’ death, viewed as what he calls, the “suffering of God.”3 The distinction comes in understanding that the Son suffers on the cross, as “does the Father, but not in the same way.”4 In Moltmann’s eyes, the idea of suffering is ingrained in the act of love; suffering then, becomes an indispensable aspect, one that is necessary to understand the power and selflessness of God’s love. “If God were really incapable of suffering, he would also be as incapable of loving as the God of Aristotle, who was loved by all, but could not love.”5 Love is an imperative condition which allows humanity to connect with God, and without it, the Divine is forever transcendent and unreachable.

To illustrate the suffering faced by Jesus, Moltmann illustrates “the Surrender of the Son”6 and argues against a divine Christ who feels no pain. Jesus, as God only, cannot really experience the physical anguish associated with a death on the cross. If he is transcendent, then he is unable to experience bodily pain. Moltmann, however, acknowledging that Jesus is not simply God, highlights Jesus’ humanity in the time before the cross. Despite his humanity, he is not weak and self-pitying when he prays to God to keep him from following the path laid out for him. Jesus experiences the pain that any human would, in that unanswered prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, which represented the “eclipse of God.”7 It is in this place that Jesus feels the pain of damnation, a distance from God and lack of His presence, and his soul is tormented.8 For Moltmann, it is essential that Jesus choose to follow his path toward the cross, though he suffers in spirit. He experiences hell, and is resurrected after death, but without the pain and suffering, God’s love would not be transcendent.

For Moltmann, the Crucifixion is also representative of God’s activity. God exercises his choice to actively participate in the pain of the crucifixion to illustrate his love. The son as well, “undertakes the way to the cross deliberately”9 in an active passion. God chooses to suffer, in the same way that God chooses to love. Jesus chooses to participate and give his will up to the Father, heading for Jerusalem, where he knows what is waiting, and participating in the “passio active.”10 (Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, 75). As we have seen in Jesus, it is the choice of participation in pain that shows the sacrifice and love of God, a pain that is also present in the Father’s role in the crucifixion. The Father does not sit idly by while the Son suffers the pain and death; no, He is actively participating in the Son’s suffering. Using the “Father” metaphor, God’s role is even easier to understand. He actively chooses to play a part, yet, must also feel the pain of a father watching his child undergo anguish and death, and with no power to stop it. The Father purposefully disregards the son’s pleas, in order to become the “Father of those who have been delivered up.”11 Without that pain and separation, there could be no hope for salvation.

The Son’s obedience and the Father’s suffering would be meaningless without the third person of the trinity, the Spirit. The Spirit, even now, connects us to this moment in history that, for Moltmann, defined God’s relationship with us. At the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, the vision of the trinity is most available on earth for “the Son suffers death in our God-forsakenness, the Father suffers the death of his beloved Son and the Spirit binds the other two together through unspoken sighs.”12 The encircling motion, and the divine connection between the three persons, who all feel the anguish of the cross event, binds humanity to the will of God.

When Moltmann’s book, The Crucified God, was published in 1964, it met with harsh criticism. Even in the present day, there are two severely contested aspects of his proposal. The first is that by arguing for the importance of the crucifixion of Jesus and the overpowering presence of the Holy Trinity, Moltmann “ties God’s being too closely to the progress of human history, and … compromises the transcendence and sovereignty of the triune God.”13 By making this move, McDougall, Highfield and others argue that Moltmann dissolves the distinction between the historical understanding of “theology as the doctrine of God and economy as the doctrine of salvation.”14 He fuses the immanent trinity and the economic trinity into one, both hinging upon salvation as the single event that shows this unity. For Moltmann, God in itself does have the dynamic perichoresis, yet is, at the same time, a part of humanity and linked to history. Secondly, critics argue that Moltmann’s language confuses historical terms and ideologies reserved for the immanent trinity and its mystery, to describe his anthropomorphized economic trinity and its human-like relations.15 By using language such as perichoresis, from the Cappadocian fathers, to describe the economic trinity, Moltmann not only melds the two circles, but also confuses the limits and distinctions between them, beginning a confusing cycle in which he does little to actually “clarify the divine life,” but simply allows it to be fully understood in terms of human relationships.16

Moltmann argues strongly against the idea that the economic and immanent trinities must be divided. His theology of the cross demands not only the fusion of the trinities in connection with humanity, but also the suffering of all three divine persons. In the history of the trinity, it has been written often “one of the trinity has suffered.”17 This idea is contradictory to all of Moltmann’s theology, especially in terms of God’s suffering. All three beings of the trinity are active in the crucifixion, and the Father’s choice for pain only illustrates the active role played by all three. The connection within the trinity is meant to reflect our experience with God and the church. Humanity’s experience with God is a reciprocal appreciation and selfless love, which He experiences in turn, with us.

Critics have a right to argue for God’s transcendence, for central to Christianity is the Creator of all life and the love and power of He who created all things. However, the metaphor of personal connections is more important in helping people unite with, and understand, God’s love and selflessness, and emulate that in their own lives. Illustrating how the persons of the trinity are connected to human history adds to theology more than it diminishes. If the role of the crucifixion is not only for our salvation, but also for our example, then the Father, Son and Spirit do not need to be distant and remote to be appreciated.


1 Jürgen Moltmann, “The Triune God: Rich in Relationships,” The Living Pulpit (April-June, 1999): 3.

2 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (New York: First Fortress Press, 1993), 229.

3 Moltmann, “The Triune God,” 3.

4 Moltmann, Crucified God, 203.

5 Moltmann, qtd. in McGrath, 227.

6 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (San Fransisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981), 75.

7Martin Buber qtd. in Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, 77.

8 Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, 75-83.

9 Joy Ann McDougall, “The Return of Trinitarian Praxis? Moltmann on the Trinity and the Christian Life,” The Journal of Religion, (April 2003): 184.

10 Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, 75.

11 Ron Highfield, “Divine Self-limitation in the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann: A Critical Appraisal,” Christian Scholar’s Review (Fall 2002): 5.

12 Ibid.

13 McDougall, “The Return of Trinitarian Praxis,” 2.

14 Highfield, “Divine Self-Limitation,” 2.

15 Karen Kilby, “Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity,” NewBlackfriars, 81, no. 956 (October 2000): 432-45 in McDougall, Joy Ann, “The Return of Trinitarian Praxis.”

16 Kilby qtd. in McDougall, “The Return of Trinitarian Praxis,” 180.

17 Moltmann, “Triune God,” 2.

Works Consulted

Coffey, David M. “Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology/God’s Life in Trinity.” Theological Studies (June 2007): 454-457.

Highfield, Ron. “Divine Self-limitation in the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann: A Critical Appraisal.” Christian Scholar’s Review (Fall 2002): 49-72.

Hunsinger, George. “The Daybreak of the New Creation: Christ’s Resurrection in Recent Theology.” Scottish Journey of Theology (2004): 163-181.

Kim, Hyung-Kon. “Jürgen Moltmann.” Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology. 1999. (10 January 2009).

McDougall, Joy Ann. “The Return of Trinitarian Praxis? Moltmann on the Trinity and the Christian Life.” The Journal of Religion (April 2003): 177.

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Christian Theology Reader. Ed. Alister E. McGrath. Third ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007: 226-230.

–––. The Crucified God. New York: First Fortress Press, 1993.

–––. Experiences in Theology. Great Britain: First Fortress Press, 2000.

­–––. “The Final Judgment: Sunrise of Christ’s Liberating Justice. “Anglican Theological Review. 89, no. 4 (2007): 565-577.

–––. History and the Triune God. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.

–––. “The Presence of God’s Future: the Risen Christ.” Anglican Theological Review. 89, no. 4 (2007): 577-589.

–––. The Trinity and the Kingdom. San Fransisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981.

–––. “The Triune God: Rich in Relationships.” The Living Pulpit. April-June. 1999.

Schweitzer, Don. “Contrasting Approaches to Social Analysis in the Theologies of Douglas Hall and Jürgen Moltmann.” Religious Studies and Theology (Dec. 1997): 37-55.

Siu, Paul. “The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Dec. 2002): 740-742.

Yancey, Phillip. “God Behind Barbed Wire: How a Nazi-Soldier-Turned-Theologian Found Hope.” Christianity Today (Sept. 2005): 120.

previous article     next article     table of contents