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Hope is a Gift

One of the most legendary theologians of the 20th century died on Monday of this week at the age of 98. Jurgen Moltmann was a German Reformed theologian whose influence reverberated far and wide, and gave strength to many who were seeking hope in the face of a world of uncertainty and suffering. He was known as the “theologian of hope”—a faith that was born in his experiences as a 19 year old soldier in the German army in 1945. One night, he got lost in the woods near the front lines in Belgium. It was dark, the army was scattered, and Germany’s formal surrender was only days away. Jurgen surrendered to the first British soldier he came across, not even able to fully make out his face in the dark. He soon found himself in a POW camp in Belgium. He had been born into a thoroughly secular family in Hamburg, where he had planned to study mathematics and physics and follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein. But the war intervened, and he was drafted into the German army, where he was sent to the front lines in 1943 and witnessed the firebombing of Hamburg firsthand. After his surrender, he initially spent time in prison camps in northern Europe, before being transferred to one in Scotland. In all, he spent three years imprisoned. His time in prison was bleak; confronted with the full evil of the Nazi regime and the photos of the concentration camps, as well as the harsh conditions of prison, he lived in despair, wishing he had died on the front lines like so many others rather than have to live in the ashes of a war-scarred world and deal with the guilt and pain of what had happened.

But during his time in the UK, he met a group of Christian prisoners and an American prison chaplain, who gave him a copy of the New Testament and Psalms. As he read the Psalms, and encountered the hospitality and kindness of the British locals, he began to sense the presence of God, and became a professing Christian. In later years, he wrote of his time in the POW camp that “I didn’t find Christ, he found me.” Returning to Germany, he enrolled in a theology program at the university, where he eventually earned a doctorate and began teaching. In the decades from the 1960s to the early 2000s, he wrote dozens of books on theology, and is today considered one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. Probably his most famous book is titled simply, Theology of Hope, where he wrote that “one cannot live totally without hope; to live without hope is to cease to live,” and said “God weeps with us, so that one day we may laugh with him.” Today, as I reflect on this giant of Christian faith and all the lessons he taught me about hope, I have hope that he is laughing and rejoicing in the presence of the God of Hope.


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