Only A Christian Can Be A Good Atheist

In the last week or so I’ve been thinking about Ernst Bloch and Jürgen Moltmann thanks to a recent First Things article about the former. As Rose shows, Bloch is a fascinating Marxist philosopher who rejected Christianity’s understanding of nature and transcendence but retained a Christian understanding of history. However, I’m not principally interested in Bloch, nor can I say I have read much of Bloch (to my own shame). Instead, the majority of my knowledge of and interest in Bloch comes through Jürgen Moltmann, one of the most important German systematic theologians of the mid-late 20th century.

To give some background on Moltmann- Moltmann’s first book Theology of Hope, published in 1964, was a theological bombshell. It helped to bring the category of eschatology back into the theological landscape as a defining characteristic of modern systematic theology. In his second work, The Crucified God, published in 1973, Moltmann set out to make the cross the foundation and criticism of Christian theology (hence the original subtitle). Richard Bauckham summarizes the importance of these two works in modern theology well when he writes that Theology of Hope is “one of the most influential theological works of the post World War II era” and The Crucified God is “one of the most important modern studies of the cross.”

In both of these works, however, Moltmann is deeply indebted to the work of Bloch. Moltmann recounts in later works that his intention with Theology of Hope was to set in motion an act of theology parallel to Bloch’s Principle of Hope, but on a biblical basis. Bloch had drawn on the Exodus and other Old Testament imagery to establish hope as the framework for human life and action. However, for Bloch, transcendence had to go for this goal to be realized. In his work, Bloch argued, “Only an atheist can be a good Christian.” Only as an atheist could one reject false economic and religious gods so as to realize the political and eschatological goals of Scripture. When this happened humanity would finally be free and no longer dominated by the rule of any power, including that of God.

In The Crucified God Moltmann flips Bloch’s maxim on its head. “Only a Christian can be a good atheist,” Moltmann writes. To truly reject false economic and religious gods requires following the true God. According to Moltmann, the true God is known in the cross of Christ, which demands that everything one thinks about God, history, rulers, and power change. Because God’s being is revealed in the passion and death of Jesus, through his suffering for us and for our salvation, the true God is not known or found in his power and glory in the world and in the history of the world. For Moltmann, the gods of this world – the gods of money, power, prestige- belong on the other side of the cross of Christ, because it was in their name that Christ was crucified. Thus, Moltmann writes, “For Christ’s sake I am an atheist, an atheist in respect to the gods of the world and world history, the Caesars and the political demigods who follow them.” Following the crucified Christ means recognizing that the gods who support the dehumanization of others in the name of money, power, or the state, are idols (as Ethan has said here before). For Christ’s sake then, we must be atheists.