God Behind Barbed Wire
How a Nazi-soldier-turned-theologian found hope.
by Philip Yancey | posted 08/29/2005 09:00 a.m.
On a recent visit to Virginia I met one of my heroes: Jürgen Moltmann. I have plowed through almost a dozen of his books, and to my surprise, the German theologian in person exuded a charm and sense of humor that belie his scholarly works.
Moltmann was planning on a career in quantum physics until he was drafted at age 18 at the height of the Second World War. Assigned to anti-aircraft batteries in Hamburg, he saw compatriots incinerated in the fire-bombings there. The question “Why did I survive?” haunted him.
After surrendering to the British, the young soldier spent the next three years in prison camps in Belgium, Scotland, and England. When Hitler’s empire imploded, exposing the moral rot at the center of the Third Reich, Moltmann saw how other German prisoners “collapsed inwardly, how they gave up all hope, sickening for the lack of it, some of them dying.” As he learned the truth about the Nazis, Moltmann felt an inconsolable grief about life, “weighed down by the somber burden of a guilt which could never be paid off.”
Moltmann had no Christian background. He had brought two books with him into battle—Goethe’s poems and the works of Nietzsche—neither of which nourished much hope. But an American chaplain gave him an Army-issue New Testament and Psalms, signed by President Roosevelt. “If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there,” the prisoner read. Could God be present in that dark place? As he read on, Moltmann found words that perfectly captured his feelings of desolation. He became convinced that God “was present even behind the barbed wire—no, most of all behind the barbed wire.”
Moltmann also found something new in the Psalms: hope. Walking the perimeter of the barbed wire at night for exercise, he would circle a small hill in the center of the camp on which stood a hut that served as a chapel. That hut became for him a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of suffering.
Later Moltmann was transferred to Norton Camp, an educational camp in England run by the YMCA. The local population welcomed the German prisoners, bringing them homemade food, teaching them Christian doctrine, and never adding to the burden of guilt the prisoners felt over Nazi atrocities. (Hearing Moltmann’s fond recollection of those days—”they treated me better than the German army”—I could not help drawing the contrast to Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, where we are sowing seeds of hatred that will bear sour fruit for generations.)
Upon release, Moltmann began to articulate his theology of hope. We exist in a state of contradiction between the Cross and the Resurrection. Surrounded by decay, we nonetheless hope for restoration, a hope illuminated by the “foreglow” of Christ’s resurrection. Faith in that glorious future can transform the present—just as Moltmann’s own hope of eventual release from prison camp transformed his daily experience there.
Through all of Moltmann’s dense theological works run two themes: God’s presence with us in our suffering and God’s promise of a perfected future. If Jesus had lived in Europe during the Third Reich, Moltmann noted, he likely would have been branded like other Jews and shipped to the gas chambers. In Jesus, we have definitive proof that God suffers with us, as Moltmann explains in The Crucified God. (During the war in El Salvador, someone sent Moltmann a picture of one of six Jesuits murdered by a death squad, and next to the body in a pool of blood lay the Spanish edition, El Dios Crucificado.)
At the same time, Jesus gives a foretaste of a future time when earth will be restored to God’s original design. Easter is the beginning of the “laughter of the redeemed … God’s protest against death.” A person without faith may assume from the suffering on this planet that God is neither all-good nor all-powerful. Faith allows us to believe that God is not satisfied with this world either, and intends to make all things new.
Only at Christ’s Second Coming will the kingdom of God take shape in all its fullness. In the meantime, we establish settlements of that kingdom, always glancing back to the Gospels for a template. Moltmann notes that the phrase “Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament inspired fear, but in the New Testament it inspires hope, because those authors have come to know and trust the Lord whose Day it is.
In a single sentence Jürgen Moltmann expresses the great span from Good Friday to Easter. It is, in fact, a summary of human history, past, present, and future: “God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him.”