I’m reading through Moltmann’s The Way of Jesus Christ for my class at the College of the Transfiguration in Makhanda/Grahamstown, South Africa. In an extraordinary passage Moltmann reflects on the part of the Apostles’ Creed that speaks of Christ’s descent to the dead. In an attempt to say how this means liberation from death’s power Moltmann draws on traditional African ideas about what is called “ancestor worship.” In a note, Moltmann acknowledges that he first learned about these ideas from the Tanzanian theologian Charles Nyamiti. I love the happenstance of reading Moltmann in a South African context and coming across this wonderful passage where he illuminates an ancient Christian creed by drawing on insights from traditional African beliefs and the contemporary scholarship of a Tanzanian theologian. How great is that!
Here’s what Moltmann says:
Death can set no limits to the unconditional and hence universal love of God: This has to be said for God’s sake. Otherwise God would not be God, and death would have to be called an anti-God. When we say that the dead are also reached by the gospel which is to be proclaimed to all nations, this statement is based anthropologically on the fact that humanity is created in a sequence of generations, and is therefore, in this temporal sense, a community between the living and the dead. Almost all peoples have celebrated this community in what is called (though wrongly) ‘ancestor worship’: the dead participate in their own way in the life of the community, and the living lead their lives in the presence of the dead, who are present among the living as their ‘ancestors’. As social beings, men and women are also generational beings. So if Christ is experienced in faith as the brother and redeemer of the living, then this same faith sees him as the brother and redeemer of our ‘ancestors’. Through his ‘descent into the realm of death’ Christ himself became the ‘redeeming ancestor’. Through his fellowship with the dead, he brings them God and the redeeming power of the Spirit, and liberates them from death’s power.