It has been said, “Man can live about 40 days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” If that’s true, then it behooves us to spend a few moments considering the nature and function of Christian hope.
Philosopher and essayist George Steiner, reflecting on forms of despair in the 20th century, particularly among proponents of Stalinism and Western nihilists devoted to materialism, said that modern man has a “suicidal impulse”—a type of self-hatred. This impulse has spawned a bewildering number of proposals to cure, or at least curb, the problem. Unfortunately, these varied remedies share a common thread: Their ingenuity and power are limited to human resources.
For many, hope is an emotion or positive outlook excavated from the depths of one’s soul. It often comes in the midst of calamity and disappointment. In spite of misfortune, we “hope” things will go well. The actor Josh Hartnett captured this notion when he said, “Hope is the most exciting thing in life, and if you honestly believe that love is out there, it will come. And even if it doesn’t come straight away, there is still that chance all through your life that it will.”
Well-meaning as this attempt at a description may be, it’s far removed from the biblical vision of hope, which is not a matter of delivering ourselves or “hoping for the best.” Nor is it blind optimism. Biblical hope, rather, is a divine gift God offers the world through His Son Jesus. This, however, raises the question of how one recognizes and receives such a gift.
Biblical hope is not blind optimism. It’s a divine gift God offers the world through His Son Jesus.
The Hope of God
The realization of hope starts with the recognition that the life and death of Jesus Christ changed everything. During the Lord’s earthly ministry, the future tense of Israel’s hope (“Behold, days are coming” from Jeremiah 31:31) became the emphatic present (“The kingdom of God is in your midst” of Luke 17:21). Then, on a certain Friday that seemed anything but good, they killed Jesus by nailing Him to a tree. At once, despair asserted itself with such force that Christian hope appeared to die with the Savior. “To whom shall we go?” Peter had said to Jesus, “You have words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Now, however, the Savior was dead.
Just when all seemed lost, something unexpected happened. On the third day after Jesus’ death, hope stepped out from the shadows of Calvary. He was alive, and such good news—what we call “gospel”—is the historical reality in which our hope is rooted. No longer do the chains of despair bind us. As God’s new creation, we who embrace the gospel enjoy the gift of “Christ in us,” which Colossians 1:27 calls “the hope of glory.”
As men and women whose lives are established in the risen Christ, we have a theology of hope that calls us not simply to believe He rose, necessary as this is. Further and deeper and more immediately, God calls us to experience the resurrection in a daily walk of faith (Eph. 4:1). By the Spirit living within us, we have the capacity to encounter the resurrected Christ through life’s various twists and turns, all of which are infused with hope.
Indeed, the Holy Spirit makes Christian hope accessible. We don’t pull such hope out of a religious hat or somehow conjure it up by the strength of our will. Rather, the Spirit brings hope as a by-product of His very presence.
We don’t pull hope out of a religious hat. Rather, the Spirit brings hope as a by-product of His very presence.
The movement of Christian hope has a discernible trajectory. First and foremost, it leads us to approach each new day coram deo, that is, “before the face of God.” An encounter that bleeds from the vertical axis to the horizontal, hope also moves us toward other people and involvement in their lives—the New Testament calls this mutuality the body of Christ. We don’t believe that this body simply was born; we believe it currently lives.
As Paul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, we likewise have our moments of personal awakening. Such encounters enliven the soul with resurrection power and reignite hope. Darkness becomes light, bondage is broken, and bitterness is turned to joy. In this posture, we address the world with the good news. In doing so, we believe that the Father didn’t only declare His Son’s lordship in Jesus’ resurrection but also continues to declare the good news through our life and witness.
The Christian life is not peaches and cream. Until Jesus returns, such life involves a measure of suffering. The gateway to resurrection life is the cross, for we cannot rise with Christ unless we have first died with Him. As Paul states, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56), which lays all of us in the dust. But Jesus went lower still, even to death on a cross, in order to raise us to new life. Therefore, we have hope that whatever challenge comes our way, God’s grace is sufficient for the occasion (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Because Jesus lives, we don’t delimit resurrection power to a historical event. We believe, rather, that it extends through time in such a manner as to categorically define our past, present, and future, endowing life with new creation reality. For this reason, we enjoy a living hope—now and forever.
Photography by Robin Broadbent