What does hope look like?
“Hope is a dangerous thing.” (The Shawshank Redemption)
Hope presupposes that all is not well with the world, as we see it. It presupposes an ideal (or, at least, a preference) that conflicts with present circumstances. The Apostle Paul asks, “Who hopes for what he already has?” (Romans 8.24).
But hope also presupposes that, although all is not presently well with the world, there is at least a possibility of change. And this leads us to consider two different kinds of hope–we’ll call them internal and external. Both have (at least) one advantage and one disadvantage.
Internal hope is simply optimism. It is wishful thinking or daydreaming. It is the stuff of Disney Christmas movies. The advantage of internal hope is that it is invulnerable. It remains safe in our thinking: because it is exclusively created and sustained by me, I can always choose to hope, regardless of the circumstances. The disadvantage is rather obvious: it may well remain only in my head, having no bearing on external realities. We’ll call this “pipedream” hope.
External hope is based upon external realities: An experienced CEO’s business strategy, a hefty and diverse retirement portfolio, or the shrewd military acumen of a general. The advantage of this hope is that it is rooted in reality, something substantive, in the wisdom, experience, planning of the experts. But this is also the disadvantage: brilliant business strategies are overtaken by unforeseen market forces; solid retirement portfolios are interrupted by cancer or divorce; and even Napoleon had his Waterloo. We’ll call this “probability” hope.
Because of this, some (in fact, many) choose not to hope. Isn’t this the shrewd (and less painful) thing to do? The two main characters in Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption, both prisoners, warn of the perils of hope:
Andy: “…there’s a small place inside of us they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.”
Red: “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
Andy here refers to internal hope and its advantage (invulnerability), while Red points out its perilous disadvantage.
What about Christian hope? Which of the two is it?
It is both and neither in a wonderful way. That is, Christian hope has the advantages of both kinds of hope without either of their disadvantages. How is that possible?
Christian hope is rooted in something called the gospel. The gospel is (literally) good news. And news is about something that has happened: it centers around the life, death and (supposed) resurrection of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. This means that it is like external hope. So it doesn’t have disadvantage of internal hope (i.e., mere optimism). Hence, Christian hope is no pipedream.
But why doesn’t Christian hope suffer from the (crippling) disadvantage of external hope? Because according to Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers, in and through him the Creator was at work. This, then, is not the work of even the very best of human experts–those who are most skilled in their craft (e.g., a politician).
We may disagree with Jesus and his earliest followers, but we would have concede that there is a categorical difference between the actions of the best of the best humans (even the greatest caesars of Rome) and the Creator, especially if he is the One described in the Jewish Scriptures and whom Jesus called his Father. Speaking through the prophets, Israel’s God says,
“I am Yahweh, the God of all humankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32.27)
“No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?” (Isaiah 43.13)
And according to Jesus, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10.27)
Hence, one can say that they disagree with Jesus and his earliest followers about truth of their claims. But one cannot categorize Christian hope as either a pipedream or a probability. It is rooted in a historical event that is understood to be an act–indeed, the central and climactic act–of the Creator in human history. This was its earliest and most diverse interpretation.