The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,—
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet! I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
-John Henry Newman[ii]
The history of the world tells us that hopelessness and despair beget either indifference or violence. Those responses are two sides of the same dull coin. The former prioritizes dehumanizing the self while the latter prioritizes dehumanizing others. And at times, they exist together within one person, for, as eighteenth-century English literati Samuel Johnson once said, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”[iii]
We seem to be living in hopeless, polarizing times, don’t we? Whatever one makes of the rash of school shootings, we see within them a hopeless desperation that begets all sorts of impassioned responses which, one gets the impression, are always one fatal slip away from despondency.
Our pandemic of hopelessness is not new, however. The ancient world that Jesus was born into was utterly hopeless. Israel itself had lived under a rotating door of idolatrous dictators for centuries. Yet, even within their remnants, embers of hope glowed. Within the pagan world, however, it was a different story. In the ancient Gentile world, none had the words of eternal life. They lived the words sighed above by Nabakov. Life was all vagary and vapor.
Could philosophy be the answer? The most popular philosophy of the Hellenistic world was Stoicism. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, its two most persuasive evangelists, said that the answer to hopeless situations was to simply change one’s perceptions of unchangeable reality (easier to swallow for those living in the lap of luxury). Elsewhere one might stumble upon the Epicureans who told those suffering to chin up because, Hey, soon enough we will all fall into that eternal darkness and all worries will cease (so they hoped). Others may have spoken of a rational force or logos in the universe, but this impersonal, unloving, unsaving logos was no comfort.
Could the pantheon of gods help? Given that they typically just depicted human capriciousness or cold disconnectedness on a grand scale, pagans knew their help would not be coming from upon high on Mount Olympus. Maybe, just maybe, one could escape death by becoming a god themselves! But, surprise, surprise, that was a privilege reserved for emperors (or so they said).
Sophocles once gave his prescription for those feeling hopeless: “Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.”[iv] In other words: hopefully you’re never born, but if you do face that misfortune, then hopefully you will die soon. Hope , as Nietzsche would write centuries later, becomes akin to the demonic, the “worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”[v] These guys must have been really fun at parties.
New Testament scholar Karen Jobes explains that for the Greeks in Jesus’s day, “the despair of this life is followed only by the unending night of death. … The existential despair in this life and the bleak view of afterlife in Greek thought killed any hope one might seek.”[vi]
Classical civilization, despite its positive PR in recent centuries, was brutal. In historian Tom Holland’s words, it was full of “extremes of callousness,”[vii] creating “in almost every way … a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking.”[viii] In a theme familiar by now, ancient civilization was tolerable if you were on top but a place of no escape if you weren’t. It is no surprise, then, that in the tale of Pandora’s Box, the one thing that does not leave the box and enter the world is hope.In the end, Jobes writes, “Hope among pagans was dead.”[ix]
But then something changed. A man came—well, really, more than a man—preaching a message of judgment and forgiveness, promising an eternity of light rather than of darkness, one that especially seemed to attract all of those for whom hope had been elusive in the pagan world. Those who were last might become first; those who had nothing might inherit everything; those who were contrite, meek, humble, trusting, trustworthy, might become the sons and daughters of God. The man who told them this sealed his promise with a sign, and when his body was resurrected, so also was hope.
This hope confounded the hopeless world surrounding the early Christians. As one ancient critic spewed, “Oh, wondrous folly and incredibly audacity! … While they fear to die after death, they do not fear to die for the present: so does a deceitful hope soothe their fear with the solace of a revival.”[x]
Peter spoke boldly of this new hope in his first letter to Gentile converts. Often lured back into their old lives, Peter—the one who had originally understood that there was nowhere else to go but Jesus, the only one who had the words of eternal life (John 6:68)—reminds them of the hopelessness they have left behind. Living in hope after centuries of despair can be an astonishingly hard corner to turn, as all familiar with the sojourn from Egypt to Canaan know. But into this burgeoning landscape, Peter speaks.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. (1 Peter 1:3)
Peter clearly knew of the direct link between hopelessness and death, which is why he emphasized the livingness of hope, founded upon the livingness of the resurrected Christ. Indeed, when we are connected to the Source of all life, to the “living Stone,” we become “living stones” (2:4-5).
The living hope that Peter describes will never perish, spoil, or fade. Or, as William MacDonald rendered it, this hope is “death-proof, sin-proof, and age-proof.”[xi] All the riches, material comforts, pleasures, and accolades of the world are incapable of making this claim.
For the ancient Jewish and Gentile world anxiously waiting for rescue (for we all recognize our need of rescue from something), the Resurrection of Jesus was quite literally the resurrection of hope itself. Hope, in this context, refers to the assurance of God’s love and providence for the individual and the world.
You see, when us moderns—so inundated with references to “resurrection” from our Christian past—hear the word resurrection, we hear some people claimed a guy died and came back to life so we have to follow him. But for those there on the ground, when they heard the word resurrection, they had feelings reminiscent of a song we more closely associate with Christmas: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” But on Easter Sunday morning, the hopes and fears were not just met but set aright.
The resurrection of Jesus was not just about a man rising from the dead; it was the vindication of incarnation and the defeat of malevolent strongholds. It pointed back to the incarnation, the becoming human of God, and the rescue of human nature with it. It meant that the King had returned, allowed himself to be swallowed by the depths of demonic despair, to lay down his body on his own accord (John 10:18), and then to be lifted up and call all people to himself (12:32). “Take heart,” he tells all weary and heavy-laden, “I have overcome the world” (16:33).
We do not follow the risen one simply because he was risen, which is why we see no Lazarites or son-of-the-widow-of-Zarephathites. We follow the risen one out of gratitude for what God has done to the great enemies of mankind out of love for us. We follow because, as Peter said, Christ alone has the words of eternal life. By which he meant, Christ himself is the Word of eternal life.
Our society is death-haunted once again. The quest for eternal youth, the quest for lives unshackled from the burdens of sexual reproduction, the quest for lives where sexuality is once again Puritanical but bodies are treated gnostically, all prescribe mutilation as the mode of salvation, as if carving out could ever make anything whole. To make matters worse, Christianity’s cultured despisers have sold others on a world that it is better to live for the now and not hope for an eternity, for all our joys are only joys because they will one day end.[xii] This is the gospel of an anxious age that has succumbed to the thought that a post-Fall world is the best one can do.
Brothers and sisters, we often succumb to the same anxiety, reactively spewing hate as if our enemies were of flesh and blood and Jesus hasn’t already overcome the world. But we serve the resurrected one, the one who trampled down death by death and bestowed life to those in the tombs. The one who has the words of eternal life, the eternal logos of love. He is the one who lets us in on the secret to eternal happiness: to gain your life you must first lose it.
Our hope is not an anxious or reactive one. Biblical hope is defiant and perseverant, looking not towards the future we wish for, but to the one which is sure to come. Let us not succumb to being culture warriors but rather culture redeemers. As futile as it may sometimes feel, I recall the words of Protestant reformer Martin Luther who remarked that even if he knew the world were ending tomorrow, he would plant his apple tree today. Go and do likewise.
[i] Vladimir Nabakov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 19.
[ii] John Henry Newman, “Lead, Kindly Light,” in in Hymns (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1896), 99.
[iii] Cited in Anya Taylor, Bacchus in Romantic England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 6. It is no wonder that Johnson’s famous retort as to why he drank so heavily was the epigraph for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
[iv]Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1225, accessed at Perseus, March 31, 2023, https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0190%3Acard%3D1225#.
[v] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber with Stephen Lehmann (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1996), 58. Nietzsche writes that hope was one of the evils that was in Pandora’s box, but it was the only one that didn’t escape, and so it remains with each person unable to escape it.
[vi] Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 84-85.
[vii] Tom Holland, “Tom Holland: Why I was wrong about Christianity,” New Statesman, September 14, 2016, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity.
[viii] Unbelievable?, “Tom Holland tells NT Wright: Why I changed my mind about Christianity,” YouTube Video, 4:49, July 17, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIJ9gK47Ogw.
[ix] Jobes, 84-85.
[x] Minucius Felix citing pagan Caecilius in The Octavius. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4: The Fathers of the Third Century, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, translated by Rev. Robert Ernest Wallis, PhD. Accessed April 3, 2023, https://ccel.org/ccel/felix/octavius/anf04.iv.iii.viii.html.
[xi] William MacDonald, I Peter: Faith Tested, Future Triumphant : a Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1972), 13. Peter’s phrase here is reminiscent, and perhaps based on, Jesus’ description of treasure in Luke 12:33.
[xii] Popular atheists Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins, among others, have made such claims, as have philosophers such as Martin Hägglund in his March 2019 New York Times piece, “Why Mortality Makes Us Free”. To be discussed further in a future article.