This essay examines where Christians find hope, both for eternal life and in these, our earthly bodies and lives. Could it be that, especially among Lutherans, we have neglected the Law as a source for hope and made eternity our only locus of hope? After asking myself many times whether I am cynical, pessimistic, realistic, hopeless, or just honest and even faithful to scripture, this is the best answer I can offer regarding Christian hope this side of heaven.
Christians are, and always have been, a people marked by hope. In spite of countless eras of persecution by one threatened emperor after another, the Christian Church just kept chugging away, the little flock that could, pressing on to finish the race. Though the tenacity of perseverance was not always present among those who claimed Christ, and many abandoned their Lord at the threat of the sword, the Church as a whole carried on because of the hope that was before her: eternal life in Christ, and being finally and perfectly reconciled to our Creator.
This final reconciliation with no one less than the Author of Life has encouraged and awed Christians for centuries. And this hope is a marked contrast to other future speculations which often are reduced to cyclical repeats of this life or the blank canvas of nothingness. Consider the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation: a being, one life cycle after another, makes his or her way up the spiritual chain of being until they finally become a human being! Only, then, they still must climb through the caste system. That explains why those living today in the lower caste cannot be aided by charity: they must earn their way up, through the tyranny of karma, to a better life.
Christians possess a real hope beyond this life, rooted in historical actions and clear revelation. This hope changes our outlook entirely and impacts the way we live among one another.
Buddhism stems from Hinduism (both of which are quite popular in the West, of course), but is different in key respects. Within Buddhism, the goal is Nirvana, or in essence, nothingness, rather than reincarnation. So much for hope beyond this life. And, in truth, many in the West now believe that we will simply fall asleep when we die and nothing of consequence happens at all. Many more cling to the false hope that because we have been basically good people, God will approve of us at the time of judgment. I suppose that is a kind of hope, but a false hope does us no good.
Orthodox Christianity offers something so much better! Our hope is in God first and foremost, for the Author of Life is also the Savior of the Nations. We are saved by grace through faith, so our hope is made possible by a personal God and made real by a God who keeps his promises. Christ loses none of his sheep, and those who are called are justified, and those justified are also sanctified and glorified. So Christians possess a real hope beyond this life, rooted in historical actions and clear revelation.
This hope changes our outlook entirely and impacts the way we live among one another. Paul writes to begin Colossians, for example: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” It is “because of the hope” that the saints share among each other that gives life to them loving one another. Without such hope, one can certainly imagine a world where people only strive for earthly riches no matter the barbaric cost, for there is nothing beyond this life anyway.
And isn’t that exactly what we see? As faith in Christ is abandoned, we are all paying the price, for more and more men and women are only living for today. They are hopeless creatures, and they are without love for one another because their worldview is without hope. Once God has been rejected, the course has been set: at best, man will live for others knowing that in the end it won’t really matter. At worst, man lives for himself, ushering untold collateral damage along the way.
Even Christians are tempted to despair, to believe that all is lost. And our answer of this hope in the last things can be cold comfort, so far away is its promise. But day by day, we would be wise to remind ourselves again and again that because of our hope in the end times, these lives matter a great deal now. Indeed, they are of eternal consequence.
Still, the question of hope may chronologically end, well, at the end, but there is more in the meantime worth considering. After all, if the only spiritual food we are served is the teaching that “we suffer now, but its all good when we die”, one may wonder what earthly good Christianity is. And that could certainly lead, over time, to a culture that ignores current issues of ethics and justice (for we’ll just wait for it all to sort itself out in the end).
It could also – and most certainly already has – lead to a culture of working towards the least someone can do to be saved with no intent to follow up. If our end hope is the only hope we have, trust in Christ for that whole salvation thing, know you are covered, and enjoy life in the meantime! How many have responded to an initial call to faith only to have proven to be the seed planted among rocky soil without adequate roots for a life of faith?
Once God has been rejected, the course has been set: at best, man will live for others knowing that in the end it won’t really matter. At worst, man lives for himself, ushering untold collateral damage along the way.
The question of hope in the here and now actually gets quite difficult, and quickly at that. For there are several passages that essentially assure the Christian that he or she will have a rough go of it in the here and now. Christians are told to expect suffering, to carry the cross of Christ. We are told of wars and rumors of wars, plagues and earthquakes are in the offing. Many Christian’s eschatology (view of the “end times”) is one of pessimism, or the belief that things will slide into a moral and social abyss before Jesus comes again.
Other Christians are more positive. Those in the “Postmillennial” camp anticipate an embrace of Christian values before the final judgement. Allow Wikipedia to summarize: “In [eschatology], postmillennialism is an interpretation of chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation which sees Christ’s second coming as occurring after the ‘Millennium’, a Golden Age in which Christian ethics prosper.” This view has animated and currently animates many social movements, including the abolition of slavery, the Social Gospel and the current fight against abortion.
Lutherans are rarely Postmillennial, so I am going to set aside that view for now. I’m not necessarily opposed to that view or hostile towards it; I just don’t think the scriptural witness is sufficiently strong to absolutely endorse it. So, beyond the hereafter, where do we find our hope?
Part of why Lutherans in particular struggle to locate hope in the present is because of a misunderstanding of our relationship to God’s Law, and the reality that there is hope in the Law now.
Another effort to locate hope, but without the sophistication or scriptural respect of Postmillennialism, is theological liberalism. This accommodation to the world’s values hopes to win the world over by rejecting dogmatic adherence to the Bible. The focus of the Church becomes overtly worldly, and social causes become synonymous with the Gospel itself. Once one goes this route, the Gospel can justify everything from advocating equal pay in the work place to outright Marxism. Our hope becomes utopia now, utopia forever.
An honest theologian, from my view, simply cannot read the New Testament and come to the conclusion that the hope the Church offers is earthly utopia. That is not the hope. But it is surely not only what comes after life, for Jesus bothers to include many ethical teachings for a reason. So we are stuck with the question: what is our hope exactly?
After asking myself many times whether I am cynical, pessimistic, realistic, hopeless, or just honest and even faithful to scripture, this is the best answer I can offer regarding Christian hope this side of heaven: part of why Lutherans in particular struggle to locate hope in the present is because of a misunderstanding of our relationship to God’s Law, and the reality that there is hope in the Law now. That is a strange thing for a Lutheran pastor to say, for we are essentially drilled to convey the dogma that our only hope is in the Gospel. And, of course, at the time of the Reformation and even now, when the question is eternal life itself, that is absolutely true!
But there are other matters of importance for the Christian than eternal life. And while the Gospel promise certainly animates hope and meaning and purpose, we should not shrug off God’s Law as a locus for hope. After all, this world is God’s, and it is governed by God. Surely God’s Law is a fount of wisdom and insight for how we should live within it? There is surely hope in sobriety, faithfulness, honor, moderation, contentment, justice and peace, right? Now, there is no hope that any of us can perfectly be obedient to any Law. Christians are not utopians. Rather our hope is that in striving to be obedient to God and loving our neighbor, we are playing an important role in ordering a better world. And we hope for a better world now as well as a perfect world upon the second coming of Jesus.
Part of our hope, then, is found in simply trusting God that seeking to live according to His Law will bear fruit. It is believing that life is better with God in it, and specifically when more of us live by his commands, imperfect as such living may be. Just imagine (or hope for!) a world where everyone could magically obey the Ten Commandments. Surely we can envision a more peaceful, content, loving, and hopeful world! So even though we know that perfect obedience to those same Ten Commandments is impossible, and this necessitates our salvation by grace through faith in Christ, does that mean we refuse to try to abide by God’s commandments? And does it mean we can’t find hope in this life by seeking to be more and more obedient, and bringing others into that same life of obedience?
Having been a Lutheran who was actually paying attention now for about 20 years, I find the Lutheran allergy to the Law a hinderance to Christian living. Yes, of course, the Law doesn’t save! But that doesn’t mean it is without value. Indeed, I would orient our hope in this life at least in part around the Law, even our imperfect obedience to it. For this is God’s world, governed by His Law. So, really, where else would we find hope?
While I don’t want to ever downplay the hope we have in the Gospel (which is the hope that finally matters), I also don’t want to downplay the reality that among our hopes in the here and now is found in the Law of God. And given that God gave his Law, Jesus expanded on that Law, and Paul certainly assumed its continuing value, there is no reason to think that the Law is to be ignored or undervalued as a source of hope.