Hope Springs Eternal

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast." So wrote the eighteenth century poet, Alexander Pope. Platitude? Yes, but true for all that. I have to confess the lines (from An Essay on Man) come to mind frequently at dinner when my dog lies at my feet, his gaze fixed on every morsel entering my mouth. Try telling him that this is but a platitude!

These words are at the heart of human experience. They form the nerve center of the book of Ecclesiastes. Take a look at Ecc. 9:4 and you'll get the point: "But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion."

I remember some years ago when my sixteen year-old neighbor spent a summer trying to learn how to ride a skateboard. He persisted through embarrassing falls and hostile temperature. And why? I fancy it was because it seem a cool thing to do (and perhaps the girls would love him for it). By the same token, why do musicians spend endless hours playing scales, or athletes sweat it out in gymnasiums, or seminary students stay up half the night studying? Each one hopes to succeed one day. They want to be someone or do something, and this hard work is the way to achieve it. In a word, they have hope!

The bitter experience of hopelessness is a killer. Talk to medical therapists about the importance of sustaining hope in the fight against disease and again you'll get the point. Tell someone they have a terminal illness, and hope temporarily evaporates. It is crucial to urge the promotion of hope at such times. It is time to gird up the loins and do battle against a viscous monster. Whatever must be faced, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy... these must be buoyed by the hope that these treatments will do some good.

For Christians, however, hope means more than the now and present; Christians know the hope that there is purpose behind all of it, an overruling providence that sustains in the darkness and points toward the light. We know who we are, why we are here, and (in Christ) where we are going:

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:54–58)

Without this hope, as in radical existentialism, human worth diminishes. The secular humanists must face the terrible dilemma that life really has no meaning, except the self-absorbed obsession to make it as tolerable as possible. It is a philosophy of hopelessness—we exist, but there is nothing that gives our existence any meaning. There is no way to authenticate myself.

Viktor Frankl (who later founded a school of psychiatry known as logotherapy) spent three years as a young man in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he noticed that those most likely to survive their ordeal were those "who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill." Without meaning—hope—the only road left leads to boredom, alcoholism, and suicide.

The Gospel responds to this malaise by assuring that in Jesus Christ lies real hope and true meaning. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Christ restores in us what has been broken by sin. Like once ruined castles, we are re-built to form a something beautiful, something like Christ. In Christ we are a new creation, anticipating a newer existence in the world that is to come—an existence that has, in part, already broken through into our own space-time continuum: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). And because of this, we have value. Yes, value! We much more valuable than any sheep or many sparrows, as Jesus Himself said (Matt.10:31; 12:12).

Archbishop Temple put it well: "My worth is what I am worth to God, and that is a marvelous great deal, for Christ died for me."

Derek Thomas (PhD, University of Wales, Lampeter) is the Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic and Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He also serves as Senior Minister at First Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife, Rosemary, have two grown children, two grandchildren, two dogs, and a somewhat dysfunctional cat.

This article was originally published on reformation21 in August 2007. 


Derek Thomas