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AND THE LAMB WINS
Why the End of the World Is Really Good News
By Simon Ponsonby
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Simon Ponsonby
All rights reserved.
Christianity Is Hope
A faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time. (Titus 1:2)
Longing for a better song
In the film Educating Rita, Rita (played by Julie Walters) is a hairdresser by day and an Open University pupil by night, seeking to create a better future for herself. Talking to the English tutor Dr. Frank Bryant (played by Michael Caine), she explains why she wants to study, describing a family night out at the pub: "I did join in the singing but when I turned around, me mother had stopped singing and she was crying. I said, 'Why are you crying mother?' and she said, 'There must be better songs to sing than these.' And I thought, 'Yeah, that's what I'm trying to do—sing a better song.'"
In the Bible, John records his vision of heaven:
And they sang a new song....
In a loud voice they sang:
"Worthy is the Lamb ...!"
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under
the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
"To him who sits on the throne
and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!"
(Rev. 5:9; 12–13)
The optimistic bubble that followed World War II, expressed in the slogan "We've never had it so good," was soon deflated by the Cold War that lasted more than four decades. Although this threat has now evaporated, it has been replaced by the ominous shadow of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. The postmodern era has been dominated by what Anthony Giddens terms "anomie"—an empty apathy, the careless "whatever" popularized by the Vicky Pollard character in the Little Britain comedy sketches. But while some may say "whatever," others say "no more," as they glimpse no sign of hope on the horizon, no new song to sing. Worldwide, over one million people commit suicide each year; every forty seconds someone sees nothing to live for and ends his or her own life. This figure has increased by 60 percent since 1940. Failed attempts at suicide multiply it by twenty—and those are just the statistics the authorities know about and report. Perhaps most shocking for us is the rise in suicide among young Western males.
In its technical sense pessimism is a term that indicates that the world always tends to the worst possible state. Everything naturally tends toward evil. Optimism suggests that the world is the best possible world that could have been created. Everything naturally tends toward good. The suicidal individual has a pessimistic belief that the future is bleak and futile. Rita the hairdresser has an optimistic belief that education will improve her future. She has hope. As we saw in the introduction, Christianity is eschatology, and eschatology is hope: Christianity looks to the future and ultimately that future is a glorious one for the Christian.
"There is no hope for the future, so help yourself now"
While some people live lives of quiet despair and others take drastic steps to remove themselves from such despair, poets often find an outlet in describing it. Take Theodore Roethke's haunting lines, for example:
I know the purity of pure despair— my shadow pinned against the sweating wall.
Others, however, seek to change either the despair-causing situation, or at least their response to that situation. Karl Marx refused to give in to life's melancholy, or to live on the basis of wishful thinking (pie in the sky when he died), but instead sought to bring hope into the situation by changing it here and now, not waiting for heaven but creating it, after the inevitable apocalyptic birth pangs of bloody revolution.
Those involved in the twentieth-century existential movement offered a different response to hope and hopelessness. Like Marx they refused to entertain a theological eternal perspective. But unlike Marx, rather than change the situation, they emphasized the idea of changing their perception. Living now, in time, in the face of the inevitability of death, one must confront this despair and choose life, autonomy, freedom, today. Each moment confronts the individual with the possibility of sinking into despair, being preoccupied by futile hope, or merely following the crowd. But individuals can live authentically in their situation, in that crisis moment, by choosing for themselves how they will respond.
The philosopher Albert Camus sought to exorcise all hope from his thought: "Hope as a rule makes a fool." In its place he put, "Thinking clearly and hoping no more." Whereas Marx took inspiration from Prometheus's presumption against the gods, Camus turns to Sisyphus, who was condemned to heavy daily toil pushing a giant boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down the next day and having the toil begin again. For Camus this picture of reality (utterly hopeless in itself ) can be transformed, not by hoping that one day the boulder will stay at the top, or by hoping that the gods will take pity on Sisyphus and end the punishment, but rather by Sisyphus choosing to think differently about his situation. I fear that all Camus has to offer here is the manipulation of emotions. The situation, punishment decreed by the gods, still remains.
Jean-Paul Sartre emphasized the idea that we are beings bound by time. We must renounce eternal future hope and create our own reality here and now by choosing to act authentically and freely. In an absurd passage in The Age of Reason, the character Mathieu sees his uncle's three-thousand-year-old Chinese vase. This priceless object that has been lovingly preserved and protected for three millennia provokes Mathieu. He will not follow the crowd and tiptoe around it. Rather he picks it up and smashes it to the floor. "I did it and felt quite proud, freed from the world, without ties or kin or origins, a stubborn little excrescence that has burst the terrestrial crust." The pot remains smashed, wealth has been lost, beauty destroyed, a family annoyed—but yes, Mathieu did act "existentially"!
Existentialists loathe the Christian hope of eternal life. They fear that it brings passivity, lack of change, failure to choose authentically—it masks the reality of the human condition as despair. However, all its detractors can offer as an alternative is either to aggressively change the current situation, or to change one's attitude to the situation. In response to Marx's attempt to format fate on the canvas of human history, we point to a God who has stepped into history to change its course. In response to Sartre's emphasis on human will and decision to change our state of mind, if not our state, Christianity says that, through a free choice to accept Christ, our state of mind, state of being, and eternal state are all reformatted—or, in biblical terms, we are "born again."
Marx's Promethean presumption could not alter Prometheus's punishment. Similarly, Camus's Sisyphus still faced the punishment of the gods, even with his smile and his scorn. But the Christian hope is one of total deliverance. The decision of the individual in time affects both the state in which the individual lives now and in the future. Anthony Kelly speaks of Christian conversion as a move from worshipping idols to entrusting oneself to the living God. Through God-given, God-directed hope, the Holy Spirit draws us out of ourselves into a self-surrender that goes beyond the limited horizons of optimism or pessimism.
Christianity is hope
Living hope in God as a key religious attribute is largely absent from the Greek and Roman religions, although it is found in the Egyptian. In the Old Testament the main word for hope was qawah, from the root qaw, meaning "to stretch toward, to expect." Related words are batah, "to trust"; yahal, "to wait/long for God"; hakah, "to wait"; and sabar, "to wait, hope, trust, fly to." In the Old Testament, half of the 176 passages relating to hope refer to hope in Yahweh by a faithful Israel. The Old Testament hope looked to Yahweh's coming in glory, his reign over the earth, the conversion of the nations, and a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. In the book of Job, we see this hope lifting Job's despair above the immediacy of his appalling situation (see Job 7:6) to the expectation that one day he will arise with his Redeemer, be reclothed in flesh, and see the One for whom his heart yearns (see Job 19:26f.).
The New Testament Greek concept of hope is attached to the verb elpizo and the noun elpis. In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the verb elpizo often translated the Hebrew verb meaning "to trust." It conveys a similar sense to that described above for the Old Testament—of hopeful expectancy concerning God's promises —but now the promises of God are the basis of hope because the God who made the promises has proven himself in Christ (Acts 26:6f.). Although not a frequent theme in the Gospels, it is prevalent throughout the Epistles, most notably in Paul's.
Paul is always eager for believers to understand the "one hope" (Eph. 4:4); the hope to which we are called (Eph. 1:18); the hope that only the believer knows (1 Thess. 4:13); the hope "stored up ... in heaven" through the gospel event (Col. 1:5); the hope set on Christ (2 Cor. 1:10), who will make a "glorious appearing" (Titus 2:13), raising the dead to new life (Acts 24:15; 26:6; 28:20) and bringing our hoped-for salvation (1 Tim. 4:10; 1 Thess. 5:8). This gospel hope in Christ's return with our salvation (Rom. 8:24) is a hope of justification to eternal life (Titus 1:2; 3:7); a hope of righteousness (Gal. 5:5); hope of re-creation into glory as God's children (Rom. 5:2; 8:20; Col. 1:27). It is a hope that is stirred by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), encouraged by Scripture (Rom. 15:4), for Jew and Gentile alike (Rom. 15:12), and that elicits joy and peace by the Spirit (Rom. 15:13). This hope as a permanent virtue stems from faith and leads to charity (1 Cor. 13:13).
These are all big brush strokes rather than fine detail. There is sparse treatment of the specifics of the hope stored up for us in heaven, perhaps because it is alien to human experience (John 3:12). Paul can say that "no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared" for those who hope in him, though we glimpse this by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9). So glorious is it, so far beyond our comprehension, that any analogy would tend to absurdity.
Hope is at the heart of Christian tradition
Patristic scholar Brian Daley has noted that "one thing is clear from the beginning of Christian literature, hope for the future is an inseparable, integral dimension of Christian faith." The early church fathers were often more occupied with Christology than with eschatology. They were, however, in general agreement on the content of Christian eschatological hope. They all held to a linear view of history with an origin and an end, rooted in the creative power and sovereignty of God, against the Gnostics' more cyclical view. They also held to the fulfilment of history ending in the resurrection of the dead, who would bodily share in the promised salvation. Finally, they maintained that a universal judgment would take place at the end: Justice would be enacted, and retribution and reward would be meted out, resulting in perfect happiness for the righteous and permanent misery for the wicked. There was some disagreement over how near the end was, ranging from very near to very far.
The medievalists spoke of "wanhope" (the absence of hope) as a blasphemy against the Spirit. The mystic Julian of Norwich typified this in her Showings: "All will be well and all shall be well ... all manner of thing shall be well." In Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Mr. Hopeful accompanies Pilgrim from Vanity Fair, through beatings and imprisonment to the Celestial City. Calvin encouraged us to "hope boldly then, more than we can understand; he will still surpass our opinion and our hope."
Christian hope has a foundation
As we shall see, Christian hope is not wishful thinking—that is what Custer had at the battle of the Little Bighorn. Nor is it blind faith in the future—that is what Sartre showed on his deathbed, betraying his existentialism, saying, "I know I shall die in hope—but hope needs a foundation." His failure to believe and trust in Christ showed that his hope was forlorn. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge understood that "hope without an object cannot live." But Christian hope is not without object and foundation. St. Augustine spoke of "the great buttress of hope." Christian hope is built on a firm foundation and directed to a focused object. It is not an optimistic mind-set, but a reasoned belief that affects my life. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, "Hope is a passion for the possible." Christian hope is a possibility proven by God's previous action.
Christian hope is founded on the God who has promised and acted in Christ
Christian hope is based not on an idealized future prospect, but on a person who has proved himself trustworthy. Biblical hope is focused on a good God of the future, a God who has acted in love for us through Christ, reversing the downward spiral of our lives, removing the curse of judgment and death. As Hoffman has said, "Yahweh was the object, embodiment and guarantor of his people's hope." Heathens can be described as being without hope (1 Thess. 4:13) because they are without God. Hope stems from relationship with God (Col. 1:27); hope is placed first and foremost in the God who makes the future, and only secondly in the future made by God. Romans 15:13 tells us that God is the "God of hope." Hebrews 6:18 makes it clear that hope is confidence in God who promises and delivers. We hope in God's "unfailing love" (Ps. 33:18).
Hope is related to faith, of course (1 Cor. 13:13), and faith is not blind, but rather confidence in and commitment to a God who has shown he is trustworthy by dying and rising from the dead. Peter says that ours is "a living hope" (1 Peter 1:3), because it is hope in the living One, who has come back from the dead. This demonstration of love and power confirms God's Word. He can be trusted, his Word can be relied upon, and hope may find a home here.
The resurrection reveals his eternal purposes. Jesus is the first fruits of those raised from the dead, and we who trust in him shall also be raised glorious. Hope is faith in Christ (Rom. 4:18; 2 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 1:12; 1 Tim. 1:1). The writer to the Hebrews tells us that this hope is "an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Heb. 6:19)—a hope anchored in Christ, who lived, died, rose again, entered heaven, and is coming back on our behalf. This anchor of hope became an early Christian symbol, carved by the persecuted Christians on the walls of the Roman catacombs.
God promises and delivers. He did so preeminently through Christ and we rest assured and hopeful that through Christ he will do so again. John's apocalyptic vision is shadowed by future dread and woe. Evil will be abroad in the land, and there will be trials, tribulations, and persecutions for those who love Christ. Powers will set themselves up against Christ and his own. But over it all, and after it all, Christ reigns. Hope takes God at his word. The God who in the past promised and delivered does the same for the future. He will win through; he will fulfill his purpose and promise to overthrow utterly every evil foe, and to establish an eternal home for those who hope in him, where there will be no sickness, sorrow, suffering, sin, or Satan. God will reign eternally, freely, fully, in glory with all who trust in him. This is our future hope, our story, our song.
Hope holds and heals
Hope is an antidote to anxiety
Christian hope refuses to faint with fear at what the future holds, knowing him who holds the future. Indeed, looking into the future is forbidden (Lev. 19:31; Isa. 44:25). Berkouwer warns, "The only legitimate expectation is the one orientated to Israel's God." Hope rests in God's sovereignty, rejoices in God's victory. We are not given a detailed plan of times and dates, just the big picture. Those who stray into straining out the end-time details to the last drop have actually lost the vision of future hope, leaving themselves at risk of being trapped in the shadows cast by the light. Hoffmann says that biblical hope leads to a "renunciation of all calculations of the future, the humble recognition of the limits set to our knowledge."
Excerpted from AND THE LAMB WINS by Simon Ponsonby. Copyright © 2008 Simon Ponsonby. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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