A Scarcity of Hope

by Keith Bassham

Easter is all about hope, and primarily hope connected with resurrection — Christ’s and ours. But unlike a human wish or mere optimism that things will somehow work out for us, hope has a basis in fact. Hope, simply stated and from a biblical standpoint, is a confident expectation. It has nothing to do with unsure optimism, or human wishing, or mere desire without any real basis or assurance of fulfillment.

Hope in the Bible has at least two dimensions — the act of hoping and the object of the hope. That’s why often hope is a word synonymous with salvation and all its aspects. It looks back to the promises of God, it looks around at the present conditions, and it looks forward to an ultimate salvation; thus, almost always in the New Testament hope is identified with the Lord’s prophesied manifestation and our resurrection.

Because of their human orientation, the ancient philosophers taught that the opposite of hope was fear, but the truth is, the opposite of hope is despair. In Ephesians 2:12, Paul says to be cut off from God is “having no hope, without God in the world,” and he tells the Thessalonians not to grieve over their dead as others who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

This difference between those with and without hope is assumed to be obvious. To the Romans Paul writes that we are saved by hope (Romans 8:24), we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (5:2), and why? Because God is the God of hope (15:13). For the Corinthians Paul aligns hope alongside everabiding Christian attributes of faith and love (1 Corinthians 13), and in an important passage connecting hope with Christian resurrection, he tells them that hope in Christ is designed to extend beyond death, otherwise we would be in a hopeless and miserable condition (1 Corinthians 15:19). We find a continuation of that theme in the Colossian letter Paul writes from prison as he reminds those readers that in them is the very presence of Christ, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27), and thus they possess a hope laid up in heaven (1:5).

This expectation, Paul writes to his young protégé, is a blessed hope (Titus 2:13). And even the general epistles maintain it is a steadfast hope “…which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast” (Hebrews 6:19), and so obvious a Christian trait that it becomes a conversation starter.

In the First Epistle of Peter, in the first chapter, there is a reference to a lively hope given by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and this was in fulfillment of the promise of God, giving rise to a faith and hope in God and in him alone in all matters. Therefore, when the trials come, when others put your faith to the test, when you are called to suffer, no matter what life throws at you, Peter says, have hope, and “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear (1 Peter 3:15).

So far so good. I learned this verse. Many of us memorized this verse. We use this verse to exhort the learning of apologetics (the word used to describe the giving or a defense of or a basis for the Christian faith). But not long ago as I read this verse, something occurred to me, and I’ve since seen the same thing confirmed by a couple of preachers. John Eldredge, in his book The Ransomed Heart, identifies what I saw:

“A curious warning is given to us in Peter’s first epistle. There he tells us to be ready to give the reason for the hope that lies within us to everyone who asks. Now, what’s strange about that passage is this: no one ever asks.”

Think about it. When was the last time somebody came to you and grabbed you by the shoulders and asked why you have hope, where did your hope come from, what is the basis of your hope, how can you just keep going day after day after day, living each moment with such an eternal mindset — living with eternity in view?

The sad truth, Mr. Eldredge says, is that:

“… nothing about our lives is worth asking about. There’s nothing intriguing about our hopes, nothing to make anyone curious. Not that we don’t have hopes; we do. We hope we’ll have enough after taxes this year to take a summer vacation. We hope our kids don’t wreck the car. We hope our favorite team goes to the World Series. We hope our health doesn’t give out, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of those hopes; nothing unusual, either. Everyone has hopes like that, so why bother asking us? It’s life as usual. No wonder nobody asks.”

That’s what I mean when I titled this essay “The Scarcity of Hope.” It’s not that Christians don’t believe in God, or that they don’t believe they will go to heaven when they die. They do believe these things. And they may even talk about these things, but to be perfectly blunt, the hope the Bible talks about is so very much more.

Think about that term, “blessed hope” found in the letter to Titus.

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

All the aspects of hope are found in these verses. There is the break with our past, characterized by our “no hope” condition. And then there is the hope-induced change in the present, and in the lives we now live we take the hope of our ultimate salvation, still future, and move that reality into our “right now.” And finally, the realization of the blessed hope itself — the appearing of Jesus Christ — the crucified and risen One, now manifested in glory in which we take a part (Colossians 3:4, 1 John 3:2).

Now, with those things in mind, let’s think about what Mr. Eldredge said about people not asking about our hope. What about your hope? Is it a hope worth asking about?

Those who have a hope worth asking about have made a break with the past, otherwise your life will look very much like those with no hope.

Gregory Wills, in his book called Democratic Religion, talks about what it meant to be a Christian and Baptist nearly 200 years ago. He tells the story of a long revival meeting in 1837 in Eatonton, Georgia. A number of people had been converted and one day they were all gathering by the river for a baptism. One of the persons being baptized was a teenage girl. Her name was Caroline — shortened, Carrie. Carrie had come to Christ with a great deal of conviction, and she especially had struggled with her interest in dancing. She said in her own testimony, “I desire to be even more devoted to my Savior than I have ever been to the world.” There at the riverside was one of her friends who was yet unconverted whose name was Julia. She, in fact, had been very close to Carrie in all kinds of worldly exploits. So this unsaved girl was now watching the baptism of her closest friend. Somebody recorded the event…

“Of course everybody was there. The banks of that little stream were lined with crowds of interested spectators… Julia, of Monticello, her bosom friend and companion in her worldly course, seemed loathe to leave her even for a moment and clung to her till she reached the water’s edge. A hymn was sung and [minister C. D.] Mallory made a few remarks and offered prayer, when [minister John] Dawson took Caroline by the hand and led her down the shelving bank into the limpid stream. They had attained about half the desired depth, when she requested him to stop a moment, and, turning to those on the bank, waving her hand, she said, ‘Farewell, young friends! Farewell, Julia!’ The effect was electrical. The whole audience convulsed, and tears rained down from eyes unused to weeping…. Upon coming up out of the water, Julia rushed forward to meet her friend, embracing her, and crying out in agonizing tones, ‘Oh, Carrie! You must not leave me! Mr. Dawson, pray for me. Mr. Mallory, pray for me?'” (Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion, New York: Oxford, 1997, p. 16).

I know it’s easy to make broad generalizations, and I am not accusing anyone, but I do want us to think about what it means to have “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” and whether we make it plain to people that to believe in Christ and to be baptized means a whole lot more than getting a ticket out of hell. Those with a true hope “cross the Rubicon,” and turn their backs on the past, and embrace the future — not the far off future, but the future God calls you to begin living right now.

Speaking of living in the future right now, if people are to ask us about our hope, we have to express that hope in daily life. This was a very relevant factor for the people who read Peter’s letter. They were being hauled in before the magistrates because of their hope, and they were being held accountable for how they lived and what they said. Remember, to the Romans, Christians were teaching there was another king named Jesus (Acts 17:7). This was risky, and likely the people asking these Christians about their hope were not their friends but the civil authorities. Their religion had, in effect, made them seditious outlaws.

I’ve noticed something about Christianity and society. Society, contemporary culture, the elites, however you want to call them, don’t really care much if all you’re worried about is going to heaven and helping other people get there. What annoys them is when you try, as a subject of the Lord Jesus Christ, to make a difference in your world. They welcome our talk of heaven, but they don’t welcome our views on homosexuality, for instance. And yet that is what we were called to do — to shine as lights, to be salt and light. And that’s now, not later in heaven. The fact is, the Bible teaches that at the end of this era, he is going to bring in a new heaven and a new earth … in effect, a new creation. And we look forward to that, and we want that, and we crave that. And yet, God has done something toward that end right now, and right in front of our noses.

How’s that? In 2 Corinthians 5:17, we learn that when we are saved and accept Christ, we become new creations. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature,” or a new creation. In other words, what God is doing when he saves us as individuals is to bring his future will and purpose back to right here in the present in bits and pieces. This is the language N. T. Wright, all of whose views I cannot espouse, uses to describe what God is doing today, but I think he is right on this. And while no human or group of humans have the power to build the ultimate kingdom of God on earth, you and I can bring bits and pieces of that kingdom into our homes, into our families, our churches, and our communities. That’s what the hope is for, and as we do these things, we invite the question: “Why do you live this way? What is your hope?”

But please do not use this as an excuse to minimize this future aspect of our hope. In fact, to have people ask us about our hope, we have to live with an eye to the future.

After all, our hope has its origin in the resurrection of Jesus, the firstborn from the dead, and so it makes sense that the other end of our hope should be our own resurrection. Romans 8 tells us that all of creation groans and looks forward to the resurrection. You and I long for that day, but it’s wrong for us to view it as some sort of cosmic escape hatch, nor am I convinced that everything just ends with us arriving on “heaven’s shore,” to use the words of popular hymnody. There very well may be something beyond even that, something no mortal eye or ear can comprehend. What will God do with us? Create new worlds? Vast new universes with entirely different physical properties? What will eternity look like? It boggles my mind, but then, the whole idea of resurrection itself left the unbelieving hearers of the New Testament Christians wide-mouthed. So, I anticipate the future, and I hope to take people with me on that journey. Richard Baxter echoes that sentiment in the last section of his book titled Saint’s Everlasting Rest.

O my Savior, hasten the time of thy return; send forth thy angels, and let that dreadful, joyful trumpet sound!

Delay not, lest the living give up their hope; delay not, lest earth should grow like hell, and thy church, by division, be all crumbled to dust; delay not lest thy enemies get advantage of thy flock, and lest pride, hypocrisy, sensuality and unbelief prevail against that little remnant, and share among them thy whole inheritance, and when thou comest, thou find not faith on the earth; delay not, lest the grave should boast of victory, and, having learned rebellion of its guest, should refuse to deliver thee up thy due!

O hasten that great resurrection day, when thy command shall go forth, and none disobey: when ‘the sea and the earth shall yield up their hostages, and all that sleep in the grave shall awake, and the dead in Christ shall rise first;’ when the seed which thou sowest corruptible, shall come forth incorruptible; and graves that received rottenness and dust, shall return thee glorious stars and suns!

Therefore dare I lay down my body in the dust, intrusting it, not to a grave, but to thee; and therefore my flesh shall rest in hope, till thou shalt raise it to the possession of everlasting rest.

Return, O Lord, how long? O let thy kingdom come!’ Thy desolate ‘bride saith, Come’ for thy Spirit within her saith, Come; and teacheth her thus to ‘pray with groanings which cannot be uttered; yea, the whole creation saith, Come, waiting to be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ Thou thyself has said, ‘Surely I come quickly; Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’

And until then, let us embrace the kind of hope we must answer for.