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Christian Biblical Studies
Scripture references are to the King James (Authorised) Version.
HOPE MAY BE variously defined as expectant wishing, optimism as to a future event or condition, or merely a general feeling that some desire will eventually be fulfilled. Hope is as necessary to our mental well-being as the air we breathe and the food we eat are vital to our physical survival. Regarded as a natural mental characteristic, it might be said that mankind were psychologically programmed to be hopeful, as necessary to survival. And since man was made in the image and likeness of the Creator, it follows that our God is the God of Hope.
The poet Alexander Pope observed that
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
— An Essay on Man, Epistle III
Survival is the paramount concern in all races of humankind, and the attribute of hope is vital to all who love life and fear death. Yet the privilege of perpetual life was in the divine order conditional on voluntary obedience to simple conditions, which appear trivial to many of the modern intelligentsia, while in fact epitomising the principle of free will. Simply put, the human pair created in the divine image could choose to disobey – and they did. Here is the simple explanation for a dying human race.
The account of man’s relationship with the Creator is preserved in the writings of many loyal servants who, while hampered by inherited faults, nevertheless pleased God, and by their witness hope has been sustained – and survives – that life in full perfection will in due time be restored.
The majority of sects within the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, view a future life, in some blissful condition beyond planet earth, as the reward for the faithful. The human estimation of the required character standard appears to be flexible and generous, and not so demanding as to exclude many from a continued existence in a more elevated condition than before.
The vast majority of mankind have been persuaded that the souls of the departed are raised to some amorphous form of life invisible to human sight. This is perhaps understandable among many Christian believers, based on a less than accurate understanding of Christ’s teachings, and they generally assume that some form of eternal life is reached as soon as the present life comes to its close and the earthly body is laid to rest in the grave. Yet the idea was a ruse of the Adversary way back in Eden when he suggested that to partake of forbidden fruit would raise the human pair to a god-like status (Gen. 3: 5).
But such expectation was not integral in the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus’ first advent, though an ultimate restoration to life was fundamental to their religious belief. At the apparently untimely death of her brother Lazarus, grieving Martha reproached Jesus for His delayed response to an appeal for help, as He had healed many, and even restored life to the dead. John 11 records the exchange:
21 Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. 22 But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. 23 Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. 24 Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
There is abundant evidence in the Hebrew scriptures to support the belief in a life to come. The Patriarch Job recorded his faith (14: 14):
If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.
King David also expressed his conviction (Psa. 17: 15):
As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.
But the original correct understanding of death and future resurrection was eventually lost to Judaism, and the Hebrew sheol as the common destination of the dead, became somewhat synonymous with the Greek hades, interpreted as ʻhellʼ, the imaginary lair of Satan and the forces of evil, where sinners suffer eternal punishment. The Italian dramatist, Dante (1265-1321), famously stoked the fires in his epic poem Inferno, quoting the dire warning at the entrance to hell: ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here.’
How often it emerges that a condition of hopelessness has resulted in suicide. Take away our hope, and our world is reduced to something between depression and despair. While hope seems instinctive in most people, one of the alarming observations of our day is that there are so many, particularly the young, who appear to have no hope for a rewarding future. And so we see many living recklessly, resorting to drugs and alcohol, seeking satisfaction in the present moment. Suicides are on the increase annually, and there is an alarming trend to vent one’s rage against innocent victims whose contentment is resented.
The hope of the determined atheist can only be of limited satisfaction, though many are doubtless of honest conviction and commendable character. They are victims of one of Satan’s master-strokes – the theory of the evolution of mankind. They have no belief in a benign Creator who promises eternal life in future ages to a tested and loyal race – on earth as in heaven. One such, an eminent professor, on being asked how he felt about his imminent death, expressed no fear of dying, but owned to a great sadness at the idea of being dead.
Unfortunately, however, believers in a divine Creator are not necessarily immune to feelings of hopelessness, and many who profess to trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour appear to be searching for financial rewards in the present life, espousing themselves to a so called ‘prosperity gospel’. The truth is that we are chosen not primarily to receive earthly favours now, but to be prepared for greater service when Christ’s Kingdom is established on earth. As the Apostle Paul reminds us (1 Cor. 15: 19): ‘If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable’ — that is, to be pitied.
While cynics may quip that Christian hope is a pathological belief in the occurrence of the impossible, and the more kindly may simply smile at a believer’s ‘wishful thinking’, those who trust in an almighty Creator view the future with optimism, having a firm foundation for their hope. Death was the penalty for sin, and that price was in due time paid by God’s one and only Son (John 3: 16). And so the hymn, ʻThe Solid Rockʼ, puts it:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesusʼ name.
On Christ, the Solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
— Edward Mote (1837)
Old Testament Hope
A significant aspect of Old Testament hope was Israel's expectation of a Messiah, an anointed ruler from David's line, based on the promise that God would establish the throne of David for ever (2 Sam. 7: 12, 13). The anointed ruler (Messiah) would be God's agent to restore Israel's glory and rule the nations in peace and righteousness. But for the most part, David’s successors fell far short of the godly standard expected, and for centuries their national hope lapsed.
But a nucleus of faithful believers continued to watch and wait, and notable among those was the aged Simeon, righteous and devout, and waiting for the consolation of Israel. It had been revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Luke 2: 27-32 continues the story:
27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, 28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: 30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, 31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; 32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
In the same chapter Luke records also the faith of eighty-four-year-old Anna, a prophet who never left the temple but fasted and prayed continuously. Coming up to them at that moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem (vs. 36-38).
But though Simeon and Anna died with hope fulfilled, and though Jesus was hailed by many as the son of David, the Apostle John sadly records that ‘he came unto his own, and his own received him not’ (John 1: 11). As far back as Moses’ day the Jews were described by God as a stiff-necked, stubborn people, and centuries later Jesus castigated the religious leaders in particular for their hypocrisy (Ex. 32: 9; Matt. 23: 27). And with great heartache Jesus wept over the nation as He pronounced the divine sentence upon God’s chosen people (Matt. 23: 37-39):
37. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! 38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. 39 For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
‘Have they stumbled that they should fall [beyond recovery]? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles . . . . [I]nasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: if by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh [fellow-Jews], and might save some of them. For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving [back] of them be, but life from the dead? [emphasis added]ʼ So writes the Apostle Paul in Rom. 11: 11, 13-15.
Life from the dead – the hopes and dreams of countless generations! The gathering of those who would be called to share in the sufferings of Christ, continued for long centuries, and they slept, awaiting the voice of the Son of Man arousing them to new life. Theirs is a heavenly inheritance (Rom. 8: 16, 17). But Scripture, reason, and the signs of the times seem to show that the heavenly calling has ended, so that believers now have different hopes and prospects. But what of the countless multitudes of unbelievers?
While King David knew that he would be satisfied on returning from the tomb, the great majority of Adam’s race will awaken with glad surprise – not in a totally unfamiliar environment or physical constitution, but as potentially perfect men and women, descendants of Adam and Eve, and on planet earth – ʻthe earth hath he given to the children of men’ (Psa. 115: 16). And so Christ’s long-prayed-for Kingdom on earth will at last be established, and the work of restitution will proceed.
Hope is not merely individual in scope. It has cosmic dimensions and is inconceivably extended in space and time. God's purpose is to redeem the whole creation, and there is thus a certainty in Christian hope which amounts to a qualitative difference from ordinary, human hope, which is limited to this life.
September 2014. The usual author rights are asserted, except that you may reproduce this article in part or whole without express permission. Please acknowledge the source.