In preparing for this issue of the Bible Advocate, I read every passage in the Bible about hope. There are scores of them; Scripture is teeming with hopefulness. But scattered among these are several references to those without hope. These caught my attention because we need not look far to see the hopelessness that engulfs our world.
Jeremiah 29:11 displays the great hope that Old Testament Israel possessed: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” But Scripture is also aware of the futility lodging at the core of the wicked, without God or hope (Job 27:8; Proverbs 11:7).
This hints at a historical contrast between the worldviews of God’s biblical people and the surrounding cultures of that time. In his careful study on hope,1 E. Hoffmann notes that the pervasive witness of the Old Testament is that there is hope in God. It identifies Yahweh as the object of hope more than seventy times. Interestingly, contrary to this portrait, we have no extant prayers from Babylonian sources that refer to the gods as their hope.
The evidence is even more compelling in the New Testament. The simple saying of Paul, “I have hope in God . . .” (Acts 24:15), summarizes a rich body of hopeful texts centered on Christ, while also revealing the stark disparity with the Greek world he inhabited. Hoffmann observes that the idea of hope as a basic religious orientation is unknown to the Greeks. The philosopher Seneca, for instance, saw hope as the very epitome of “an uncertain good.” In this worldview the average person is finally hopeless against the forces of sin and death.
Paul addressed this state of Godless hopelessness when writing to the Gentiles of Ephesus. He described their sad condition prior to Christ as one of alienation from God’s people: “having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). In Scripture, “no God” equals “no hope.”
We find ourselves in a similar situation. Writer David French recently documented just a small slice of this hopelessness in his article “America, 2016 — Killing Ourselves, Killing Each Other,”2 where he comments on the “unprecedented” gang violence and drug overdoses that occurred in Chicago and Cincinnati, respectively, in a single month and week this summer. This kind of despair plays out in a thousand different ways across our neighborhoods and countries every day.
Some turn to political policy or social factors to account for the nihilism of our time. But Scripture already affirms what David French suspects, that at root, this is a spiritual crisis. This culture of death reflects hopelessness derived from Godlessness. If God is dead, as Friedrich Nietzsche claimed and as post-Christian culture increasingly validates, then the vacuum of godly hope seen in the Babylonian and Greek cultures of Bible times is merely a precursor of our times. But there is hope!
As I surveyed all the Bible verses on hope, I noticed that it is paired with one virtue more than any other. Over and over, hope is in company with rejoicing (or gladness and praise): “Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; moreover my flesh also will rest in hope” (Acts 2:26; cf. Psalm 16:9; 71:14; Proverbs 10:28; Romans 12:12; 15:13).
Rejoice in hope! We are the answer, the antidote, to the hopelessness of this deathly world because we have that “one hope” found in Christ. So “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you . . .” (1 Peter 3:15). The world awaits our joyful reply.
1 E. Hoffmann, “Hope,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 2 (1986), Colin Brown, editor, 238-244.