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On Hope, Part 1 – The Loss of Hope

Derek Caldwell

Pandora was sent in good faith, by Jupiter, to bless man; … she was furnished with a box, containing her marriage presents, into which every god had put some blessing. She opened the box incautiously, and the blessings all escaped, hope only excepted.

-Bulfinch’s Mythology[1]

First, the Bad News

“Misery is the river of the world,” Tom Waits tells us. And everyone, everyone, must continue rowing.[2] This song would have received the seal of approval by many ancient philosophers, and still would today by modern existentialists and others willing to face the logical outworking of their beliefs. It is, in many ways, the story of reality the modern world has fallen headlong into. All we can do, so they might say, is perhaps alleviate despair by changing our perception of the changeless reality.

Some people have been trying very hard to convince us the world is worse than it has ever been. Others have been trying very hard to convince us that it’s better. But one thing that television and 24-hour news cycles have shown us is that the world is suffering from myriad illnesses, and suffering cares very little for whether it is statistically better or worse than ever before. Culture, politics, families, idols of success, and public morality, all seem to be in various stages of decomposition. But along with these there is also literal decay. The regular drum of death continues to beat without the relief for which we beg. The global pandemic has awakened us in the comfortable West to the fact that death is never truly a far-away enemy, nor is it an enemy merely at the gates. The gates have been compromised. We can feel him breathing on the backs of our necks. Hopelessness is in bloom.

Ancient Hopelessness

The authors of the New Testament spoke into a world that increasingly begins to look like our own. The ancient world could never forget that the specter of death was roaming the streets, and it did not yet have the atheists of our own day to attempt to create an imaginative world where a future eternal nothingness is somehow overwhelmingly meaningful and preferable.[3] But this world did have some philosophers that gave it a shot. For example, the most popular philosophy of the Hellenistic world was probably Stoicism. Famous Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius gave various reasons why worrying was useless, but their views are an easier sell for those who have lived in relative comfort and material blessing.[4] Their answer? Just change your perception of the unchangeable reality. Or perhaps the Epicureans could help with what was essentially their comforting idea in the face of suffering: chin up, do try to relax and enjoy yourself, you’ll be dead soon and then the suffering will all be over. Philosophers of different stripes may have spoken to a rational force, the logos, maintaining order in the universe, but it was not personal, loving, or salvific.

The pagan pantheon of gods was of no help either. The gods were largely either capricious scoundrels and lotharios or cold and disconnected Fates. The deep-seated desire in the human heart for divine love had no avenue of fulfillment because there was no divine being that was capable of true love. This unmet desire led some ancients, and us as well, to turn to the distractions of progress and pleasure. But without the heart’s ultimate fulfillment, hope is often situated perilously close to its first cousin, despair, which Kierkegaard called “the sickness unto death,” a separation from the Source of life.[5]

These are not merely oversimplified attempts to denigrate other belief systems—it is the sad observation of what they ultimately said about life. But, in the words of Reading Rainbow’s Levar Burton: you don’t have to take my word for it. Many ancient and classical Greco-Roman authors are on record ridiculing hope, which they considered to be delusionary.[6] Seneca wrote that fear and hope were very similar: “both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.”[7] Sophocles wrote that it was just best to not be born; if you did have the misfortune of being born, then dying as soon as possible was the next best thing.[8] 

New Testament scholar Karen Jobes explains that “[i]n Greek thought, the despair of this life is followed only by the unending night of death […] The existential despair in this life and the bleak view of afterlife in Greek thought killed any hope one might seek.”[9] It is perhaps no wonder then that in both versions of the ancient Pandora’s box story, “hope” is the one thing that does not leave the box and enter the world.[10] In the final estimation, as Jobes rightly asserts, “hope among pagans was dead.”[11]

This dead hope was not just in the mind, but viscerally felt. And there were multiple reasons to feel hopeless in the ancient Greco-Roman world, and these reasons will highlight the utter disappointment in descriptions of hope by the ancients highlighted above. Hopelessness is itself a sort of trauma, triggered when the existential self and its progression toward God are immobilized by the exhaustiveness of the Fall. Individuals respond to trauma with the fight, flight, or freeze response; in culture, these responses can manifest as violence, despair, and anxiety or apathy. Atheist historian Tom Holland is helpful in explaining the lived experience of many in this lost world. Interestingly, Holland went looking to Roman civilization for what he assumed would be the foundations of Western morality. He instead found that it was:

built on systematic exploitation. The entire economy is founded on slave labor. The sexual economy is founded on the absolute right of free Roman males to have sex with anyone that they want, any way that they like. And, in almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking.”[12]

Elsewhere Holland got more to the root of the issue: “The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. … It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value.”[13]

To summarize: life was traumatizing, more people than not were violently dehumanized, and the future was essentially characterized by the intellectual elites at the time as irredeemably bleak. Life was only temporarily good for those born well, but even that was but a smokescreen of the fate we all share in the end. This is why, in his interpretation of Pandora’s box, Nietzsche considered hope something like the Christian considers the demonic. It is “the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”[14]

Modern Life as Hopelessness

This rather dreary journey through the hopelessness of the ancient world may help us to feel something of the suffocating despair they themselves evidently felt, and it may also attune us to the ways in which we feel the same things today. In many ways it appears as if we are teetering on the same edge—or perhaps have completely fallen off of it—as the ancient world. It appears the only hope that exists is fleeting, temporary, or partial. In other words, it is decaying, which is to say hurtling toward death and non-existence.

We live in the age of the fantasy novel and superhero movie, yet we are completely disenchanted with life. We live in the era of maximum connection and yet have never been more alone. We so value love but have never felt more unloved and unworthy of it. We clutch at facades of transcendence, community, and love, which only makes the absence of the real thing relentlessly haunting.

Even our churches at times, which should be the antidote, have fallen into opposite but equal errors. While the world clings to removing all historical barriers in a hopeless quest for a brutal sort of freedom, the church uses fear to cling to an empowered cultural past that carried its own forms of brutality for others. And so, in the end, you have two tribes in a deadlocked culture war, both living in abject fear and calling it freedom.

We can all deceive ourselves for a time, but in our quietest moments the confidence of our public persona fades and we are left only with the mirror and the truth, from which we quickly seek refuge in the constant noise of our digital worlds. We don’t feel or hear God, not that we have the time for that kind of thing anyway. For those who understand the ramifications and predicament of a universe without the loving Creator clearly, the situation is quite grim. Like some examples mentioned above, there are various methods of coping with this perceived reality, but in the final summation it is as Vladimir Nabakov wrote in 1950: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”[15]  

But in the ancient world, when all seemed hopelessly lost and dark, a light appeared in the sky. It heralded the birth of a child, who like every other human being that came before him, would enter the night of death. But this child was different. This child was a special child who grew into a special man. And this man shockingly arose from the dead just outside of Jerusalem. This resurrection sent shockwaves through the hearts and minds of the ancient, hopeless world. And it can do so again.

You can read/listen to part 2 here.

Image: Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), “Tavern in ancient Rome,” 1867

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[1] Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable; The Age of Chivalry; Legends of Charlemagne (New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin, 2014), 11. In the more well-known version of this tale, all manner of evil escapes Pandora’s box, and the only thing remaining is hope. Bulfinch considered this the least likely to be the actual version of the story, “for how could hope, so precious a jewel as it is, have been kept in a jar full of all manner of evils…?” Either way, both versions can and have been interpreted negatively in regard to the prospect of hope, though the version Bulfinch considers more likely—the version most people have never heard—is more clearly pointing to the hopelessness. However, even in the more well-known version where hope is the only thing remaining, there is some disagreement about what is meant by hope—it could mean “expectation of evil,” and so it is not a good thing, which would explain why it was in a container with other types of torturous things—and, as will be noted later in Nietzsche’s interpretation of this version, hope is the thing that ultimately prolongs the torment caused by the other things released into the world. Hope, in essence, remains as something that lies to us concerning the harsh realities of the world.  

[2] Tom Waits, “Misery is the River of the World,” track 1 on Blood Money, Anti Records, 2001.

[3] In the aftermath of accepting that eternal life is not real, atheists often offer essentially two reasons for why that is a good and desirable reality: meaning comes from mortality and eternal life would be boring. For example, in a video from Humanists UK, Stephen Fry explains that pleasures like good books and cakes are “great pleasures, but one of the things that makes them pleasures is that they come to an end” [Humanists UK, “What should we think about death? | Narrated by Stephen Fry,” October 19, 2021, video, 0:56, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ewpKqk-GDs]. One of the New Atheist’s “four horsemen,” Richard Dawkins explained to Joe Rogan, “If you’re going to heaven, eternity in heaven, I mean, sitting in heaven for not just billions of years but for trillions of years, these are time spans beyond our comprehension. How unbelievably boring it would be!” [JRE Clips, “Joe Rogan Asks Richard Dawkins About Heaven, Psychedelics,” October 22, 2019, video, 0:57, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UKthGvQJHg]. Perhaps foreseeing this sort of “objection from boredom,” 4th century theologian Gregory of Nyssa wrote that the life received from God fills us, as if we are a receptable for that life, like a cup. This life fills us to the max, but at the same time the size of the jar increases. To Gregory, this growth was eternal. The “boringness” of heaven is because we can’t imagine the process of growing and delighting in new things, but that is only due to a poverty of our imagination toward heavenly things [Gregory of Nyssa cited in Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 16-17]. Atheist philosopher Martin Hägglund makes the case that mortality gives meaning. “An eternal salvation is therefore not only unattainable but also undesirable, since it would eliminate the care and passion that animates our lives. What we do and what we love can matter to us only because we understand ourselves as mortal [Martin Hägglund, “Why Mortality Makes Us Free,” The New York Times, March 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/11/opinion/why-mortality-makes-us-free.html, accessed November 17, 2021]. Christel Manning writes that science can even lead people to a sense of enchantment, which is often noticeably lost in the transition to a secular life. “And though there is no inherent purpose in the universe,” she writes, “we can create meaning for ourselves.” (Interestingly, Manning explained that people who viewed themselves as a part of nature rather than as being made in the image of God led people to a place of deeper humility, which is something I would like to ponder further) [Christel Manning, “Facing Death without Religion,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Autumn/Winter 2019, https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/facing-death-without-religion/, accessed November 17, 2021]. I admire the desire of Manning and others to actually infuse hope and beauty into what could easily be understood as rather dismal prospects. However, this just isn’t the way people are inherently wired. This may be seen by atheists as simply cultural conditioning and a poverty of imagination, but to others who have already made this quest and attempted the new imagination, it may be identified as the “God-shaped hole” in every person’s heart that Augustine refers to. Numerous articles and studies point to this universal desire. As but one example, consider this article from Emily Esfahani Smith illustrating that meaning and hope are best found in the idea that life does not end; actually, the end of life seems to be the very thing that drives hopelessness [Emily Esfahani Smith, “How to Find Meaning in the Face of Death,” The Atlantic, March 2, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/03/power-of-meaning/518196/, accessed November 4, 2021].

[4] Strangely enough, this view was formulated as a rejection of the material possessions equal happiness view so popular at that time. It was a highly ethical view that, in the end, was much like Buddhism in locating the problem in suffering in our response to the evil. Here is a brief glimpse from the “Stoicism” entry in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “Stoic ethics indicated that if a perfectly wise, i.e. virtuous, man saw his child in danger of drowning (say), he would try to save it; but that if he failed he would accept this without feeling distress or pity, and without his happiness being diminished. Since everything that happens is governed by divine providence, his failure must have been for the best, even if he could not understand why. Moreover, moral virtue is the only good, and wickedness is the only evil; so the child’s death was not itself an evil.” Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Compantion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 852.

[5] By which Kierkegaard meant the life that is not aligned with God’s will. In other words, apart from God one is in an alien existence where they are not fully grasping their humanity, which naturally leads to despair. See also Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (NIV).

[6] Donald P. Senior, 1 Peter, Jude and 2 Peter, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008), 31. See also “Hope,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 8, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hope/#AnciAccoHope, accessed November 17, 2021.

[7] Cited in Stanford “Hope” article above.

[8] Oedipus 121[a].15. Quoted in Jobes (see note below).

[9] Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 84-85.

[10] See endnote 1.

[11] Jobes, 84-85.

[12] Unbelievable?, “Tom Holland tells NT Wright: Why I changed my mind about Christianity,” YouTube Video, 4:49, July 17, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIJ9gK47Ogw.

[13] Tom Holland, “Tom Holland: Why I was wrong about Christianity,” New Statesman, September 14, 2016, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity, Accessed August 13, 2020.

[14] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber with Stephen Lehmann (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1996), 58.Nietzsche writes that hope was one of the evils that was in Pandora’s box, but it was the only one that didn’t escape, and so it actually remains with each person unable to escape it.

[15] Vladimir Nabakov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 19.