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On Hope, Part 2 – The Resurrection of Hope

Derek Caldwell

This is part 2 of a series on hope. You can read/listen to part 1 here.

And Now, the Good News: Ancient Hopelessness Confounded

The hope of the early Christians perplexed the ancient mindset. Their hope transcended persecution and martyrdom as if death was not the end of life but the beginning. One pagan critically fomented:

Oh, wondrous folly and incredible audacity! They despise present torments, although they fear those which are uncertain and future; and while they fear to die after death, they do not fear to die for the present: so does a deceitful hope soothe their fear with the solace of a revival.[1]

This critique is not unlike Karl Marx’s more well-known modern critique,

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

By opium, he meant that which allows one to live with a chronic disease without curing it. To Marx religion was, in the words of one author, “the wrong answer to the right question.”[2] That assumes that the hope placed in God is a dead hope that does nothing, of course. But it is not a dead, deceitful, or a numbing hope, as Peter will explain.

Peter on the Resurrection of Hope

In his first letter, Peter speaks the words of eternal life into hopelessness.[3] The New Testament records how Gentile converts could often be swayed back to their old lives; after all, in times of suffering and uncertainty, why be deprived of any and all pleasures one can receive, especially since this may be the only life they would get? Why be deprived when God had not provided? And wouldn’t life be easier—and persecution a lot lighter or even non-existent—if they just returned to their old ways? Peter reminds us that such pleasures act as distractions to the ultimate concern at hand: Death will still come. In his letter, he constantly juxtaposes the dead from the living, the perishable from the imperishable, dead hope from living hope through a living God (1 Peter 1:3). The genesis of hope to Peter was the moment when Christ, the embodied God, was resurrected, thus bridging the separation between God and humankind. The eternal vitality of God was then intrinsically linked to the hopes of humanity, the “living Stone” to the now “living stones” (2:4-5). When Christ was resurrected, hope was resurrected into a living hope.

This is not the first time Peter used a phrase focused on the livingness of God. “You are the Christ,” Peter declared to Jesus, “the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus then calls Peter blessed “because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” And upon this rock—that is, faith in the Son of the living God—Christ will build his church, which the gates of Hades—that is, the reality of brokenness, decaying, and death—will not overcome (Matthew 16:13-20). In a world devastated by the Fall, theologian Scott Harrower explains, it is important to proclaim the livingness of God, as a living God inspires a living hope:

Describing God as the “living God” is the interpretive key to understanding God’s life and what his attention aims toward. God is the source of life, and he attentively and interactively aims to give life to others. […] The life of God, which is life in its fullest expression, is also the unending, life-giving source for a new perspective on himself. God’s stance for life is a stance against death, horrors, and trauma.[4]

Peter spends the first bit of his letter focusing on Christ’s resurrection. He reminds his readers that God has “given us new birth into a living hope” through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, which medieval historian and theologian the Venerable Bede comfortingly reminds us is “a model which might give us hope of rising again ourselves.”[5] Death defeated by death, or as the Early Church often envisioned it, Christ as the fishhook that death greedily swallowed to its own demise.[6] Peter tells us through 1 Peter 1:1-12 that this hope can never “perish, spoil, or fade,” or as William MacDonald describes it, this hope is “death-proof, sin-proof, and age-proof.”[7] Even gold, which is the ultimate worldly example of everlasting status, beauty, and wealth, will perish. God, our Creator and Sustainer, shields our hope from decay. This was no delusion to Peter: he had seen the risen Christ. He knew the livingness of God face to face. He knew that, despite what the ancient world would have us believe, hope is alive.

The New World of Living Hope

This living hope has always inspired Christians to boldly step out in the face of danger in order to help others and to “be holy in all [our] conduct” (1:15-16), which refers to private and public love, justice, and mercy. The prospect of heaven did not numb Peter’s readers to the situation around them; it inspired them to actively reject it and, in the process, work to change the world into one where it is better to give than to receive, where all have equal worth, and where love is the most important ethic. It is no coincidence that with the embodiment of hope in Christ we also begin to see hope embodied through humanitarian and social foundation efforts such as hospitals, orphanages, and universities. These early Christians had an openness to helping their own and others, including women and children, that was utterly alien to their ancient antagonists.

The third-century bishop, Dionysius, wrote of the courage of early Christians during a ravenous plague:

Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need, and ministering to them in Christ. And with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors, and cheerfully accepting their pains.[8]

By the late 4th century, the world had taken notice of the Christians. Emperor Julian the Apostate, an enemy of the early faithful, berated pagan priests for not being like the Christians:

I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans [Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence … The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.[9]

Second-century Greek philosopher Celsus, another early enemy of Christians, wrote of the perceived ignorance of Christianity and how the Christians could only garner support from the worst society had to offer, which sadly but unsurprisingly included women and children:

The following are the rules laid down by [the Christians]. ‘Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent (for such qualifications are deemed evil by us); but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence.’ By which words, acknowledging that such individuals are worthy of their God, they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children.[10]

Once again, the atheist historian Tom Holland is helpful in pulling out these historical threads when he writes glowingly of the intervening years between us and Christ’s original followers and the world they built.

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value.[11]

These ideas of love and equality were violently rejected by the leaders surrounding the early Christians, as they have always been from time immemorial. But their living hope empowered them to not cower from the challenges of their oppressive culture, as Athanasius of Alexandria explained in the fourth century: “Because the saints saw that the divine fire would cleanse them and benefit them, they did not shrink back from or get discouraged by the trials which they faced. Rather than being hurt by what they went through, they grew and were made better, shining like gold that has been refined by a fire.”[12]

The Flourishing of Resurrected Hope

And this is the key: the eternal, living, resurrected hope of the faithful brings life now, in the present, not just in the future. Christ’s resurrection redefined who we were as a people, a fact we should all be rejoicing. His resurrection didn’t just give us a confident hope for the future. It supplied a sustaining, humanizing hope for the present. The hopelessness of philosophy, of culture, of religion, of the past, present, and future is upon us again. But it need not be, for our past holds the answers to our future.

The word that Peter uses in 1 Peter 1:4 for “unfading” is the Greek amarantos which, when combined with the Greek word anthos (meaning to flower or bloom), gives us the name of the flower amaranthos, also known as the eternal flower. Christ extends an invitation to all of us to become those beautiful, fragrant, eternal flowers, born again of a seed that is imperishable because it is sowed by the Imperishable One. Over and against what the gods of this age would have us believe, we have not a deceptive and fantastical hope, but a defiant hope grounded in the living, loving God. This hope is not just salvation, but harmony, flourishing, and purpose; it is of a Kingdom in full bloom that never perishes, spoils, or fades. This hope is not mere wish-fulfillment.[13] It is grounded in a historic moment—and an eternal Person—that inaugurates the death of hopelessness through the resurrection of hope. This hope cannot and will not die; it is forever in bloom.

Image: Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), “Forest Sunrise,” no date

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[1] Minucius Felix citing pagan Caecilius in The Octavius. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4: The Fathers of the Third Century, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, translated by Rev. Robert Ernest Wallis, PhD. Accessed May 11, 2020. https://ccel.org/ccel/felix/octavius/anf04.iv.iii.viii.html.

[2] Peter Thompson, “Karl Marx, part 1: Religion, the wrong answer to the right question,” The Guardian, April 4, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/04/karl-marx-religion, accessed November 17, 2021.

[3] We mustn’t forget that it is Peter who, when faced with difficulty and asked if he wanted to depart from Christ, viewed the situation rightly: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

[4] Scott Harrower, God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 117-118.

[5] Bede in Gerald Bray (ed.), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament XI: James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 69. Bede continues: “For he died in order that we should no longer be afraid of death, and he rose again so that we might have a hope of rising again through him.”

[6] One of the most well-known proponents of this imagery was that beloved defender of the Trinity, Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote: “For since, as has been said before, the opposing power did not have a nature [able] to come into contact with the unalloyed presence of God and to withstand his naked manifestation, so that the exchange for us might be easily grasped by him who sought [it], the divine was hidden by the veil of our nature, in order that, as in the case of greedy fish, the hook of the divinity might be swallowed with the bait of the flesh, and thus when life come to dwell in death and light shone in darkness, that which is understood as the opposite of light and life might be utterly destroyed. For it is not in the nature of darkness to remain in the presence of light, nor death to exist where life is active.” Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Discourse: A Handbook for Catechists, trans. Ignatius Green (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2019), 115.

[7] William MacDonald, I Peter: Faith Tested, Future Triumphant : a Commentary (Wheaton, Ill. :: Harold Shaw, 1972), 13. Peter’s phrase here is reminiscent, and perhaps based on, Jesus’ description of treasure in Luke 12:33.

[8] Dionysius cited in Joshua Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 119.

[9] Julian cited in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 84.

[10] Celsus cited on Michael J. Kruger, “Are Christians Ignorant, Uneducated, Simpletons? Sort Of,” canon fodder, June 25, 2018, https://www.michaeljkruger.com/are-christians-ignorant-uneducated-simpletons-sort-of/, accessed November 17, 2021.

[11] 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.

[12] Athanasius in Bray, 71.

[13] I very highly doubt that wish-fulfillment in the hands of sinful men and women would not take the cruciform shape of Christian eschatology.