Simon Critchley wrote an interesting (and clearly antagonistic) opinion piece in the New York Times on Saturday (the Saturday before Easter). Author and professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, Critchley claims:
“With Easter upon us, powerful narratives of rebirth and resurrection are in the air and on the breeze….Is hope always such a wonderful thing? Is it not rather a form of moral cowardice that allows us to escape from reality and prolong human suffering?”
In other words, Critchley is suggesting that the biggest obstacle to humanity addressing (even eliminating) our problems is that we refuse to approach them in a realistic fashion, but instead, approach them with cockeyed optimism. To support his point, Critchley uses an obscure story about Prometheus the Titan. Prometheus was punished by the Olympian Zeus for giving the gift of fire to humans. In Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound,” the chained Titan is asked what other gifts he’d given to humans. He confesses, “I stopped mortals from foreseeing doom….I sowed in them blind hopes.” The intended point is that if we humans were less baselessly hopeful people, we would progress. Hope, Critchley suggests, leads us to pave self-inflicted roads to destruction.
There might be something to that. After all, hope that is grounded in nothing is, at best, a guess, at worst, a lie. Consider how many times in your life someone has suggested to you “It’s going to be okay. It’ll all work out, I’m sure.” In that moment, the individual is speaking less out of their ability to predict the future and more out of wanting to avoid the awkwardness that accompanies the suggestion, “Yeah, it certainly sounds like you’re going to fail/die/experience some great discomfort.” The prognosticator is filling you with unsubstantiated hope.
At all costs, something about us WANTS to hope. Hope is a necessary survival instinct. There is no way to get through life without suffering. But there is no way to get through suffering without hope.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. He recorded his experience in Man’s Search for Meaning. Recognizing his position in the outside world, many fellow concentration camp prisoners consulted Frankl for support in their suffering. Fascinatingly, but not surprisingly, Frankl comments on how many prisoners lost all hope, and the subsequent effects of this collapse into despair. He says that in one extreme example, a prisoner had a dream that World War II was going to end on March 30th. The man was convinced that this was a revelation from God. As the day neared, however, reports made it clear that the war would not end on that day. The loss of hope directly impacted the man’s physical well-being, lowering his resistance to the diseases in the camp. On the 29th the man was stricken with a high fever. On the 30th he fell incapacitated. And on the 31st he was dead.
So on the one hand, baseless hope is not only foolish and dangerous but it potentially stifles mankind, thwarting the progress that might come by addressing reality head on. On the other hand, forfeiting hope, as Critchley, echoing Nietzsche, encourages, might very well land us in such despair that we die early, miserable, decrepit, and insane. By the way, that’s exactly how Nietzsche died.
Furthermore, it is highly logical that a sense of hope creates a great resource for dealing with the present circumstances. For instance, the most helpful illustration for me looks like this: Guy A and Guy B both work in a widget factory. Ten hours a day, six days a week, they perform the exact same job – putting a nut on a bolt. However, they have signed very different contracts. Guy A has signed a 1-year contract that will pay him $20,000. Guy B has signed a 1-year contract that will pay him $20,000,000. After two weeks, Guy A and Guy B meet one another for the first time in the break room. They’re completely unaware of how much the other is getting paid. Guy A says, “Man, I don’t think I can stand this anymore. All day long, screwing a nut on a bolt over and over. It’s terrible! I’m going crazy!” And Guy B replies, “Hmm. I don’t think it’s that bad.” What’s the difference? Anticipation of future blessing affects our ability to process the present circumstances.
So where does this leave us? Here – Have hope, but have a logical reason for your hope. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet. 3:15)
So what is the Christian’s hope? How is it different from the average person? Does it have legitimate basis?
For the average person, joy is based on circumstances – health, wealth, relationships, career, romance, etc. But if you make something finite like this your ultimate hope, you will inevitably lose your hope. It’s FINITE! Suffering occurs when the happiness which is linked to our ultimate hope gets stripped away. So if the circumstance that brings you joy changes, and it will, your joy will be gone.
But what if we had an infinite hope, an undying hope, a living hope? Ahhhh. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a LIVING HOPE through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” (1 Pet. 1:3-4)
The evidence that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the grave goes beyond the scope of this post. I’ve written about it many times. Regularly I get people who tell me that the burden of proof is on me to demonstrate that Jesus rose from the dead. Invariably I turn that back around and say, “I think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate how Christianity got off the ground to the extent it has if Jesus DIDN’T rise from the grave.” And we go on this way. Suffice it to say, if Jesus rose from the grave, that really changes things, doesn’t it?
Most Christians know that Jesus’ resurrection on Easter should make them happy. Most Christians know how Jesus’ resurrection benefits them eternally. So far as I can tell, however, many Christians don’t know why Jesus’ resurrection benefits us right now – living hope: the ability to process the suffering that comes in a sinful world. The promises of a man who can bring himself back to life carry infinite weight. So when he tells us that he will protect us, provide for us, strengthen us, be with us, and that he went through all of what he went through specifically because he loved us that much, all pointing to a time when the suffering ends, that tends to galvanize your hope. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:1-2) We were the joy set before him. Jesus dealt with his suffering, with the troubling circumstances of life, with crucifixion, by recognizing that through it all, he’d come closer to us. We can do the same with him.
The foundation of your character is your ultimate hope. And when you have a hope that cannot die, the circumstances of life may change, but your joy will not. Wouldn’t you like to have an anchor like that in your life, one that laughs at the surrounding storms? It only comes from knowing your Risen Savior.