Thoughts on Christian Theology and Pastoring

Living Hope

Someone has said that hope is like listening to the music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it today. In the resurrection of Jesus, we can hear the music of the future—a world of love and life—so why not dance to it?

According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

1 Peter 1:3

The Apostle Peter wrote this letter around 65 A.D., that is, about thirty years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Right from the start, he is concerned to remind his readers about the basic facts of the Christian faith. Thus, in this verse we have a tightly-packed summary of the Christian confession: God “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

It is worth noting that, in contrast to the mystery religions that flourished in the 1st century, the Christian faith thrives not on secrecy but on publicity. It is not the sleight of hand of a magician, who uses smokes and mirrors, and insists that his audience view the show from a limited angle. Rather, the Christian faith is a message to that is thrown into the glaring sunlight where it is open to scrutiny from any angle whatsoever. Most notably, the claim that a peasant preacher named Jesus from Nazareth has risen from the dead puts this confession into the realm, not of spirituality only, but also of history and science.

In a clear and concise way, then, Peter answers three questions about Christians, both for the sake of those who make this confession, as well as for those who need to give it closer scrutiny. First, what has happened to Christians? Second, what effect does this have? Third, what made this possible?

1. First, what do Christians claim has happened to them? “God caused us to be born again”

Peter’s answer is: “God caused us to be born again.” The phrase “born again” entered American political consciousness when Jimmy Carter used it in his presidential campaign in the 1970s. For the moment, however, we can set aside whatever American cultural accretions have been barnacled to this phrase so that we can focus on what it must have meant in the first century, and what it should continue to mean to anyone who confesses this to be true of themselves.

Someone who says that they have been “born again” is making at least two radical statements—so radical, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine that the same person can confess both at the same time. To say, “I have been born again” is to say: My life was so fatally flawed that nothing less than a new life would do. My first life was necessary but ultimately insufficient.

Nearly every self-aware person, of course, has some idea that they flawed, even deeply flawed. A recent popular song admits,

I’m only human, only human.
Maybe I’m blind, maybe I’m foolish.
I’m only human.

The Christian confession, however, is in a different category altogether. It says, “I didn’t need just a long vacation, a diet or workout program, a new marriage, or a career change: I needed a new life!”

You can count on it: wherever you find genuine Christianity, you will find people who are shockingly, but cheerfully frank about how ruined their lives were. So frank, in fact, that well-intentioned people try to sanitize their confession. Take, for example, the testimony of 18th-century former slave-trader, John Newton. After his conversion, he wrote what has become one of the most well-known Christian hymns, “Amazing Grace.” But note the offensive word in the second line.

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a
wretch like me.

Jarred by this cheerful confession of his wretchedness—or perhaps, by how distasteful it would be to sing that about themselves—some people have proposed changing the words to:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved and set me free.

In their well-intentioned but naïve efforts to rescue Newton’s (and their) moral dignity, these people are saying, “A wretch? Really? Please, John, don’t be so hard on yourself.” I think Newton’s reply would be something like: “Hard on myself? To the contrary, I could go on! I have gotten a glimpse into my soul, and what I saw there was a spreading, incurable cancer. I knew I needed a new life. I needed grace.”

But there’s another part to this confession implicit in the words “born again.” It is this: the very life I needed has begun! God is my Father, and as his child I have access to an indescribable wealth of joy. Like the first claim, this one is also shocking to any honest listener. A realistic response to someone who says, “God is my Father,” is not “Well, good for you,” but rather “Have you looked in the mirror recently?” If confessing, “My life was fatally flawed,” transgresses the rules of self-esteem, then insisting that one is a child of God seems to transgress the rules of modesty. But in the confession, “we have been born again,” we see the marriage of shocking self-disclosure and astonishing confidence.

Yet this being “born again” is at the very heart of the Christian confession. This is why, by way of application, you can tell the difference between those who have personally appropriated the Christian faith, and those who have not—even if they call themselves Christians. Wherever you find people whose default mode of operation is to defend, validate, and excuse themselves, you have found someone who doesn’t know what it means to be “born again.”

On the other hand, wherever you find people celebrating their “authenticity”—including their authentic laziness, authentic lust, or authentic bitterness—without making an effort to change, you have found someone who doesn’t know what it means to be born again. This is why in this very epistle, the Apostle Peter goes on to urge his readers to a life of holiness. The Christian faith teaches us to sing, with John Newton, “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see!”

To put it differently, programmed into the algorithm of the Christian faith is something that allows you to pursue a holy lifestyle without a hint of pride or superiority, and to admit one’s sin without a hint of apathy. This is what it means to say: “God has caused us to be born again.”

2. What effect does this have? “To a living hope”

Christians are those who confess they have been “born again.” But what effect—besides the ones mentioned above—does this have on their lives? Peter tells us that we have been “born again to a living hope.” This new life we have received awakens us to a new way of looking at the future—a way described by the words “living hope.”

Let’s define hope. To begin with, we need to make it clear that the English word “hope” is inadequate because in normal usage it carries a flavor of uncertainty. When it’s April in New England, I hope the warm weather is here to stay, but there’s always the possibility of a cold snap. But in the Bible, hope does not a wish tainted by a possibility of disappointment.

The emphasis, rather, is on the way we envision the future. This may be illustrated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of the word “dream” in his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In this speech, he envisions a future America as a “dream” in which “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. . . . This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with.” Clearly, it is the vision of a future racial equality that energized King and his followers.

Hope, then, is a universal impulse: everyone whether consciously or unconsciously carries some vision of the future, and that vision colors their attitude toward and actions within the present. Picture two men who are given the same grueling job. Both men must work for eighty hours per week, with no time off on the weekends to see their families. One man is told that at the end of a year of such labor, he will be paid fifty-thousand dollars. The other man is told that at the end of the year, he will be paid fifty million dollars. Every morning they wake up, the first man curses the rising sun. The second man—feeling the same fatigue and exhaustion—blesses it. He knows what’s coming. After this year, he’ll be able to enjoy virtually any life he wants to lead, and he won’t have to work another day of his life. It’s true: your future hope has more power than your present circumstances.

But what is the Christian’s hope? Peter describes it as a “living” hope—that is a hope in which the future envisioned is life instead of death. Let’s take a brief survey of what of present actions were fueled by this hope.

In view of this “living hope” the early Christians did things no one else had done in the history of the Roman empire. Christians, for example, opposed the Roman practice of leaving unwanted babies to die on a trash heap. They would rescue these babies, and even raise them as their own children. In a rigidly stratified society, Christian communities incorporated an improbable array of people: both nobles and commoners, rich and poor, men and women, adults and children, free and slaves, Jews and Gentiles. When a pandemic broke out in the Roman Empire—killing, by some estimates, 5-10 million people—Christians stayed in the city of Rome to establish hospitals and help the sick and dying.

We see Christians’ hope-energized compassion at work throughout other eras of history as well, such as in the campaign to end slavery in England and the American colonies. One early advocate for abolishing slavery was a tiny, hunch-backed man named Benjamin Lay. Lay was a Quaker whose opposition of slavery was triggered first at the intersection of his Christian beliefs and an experience in which he saw an enslaved man who chose to commit suicide instead of being abused again by his owner. Lay’s book against slavery (entitled All Slave Keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage [are] Apostate) soundly condemned his peers who felt they could hold to Christian values and own slaves. Benjamin Franklin befriended this fiery Quaker, and even paid to have his book printed. Hypocritically, however, Franklin still owned two slaves, prompting Lay to write another pamphlet, With What Right?

I freely acknowledge that people have done cruel things in the name of Christianity, but it would be hard to make the case that these actions were done because of the Christian hope. Rather, it is in light of Christianity itself that such actions stand condemned. Despite many tragic aberrations, on the whole a clear line may be drawn between the Christian “living hope,” and the compassionate activism of Christians.

Because the Christian hope is “living hope”—that is, it envisions a future of life rather than death—it has been criticized as a way to lull people into complacency, or, as Karl Marx put it in his assessment of religion, “the opiate of the masses.” History simply does not bear this out. The Christian hope has always been unique in this sense: it is marked by optimism for the future combined with vigorous activism in the present.

The question we ought to be asking, then, is this: what makes such a hope possible? The rescue of babies, the equality of the races, the opposition of slavery—are these castles built in the imaginary clouds of love, peace, and justice? Few people have had the courage to face such a possibility, because doing so leads us into moral and intellectual quagmires. When someone does try to envision a universe in which justice and love are passing fads of the march of evolution, it sounds something like the closing lines of Bertrand’s Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship”:

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.

It is hard to see how such a vision of the future could have sustained the innovation, technology, literacy, that gave Russell to the books, pens, and peace to even write such a gloomy paragraph. Russell is poetic, but wants to have it both ways: meaning in a universe and a universe that has no room for meaning.

In contrast to this morally and intellectually unsustainable vision for the future, the Christian “living hope” had such a unique vigor to it—so vigorous, in fact, that it would seem that Christians believed that their vision of the future had somehow become present.

3. What makes this possible. “By the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”

Ancient Israelites believed that sometime in the future God would raise righteous Israelites from the dead and restore his kingdom to the world. But something happened in the first century that made many of them believe that this future had become present: a righteous man rose from the dead. Not just any man, though: a man who had claimed to be God’s Son, the Anointed King. And not just any death: a death that, at that time, represented the most disgraceful and dehumanizing thing that could be done to a human.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a historical fact so evident that it continues to unsettle the most hardened skeptics. It’s worth noting that it rests on three independently verifiable facts: namely, (1) the tomb was empty, (2) the eyewitness accounts were early and authentic, and (3) the Christian church got started. The improbable nature of these facts demands an explanation that does not get us involved in making even more improbable claims, such as the idea that the disciples had a group hallucination or that Jesus only swooned. The closer historians examine it—especially in light of the advances of historiography in recent decades—the more evident it is.

It is because Jesus’ resurrection is firmly established as a historical event that it is also a future-oriented event. Remember, after Jesus’ resurrection, Christians began doing things that would make sense only if they had the confidence that the future they envisioned had become present. That is because Jesus’ resurrection was “the presence of the future”—a preview and guarantee of what lays in store for this universe.

Here, then, is what makes the Christian living hope possible: “the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

The resurrection, then, becomes the fork in the road for everyone. Either Jesus is alive, or he isn’t. If he is not, you must decide what vision of the future you will embrace. If he is, however, you have already gotten a glimpse of the future, because it has invaded the present: a future in which King Jesus will bring life to his subjects—those who have committed themselves to him. There is no sense, however, in pretending to embrace the implications of the Christian ethic of radical compassion, because this make no sense unless there is a real historical event undergirding it.

Many people choose to disbelieve that Jesus is alive, not on historical grounds, but on personal  grounds. I once spoke to someone who did not believe in the resurrection. I asked him what he made of all the evidence, and he said, “Something happened.” But he could not bring himself to say that what happened was that Jesus came alive again. I happened to know that if he did, it would mean reorienting his entire worldview and values. That is very hard to do!

I wish I thought to ask him this: What exactly do you have to lose by confessing that Jesus is really alive? And what do you have to gain by denying it? Jesus would have told him that what he has to lose is everything: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

Suppose someone knocked at your door to tell you that your house had been constructed on top of a sinkhole which could collapse suddenly. Since, you have no means to buy another home, this is devastating news. Now suppose that someone told you that a generous billionaire had donated a piece of prime real estate with a beautiful mansion just a neighborhood away. You can actually see that mansion from your back porch. To accept this news would mean abandoning your home, yes. But what, in the end, would you be losing anyway? Only a pile of lumber crumbling into a sinkhole. And what would you gain? An entirely new home.

What do you have to lose by admitting that the future is a renewed universe ruled by the most gracious, King that ever lived? What you would lose is—everything, but nothing that matters in the long run anyway. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him, everything else thrown in.”

In a play by Oscar Wilde, King Herod hears reports that Jesus is raising the dead. Herod responded by saying, “I do not wish him to do that. I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead.”

Why did King Herod forbid this? Because it meant his power was nothing because a greater power had arrived.

People who refuse to confess that Jesus is the risen Lord are those who think they have something to gain by Jesus still being dead, or something to lose by his being alive. But what they think they have to lose is really nothing, and what they think they can gain is nothing as well.

But Jesus is alive, and the proper response to this fact is to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” And with that confession comes a staggering promise: You will be saved.

Someone has said that hope is like listening to the music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it today. In the resurrection of Jesus, we can hear the music of the future—a world of love and life—so why not dance to it? A voice from the eternal throne echoes from the future into the present: “I am making all things new.” Tears will be wiped away, sobs smoothed, abuse vanquished, wars ended. Loved ones who once had Alzheimer’s will look at you with smiling eyes and say your name again.

Is it too good to be true? Perhaps should scold ourselves for being so childishly optimistic. Unless—unless for a moment, at least, a beam from that eternal day has broken into our gloomy world. But if Jesus rose from the dead—and he did—then it has.

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