God in the New World by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton Limited, St. Paul’s House, Warwick Lane, London. Copyright, 1968 by Lloyd Geering. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 18: Hope as the Goal of Faith
In addition to faith, hope is another basic ingredient essential for human existence, for man cannot live indefinitely without some form of hope. But faith and hope are quite closely linked, for, as the New Testament says, it is faith which gives substance to our hopes. Faith is born out of the heritage of past experience, and is created and fostered in us by the Word of God which is communicated to us through those who already possess faith. But insofar as faith, as the attitude of present trust, is necessarily involved also with the future, it gives rise to hope. Hope may be called the goal of faith, for it is that unseen destination in the future which gives direction to the present life of obedience of the man of faith.
Just as in the case of faith, the Christian can claim no monopoly of hope as a human experience. Hope begins to grow in us from early childhood, and is necessarily related to the confined and immature context of the child’s life. Hope assumes definite shape in the form of Christmas presents and birthday parties, prowess in a sport, and occasionally, even high academic attainment. The child becomes increasingly aware that he too will grow up to be a man, and, in the ever increasing horizon of his life, hope takes on maturer forms. In late adolescence, hope concerns itself frequently with the choice of a life career. Not all people experience hope with the same degree of clarity or intensity. Some may not think much about the future at all, but may be content to drift from day to day, and eventually from job to job. There is probably some incipient form of hope in all, but where it lacks intensity, life seems to be the poorer, for such a person is not reaching out to his full potential.
It is when we look at the meaning of life within its broadest possible context that we become concerned with hope at its deepest level. The simple and mundane objects which stimulate men to hope in their earlier years are concrete manifestations, within limited horizons, of that basic attitude which gives zest, interest and purpose to life. Just as the word ‘faith’ describes an attitude in man himself, as well as that which fosters the attitude, so ‘hope’ has been used to refer both to a human attitude, and to that which prompts the attitude, namely that to which his mind and spirit look forward.
The community of believers in whom the Judeo-Christian faith has manifested itself in successive generations, has been most full of vigor and vitality when it has been looking forward in hope. But though the basic attitude of hope may remain fundamentally the same, the form in which it is understood and verbally expressed may vary considerably from one generation to another. The hope which spurred on the Hebrew slaves from Egypt towards a land flowing with milk and honey could not also be the hope of the later Israelites who had entered into possession of Canaan, for hope always lies in the future. It concerns that which is unseen and unknown, that which is not yet. The hope of the community of faith has sometimes taken shape in worldly terms and sometimes it has been of an other-worldly form. It is a commentary on the other-worldly character of the orthodox form of Christianity we have inherited, that the very term ‘Christian hope’ has come to be used almost exclusively for what the Christian expects to enter into on the other side of death.
Modern study of the Bible has brought the discovery that the Christian hope is not at all exclusively tied to an other-worldly form; indeed, as we have seen, that is just what it had started to lead men away from. To see how the man of faith, living in the new world, is to express his hope, we can do no better than start with the biblical expressions of hope. The first such expression is quite near the beginning. By means of the story of the great flood, in which things were described as being so bad that the human race was all but annihilated, Israel was taught to see in the rainbow a sign that God would never again send such a catastrophe to blot out mankind. This is Israel’s way of saying that there are signs of hope set in the life of the tangible world itself, and they are there for all men to read, if they have eyes to see. Something similar is expressed in our proverbial saying, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." This is not the whole of the Christian hope, but it must not be scornfully dismissed as beneath the Christian’s notice. This hope belongs to man’s very nature. Man is a creature who has some hope already built into him, so that he often keeps on hoping in spite of himself, and for reasons he knows not why. It is this hope which is already set in man by his Creator, that is nurtured and cultivated by the Judeo-Christian heritage.
So while the Bible starts at this point, it goes on to show that hope takes on a new and unexpected quality as man finds himself addressed by the Word of God and called to the life of faith. We have already noted that running through the patriarchal sagas there is the thread of hope, expressed in the form of the double promise of land and progeny. What is easily overlooked is that the original promise to Abraham made no appeal to his personal self-interest. Abraham did not live to see either of his hopes come to fruition, and he was at no point led to expect that he would. Yet it was a hope that could claim his attention and interest to the point where he took the steps of faith and obedience so necessary for the fulfillment. In this story of Abraham, Israel expressed some of her understanding of the nature of hope.
Moses is another whose hope undoubtedly came to fruition, and yet not in any way which centered upon his own personal well-being. He was a man who spent his life in leading Israel to the land of promise. But he himself did not enter. As tradition has it, God led him to the top of Mount Nebo and showed him all the land from Dan in the north to Judah in the south, and then said, "I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there". Moses died and God buried him. Yet in the New Testament story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it was the Moses who had died who was said to have appeared, along with the Elijah who had never died. Thus the biblical language of myth sets out the victory in altruistic hope.
It is not surprising that the intensity of hope waxes and wanes from one generation to another. For wandering homeless nomads, and for oppressed slaves in Egypt, hope was experienced with an intense urgency. But when life is marked by comfort, ease and present satisfaction, hope may be relegated to the periphery of man’s concerns. Through much of the period from David to the fall of Jerusalem, Israel’s life was not marked by the concern with hope, any more than is the life of the affluent society of the west today.
The Babylonian exile was destined to bring forth the re-birth of hope, In the early days Ezekiel reports that the exiles were saying, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off." But a generation later the unknown prophet was bringing comforting news which did much to rekindle their hope. In spite of varied fortunes and successive forms of imperialistic domination, that hope remained alive. It was experienced most vividly when the outlook was darkest. The two books of the Bible, which are the most vivid and triumphant expressions of hope, came out of periods of fierce persecution. They are Daniel and Revelation.
There is no need to sketch again what has already been said about the hope which formed the setting for the advent of Jesus, namely, the new age to be ushered in by God’s anointed king. The Death and Resurrection of Jesus became the focal point for the full consummation of that new age which they hoped very shortly to witness. But a hope involving an imminent event cannot retain its convincing power over a period which begins to stretch out indefinitely. It was inevitable that it should find another mode of expression, and this it did, as we have already seen.
Again in our day, the form of expression of the Christian hope is undergoing quite radical change, for, as we have seen, the orthodox picture of it we have inherited from the Middle Ages has been gradually losing its forcefulness with the advent of the new world. In addition to its mythological framework, there is a second and perhaps even more serious defect in it that is now beginning to make itself more evident. The promise of a life of eternal bliss in heaven above, and the threat of the torment of eternal punishment in the hell below, proclaimed as the two alternatives which faced man as his eternal destiny, frequently had the unfortunate effect of leading men in the direction of self-centeredness.
Man was quite rightly given little encouragement to think that his eternal salvation could be won by his own unaided efforts, for it was the gift of divine grace. But when the hearer of the Gospel came to the point of decision, that is, to accept or reject it, it was taken for granted that this should be made on the basis of spiritual self-interest. The form of the Christian hope encouraged a man to be concerned primarily about his own soul. It was put to him (and still often is) that to embrace the faith and give allegiance to Christ as Lord and Savior was in the long run in his own interests.
It cannot be denied that this form of hope often led men to great acts of self-denial; yet the very motives being fostered to promote it had in them a strong element of self-gain. If a man becomes a philanthropist with the deliberate intention of expecting to see his name in the New Year honors, we rightly feel that there is something hollow about his ostensible concern for others. If a man denies himself comforts and pleasures in this life in order to be assured of happiness in the eternal hereafter, he still does not avoid being self-centered. His self-centeredness has merely taken a subtle, spiritual form.
The first thing that needs to be said about the shape of Christian hope within the new world, is that it must recover and embody that selfless concern that marked the hope of ancient Israel. In the story of Abraham, Israel recognized that the fulfillment of hope lies far beyond the limits of any one man’s mortal life. Because Abraham represented the man who saw this, but who nevertheless obeyed, he was a man who embodied both faith and hope, and later generations gave him the unique title of ‘friend of God’.
In the new secular world, the only recovery of hope possible is that which is prepared to surrender all concern for the self, whether material or spiritual, out of love and concern for the common good. The hope that led Moses on was not for himself, but for his people. His hope was not shattered because he only got as far as seeing the promised land from afar, before he died and was buried in an unknown grave. His hope came to a glorious fulfillment, so that Israel, centuries later, recognized this man of vision by saying, "There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face."
The later prophets were stirred by a vision of hope, in which they looked to YHWH to renew the world by the abolition of war, famine and plague, by reconciling not only bitter and hostile men, but even the very animals that lived by preying upon one another, and it did not even occur to those prophets to ask what would be their own personal place in that new world to which they looked in hope. Hosea suffered a domestic disaster. Jeremiah was persecuted by his own family, and trod an increasingly lonely path which ended in death in Egypt. Yet their hope in God did not vanish. Jeremiah’s own experience set the pattern for those psalmists whose words have kindled hope in the hearts of many generations since. The New Testament says of the prophets that even though ‘they did not receive what was promised’ they remained steadfast in faith and hope.
The most thorough-going expression of hope in a fully secular form is to be found today in Marxist Communism, and no Christian can afford to ignore it. It is being recognized a little more readily today by at least some Marxists and some Christians, that the Communist concern for the welfare of the whole human society, including in particular that of the worker, and the Communist hope for a renewed world with a classless society, find their roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage, and especially the new-world-hope of the prophets of Israel. Most of the deviations from the orthodox Christian stream have arisen because orthodoxy has neglected some essential. The rapid rise and spread of Communism must be accepted by Christians as the most seriously challenging deviant form of the Judeo-Christian heritage, just as, in the eighth century, the rise of Islam came about because of the tendency for Christian Trinitarian doctrine to revert to polytheism, adding weight to Mohammed’s call for a pure monotheism.
The hostility that broke out and still exists between Christian and Marxist is equally understandable from both sides. The Marxist felt little mercy for an ecclesiastical organization which had itself become an instrument of power, aiding and abetting those who had much, and showing scant concern for the present welfare of those who had little. The Christian became horrified by the political aspirations and methods of those who were fired with concern for the masses, but who had little concern for the individual. Yet, in this struggle, the faith and hope of some Marxists have put to shame the devotion of many a Christian.
Today’s Christian finds it a bitter pill to swallow to be told that he must learn a lesson from the Communist and his secular hope for society, but long ago a prophet of Israel ventured to speak of the arch-enemy, Assyria, as an instrument in the hand of God, and another dared to name a foreign emperor as the very Messiah sent by YHWH. Communism has challenged Christians to rediscover that element of their heritage which concerns itself with the renewal of human society in the here and now. Until this is done, there can be no reshaping and revitalizing of the Christian hope for men of the new world. Christians must rediscover the this-worldly hope which has always been there in their best-known prayer, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven". The renewal of the world is the Christian hope, and even though, because of our mortal limited lives, like Moses we do not live to witness the consummation, but see it only in embryo, it is sufficient reward to have been used by God in this mighty process of the redemption of the world from the evil, suffering and misery to which man himself has contributed.
Only after we have recognized the Christian hope in this form, are we in a position to ask the humanist or the Marxist if his work for the renewal of society and for the future generations of mankind actually exhausts the meaning of hope for the man of the new world. What are we to say of the human spirit? And is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? If so, what are we to make of death? Is the embalming of the dead body of the pioneering hero of the new society the only answer that secular man can give to the quest of the human spirit?
Admittedly there is no returning to the picture of immortal life in a supernatural heaven. The man of the new world finds the prospect of an interminable life of heavenly bliss as horrifying to contemplate, as medieval man found the prospect of eternal torment in hell. If man seeks any continuation of life, it is a continuation of the life he knows here, accompanied by all the interests and vexations of movement and change. But he knows also that this life comes to an end.
At this point knowledge takes us no further in our pursuit of the meaning of life and death. The humanist stops, for he can go no further. The Christian proceeds, but he can do so only by faith, and he can speak about the eternal nature of hope only in the language of faith. In the life of faith the Christian has come to find in the human spirit qualities which have a deathlessness about them. He finds himself addressed by the Word of Him who is eternal, and he is led to an attitude of hope which is eternal. It is not primarily hope for himself, but hope for the human spirit, hope for the world, hope for all men, past, present and future. This hope has clothed itself in the past in the picture of the new age, and then in the picture of the blissful heaven. The truth existing in these pictures is not their now outworn form but the spirit of hope they have been used to express.
The man of faith finds himself to be a man of hope, for no adequate or demonstrable reasons at all. In the language of the world, Jesus is dead. But in the language of faith, Jesus is risen. And because He is risen, the world is a different place. Moses and the prophets are dead. But it is not the end. The saints and martyrs are dead. But it is not the end. We shall die -- really die. But it is not the end. All men and the whole world have only one end, and that end, so faith enables us to say, is in God, who has neither beginning nor end.