Hope in Bloom
Our news feeds are all about unrest. Death, riots, doom. Many people are now facing a life without loved ones, while the regular drum of death continues to beat without the relief for which we beg. Death is no longer a far-away enemy, nor is it an enemy merely at the gates. The gates have been compromised. We can feel it breathing on the backs of our necks. Hopelessness is in bloom.
The Apostle Peter spoke into a situation not unlike ours in his first epistle. This ancient world never forgot that the specter of death was roaming the streets, and they did not yet have the New Atheists of our own day who attempt to create an imaginative world where a future of eternal nothingness is somehow quite beautiful (if a tough sell). Despite the political and military progress during this time, and despite the bright philosophical minds, there was still an undeniable hopelessness. The gods were thought either to be capricious or cold and disconnected; philosophy may have told of a rational logos in the universe, but it was not personal or salvific. That deep-seated desire in the human heart for divine love had no object for its fulfillment. In some circles, it turned instead, as we ourselves do, to distractions of progress and pleasure.
Some Greco-Roman authors ridiculed hope, which they considered to be delusionary.(1) 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.(2) Theologian Karen Jobes explains that “In 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; therefore, hope among pagans was dead.”(3) Life was bleak, and the reality of something better after death was foundationless. Life was only temporarily good for those born well, but even that was but a smokescreen of the fate we all share at the end.
Leaning into this despair, the hope of the early Christians truly perplexed the ancient mindset. Their hope transcended persecution and martyrdom. 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.”(4)
In his letter to men and women living in between these worldviews, Peter speaks into this hopelessness the words of eternal life. The New Testament records how converts could often be swayed back to their old life; after all, in times of suffering and uncertainty, why be deprived of any and all pleasures one can receive, especially since this may be our only life? Peter reminds us that these are all just illusions and distractions. 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.
God has “given us new birth into a living hope” through the resurrection of Christ from the dead: death defeated by death. 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.”(5) Even gold, which is the ultimate worldly example of everlasting status, beauty, and wealth, will perish. This hope is given to us, and shielded for us, by God, the Creator and Sustainer. This new inheritance will not be taken like the land was from Israel in the Exile; no, this new inheritance is kept in heaven for us, secured by Christ’s faithfulness. Rather counterintuitively, Peter then tells his readers that they are to rejoice in their suffering, in contrast to pagans who despair in their comfort; we rejoice in what we do not see but is eternal, rather than what we do see but is temporal. These hopes are kept secure because we follow after Christ who has defeated death itself, the one who shows us what it means to live and reign forever, world without end.
This is where we see the distinction between a Christian like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a proponent of modern hopelessness like, say, Albert Camus.(6) It is not that life seems any less absurd to Bonhoeffer than it does to Camus. It is just that Bonhoeffer sees it for what it is: fallen, confused, and blinded by the gods of this age. The question of Psalm 42:9—“Why have you forgotten me?”—is one that “all Christians have uttered… when everything seems against them, when all earthly hope is shattered, when they feel utterly lost amid great world events, when their life goals collapse and everything seems meaningless. But then the issue is: To whom is this question addressed? Not to dark fate, but to the God who is and remains my rock, the eternal ground on which my life rests. I despair, but God remains steady as a rock; I waver, but God stands imperturbable; I am unfaithful, but God remains faithful, God my rock.”(7) This is why, at the end of his short life while being led out to the gallows of a Nazi prison camp, Bonhoeffer was able to utter to a fellow prisoner: “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”(8)
The word that Peter uses above 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. We are 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 hope, but a defiant hope grounded in the living, loving God. The hope is not just salvation, but harmony, human flourishing, and a lack of futility; it is of a Kingdom in full bloom that never perishes, spoils, or fades. This hope is not mere wish-fulfillment.(9) It is grounded in a historic moment, indeed, a Person who marks for us the reversal and death of hopelessness. This hope is not delusionary. On the contrary, despite what we sometimes see, it is forever in bloom.
Derek Caldwell is a writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Donald P. Senior, 1 Peter, Jude and 2 Peter, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008), 31.
(2) Oedipus 121[a].15. Quoted in Jobes (see note below).
(3) Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 84-85.
(4) 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.
(5) 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.
(6) In 1942, French Philosopher Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus, which says that in light of the absurd life of Sisyphus that we all share (Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to, without rest, arduously roll a rock to the top of a hill, only for it to roll back down the hill and restart the whole process). Camus considered suicide a natural response to understanding that life was absurd. He stated that the only “serious philosophical problem” was suicide; whether or not to go on living in absurdity without the chance of escape. Camus does not, in the end, recommend suicide. He urges accepting absurdity and living in spite of, and in defiance to, suicide or hope. Live as if life had meaning, knowing it to be futile.
(7) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 14 (Minnesota, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 852.
(8) Bonhoeffer was reported as saying this by British Intelligence officer Payne Best. Cited in Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 1022 n. 54.
(9) I very highly doubt that wish-fulfillment in the hands of sinful men and women would take the cruciform shape of Christian eschatology.
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