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Faith and Hope

This quarter’s Sabbath School lessons deal with the church’s basic themes. The author and the editors of the lessons, I am afraid, do not treat faith and hope in a way that allows the highlighting of their essential features. In my way of thinking, Paul understood that faith and hope play the most important role in the lives of Christians. According to him, “he who has faith shall live” (Gal. 3:11, quoting Genesis), and “in this hope we have been saved” (Rom. 8:24).

Generally, we begin with the presupposition that God has revealed to us knowledge of God’s will, of God’s “plan.” Since we have knowledge of God’s plan, we have in our possession a blueprint of both the past and the future. In the Bible, we find the history of the past, beginning with creation, and the prophecies of the future ending with life in the new earth.

Starting with this premise, faith, hope, and the sciences become shams of themselves. We have taken away from each what is essential to them. Faith becomes assent to what is written in the Bible; hope has been transformed into patience while waiting for the fulfillment of biblical prophecies; and the sciences, both the physical and the social ones, are devalued as mere products of human reason. As a consequence, God has nothing to do with them, and the Bible, having become an idol, occupies the place that only God can justly occupy.

Leaving aside the sciences for a more opportune occasion, let us consider whether faith and hope can be what they are when converted into sustainers of knowledge already possessed.

As I have already said, I wish to be guided by the apostle Paul. He was not, as some have argued, the founder of Christianity, but he was the one who, blessed with a first-rate academic education, conceptualized better than anyone else the significance of what took place outside Jerusalem that Passover weekend.

The disciples who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus surely understood that the Romans had performed one more execution in the long series of crucifixions carried out throughout their empire. The crucifixion of Jesus made the disciples start planning their return to the lives they had left behind when they joined the messianic Jesus movement. Their messianic illusions were brutally crushed by the crucifixion. On that Friday afternoon, all the disciples thought the Jesus movement had been a monumental failure and began to plan how to earn a living fishing or in some other business.

On Sunday morning, there appeared those who said they had seen Jesus alive. Soon there was a group who affirmed, “He is alive.” According to 1 Corinthians 15, Christians made lists of the witnesses to the apparitions of the Living Christ. These lists came to form part of “the tradition” that was preached.

Even though Paul does not use characteristic apocalyptic descriptions like those found in other New Testament books, his mental framework was apocalyptic. For him, the cross had been the triumph of the forces of good against the forces of evil. At the cross, the reign of Satan had come to an end. The Living Christ was the Christ God had raised as a down payment on the resurrection of all the just. The Living Christ was the New Creation in the Spirit, in which all are invited to participate as we enact our death and resurrection in baptism.

Our baptism integrates us into the New Creation of the reign of the Holy Spirit. The baptized no longer live under the law in the reign of sin and death. Rather, they live by the Spirit in the reign of justice and life. All this can only be apprehended by faith. Faith understands the crucifixion and the resurrection as acts of God and appropriates them, producing the corresponding reaction: baptism.

Jesus’ crucifixion is a historical fact that we may have knowledge about since many people saw it, but no historian can affirm that Jesus died to put an end to the reign of sin and death and was raised by God to establish the New Creation. Claims that the kingdom of death has been crushed and the New Creation established can only be affirmations of faith. No one saw these things.

True faith can only be in God and God’s saving activity. It confesses that God has done something in the past that constrains me to be and to act by the power of the Spirit. Paul’s key text reads: “Abraham had faith in God and was accounted just.” Why was he accounted just? Because after receiving the message, “Abraham, Rise from your land and your kinfolk and go to the land I shall show you,” Abraham did not get up and say, “What a crazy thought it is to think that I should leave behind my kinfolk and my land!” He believed God had spoken and started walking toward the unknown. His faith in God was the reason for leaving Ur of the Chaldees.

His hope was that God would show him that unknown land. His faith was the basis for his hope. His faith made it possible to take seriously the past act of God. His hope made him take seriously God’s future for him. He had to walk a long journey without any knowledge of where he was going, but he kept walking by faith and hope. He trusted that no matter to what kind of land he was finally going to find, having faith in the God who had promised it to him was all he needed to keep on walking.

Faith trusts that the action already experienced was an act of God. Hope trusts that in the manner in which God acted in the past, God will also act in the future. Both admit that they have “knowledge” of neither the future nor the past. Neither in the past, nor in the future have they seen that in which they trust. Those who possess knowledge need neither faith nor hope. As Christians, we walk “by faith, not by sight,” “the hope that is seen, is not hope.”

We may have knowledge of Jesus’ crucifixion, but the evidence that the reign of Satan has been crushed leaves much to be desired. Knowledge of the crucifixion does not provide faith in the triumph of God over death. Information about an empty tomb may be considered sufficient by some historians, but none of them can declare the foundation of the New Creation preached by Paul. Christians do not affirm the resuscitation of a human body, but the triumph of life in the Spirit for everyone who has faith. God’s actions in the past were not seen by anybody. They do not qualify as objective knowledge.

It is a fallacy to think that because the Bible is an object all the information obtained from it is objective knowledge. The faith that affirms the action of God in the death and the life of Christ has hope of eternal life. But what faith and hope know is not objective knowledge. Fanciful descriptions of future life with God do not constitute knowledge. Of the future, no one has knowledge. “What eyes have not seen, nor ears heard” is that with which God one of these days wishes to surprise us.

Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.

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