Why did I choose this particular subject when asked to write some comments on one of the topics of this quarter’s Sabbath School Study Guide? Probably because it has been a main focus during my final five-year denominational assignment before retiring a little more than a year ago. As the president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, I wanted to do what I could to stimulate hope among the members of the church. For too long too many seemed to have felt that there was not much hope for the Christian church, including their own denomination, in their highly secularized and increasingly postmodern corner of the world! And without hope there is indeed little future.
We badly need hope, on an individual as well as on a corporate level as a church. The world around us needs hope. Not only the hope of economic recovery in a time of financial crisis and the hope of somehow halting ecological doom before Planet Earth has destroyed itself. But most of all we need hope on a deeper existential level, since in the hearts of untold millions despair and angst have replaced the Enlightenment belief in constant progress and the Christian experience of hope. Any book that describes the main characteristics of postmodernity mentions pessimism about the future as one of the key marks.
A few weeks ago, I visited an exhibition of postpostmodern art in the Tate Britain Museum (Alter-Modern Art) in London. If I ever needed a confirmation of the rampant meltdown of hope, I experienced it there. Twenty-eight artists from around the world seemed to shout with one artistic(?) voice at the visitor: There is no meaning to life and no hope for the future.1 The Christian message remains: You are deadly wrong! There is hope!
This week’s topic focuses on biblical hope. This is not to be confused with mere optimism. It cannot be discovered or re-discovered in Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral or in the preaching of other proponents of a shallow and deficient “health and wealth” gospel. Biblical hope does not join John Calvin in his theology of man’s total depravity and his insistence on human inability to use the God-given power of choice. But neither does it ignore the ugly reality of sin or the inescapable role of judgment in the divine economy of salvation. God does not solve the problem of evil by ignoring it. That in itself gives substance to our hope.
Ephesians 2:12 presents us with a crucial truth. Those who have not been reconciled by Christ, Paul says, are “without hope and without God in the world.” The atheist or agnostic may not agree with the premise that “hope” and “God” are concepts that belong inseparably together. They may point to varieties of secular hope, but the Christian will maintain that in the end true hope is based on a Reference Point outside of ourselves.
I fully agree with Hans Schwartz, a professor of systematic theology at the university in the German city of Regensburg: “We receive ultimate dignity and importance only as vehicles of God’s redemptive purpose. All hope is founded and centered in God, and not in the belief in progress or in humanity. The acting and active God who provided the beginning, who controls the present, and who will provide the future is the decisive center of all Christian and Jewish hope.”2
I have in recent years constantly asked the very same question that Schwarz puts to us, namely, “whether the hope in an acting and active God still determines the life orientation of most church members.”3
This point is also stressed by another German professor (from the University of Tübingen). Christian hope, says Christoph Schwöbel, is “oriented towards the promise that the fulfillment of the ultimate goal is in the hands of the triune God. This is precisely what distinguishes the eschatological orientation of faith from the open future of humanity’s own projects, and this is the reason why we can hope that it will not be frustrated when human projects founder.”4
Without Christ, there is no true hope. Unfortunately, there is a lot of eschatological concern that focuses almost exclusively on things, future events, human powersbe they ecclesial or civicrather than on the risen and returning Christ.5 It often seems as if for many Adventist Christians their hope is centered on Sunday laws and the papacy, persecution and plagues, rather than on the One who comes. In a truly Christians eschatology what will come is secondary to Who will come!6
Richard Rice reminds us that the hope of the Christian embraces four essential qualities: (1) The fact that Christ will return and will transfer what we hope for into reality; (2) it includes that we actually long for his return; (3) it involves therefore watchfulness; and (4) it involves preparation.7
Because Christian hope is anchored in what God did for us in Christ, it concerns (1) his children individually, but also (2) his church and (3) his world. This hope is realized in the tension between the already and the not yet. (1) We may hope for the new life in Christ, in the rebirth and sanctification in the here and now and in the total recreation in the world to come. (2) We have hope for the faith community to which we belong. It can already represent him today as his spiritual body of (yet imperfect) saints, while looking forward to belonging to the perfect multitude of the redeemed. (3) And although we hope for a consummation of history in a new heaven and a new earth, we do not give up on our current habitat, believing that in some preliminary sense the kingdom can already be a present reality (Luke 17:21).
Notes and References
1. The Tate can be visited online at www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/altermodern/default.shtm.
2. Eschatology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), 13.
4. Christoph Schwöbel, “Last Things First? The Century of Eschatology in Retrospect,” in David Fergusson and Marcel Sarot, eds., The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology (Edinburgh, 2000), 241.
5. See Adrio König, The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989).
6. John Brunt, Now and Not Yet (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1987), 88.
7. Richard Rice, The Reign of God (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1997), 361ff.
Reinder Bruinsma is this quarter’s principal contributor to the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. Formally, he is a retired pastor and administrator, but he still remains active with teaching and writing assignments.