This is an edited excerpt from “The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse” edited by Matthew C. Harrison (1517 Publishing, 2016).
The voice of Christian hope sounds again, still feebly, but more and more distinctly, through a world of fear and hopelessness. More than enough has been written in our time by poets, philosophers, and theologians on the situation of modern man who is experiencing the disappointment of all his hope, the frustration of his labours, the despair of the future, and lives in a state of anxiety, deprived of the comfort that men of former generations found in their religion or in the “consolations of philosophy.” Has there been any other century in the history of the world in which mankind—not only individual nations—has moved between such extremes as the glowing optimism with which the Western nations entered the twentieth century and the deep pessimism of the Fifties and Sixties, which in turn found an expression in the existentialism that became the leading philosophy of our time? Mankind moved between an almost indestructible belief in the progress of man and his civilization and the deep disappointment of those who had to go through the catastrophes of the wars and revolutions that started in 1914.
No century before had achieved such triumphs in science and technology, but we seem incapable of making any other use of them than to destroy our own lives. Never before have such serious attempts been made to prevent wars and to establish lasting peace and justice in the world, but the result has been that the wars became worse and worse and that even the primitive rules and principles of international law have been forgotten. These contradictions drive mankind, individuals, and nations, into an abyss of despair.
In such a time, the Church of Christ has to preach the eternal Gospel of hope. But are we able to proclaim this glorious message, the source of peace and joy in human hearts, the great antidote against the suicidal sin of despair? Or have we already also in the churches been affected by the poison of this sin to such a degree that we no longer understand the biblical message of hope? Our churches have yielded for a long time to the temptation of identifying the secular hopes of our modern civilization with the hope of the New Testament. The consequence was that the breakdowns of such worldly hopes that has led modern man into a state of despair has now a very dangerous effect on us. The “Death of God” theology is only the extreme form of a theology that, under the influence of modern existentialist philosophy, has lost the biblical message of hope and robs the preaching of the Church of the joy that belongs to the “glad tidings” of the Gospel. The whole New Testament is pervaded by great joy, from the joy proclaimed in the Gospel of Christmas to the joy of which Jesus spoke in his last discourses before the Passion (John 15:11; 16:20–24; 17:13), the joy of Easter, and the joy that for all apostles is one of the fruit of the Spirit (e.g., Gal. 5:22; 1 Peter 1:8; 1 John 1:4). The joylessness of so much of our preaching could have its deepest root in the hopelessness of so much of our theology.
But what is the hope that belongs to the nature of the truly Christian life? Christian hope is not simply the hope of a Christian. For every Christian within the depth of his heart is a believer, earnestly desires to live in the Spirit, and shares with all other men the hope that belongs to the nature of man. Also the apostles can use the words “elpizein” and “elpis” in an ordinary sense, as Paul does when he “hopes” to see the Church in Rome on his way to Spain (Rom. 15:24) or to spend a few days at Corinth (1 Cor. 16:7) or when he hopes “in the Lord” to soon send Timothy to Philippi (Phil. 2:19; comp. also 1 Tim. 3:14; Philem. 22; 2 John 12; 3 John 14). All saints of God, all believers, share the hope that according to the wisdom of all nations belongs to the very nature of man, because man lives by hope (e.g., Ecclesiastes 9:4) and cannot live without hope. The hope of the sick for the restoration to health, the hope of the prisoner for freedom, the hope for social justice in a nation and for peace between the nations of the world—all these human hopes are common to Christians and non-Christians, and no Christian should dissociate himself from the hopes of his fellow men, as long as these hopes are justified. It would be a grave violation of the great commandment to love our neighbor if we failed to understand these human hopes and if we refused our active participation in the lawful attempts to realize them under the pretext that there are higher things to hope for.
Human hopes, however, whether held by Christians or non-Christians, have one definite limitation. They may be fulfilled or not fulfilled, and even if they seem to have been fulfilled, their fulfilment is never final. Even the sick persons whom Jesus healed fell sick again and died. These healings were signs of the approaching kingdom of God. It cannot be far away if it happens “that the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:4ff., comp. Luke 4:18ff). These “signs” announce the coming kingdom as the first dim light of dawn announces the coming of the new day. But the day is not yet there. If this is true even of the great works of Christ in the New Testament in which he showed his sympathy with sincere human hopes and helped to fulfill them, how much more is it true of human hopes in our ordinary lives. To live is not only to hope, as the proverbs of so many peoples say. To live means also to bury hopes, as a great German novelist says whose dictum is quoted by J. Moltmann in his remarkable book on the Theology of Hope. (1)
Between the human hope that is bound to fail and to end in despair and the Christian hope of the New Testament stands the hope of the old people of God. The Old Testament is a great book of hope. One may first think of the problem of human hope in the Psalms and in the Book of Job. The latter is the most exhaustive description of the wrestling of man in a hopeless situation with God “Behold he will slay me, I have no hope” (Job 13:15), until he resigns himself to the inscrutable will of God, not the God of pious sentiments and human theology, but the real, living God who comes to us as an overwhelming reality when we no longer know him from hearsay only, but when we hear him speaking to us: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee. Therefore I...repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5).
The Psalms, the prayer book of Jesus and of the Church of all ages, have exercised an unequaled influence on the spiritual life of mankind because by praying them man has learned to overcome the hopelessness of his existence by faith in the living God: “Thou, O Lord, art my hope” (Ps. 71:5). In contrast to human hopes, which are bound to fail, this hope, God himself, cannot fail. In the Psalms, the distinction between the individual and the people as a whole vanishes, though both are and remain realities. Jahve, Israel’s God, is the never failing hope of his people. So the history of Israel becomes the history of hope.
Henceforth, Old Testament hope rests on two pillars, on the promise of God and on the history that accompanies and illuminates the promise. What God has done in the past in his power and mercy, this he can and will repeat in another form in the future. Hope, thus, becomes hope for redemption. Since there is no redemption without redeemer, it becomes hope in the Redeemer, God, who acts or may act through the Messiah. Hope becomes thus Messianic hope.
If hope is the great motor that moves the history of Israel, a history without parallel in the entire history of the world, hope gets a new significance in the New Testament. We begin with a linguistic observation. Who is the God who is invoked in the Psalms as our “hope”? What is the name of him in whom we hope? He can be called “el” or “elohim” or “Jahve.” It seems today to be taken for granted that Jahve is identical with the New Testament “Father.” This is often the case, but it is not the whole truth. Even if Moltmann identifies Jahve with the Father and can render the statement that God has raised Christ from the dead with “Jahve resurrects the Messiah,” something is wrong.
The New Testament, which following the Greek Bible renders Jahve with Kyrios, can also identify Jahve with the Son. We should not forget that for the Greek-speaking Christians, Psalm 23 referred to Christ. “The Lord is my shepherd” means to them the same as “I am the good shepherd.” Who is Jahve whose glory Isaiah saw in the temple? According to the Gospel of St. John what Isaiah saw was Christ’s glory: “Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (Isa 12:41)...
...When the Early Church read their Psalm 129 (our 130th) it was Christ or Christ also to whom they referred the word: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope...O Israel hope in the Lord. For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” So Christian hope means always hope in God and hope in Christ simultaneously without distinction. In 1 Tim. 1:1, Paul calls himself an apostle “by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.” In Rom. 15:13, the apostle expresses the wish, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
What is the nature of this Christian hope? It is given by God, by Christ, by the Holy Spirit. God, and especially Christ, is its content proper. No man can give it to himself. No man can give it to others. It belongs to the great charismata that God the Holy Spirit gives to those who believe in Christ. It belongs together with faith and love and constitutes with them the triad Paul mentions repeatedly, not only in 1 Corinthians 13, but also 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and Ephesians 4:1–6. While other charismata may be lacking, these three are present in every true believer. Faith cannot be without hope, hope not without faith. And also love belongs inseparably together with them. The formula is, so to speak, the shortest description of the Christian life.
This is an edited excerpt from “The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse” edited by Matthew C. Harrison (1517 Publishing, 2016), pgs. 225-230. The entire article, “Some Thoughts on Christian Hope,” originally appeared in The Reformed Theological Review Vol XXVI, No. 2, May-August 1967