Theologies of Hope

By Miroslav Volf

This article is a shortened adaptation of a two-part “For the Life of the World” podcast on the theme of hope that YDS Professor Miroslav Volf posted in summer 2020, produced by the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. You can listen here to podcast Part 1 and Part 2.

Fear, more than hope, is characteristic of our time. In the late 1960s, we were optimistic about the century’s hopes for the triumph of justice and something like universal peace, but that has given way to increasing pessimism. “No future” scenarios have become plausible to us. As I write in summer 2020, the coronavirus pandemic gives the dominant shape to our anxieties. But even before the pandemic, we feared more than we hoped. We feared and continue to fear falling behind as the gap widens between the ultra-rich and the rest who are condemned to run frantically just to stay in the same place yet often cannot prevent falling behind. We fear the collapse of the ecosystem straining under the burden of our ambitions, the revenge of nature for violence we perpetrate against it. We fear loss of cultural identities as the globe shrinks, and people, driven by war, ecological devastation, and deprivation, migrate to where they can survive and thrive.

Politically, the consequence is the rise of identity politics and nationalism, both driven largely by fear. Culturally, the consequences are dystopian movies and literature, and the popularity of pessimistic philosophies. In religious thought and imagination, too, apocalyptic moods are again in vogue. Hope seems impossible; fear feels overwhelming.

A Thing With Feathers

The Apostle Paul has penned some of the most famous lines about hope ever written: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25). Hope is a strange thing – as Emily Dickinson declares in her famous poem, it’s a “thing with feathers” perched in our soul, ready to take us on its wings to some future good. In fact, hope is a thing that has already taken us to that good with the tune that it sings. In hope – or perhaps by hope – “we were saved,” writes Apostle Paul. In hope, a future good which isn’t yet, somehow already is. A future good we cannot see, which waits in darkness, still qualifies our entire existence. We might be suffering or experiencing “hardship … distress … persecution … famine … nakedness … peril … sword … we are being killed all day long” (Romans 8:18, 35-36), and yet we have been saved and we are saved.

Interpreting the phrase “in hope we are saved,” Martin Luther suggested in his Lectures on Romans that just as love transforms the lover into the beloved, so “hope changes the one who hopes into what is hoped for.”[1]  Thus, a key feature of hope is that it stretches a person into the unknown, the hidden, the darkness of unknown possibility. For Paul this can happen because God is with us – God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist.

Hope vs. Optimism vs. Expectation

When I hope, I expect something in the future. I cannot hope for my 18-year-old son to know how to ride a bike, because he knows that already. But I can hope for him to do well in college, for that’s where he is headed in the fall. Without expectation for the future, there can be no hope. But we don’t hope for everything we can expect in the future. We generally don’t hope for natural occurrences, such as a new day that dawns after a dark and restful night; I know, more or less, that the next day will come. But I may hope for cool breezes to freshen up a hot summer day. We reserve the term “hope” for the expectation of things that we cannot fully control or predict with a high degree of certainty. The way we generally use the word, “hope” can be roughly defined as the expectation of good things that don’t come to us as a matter of course. That’s the distinction between hope and expectation.

The God who creates out of nothing, the God who makes the dead alive, justifies hope that is otherwise unjustifiable.

In his justly famous book Theology of Hope (1964), Jürgen Moltmann, one of the greatest theologians of the second part of the 20th century, made another important distinction, that between hope and optimism.[2] The source of the distinction relates to the specific way some ancient biblical writers understand hope. Optimism, if it is justified, is based on extrapolations we make about the future based upon what we can reasonably discern to be tendencies in the present. Meteorologists observe weather patterns around the globe and release their forecasts for the next day: the day will be unseasonably warm, but in the early afternoon winds will pick up and bring some relief; now you have reason to be optimistic that the afternoon will be pleasant, perhaps you even look forward to sailing your little 12-foot sloop on three-foot swells. Or, to take another scenario, you and your spouse are healthy adults of childbearing age, you have had no trouble conceiving, and the obstetrician tells you that your pregnancy is going well; you have reason to be optimistic that you will give birth to a healthy child. The present contains the seeds of the future, and if it is well with these seeds, the future that will grow will be good as well. That’s reasonable optimism.

Hope, argued Moltmann, is different. Hope is not based on accurate extrapolation about the future from the character of the present; the hoped-for future is not born out of the present. The future good that is the object of hope is a new thing, novum, that comes in part from outside the situation. Correspondingly, hope is, in Emily Dickinson’s felicitous phrase, like a bird that flies in from outside and “perches in the soul.” Optimism in dire situations reveals an inability to understand what is going on or an unwillingness to accept it and is therefore an indication of foolishness or weakness. In contrast, hope during dire situations, hope notwithstanding the circumstances, is a sign of courage and strength.

What is the use of hope not based on evidence or reason, you may wonder? Think of the alternative. What happens when we identify hope with reasonable expectation? Facing the shocking collapse of what we had expected with good reasons, we will slump into hopelessness at the time when we need hope the most! Hope helps us identify signs of hope as signs of hope rather than just anomalies in an otherwise irreparable situation, as indicators of a new dawn rather than the last flickers of a dying light. Hope also helps us to press on with determination and courage. When every course of action by which we could reach the desired future seems destined to failure, when we cannot reasonably draw a line that would connect the terror of the present with future joy, hope remains indomitable and indestructible. When we hope, we always hope against reasonable expectations. That’s why Emily Dickinson’s bird of hope “never stops” singing – in the sore storm, in the chilliest land, on the strangest sea.

Hope Needs Endurance, Endurance Needs Hope

We are most in need of hope under an affliction and menace we cannot control, yet it is in those situations that it is most difficult for us to hold onto hope and not give ourselves over to darkness as our final state. That is where patience and endurance come in. In the same letter to the Romans, in the same passage that celebrates hope and its transformative darkness, Paul writes: “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). “Patience” is here the translation of hypomone, which is better rendered as endurance, or perhaps “patient endurance.” 

Neither patience nor endurance are popular emotions or skills. Our lives are caught in a whirlwind of accelerated changes; we have little endurance for endurance, no patience with patience. Technological advances promise to give us lives of ease; having to endure anything strikes us as a defeat. And yet, when a crisis hits, we need endurance as much as we need hope. Or, more precisely, we need genuine hope, which, to the extent that it is genuine, is marked by endurance.

When the great Apostle says in Romans 8:25 that if we hope, we wait with endurance, he implies that hope generates endurance: because we hope we can endure present suffering. That was his point in the opening statement of the section on suffering in Romans 8:18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” The hope of future glory makes present suffering bearable. But, in Romans 5:3-5, he inverts the relation between hope and endurance. There he writes, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Now endurance helps generate hope. Putting the two texts together, Romans 8 and Romans 5, we can say: hope needs endurance and endurance needs hope; genuine endurance is marked by hope; and genuine hope is marked by endurance.

The God of Promises

More than half a century after his Theology of Hope, Jürgen Moltmann has written an essay, On Patience (2018), about two aspects of patience we find in the biblical traditions: forbearance and endurance. Writing as a 92-year-old, he begins the second paragraph of this essay on patience autobiographically:

In my youth, I learned to know “the God of hope” and loved the beginnings of a new life with new ideas. But in my old age I am learning to know “the God of patience” and stay in my place in life.[3]

Youth and old age, Moltmann goes on to say, are not about chronology, but about experiences in life and stances toward life. Hope and patience belong both to youth and to old age; they complement each other. He continues:

Without endurance, hope turns superficial and evaporates when it meets first resistances. In hope we start something new, but only endurance helps us persevere. Only tenacious endurance makes hope sustainable. We learn endurance only with the help of hope. On the other hand, when hope gets lost, endurance turns into passivity. Hope turns endurance into active passivity. In hope we affirm the pain that comes with endurance, and learn to tolerate it.[4]

Hope and endurance – neither can be truly itself without the other. And for the Apostle Paul, both our hope and our ability to endure – our enduring hope – are rooted in the character of God. Toward the end of Romans, he highlights both “the God of endurance” (or steadfastness) and “the God of hope” (Romans 15:5, 13). Those who believe in that God – the God who is the hope of Israel, the God who is the hope of Gentiles and the hope of the whole earth – are able to be steadfast and endure fear-inducing situations they cannot change and in which no good future seems to be in sight. But more than just endure. Paul, the persecuted apostle who experienced himself as “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,” was hoping for more than just endurance from the God of hope. Toward the very end of his letter to the Christians in Rome – in the second of what looks like four endings of the letter – he writes: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). In the midst of affliction, the God of hope opens us up for the possibility of joy and comprehensive well-being.

Our salvation lies in hope, but not in hope that insists on the future good it has imagined, but in hope ready to rejoice in the kind of good that actually comes our way. The God who creates out of nothing, the God who makes dead alive – the God of the original beginning of all things and the God of new beginnings – justifies hope that is otherwise unjustifiable. When that God makes a promise, we can hope.

Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at YDS and founding director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. He is the author of A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Brazos, 2011) and other books.

[1] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, edited by Hilton C. Oswald, volume 25 of Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (Concordia Publishing House, 1972), p. 364.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, translated by Margaret Kohl (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Über Geduld, Barmherzigkeit und Solidarität (Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2018), p. 13, my translation.

[4] Moltmann, pp. 13-14.