The Legitimacy of Hope

Rainbow over Belvedere Plantation at the start of "Slopsylvania 2014."      Photo: Jo Habecker

Rainbow over Belvedere Plantation at the start of "Slopsylvania 2014."      Photo: Jo Habecker

All of us routinely hope for a variety of things. We don’t think about it. We just do it. We roll out of bed each morning hoping, that is confidently expecting there will be enough hot water for a shower; that the coffee is started; that one’s running shoes are where they were left the night before. Most of us expect with a reasonable degree of certainty that the car will start and we will head off to a relatively good day of work, school, running errands or whatever else may be on the docket. We hope the trains are running on time or that we possess enough savvy to avoid traffic. Our expectations are based upon the fact that we have done this hundreds of mornings before. Usually we don’t think of it in terms of hope but generally speaking our past experiences dictate the degree of confidence we have in being able to meet our own expectations in the course of a typically mundane morning routine.

Hope in God however is a little different. Last week, after defining hope as expectation seasoned with a bit of confidence, I described a few things that the people of my particular church and Christians in general can be reasonably hopeful about. The list included among other things the confident expectation that God speaks and is at work in our midst. But these expectations represent a giant cliffhanger that I intentionally left unaddressed.

The cliffhanger is that in order to have any hope in God’s speech, work, or for that matter goodness, one has to believe that God exists in the first place. Thus the skeptic among us attempts to chisel away at hope by pointing out that the expectations we may have of God are based on nothing more than a giant presupposition for which there is no proof positive. Thus offended the religious typically doth protest, appealing to personal experience and maybe the Bible. But in doing so it seems the skeptics’ point is only further proven. The Christian understanding and perception of the world rests on a presupposed house of cards while the skeptic stands on the terra firma of cold calculation and scientific fact.

Well…okay. Who created science?

But never mind because the truth is that we all routinely operate on the basis of presuppositions every day. Every morning many of us operate under the unquestioned assumption that the water heater will safely and properly work in such a manner as to provide enough hot water for our showers. We don’t even think about it. Just turn the knob. There it is. But should the hot water heater malfunction, explode, and shoot a hole through the roof of the house (as the All-State Insurance Company’s “Mayhem” commercial depicts) it might be cause to reflect upon the validity of one's previously held assumption...about water heaters.

What if Harry Homeowner is having such a miserable day that, gazing toward the heavens through the hole his water heater just left in the roof, he is caused to contemplate his relationship to the cosmos? If he subscribes to belief in God's existence, in other words if he is a theist, he may respond in a wide variety of ways. Perhaps Harry may reason darkly that God is exacting judgment upon him and his house for something Harry's been feeling guilty about for years. Or Harry may simply conclude that God wanted him to have a skylight.

Conversely if Harry denies the existence of God, and is thus an atheist, he may be able to explain the explosion of his water heater scientifically just as he could if he believed in God. But he will likely still be compelled to come up with a philosophical explanation for the misfortune that's befallen him; something like what goes around comes around, my number was up, it just isn't my day, or the like.

In this example God-fearing Harry's responses to the event are not really any more well reasoned than those of God-less Harry. The point is that they are both drawing conclusions based upon a previously held set of beliefs and assumptions. A belief in the absence of God is no less based on a presupposition than a belief in the existence of God. This being the case the atheist has no right to claim the argumentative high ground over the theist...or the Christian. While the Christian worldview builds upon the presupposition of God’s existence, the alternative relies on an equally if not more precipitous assumption that there is no God.

This leads to the bottom line: Which is more hopeful? I don’t mean to minimize the very real pain and heartache that malfunctioning water heaters, traffic congestion, and delayed trains can cause. But when real disaster strikes and senseless tragedy occurs the Christian's theistic presupposition has more to offer in terms of hope. At the very least Christianity allows for the possibility that such events are able to fulfill God's purposes as opposed to being random and devoid of meaning. That is to say that the theist can at a minimum hope, confidently expect, that there is meaning in suffering regardless of whether or not that meaning is readily apparent. The atheist is left with no such possibility of hope.

Of course Christianity goes several steps beyond simply assenting to God's existence and deriving some faint hope from that. Christianity asserts that God is completely just in all his judgments yet merciful, gracious, and loving as well. In the minds of Christians God is in fact a worthy object of faith. This is just too much for many people. It is one thing to advocate for God's existence. But one may ask how anyone can claim to have knowledge of God's character. Furthermore in light of circumstances ranging from water heater blowups and traffic to famine and war, what is it about the existence of God that we may find to be so hope-inspiring? The Christian's answers to these questions rest in a book by which they believe God has revealed himself, namely the Bible.

Really...the Bible? Really. That's next.