“Christian hope”, said Pope Francis, “is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”
What a contrast there is between the Christian hope – and hope as understood by the ancient Greeks. My attention recently was drawn to the story of Pandora. According to a Greek myth found in one of Hesiod’s poems, Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the gods and shared it with humankind. As an act of revenge Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create the first woman, which he did out of earth and water, and ordered each of the other gods to endow her with a ‘seductive gift’. Zeus named this ‘beautiful evil’ Pandora (‘All-gifted’) and sent her off to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora had been warned not to open the jar (today known as a ‘box’ because of a 16th century mistranslation), but her natural curiosity got the better of her. As she lifted the lid, she released every evil onto the earth, bringing the world’s golden age to its close. Aghast, she hastened to replace the lid, but all the contents of the jar had already escaped – all except hope. “This”, wrote Hesiod, “was the will of aegis-bearing Zeus the Cloudgatherer”.
Down through the centuries there has been much debate about the significance of hope in Pandora’s box. Does it imply that hope is preserved to make the sufferings of this life more bearable? Or, in what is a story of revenge, does it mean that hope is denied to us, making life all the more miserable? Or, like the other contents of the jar, is hope an evil, which brings torment to us? It is this third interpretation which Friedrich Nietzsche adopted: “Man”, he wrote, “believes the ill which remains within [the jar] to be the greatest blessing… Hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man”.
Whereas for Christians hope is a positive virtue, in the ancient world hope was viewed as a delusion. In a famous speech recorded by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War the Athenians declare somewhat cynically:
Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting.
Hope, as far as Thucydides was concerned, deceives and misleads. Or as the agnostic American politician Robert Ingersoll said in a speech in 1894:
Hope is the universal liar who never loses his reputation for veracity.
By contrast Christians put their hope in God who does not mislead. In the words of Stephen Travis, a Methodist theologian:
To hope means to look forward expectantly for God’s future activity. The ground of hope is God’s past activity in Jesus Christ…. Thus the believer looks forward to the resurrection of God’s people and the arrival of God’s Kingdom, confident because Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom and has been raised from death.
Christian hope is an expression of faith in God. To quote the Apostle Paul: “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8.24) This relationship between hope and faith is helpfully defined by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who wrote:
In the Christian life faith has the priority but hope the primacy. Without faith’s knowledge of Christ, hope becomes a utopia and remains hanging in the air. But without hope, faith falls to pieces, becomes a fainthearted and ultimately a dead faith. It is through faith that man [sic] finds the path of true life, but it is only hope that keeps him on that path.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not in the business of misleading his creatures. He is to be trusted. Our hope for the future is secure.