Hope Against Hope: The Ground of Faith and Love

Of the three enduring pillars of Christianity (faith, hope and love), hope is often neglected in light of the more obvious qualities of faith and love. The three, though, are necessarily linked, as faith and love exist in hope. Without hope, faith and love are unbalanced and ultimately rendered impossible or, at least, of a different order of meaning than biblical faith and love. Hope transports the realm of faith and love beyond the temporal and its limited possibilities. Hope is unseen because it defies earthly, mortal, deathly, expectations, bringing the eternal into faith and love.

While there are earthly versions of all three, it is hope which specifically contains the biblical element of a continual dying to the world, of passing through death, to an expectant life in God which is no longer grounded by the delimitations of death. Thus, the curative element: the cure of fear, the cure of the curtailments of reason and the earthly perspective, which might be attached to all three, are ensured by hope.

Faith and love might speak of an ordinary finite degree of possibility but hope surpasses what is possible and clings to the otherwise impossible. This can be easily demonstrated in the qualifiers which could be potentially added to faith and love but which are excluded when combined with hope. Limited, temporal, finite, faith and love may be the norm but hope extends faith and love to the unlimited, the a-temporal and the infinite.

We might speak of a dogmatic faith but never of a dogmatic hope. Hope, by its very nature, cannot be paired with hard-headed knowing. This is why David Bentley Hart’s dogmatic universalism, as compared to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s hopeful universalism, seems to miss the point. The point of biblical end time imagery is not to illicit rational certainty or exhaustive explanation, but hope. Hope is the reworking of the imagination on the basis of what is not approachable by sight. Rational sight-bound categories may give us a deity driven by the necessity of human reason – but hope relieves us of such necessities at the same time that it frees the imagination. Hope takes us beyond the temporal and its suffocating rational possibilities. The danger of Hart’s dogmatism is that it would make universalism bear an explanatory weight which would relieve the imagination of doing any work. But this is the entire point of the Christian end-time kingdom imagery – to bring about a reworked imagination which is not bound by temporal-rational possibilities.

Faith and love might be conceived of apart from anticipation but there is no hope without expectation. Rightly understood, faith and love are grounded in this expectation of hope. Both speak of a future in which they are proven to have been true and worthy. Hopeless love would be a quickly passing malady, as there is no expectation of a brighter, fulfilled future for the beloved. Hopeful love presumes this expectation of the best for the beloved. So too, hopeless faith would be a static, time bound belief which does not presume to transport the believer elsewhere. Hope brings an eternal dynamism (the future ever-transforming the past and present) into faith and love. Hope speaks of a living possibility imputed into faith and love. Living by faith and love is the dynamism hope delivers. Living out this hope (the certainty or assurance of faith in Hebrews 11) brings the eternal into time, not as a fully realized achievement, but as an actively lived possibility. It is in hope that human experience of time is transformed by eternity – as the eternal possibilities open a way forward, where time presented impenetrable obstacles.

Where faith and love might be qualified or constrained by the possible, hope makes for unqualified-impossible love and a seemingly impossible faith, as with God there is nothing that is impossible. Jesus tells us that with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26) – an understanding Jesus connects directly to belief in goodness. Given the circumstance of the world camels cannot be threaded through a needle, the rich are hopeless, and goodness is unachievable. Reason cannot resolve the problem of evil even in its conception of the goodness of God. Hope leaps over this impossibility – having faith in goodness and unqualified hope in love. Though bad faith and ill-conceived love may be the norm, hope is hope in an “impossible” goodness. Hope implies a confidence in a good outcome which is not constrained by bleak necessities.

Abraham, as the case in point of hope beyond hope (Ro 4:18), is faced with an impossible, irresolvable situation, apart from divine intervention. His is a journey in which the earthly expectancy of propagating his name is foreclosed (faith rendered impossible) and this is where hope begins. It is not simply his faith isolated from hope that is exceptional, as his hope translates the future expectation into the possibility of moving forward – going into the unseen far country. Faith apart from hope would remain a static possibility, but hope enlivens the eternal possibility in the present so that the journey is energized now by the possibilities of its end.

What is relinquished in the process are not simply the possibilities of earthly hope but with it the weight of earthly desires and necessities. Apart from hope, Abraham’s childlessness, homelessness, and old age, would constitute a final despair – and that is precisely where hope begins. The divine hope (the hope beyond hope), over and against human hope, begins at that point where there is no natural, rational, earthly way forward. At that point where earthly expectations have been exhausted and despair would kick in, eternal hope begins.

The presumed obstacles to Abraham’s faith – hardships, frustrations, suffering, failed expectations – are the ingredient of the hope beyond hope. The impossibility of his circumstance may appear as an obstacle to his faith, but if it is understood that his faith is grounded in the hope of eternity, then the obstacles can be seen as moving him from hope in time to hope in eternity. Hopelessness, despair, and death, prompt the living hope which leaps beyond the world to presuming one’s own incapacity and the necessity of divine intervention.

Maybe this is why faith and love, apart from hope, not only do not imply suffering but seem to be challenged by suffering. Hope presumes suffering but the suffering itself is rendered secondary. As Paul describes it in Romans 8, the suffering with which the creation is infused is on the order of childbirth. “We ourselves,” he indicates, “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (8:23). This suffering is an expectant suffering which presumes there is a point to the suffering.

As Paul pictures the contrast between two types of suffering, suffering, apart from hope arises from within the individual (their desire) and there is no relief from this hopeless desirous suffering closed up within the self. This self in relation to itself – pursuing and desiring itself, only further isolates itself in its turn inward.  Paul’s despairing cry, “Wretched man that I am, Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24), gets at the isolated hopelessness. The specific element giving rise to suffering in the midst of hopelessness is the futility of this unfulfillable pursuit. There is an incapacity to persevere in the midst of this desire, which seems to empty out any positive, outside possibility. As Kierkegaard describes it, imprisoned air develops a poison all by itself.”[1]

 On the other hand, Paul pictures varieties of suffering (tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword (8:35)) but these outward forms of suffering are no obstacle to the love of God grounded in hope. Thus, the perseverance of hope presumes that what it is persevering in is suffering but the suffering points beyond itself. Faith and love do not seem to have this presumption of a persevering through suffering apart from hope.

It is not too much to claim Christian faith and love require hope.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, 2009. Works of Love, ( trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong. New York: Harper Perennial), 231.

Does Hart’s Dogmatic Universalism Miss the Real World Engagement of Christian Hope?

David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved, arrives at an unquestioning universalism which he poses against the “hopeful” but “timid” universalism of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and concludes that to be timid simply springs from being muddled. Either everyone will be reconciled to God through the work of Christ or some human beings will never be reconciled – both cannot be true. If Hart’s argument has a target audience, beyond those who already agree with him, it must be to nudge the hopeful universalists toward his dogmatic universalism. Hart blends philosophical and biblical argument and concludes that the notion of “tension” between two irreconcilable positions is simply a way of eliding “contradiction” and, the ultimate Hartian insult, this timidity is just giving way to a “post-Hegelian dialectical disenchantment, as well perhaps as a touch of disingenuous obscurantism” (p. 103). It is his blending of modes of discourse which I want to question: Is biblical certainty of the same order as philosophical certainty and do these modes of discourse position us differently in regard to the work of Christ, history, and most especially the problem of evil?

It is not that philosophy and theology are absolutely discreet, but the incremental difference between “hopeful” and “certain” universality pertains to tone and perspective. That is, Hart’s tone, his wonderfully entertaining arrogance, is not a side light of this work but is gained from a perspective he would have everyone adopt. Here we have not so much to do with the hard work of explaining how justice can possibly be meted out or how evil can be resolved. This tone of certainty smacks more of the perspective of a philosophical transcendence, which need not bend to the limited perspective of a mere human. The categories are dealt with, the formal causes and problems engaged, while there is really no comprehension of how this really works. I certainly believe in a final justice but the comprehension that this is so is far different than understanding how it is going to be made the case. The justice enacted in Christ, the revelation of God in Christ, by way of contrast, deals in the realm of human history, human experience, and allows for human understanding. This too is a certainty, but it is a certainty in progress, working itself out in history, and engaged not in terms of an absolute philosophical certainty but the “hopeful” certainty of faith. The former need not take into account the realm of evil or the contingencies of history. The latter is a humble “hopeful” certainty which deals in the reality of human perspective and the existential fact of suffering and evil.

The argument for humility may sound like a niggling critique, but it makes all the difference in terms of the problem of evil. We can, in portions of Hart’s argument, momentarily set aside the real-world overcoming of evil in the Cross of Christ – the engaged position of those responsible men and women called to action in the face of evil[1] – as we our now given a God’s eye view above all of the sound and fury.  It turns out that the weight of God’s action is in the future, far removed from real-world engagement with evil, beyond history and on the other side of death. Isn’t the danger of this absolutely confident universalism that, like infernalism, it so weights future categories so as to empty out the necessity of the Cross and our taking up the Cross?

The objection is not that Hart does this permanently or all the time, he is too good of a theologian for that, but the entire argument is geared toward adopting a tone warranted, not so much by a Christocentric perspective as by arguments from formal cause. Both may give rise to what we call “certainty” but the former brand of certainty is an engaged certainty, which looks to the gradual triumph of the work of Christ and the Cross. The latter certainty can skip over all mere historical, known categories, and invest its trust in an incomprehensible future. For example, purging fire (a perfectly sound idea) is as metaphorical as punishing fire, how either works is beyond comprehension. Unlike the Cross, which we can ascertain, comprehend in part, witness to, the certainty imbued by this future work is made of the same stuff as purely formal analytical arguments (of which Hart is so critical).

Hart’s confident universalism functions in this book much in the same way that divine apatheia functions in The Doors of the Sea. In order for God to not be implicated in the problem of evil, the mode of rescue is through an apatheia beyond comprehension. A book spent on disclaiming theodicy reverses course in the case of God so as to provide Him, if no one else, a way out. The Cross in turn, rather than being a real world unfolding of the defeat of evil (as an ongoing battle) is “a triumph of divine apatheia” (p. 81). Hart’s formal cause is protected from evil, in both instances, by formally dismissing the contingencies of evil as entering into the equation. This is accomplished not by focusing on what is knowable about God in Christ, but by trusting primarily in what is apophatic, a-historical, and ultimately unknowable. One might speak of this trust as “certain” as part of a formal and flawless argument but it is a certainty that almost certainly has nothing to do with the real world-defeat of evil found in the historical Jesus. The fault is not in the logic of the argument but in the perspective it affords.

The Christocentric perspective, as with the evil which it takes into account, primarily deals in the concrete and specific and is not aimed at protecting formal arguments nor an abstract understanding. While one might be certain of one’s formal statements about God, does this form of certainty give rise to ethical behavior, to resistance to evil, to assuming personal responsibility or does it, in fact, have the opposite effect?

As with the discourse of the friends of Job, the heirs and guardians of infallible arguments, their knowledge is dispensed from a height which could lord it over the evil that plagued their poor, muddled thinking, friend. Their knowledge is pure and positive and does not rely upon taking into account momentary evil. While their thought takes flight from the world, Job’s hope is that God would show up in the midst of the world.

“This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27).

There is a certainty in Job’s statement, but it is not the certainty of his friends in their apprehension of formal cause. It is a hopeful certainty that takes into account his present suffering. It is not through denying or turning away from suffering that we see the presence of God in Christ; it is by entering into the truth of these realities that we best apprehend God.

In his deployment of creation ex-nihilo Hart notes, “God does not determine himself in creation—because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to forge his identity in the fires of history—in creating he reveals himself truly.”[2] While God does not determine himself in creation, is it the case that this is sufficient revelation for his human subjects? Contrast this with Luther’s critique of scholasticism:

Thesis 19: ‘He is not rightly called a theologian who perceives and understands God’s invisible being through his works. That is clear from those who were such ‘theologians’ and yet were called fools by the apostle in Romans 1:22. ‘The invisible being of God is his power, Godhead, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and so on.  Knowledge of all these things does not make a man wise and worthy.’

Thesis 20: ‘But he is rightly called a theologian who understands that part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world to be presented in suffering and in the cross. That part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world is opposed to what is invisible, his humanity, his weakness, his foolishness…For as men misused the knowledge of God on the basis of his works, God again willed that he should be known from suffering, and therefore willed to reject such wisdom of the visible, so that those Who did not worship God as he is manifested in his works might worship him as the one who is hidden in suffering (I Cor. 1:21).  So, it is not enough and no use for anyone to know God in his glory and his majesty if at the same time he does not know him in the lowliness and shame of his cross. Thus, true theology and true knowledge of God lie in Christ the crucified one.’[3]

Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critique of theological liberalism, which mostly served the Nazi cause, took its strength from their engaged form of Lutheranism. For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behavior is how the reality of the world and the reality of God are reconciled in the reality of Christ (Ethics, p. 198). To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). Hart’s form of certainty stands in danger of foregoing the necessity of reconciling the two forms of discourse he engages and thus produces a philosophical certainty in place of the hopeful assurance of faith. The formal realities of God known through creation take precedence, in his dogmatic universalism, over the hopeful universalism of faith in Christ.  The danger is in missing the prime reality of the world engaged by Christ; the basis for a responsible ethical overcoming of evil.


[1] In Bonhoeffers description.

[2] David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho, in Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, (Vol. 3, Number1 (September 2015): 1-17) p. 5

[3] Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.

The Story of Frank and Two Goats

Hans Urs von Balthazar has formulated what he calls the “theological law of proportionate polarization” in which “the more God intervenes, the more he elicits opposition to him.” Love and sin, intervention and opposition, work in reciprocal relation: sin escalates in the presence of love and ever-greater mercy arouses ever-greater anger.” What is most holy and pure, such as the Tabernacle and the Temple, will draw to itself—like a magnet—what is least holy and what is least pure. This is why the day of atonement requires two goats, this is why evil accumulated in direct opposition to Christ, and this is why the Church is peculiarly conducive to the growth of both wheat and tares.  Great evil and great good will grow up together and tend to accumulate in one time and place.  It is the story Scripture tells and it is a life principle which calls for a peculiar discernment. Continue reading “The Story of Frank and Two Goats”