THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 83
The Christian Hope
Forty-five million children will die over the next few years if the rich countries don’t increase their contribution to 0.7% of their GDP - the international target agreed. At present we in Britain give 0.2% which is fairly pathetic, but the USA gives even less - and apparently a lot of that is given as assistance to USA companies rather than direct to the needy countries.
When one stands back and looks at the disparity in living standards between the rich and the poor countries one cannot but feel ashamed. Words like selfishness and greed surface! I know all the arguments (‘trade not aid’, and corruption in the recipient countries etc) swirl around the subject, but at base we who have so much are failing to care for the injured man lying in the gutter as we might and should, had we the political will and the motivation.
We also have our own poor, of course, and often fail to deal trenchantly with the suffering and injustice on our own doorstep. Is the Christian message purely a hope for ‘pie in the sky’? Is all we can offer a life hereafter where, as in in the case of Lazarus and Dives, the positions of advantaged and disadvantaged will be reversed? We have much to do on earth, but the hope of a more just heaven does help millions endure misery down here.
But what is this Christian hope?
What does it mean to be a Christian in the face of all the inequalities, injustice and sheer grinding poverty of so many millions in the world?
Above all else the Christian message directs us to provide help for those around us. ‘Our neighbour’ is now taken to mean any human on earth who is in desperate need. And there are plenty of them!
But what does this term ‘The Christian hope’ mean for us? What hope do we hold out for the future?
The hope that Christians have becomes the very ground of our being when we accept the Lordship of Christ in our lives. Life may bear down on us heavily and we may be hard pressed to survive ourselves at times, but more and more as we travel along on our pilgrimage we come to treasure the Christian hope. I think there are three main areas.
Firstly , I think that we have an assurance that our deep sense of justice will eventually be satisfied. At present we cannot understand the injustices and unfairness of life, but eventually I believe that we shall see that it all works out in a just and fair way.
Evil seems so much with us in this life. Not all thieves are caught and brought to justice. Nor are all murderers. Some robber barons seem to finish up rich and safe in their hideaways. Some villains do beat the law - sometimes by a slip-up by the Police, sometimes by mistake on the part of the lawyers. Or perhaps by some manipulation of the jury. Add to this our recognition that some people just seem to have a rotten deal in life. A child has cystic fibrosis and needs pummelling every few hours to clear their lungs. Some are born with terrible deformities through no fault of their own. Some inherit defective genes and have a wearisome path through life. In all these and similar cases our sense of justice sometimes feels affronted. Why should they have to suffer? How is it my life is so easy by comparison?
Then there are the catastrophes that happen. Some storm or other ‘act of God’ destroys a life’s work. People are ruined overnight. A freak accident cripples them for life. We all recognise bad luck when we see it. Our sense of fairness comes into play and we feel they have been handed a raw deal. ‘There is no justice’ some are heard to say, as they react with cynicism or even despair.
The Christian believes there is a fundamental justice operating throughout life - but the time span to be considered does not end at the time of earthly death. The Christian believes that there is a further existence and that what will happen there must be taken into account before judging the fairness or otherwise. This life and the further life, taken together, do make sense and there is a justice and a fairness running throughout the universe. Goodness will be seen to triumph eventually. There is a just God in charge and our disquiet is only because we cannot see the picture whole.
A recent advertisement on television shows a businessman with a briefcase walking along a street. Then you see a rough character - a possible thief - come running towards him as though to grab the briefcase and make off with it. Then the camera switches to the other end of the street and you see that the running man is trying to reach the businessman so that he can push him out of the way of some scaffolding that is about to fall on him from the adjacent building. I believe that at death we will switch our viewing position so that all those confusing things like cancer, injustice and ‘acts of God’ that so puzzle us here and now, will become clear as part of what a loving God intends for us.
The second way in which the Christian has great hope for the future is connected to our sense of failure and consequent guilt.
We all labour under a sense of failure and guilt - some are better at coping with it than others! As we have seen before (see articles number one and two), conscience, as an inbuilt regulator, pushes us to conform to the pattern imprinted within us in childhood. We can offend those standards, set when we were children, all too easily and have to learn, as adults, when to listen and when to try to ignore our conscience.
But at the root of conscience - behind its programming of the standards of our parents and early society - there is also the basic human drive to help others. This drive to goodness and kindness is integral to all humankind, from whichever corner of the globe we come. People help people from Uruguay to the Urals, and when selfishness or greed get in the way of following that urge to help others we will feel some element of guilt.
Most people brought up in a settled community have quite a strong moral sense and consequently have to deal with feelings of guilt and remorse at times. Mostly we try to carry on regardless! But some find refuge in distracting activities such as busyness, alcohol, danger and excitement or whatever - the list is endless. Some even take refuge in churchiness - quite missing the heart of the gospel.
The Christian however has a view of God that provides the best resolution of his guilt. He accesses forgiveness.
What is forgiveness? Surely it is the method that fits the human condition perfectly. It is an expression of love from God’s heart and entails, sooner or later, regret on our part. We are bound to transgress - sin - have feelings of guilt. It is part of the natural human condition. Everyone has to deal with it - none is exempt. Forgiveness provides the perfect antidote than enables us to learn and move on. Sin and guilt can hold us up - finding relief is essential if life is not be crippled and twisted by it. We look for forgiveness and resolve to try not to do it again.
The central fact of Christianity is the Cross. However you explain it theologically (and there are many ways!) the essence is that sacrifice was made. Christ voluntarily gave his life and somehow (we don’t understand how) that sacrifice has healing for our sin and failure. Through the Cross we are reborn to a life where love and forgiveness are central. This reflects, of course, the deep truth we all know experientially: that out of loving sacrifice comes new life. That principle - that sacrificial love leads to new birth - is illustrated in all aspects of our daily living, from the soldier dying on the battlefield, to the mother going through pain and suffering for a new baby.
The Christian hope takes this fact (the sacrificial death of Christ upon the cross) and sees it as an extension of the attitude of God the Father to us. God may seem capricious, but actually he has a heart of love and extends forgiveness towards us all. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. So we see forgiveness at work at the heart of the universe. God is love and in him there is no darkness at all.
The Christian hope is not that God will let us into heaven, but that heaven is where we will be welcomed. Eternal life (whatever that means!) is not a reward - it a concomitant of the relationship between a loving Father and silly sinful humans. What we have started to experience of God’s forgiveness and love here on earth we will experience in a deeper and fuller way hereafter.
The third area of Christian hope is in the area of our potential. A fundamental facet of love is that it values highly the person loved. It wants the best for them. Christians believe that God wishes each person to reach his full potential in his life on earth - and we believe that, in some incomprehensible way, this creative and fulfilling mode will continue for us after death.
What happens after death is shrouded from us because we cannot yet conceive of time as anything other than a flowing stream. When we say that we go into ‘eternity’ after death, we can only conceive of ourselves being in some sort of suspended animation . The old picture used to be that we all sat up there twanging harps! We have perhaps moved on a little from that - but we are still only just beginning to get our heads round what time is. Einstein and his theory of relativity has moved us forward and now Quantum Theory is changing our ideas again. Is time like an arrow, pointing one way only? Is time an essential part of space? So can we imagine something else than a space-time continuum? I don’t know. And probably you don’t either!
Does it all matter? Well, only to this extent: as Christians we are required to have faith that, whatever ‘follows’ death, we are in the hands of a loving and forgiving Father. That is what I think Christ was telling us in his stories and parables. I think that is the deepest truth we can reach on the subject. That is enough for me. I will live the rest of my days content in the knowledge that I have a loving Saviour in Christ and a loving Father God and a ministering and empowering Spirit, all urging me to open my heart and my life to God, and love my neighbour as myself.
So have we accessed the concept of Christian Hope? Hardly! We have only touched the outermost rim of an immense concept. But we can at least aver that Christian hope deals with the injustices of this world, fully answers our need for forgiveness and reassurance, and recognises that we have been created to be co-creators with Christ in any world to come. That’s enough to be going on with, I think!