Imitatio Christi and Christian Hope
“We have this hope as an anchor for the
soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6:19)
What is Christian hope?
The first thing we need to say is that the adjective matters. Christian hope is both like and unlike natural hopes. Christian hope is a supernatural hope; it is essentially linked to God, rooted in God’s promises. Like our natural hopes, Christian hope looks forward to some good thing. It is the goal, the good thing we anticipate, that distinguishes Christian hope from natural hopes.
So what is it that Christians hope for?
1. In the words of countless beauty pageant winners, do we long for “world peace”? Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth. Biblical scholars tell us that the “kingdom of God” includes far more than absence of war. God’s shalom means personal and social well-being; it means wholeness and blessedness. The kingdom of God brings justice, both in the sense of judgment against our sins and in fair distribution of good things. Should we say that Christians hope for the kingdom of God?
2. Do we want to meet loved ones in heaven? (Or, like Socrates, to meet famous persons and discuss philosophy with them?) This idea has been part of Christian thinking from the beginning. In 1 Thessalonians, which may be the first New Testament document written, Paul reassures the Christians in Thessalonica that those believers who had “fallen asleep” were not thereby cut off from God’s promised future. He says that at the parousia dead Christians would rise first, to be joined by those who were living at the time of Christ’s return. Countless Christian funeral sermons have assured believers that they will see the beloved departed again. Is this the Christian hope, to see and know those who have died?
3. Paul’s correction of Thessalonian misunderstandings concerning resurrection underscores the crucial importance of resurrection in Christian doctrine. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul insists that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Jesus has been raised, and in that case Christian faith is useless. Should we say, then, that Christian hope is hope for resurrection? Undoubtedly, many ordinary believers would say they hope for “eternal life,” in the sense of living forever. We may conflate a hope for resurrection with a hope to live forever. Is this the Christian hope, that we will live again?
4. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul says that in heaven we will see God “face to face” (in contrast to seeing now “through a glass.”) Thomas Aquinas and other Christian theologians have said that the highest Christian aspiration is to know God directly, without intellectual mediation: to “see” God. So perhaps the Christian hope is not merely that we will live in heaven, but that we will directly know God. Is this the Christian hope, to experience beatific vision?
The New Testament supports all these notions, and they are part of what we anticipate. They are all partly right answers. Nevertheless, I want to propose another response. 1 John 3:2 says, “when Christ appears, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is,” (my emphasis) and the next verse connects being like Christ with hope: “All who have this hope in him purify themselves…”
I suggest that Christian hope aims at a familiar New Testament theme: being like Christ, imitatio Christi. Christian ethics, from a virtue theory perspective, is the pursuit of Christlikeness. We want to be like Jesus. “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus…” Paul says to the Philippians. “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…” says the writer of Hebrews.
Imitatio Christi is not an ethic of rules or laws, saying “do this” or “don’t do that,” so much as a character goal. Christians are to grow into the virtues of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit. We are to be like Jesus. On one hand, this is an impossibly high goal. As Jesus said, we are to be complete or perfect (teleios) lovers (Mt 5:48). Like Paul, in this life we are always pressing on toward the goal God has set before us (Phil 3:14). This side of resurrection, Christians are people on the way, pilgrims.
Hope is a virtue for pilgrims. We do not minimize the wonder or greatness of the goal. Thus we are saved from the vice of presumption. But we also remember that Christian pilgrimage is always supported by God’s grace. So we avoid despair. In between presumption and despair, we live in hope.
 Some biblical scholars have argued that “eternal life” as used in John has a different, or at least richer, meaning than life that endures without end. These scholars say that in John’s gospel, “eternal life” indicates a quality of life, life lived in intimate friendship with God. On this view, “eternal life” may or may not imply unending personal existence. I think it is safe to assume that few ordinary believers have this idea in mind when they hope for eternal life.
 What happens after the resurrection? Some people imagine the eternal state as something static, but I imagine it as one of eternal exploration of the wonders of God. We may always be people on the way.