Hope for the Other
Friedrich Nietzsche attacked Christianity for a number of faults. One of them, he thought, was the Christian doctrine of resurrection and a blessed afterlife. On Nietzsche’s account, hope for immortality is pernicious, in that it encourages a person to be satisfied with a miserable life now because of the consolation to come.
You don’t have to be virulently anti-Christian to be suspicious of hope. A contemporary Christian writer, Timothy Jackson (Love Disconsoled), wants to expunge hope from the list of Christian virtues. The center of Christianity, Jackson says, is the ethic of agape love. Genuine acts of love are undermined by self-regard, which expects some reward for good deeds. True agape love must be totally centered on one’s neighbor, willing and acting toward the neighbor’s good without consideration of one’s own good. Hope brings in consolation, Jackson says, and true agape must be “dis-consoled.”
There is just enough right in what Jackson says to make it initially plausible. Love really is the most important of the virtues, the heart of Christian ethics. We are commanded by Jesus to love as God loves (Matthew 5:48). Though we can’t actually do that (certainly not by an act of will), but we live as disciples with perfect love as our goal. Many theologians have argued that God’s love—agape love—is “disinterested,” in the sense that it seeks the good of the beloved without regard for the good of the self. A classical theologian like Thomas Aquinas would say that God is eternally blessed, complete and entire. Since God is completely happy, God does not need anything and he is not made happier by human worship or obedience. God commands our worship because he loves us. We move closer to our best selves when we obey God.
Someone might object that Jackson’s view contradicts scripture. The New Testament repeatedly praises hope as a proper virtue for Christians. This objection is completely accurate, but Jackson would not be persuaded by it. If hope detracts from love, he would say, we must shed hope in favor of love. Jackson is picking out what he thinks is the crucial part of New Testament teaching and trying to be faithful to that. In practice, many preachers do this by returning over and over to those biblical texts which seem to them to express the more important truths. As a theologian, Jackson is simply more open about it.
Nevertheless, Jackson is wrong. It is simply not true that hope is always self-regarding. David Elliot, in Hope and Christian Ethics, points to a common scene: a graveside gathering of family whose loved one has been buried. According to Love Disconsoled, the Christian minister might praise the dead person as a faithful disciple of Jesus and perhaps urge the family to emulate him or her. But the minister should not talk of eternal life. “Love’s priority implies the moral irrelevance of an afterlife,” says Jackson.
How is it an act of love to disconsole those who are grieving?
Jackson, or someone speaking on his behalf, might say that we hope for an afterlife for our friends and loved ones because we want to see them again. That is, we sneak in self-consolation by introducing hope for resurrection. But is that true? Do I hope that Karen (my wife who died in 2016) will be raised to eternal life so that I can enjoy her company? Not really. What I hope is that Karen will experience perfect happiness, what Thomas Aquinas called beatitudo, the beatific vision. She has moved out of my life (except in memory) and into the life of God. I would not hope for her to have something less. If in heaven there is a solidarity and fellowship of saints (so that we see each other again), well and good. But my hope for Karen is that she experience the highest good, which is God.
Hope is not opposed to love, because we hope for others as much as ourselves.
There is another point to be made about resurrection hope. The New Testament clearly teaches that we hope for eternal life. Aquinas said our goal was friendship with God. Perhaps we need to live forever because our real hope is to know the infinite God. It will take eternity to truly know him.