Friday, December 23, 2011

The Deep, Settled Confidence of Christian Hope

1 Peter 1:3-5Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

The other night, I was watching some bonus features on our Lord of the Rings DVD. This particular chapter contained interviews with life-long scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien, who talked about the many hardships and traumatic experiences early on that shaped Tolkien’s writing later on.

Tolkien experienced many dark seasons in his life. Both of his parents died well before he reached adulthood. He experienced the horrors of war first hand when he fought in World War 1. He watched the belching smoke of the industrial revolution choke out the pastoral pasturelands that had once surrounded his neighborhood. The stinging pain of real life and sense of innocence lost pressed hard on Tolkien.

Over the years, many have tried to allegorize Tolkien’s stories based on his life experiences. For example, they try to say that The One Ring has a direct correlation to the atomic bomb, and so on. Yet Tolkien hotly denied these connections. He spoke ill of allegory, and insisted that allegory was a waste of time.

Tolkien preferred the term applicability over allegory. He wrote about universal themes of human existence that every generation experiences in its own way—things like having hope when everything around us seems hopeless.

Knowing from what I have read that Tolkien was a born-again believer, I have a degree of confidence that I can keenly relate to his hermeneutic of hope. Which is why I was bothered by what seemed like one Tolkien scholar’s misrepresentation of the theme of hope in Tolkien’s writing. Patrick Curry said:

“Despair is for people who know, beyond any doubt, what the future is going to bring. Nobody is in that position. So despair is not only a kind of sin, theologically, but also a simple mistake, because nobody actually knows. In that sense there is always hope.”

In other words, you can have hope when things seem hopeless because the future is unknowable, and hope just might be lurking somewhere in those folds of uncertainty.

This is the polar opposite message from 1 Peter, which teaches that my (and Tolkien's) hope is grounded in a sure and certain future that was established in Christ before I was ever born. I must not despair because the future is knowable.

1 Peter 1:3-5 shatters the notion of holding out hope because nobody knows the future. Peter gives me a deep, settled confidence in what the future is going to bring. It's a capital "H" kind of hope based on objective reality.

No matter what trials I encounter in this life, I have a heavenly inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for me. God’s very power is guarding it for me—a power that is beyond all comprehension.

Can life seem hopeless? Yes. Does the ground beneath me shake and shift? Yes. But, praise God, I don’t have to rejoice in the fact that “the great unknown” holds some remote possibility of hope. THIS would drive me to despair like nothing else.

In the movie The Return of the King, Pippin the Hobbit and Gandalf the Wizard are cowering behind a large stone door that is being rammed by the enemy, and are awaiting probable death. Here’s their conversation:

Pippen: I didn't think it would end this way.  
Gandalf: [smiling] End? No, the journey doesn't end here Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back. And all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.  
Pippen: What, Gandalf? See what?  
Gandalf: White shores. And beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippen: Well, that isn't so bad.  
Gandalf: No. No, it isn't.

I think that’s the kind of hope Tolkien is bringing to bear in his books. A hope that can weather uncertain times because of a certain future. A hope that can endure temporary affliction in the forward-looking joy of a permanent inheritance.

This is no fool’s hope. It was Tolkien’s hope. It’s the Christian’s hope. And nothing can take it away.

In THAT sense, there is always hope.

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