The American belief has long been that each generation will have a better life—economically, technologically, socially, personally—than the previous one. But this idea of linear historical progress did not exist in most other cultures. All ancient cultures—Chinese, Babylonian, Hindu, Greek, and Roman—had different views. Some saw history as cyclical, and others saw history as a slow decline from past golden ages.
The idea that history was moving in the direction of continual progress and improvement in the human condition simply did not exist.
Then, however, came Christianity. As Robert Nisbet writes in his book History of the Idea of Progress, Christian thinkers gave “to the idea of progress a large and devoted following in the West and a sheer power that the idea could not have otherwise [in the absence of Christian beliefs] acquired.” The Greeks thought that the accumulation of human knowledge led to a mild, temporary improvement in the human condition—but only between conflagrations. But Christian philosophers “endowed the idea of progress with new attributes which were bound to give it a spiritual force unknown to their pagan predecessors.”
Christianity, then, offers unparalleled resources for cultural hope. (We are not for the moment talking about individual hope—hope for life after death. We are talking about corporate hope, social hope, hope for the future of society, of the human race—hope for a good direction to history.) Looking at the arc of history through the lens of Christ’s resurrection, we can make four broad statements about the nature of Christian hope: It is uniquely reasonable, full, realistic, and effective.
Christian hope is reasonable
First, there is formidable historical evidence that the resurrection of Christ actually happened. This makes Christian hope different from any other variety.
N. T. Wright explains that the resurrection of Christ presents evidence that demands explanation from historians and scientists. It can’t simply be dismissed. He writes, “Insofar as I understand scientific method, when something turns up that doesn’t fit the paradigm you’re working with, one option … is to change the paradigm.” We are not to exclude the evidence just because our old paradigm can’t account for it, but we are to include it within a new paradigm, “a larger whole.” A failure to provide a historically plausible alternative explanation for the eyewitness accounts and the revolutionary, overnight worldview change of thousands of Jews is not being more scientific—it is being less so.
Various kinds of Western progressivism believe history is moving toward more individual freedom or class equality or economic prosperity or technologically acquired peace and justice. But these views are not hypotheses that anyone can test. They are “hope so” hopes—beliefs that are not rooted in the empirical realm. The resurrection of Christ, however, includes powerful evidence from the empirical realm and, while still requiring faith, provides a highly reasonable, rational hope that there is a God who is going to renew the world.
Christian hope is full
Every religion has offered people a hope for a life after death. Our secular culture, in radical contrast, is the first in history to tell its members that both individuals and world history will end in ultimate oblivion. In the end, we go to nothing, both as a civilization and as persons.
Other religions are ultimately “spirit-ist” in the sense that they believe matter is unimportant and in the end all that will exist is spirit. Secularism, of course, is materialist in its belief that there is no soul or supernatural reality, that everything has a scientific, physical cause.
Christianity differs from both. It does not merely offer the prospect of a wholly spiritual future in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus, to cite the Greek New Testament, is arrabon, a down payment, and aparche, the firstfruits of a future physical resurrection in which the material world will be renewed. It will be a world where justice dwells, every tear will be wiped away, death and destruction are banished forever, and the wolf will lie down with the lamb; these are lyrical, poetic ways of saying that this world will be mended, made new, liberated from its bondage to death and decay (Rom. 8:18–23).
This is the fullest possible hope. The resurrection of Christ promises us not merely some future consolation for the life we lost but the restoration of the life we lost and infinitely more. It promises the world and life that we have always longed for but never had.
Christian hope is realistic
The philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel has long been highly influential for Western thought. Hegel taught that history was proceeding through a “dialectic” in which, in each age, conflicting forces reached a new, greater synthesis. This meant that every age was better than the one before and history was moving upward in a series of unbroken steps. That, as we have seen over the last century, is simply unrealistic. Christianity offers an infinitely greater and more wonderful destiny for human history and society, but it does so realistically.
If we look to the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus, we see a very different divine model. His life was not in any way a series of upward steps. He emptied himself of his glory and came and died, yet this descent led to an ascent to even greater heights, because now he rules not only the world in general but also a saved people. It was only through his suffering and descent that he was able to save us and ascend.
This is not the Hegelian merger of equal and opposite forces. Jesus did not “synthesize” holiness with sin or life with death. He defeated sin and death through death. But neither are Jesus’ life and ministry the random sequence ruptures described by the postmodernists. Jesus goes through darkness to eventually bring us to greater light. History is moving toward a wonderful destiny, but not in a series of successively better and better eras, going from strength to strength. That is not how God works.
The secular idea of progress is naive and unrealistic. It is wrong to base a society on the assumption that every generation will experience more prosperity, peace, and justice than the one before. But the postmodern alternative robs us of any hope. Christianity, however, gives us a noncynical but realistic way to see history.
Christian hope is effective
Finally, Christian hope works at the life level, the practical level.
The New Testament uses the word hope in two ways. When it comes to hoping in human beings and ourselves, our hope is always relative, uncertain. If you lend to someone, you do so in the hope that person will pay you back (Luke 6:34); if we plow and thresh, we do so in the hope that there will be a harvest (1 Cor. 9:10). We choose the best methods and wisest practices to secure the outcome we want. We insist to ourselves and others that we have it sorted and under control. But we do not—we never do. This is relative, “hope so” hope.
But when the object of hope is not any human agent but God, then hope means confidence, certainty, and full assurance (Heb. 11:1). To have hope in God is not to have an uncertain, anxious wish that he will affirm your plan but to recognize that he and he alone is trustworthy, that everything else will let you down (Ps. 42:5, 11; 62:10), and that his plan is infinitely wise and good. If I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, that confirms that there is a God who is both good and powerful, who brings light out of darkness, and who is patiently working out a plan for his glory, our good, and the good of the world (Eph. 1:9–12; Rom. 8:28). Christian hope means that I stop betting my life and happiness on human agency and rest in him.
A person who gets a diagnosis of cancer will rightly put relative hope in doctors and medical treatment. But the main source of dependence must be upon God. We can have certainty that his plan and will for us is always good and perfect and that the inevitable destiny is resurrection. If a cancer patient’s main hope lies in medicine, then an unfavorable report will be devastating. But if that hope is in the Lord, it will be like a mountain that cannot be shaken or moved (Ps. 125:1). Isaiah 40:31 says that those who “hope in the Lord” are not anxiously holding on but always “renewing their strength” and even “soaring.” Hope in God leads to “running and not growing weary” and “walking and not being faint.”
Jesus has secured this for us by his death and resurrection. When this assurance abides in us, our immediate fates—how the current situation turns out—can no longer trouble us. Hope comes from looking at him.
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. This article is adapted from HOPE IN TIMES OF FEAR, by Timothy Keller, published by Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Timothy Keller.