One aspect of Christian living is marked by a specific tension which is often summated as the “already/ not yet” distinction (first made explicit by Geerhardus Johannes Vos, an American Calvinist theologian writing in the 20th century). “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead” says Paul (1 Cor. 15:20). Already, Christ has come into the world to save sinners, to call broken persons into wholeness, to show humanity the Face of the Love which draws us. But here we find ourselves, an imperfect people in an incomplete world. Salvation, our soteria (deliverance) from the ability to sin and experience the effects of sin, is not our present condition. We still wade in dubious waters, susceptible to moral reprehensibility, to spiritual regression, to doubting God’s covenant with his people. In essence, we are still, on a daily basis, vulnerable to rejecting our proposed identities as “participants in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
In Augustine’s words, “We do not yet possess a present happiness” (De Civitate Dei, XIX.4). Now, true “happiness” for Augustine is the beata vita, the blessed life, which he equates with the aeterna vita, the eternal life promised to us in Christ. Only in eternal life, a life in which we always freely choose to love God and his creatures ordinately, can we be truly and perfectly “happy.” So how should a Christian approach the “in-betweenness” of salvation in mortal life? How do we live in the “already/ not yet” of salvation, wherein sinning is possible, but not completely inevitable? Paul’s proposition for understanding this tension is subtle but substantial: “For in hope were we saved” (Rom. 8:24). But what does it mean to be saved “in hope”? First, a word on what that does not mean.
In his 1935 essay “On Hope,” the popular German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper addressed two kinds of hopelessness. The first is praesumptio, “a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope.” Presumption marks a sort of psychological disposition wherein persons anticipate the completion of God’s salvific work for humanity without patience. This lack of patience can lead to much of the apocalyptic rhetoric floating around about the imminent end of the world, and a particular feature of “apocalypticism” is the self-assurance that humans have complete knowledge about the manner and time in which God will effectuate the redemption of his people. But Paul speaks against this error, saying “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Rom 8:24b). To presume the end of the world is to prefigure the scope of God’s ability to transform the world for good beyond our imagination. Presumption is idolatrous thinking; thus, it is not hope.
The second type of hopelessness is despair, “a perverse anticipation of the non-fulfillment of hope.” Despair is a pronouncement that things will ultimately not turn out well for us. Although it carries the aspect of anticipation, it is dissimilar from hope in that hope pertains only to good things. To despair is to reject the promise of salvation as even a plausible outcome. Like presumption, despair is the mark of a person who has prefigured the scope of God’s ability to transform the world for good.
So true hope pertains to what is good. But what is good – what is the “object” of hope for Christians? The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews states that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith gives us the content of what is to be hoped for – faith in Christ and the redemption of the world. But we do not possess a full understanding of how the redemption of the world will be effectuated. As Paul states, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12b).
So here we find ourselves, the heirs of a promise not fully brought to fruition, which cannot be fully effectuated by our own doing, in part because it is not fully known. Does hope, then, merely consist in waiting around for the eschaton? In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah states that, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (Lam. 3:26). Certainly, patience is a constitutive virtue of Christian life – Paul lists it as one of the “Fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22). But hoping is more than waiting. Waiting can be done disinterestedly; I can wait in a doctor’s office for a check-up, half-heartedly playing the “find the dissimilarities in these two pictures” game of a Highlights magazine, without really being cognizant of my reason for being there. But to hope is to desire something – to be excited about the real possibility of a future event, and to anticipate the coming-to-be of that future event with joy. Moreover, it is to take active steps in tending toward that possibility – to strive toward structuring our lives to resemble the hoped-for event.
So how do we proceed in the moment of hope? Aquinas says that “Hope precedes love at first; though afterwards hope is increased by love. Because from the fact that a man thinks that he can obtain a good through someone, he begins to love him: and from the fact that he loves him, he then hopes all the more in him” (ST I-II, Q. 62, Art. 4, ad. 3). When we encounter the promise of Christ’s love for us, we should desire to grow further into the types of people that Christ calls us to become. Loving Christ and the salvation offered to us, in turn, should increase our hope that we are not forever stuck in the mire of sin. The fallen person is not completely confined to deterministically repeat his or her sins (as Professor MacIntyre indicated in his Civitas Dei Medal speech), and the hopeful person acts upon this understanding. Hope, then, materializes in charity – the desire to share our hope with other persons, to grow in virtue, and to “usher in” the kingdom of God in small places and in small ways, without any pretense that we can effectuate the full work of salvation for humanity. To truly hope for the Christian is merely to acknowledge the state of the world, to realize that it could be another way, and to act upon that understanding. We should hope in the promise of Christ and desire to tend toward inhabiting that promise in daily life; perhaps, in trying to inhabit that promise, we will more fully realize what it means to be “saved in hope.”