The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the [Mountains of Shadow] in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach…. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and the even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.
This passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings perfectly illustrates true hope amidst seemingly unending darkness. Here we catch Sam Gamgee resting next to his master Frodo from their treacherous trek through the land of the Enemy. Their harrowing journey has left them exhausted, distraught, and hopeless. Will this great Darkness pass? Can the Shadow be overcome? Then, almost providentially, Sam’s eye catches a single star in the heavens – a glimmer fixed beyond the reach of the bellowing stench and darkness of Mordor. His heart is pierced then quieted by the sight for it reminds him of an unquestioning Truth: this is a passing Darkness.
Hear that again: This is a passing Darkness.
What a profound truth to be reminded of especially at this time in our world. While we are being hit with a tsunami of media disinformation, ten cent prophetic pronouncements, governmental scandals, and economic uncertainties, we must still our hearts and minds with upward sight. Tolkien teaches us from the passage above that true hope in times of trouble comes from an inner joy that can only be generated by self-forgetfulness that affixes itself to the Transcendent Reality of the Light. Only when our eyes are bound to the Light Above can our souls be put to rest in knowing that the darkness, dangers, and dastardly deeds bellowing forth are not a Final Master or Destiny.
The Spirit Of The Age & False Hope
Over the past two centuries our culture has been ingesting a steady diet of false hope. It is a hope deeply naturalistic, humanistic, and mechanistic. From thinkers like Karl Marx, John Stuart Mills, John Dewey, John Rawls, to Richard Rorty we have learned that the way we will save our civilization and species is by becoming sovereign over all Reality. Utopia – that Man centered Garden of Eden we long to establish – is going to happen (we think) as we expand the technologies and sciences and reforge our views of morality and democracy. We pride ourselves with the prospects of attaining human perfectibility and thus surpassing all limitations put on us by our histories, traditions, religions, and values. As author and public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari (1976-present) has said in his bestselling Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,
For thousands of years…the same three problems [had] preoccupied the people of [the world]. Famine, plague and war…. For generation after generation humans have prayed to every god, angel and saint, and have invented countless tools, institutions and social systems [to deal with these problems].… Yet at the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realization. Most people rarely think about it, but in the last few decades we have managed to rein in famine, plague and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague and war — and we usually succeed in doing it.
In short, we no longer need God for we have become God (the book title Homo Deus literal means “God-Man”). We can have a bright future in the world because we ourselves are at the helm. This secular ideology of intellectualized naiveté is a central tenet in the Spirit of our Age. We are a people who pride ourselves on being the masters and the forgers of our own destinies. We get to rewrite the history books, redefine our dictionaries, evolve our moralities, and transform our identities through sheer will and technology. Who can stop us? In the poignant words of one of our modern philosophers Miley Cyrus,
It's our party, we can do what we want
It's our party, we can say what we want
It's our party, we can love who we want
We can kiss who we want
We can screw who we want
And yet, let’s look around. Despite all the talk from people like Harari and Cyrus by all major metrics we are failing in our quest for divine status. We are far less happy, far less fulfilled, and far less hopeful than any previous generation. Despite all the technological breakthroughs, despite all the social progressive policy making, and despite all the acceleration of information we are a mess of a race. Suicides are up 25% while depression and anxiety now affect about 20% of our population. Illicit drug use among us (especially those in their teens) has skyrocketed to the highest numbers in nearly 50 years. Atop of all this, indicators from those of us who are Millennials (1983-1994) and Generation Z (1995-2002) shows that we are far more dissatisfied and pessimistic about the future than older generations and are subsequently far less likely to even have children than all previous generations recorded.
It has been our party, we have done what we wanted to, and now here we are. Enslaved by our “freedom.”
We have affirmed God is a construct, virtue is subjective, traditions are repressive, and human nature is infinitely malleable. We have dared to be gods and then look on in perplexity as to why our world and souls are falling apart. As C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) said so poignantly,
“Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible…. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
In Nietzschesch fashion we have unchained ourselves from any Central Primary and are spiraling without any up or down. One of the reasons for this is because our quest to maximize hope for our civilization and species was rotten at its core from the beginning. It was a godless, hyper-materialistic, self-absorbed quest, seeking to find hope and peace by extinguish darkness through sheer mind and machinery. It didn’t work, it isn’t working, and it will never work. We are now seeing the fruit of such a pursuit.
The Hope Of The Resurrection
We need a far more vigorous source of hope if we ever “hope” to traverse the growing complexities and insanities of the world around us. Resting on the sovereignty of technology, social policy making, and personal enlightenment isn’t working, despite what people like Harari affirm. There is only one solution to our maladies and that is a recovery of the Transcendent at the core of our lives. We need to look up.
I am reminded of the work by the classicalist historian Kyle Harper (1979-present) who writes much upon the rise and remaking of the world by Christianity. One of the reasons he points to for the astonishing rise of Christianity in the earliest centuries was its capacity to create a robust hope that propelled its world through famine, disease, persecution, and war. He said,
It’s easy for us to think about Christians back then being apocalyptic in the sense that they were desperate, or giving up because the world was about to end. I don’t think that’s how it was. For them, it was a positive program. This life was always meant to be transitory, and just part of a larger story. What was important to the Christians was to orient one’s life towards the larger story, the cosmic story, the story of eternity. They did live in this world, experience pain, and loved others. But the Christians of that time were called to see the story of this life as just one of the stories in which they lived. The hidden map was this larger picture.
That “hidden map” of early Christians was not some wishful thinking or otherworldly meditative ecstasy, it was a rested assurance, a profound certainty (in Greek elpida) amidst life’s hardest circumstances that was grounded upon the reality of the Transcendent. It was an assurance that took seriously the work of justice, peace, love, and service not because those things are useful fictions or chemically induced brain states but are actual eternal realities possessing immortal weight and duration – justice, peace, love, and service will exist beyond the grave just as they have existed before the crib. It was an assurance resting in the fact that one’s personal story and identity was not forged by self-determinism or high-tech augments but was gifted and integrated into a far more glorious cosmic and everlasting narrative. The Apostle Peter put it this way to the persecuted and fledgling Christians of Asia minor,
3[God] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:3-5 (ESV)
The hope Peter speaks of, that “living hope” has weight richness and purpose to it precisely because it has Jesus smack dab at the center of its orbit. It is an expectant assurance not grounded in circumstances but in a Person. Consider again what Peter said,
God, according to His great mercy, has caused us to be born again to a living hope…
By what means?
…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
To what present and future end?
…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.
What beauty and power and joy reside in these words! The Resurrection is the absolute transcendent invasion of “living hope” into our world. Such hope is not wishful thinking nor expectant could-be-ism. It is an active present abiding assurance grounded in the reality of who God is and what God has done and will do in and through and by His Son! This is why it is a “living hope.” It is not something merely wished for based on uncertain circumstances but is a sign sealed delivered fact grounded in the power of the living and active Redeemer and Redeeming God.
Our hope can be and is “living” because it is rooted in the living God Who is not like the fickle promise maker who fails to deliver his end of the bargain but is the eternal, unbounded, self-existent, giver, definer, sustainer, covenant-making Creator King of the Cosmos that accomplishes all His promises, executes all His decrees, and fulfills all His blessings! That God is the same God who promises and decrees that there is (not maybe) an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance for His children. That God is the same God who split into real space and time, cocooned Himself in the mind, bone, and blood of a Man, and was broken upon a tree and resurrection in a tomb that He might remake the World as it was intended to be.
This Christian hope is active, not passive. It is expectant not reactant. It is resilient, not restless. This Christian hope is not built on syrupy illusions of perpetual comfort, self-deification, or unthwartable success, but a restive resolve and power grounded on certainty. It is such a hope that can pierce the veil of circumstances and find an abiding peace, joy, and love at their expense. As Timothy Keller (1950-present) has put it,
“While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”
This is why modern hope is bankrupt and Christian hope is solvent. Modern hope, as described by people like Harari and Cyrus, is vacuously naïve and self-centered. It seeks all the answers within rather than looking to an external transcendent source. Modern hope is forever looking forward in the prospects it can escape the past and present maladies to achieve a utopian vision. Christian hope looks back and up – to the resurrection of Christ and the resurrected Christ – so that it might transcend the present and glory in the future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said it this way,
“Man cannot live without hope, and that men who have really lost all hope often become wild and wicked. It may be an open question whether in this case hope = illusion. The importance of illusion to one’s life should certainly not be underestimated; but for a Christian there must be hope based on a firm foundation. And if even illusion has so much power in people’s lives that it can keep life moving, how great a power there is in a hope that is based on certainty, and how invincible a life with such a hope is. ‘Christ our hope’ – this formula is the strength of our lives.”
And he would continue at another time to put it like this,
“Jesus Christ the resurrected [means] that God, in love and omnipotence makes an end of death and calls a new creation into life. God gives new life…. The resurrection has already broken into the midst of the old world as the ultimate sign of its end and its future, and at the same time as living reality. Jesus has risen as human; so he has given human beings the gift of resurrection.”
The Shadow Is But A Passing Thing
The resurrection is not a useful fiction, it is the essential fuel that burns up darkness and ignites hope. It is an energizing fire that shows us True Reality. As has been said, “The cross and the resurrection together—and only together—bring the future new creation, the omnipotent power through which God renews and heals the entire world, into our present.”
Many people today may talk about The Great Reset or the path to Build Back Better, but the fact is only the resurrection was and is the Great Reset and the Ultimate Build Back Better event in the entire history of the world. It transformed the world and makes it possible for us to look at our relationships, our vocations, our purpose, and our futures in a new light.
We must get this down into the marrow of our souls. Especially as we proceed over the next months and years.
We must be reminded in the daily that this dark and decadent little orb we call Earth exists in an infinite sea of Light and Beauty which is God Himself, the One who came and conquered the powers of Death, Hell, and the Grave.
Dear friend, be reminded, this is a passing Darkness. The night is dark and truly full of terrors, but Light is greater still. Heaven wins. The transcendent, unbounded, unquantifiable, unsurpassable Creator Ruler is working His unruinable plan that WILL finds its crescendo in the Return of the King. That is certain and that can ground our hope. I leave you with a quote from New Testament scholar N.T. Wright (1948-present),
“Easter isn’t just about one person going through death and out the other side, as a sort of crazy maverick event unrelated to anything else, a sort of one-of display of supernatural power. It is the unveiling of God’s answer to the problems of the world…. The message of the resurrection is that this world matters; that the problems and pains of this present world matter; that the living God has made a decisive bridgehead into this present world with his healing and all-conquering love; and that, in the name of this strong love, all the evils, all the injustices and all the pains of the present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice and love have won the day.”
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), 921-922
 Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2017), pg. 1-2
 Miley Cyrus, We Can’t Stop (2013)
 https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0607-suicide-prevention.html; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1555415521003615; https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics
 https://www.addictioncenter.com/news/2021/07/drug-use-peaks-after-50-year-war-on-drugs/; https://drugabusestatistics.org/; https://behavioralhealth-centers.com/blog/american-drug-use-trend-on-the-rise/
 https://www.wsj.com/articles/to-be-young-and-pessimistic-in-america; https://www.bloombergquint.com/business/many-millennials-gen-z-pessimistic-on-life-deloitte-survey; https://www.newuniversity.org/2021/12/14/the-childless-generation-the-consequences-of-opting-out-of-having-children/; https://morningconsult.com/2020/09/28/millennials-economy-children-poll/
 Kyle Harper from his interview with Rod Dreher, The Germs That Destroyed An Empire (April 24, 2020) https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/roman-empire-plague-germs-kyle-harper/
 Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2013), pg. 31
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Eberhard Bethge (July 25, 1944)
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Clifford J. Green (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), pg. 154
 Timothy Keller, Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter (United States: Penguin Random House, 2021), pg. xxi
 N.T. Wright, For All God's Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 62-63
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.