This post is part of a series. In September 2016, I had the privilege of leading a discussion on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter. The discussions are part of the weekly “Life Study” hosted by the Mantua Center Christian Church. These posts offer my reflections on the ideas that were discussed during the study, as well as some things that did not get addressed due to time constraints. To read my reflections on other parts of the series, click the links below:
- Part 1. Suffering and Injustice: Are Christians called to unjust suffering?
- Part 2, Suffering and the Christ: What is the meaning of Jesus’s suffering?
- Part 3, Suffering and Love: How ought we address the suffering of others?
- Part 4, Suffering and Hope: Is there an end to suffering in the world?
What is Christian Hope?
I suppose that this study on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter has been, for the most part, rather grim. The first part was on the unjust suffering of life and the existential despair that can result from it. The second part was about the suffering of Christ, and how we can make redemptive sense of such a cruel idea as the crucifixion. Even the third part, which focused on our obligations to help those who re suffering through the work of love, called attention to the injustices faced by the underprivileged in this world. So, I thought it would be fitting to end on something rather uplifting: hope.
But what does hope mean exactly within the context of Christianity? This is the question with which we opened the discussion. What is the meaning of Christian hope? And what do ideas of salvation and heaven have to do with it, if anything?
As we talked about what hope means to us as Christians, I noticed that there were answers fell into two different domains: 1) hope for this world, and 2) hope for a world beyond.
One member of the group spoke as hope being the belief that the world could become a better place. Similarly, another spoke about Christian hope meaning the realization of the kingdom of God on earth. On the other hand, another member spoke about hope meaning someday being reunited with a lost loved one. Still another connected the idea of hope with the idea of resurrection in the Christian faith–that hope means that possibility of being raised again after death.
The more we talked about it, the clearer it became to me that hope is rather difficult to define within the context of the Christian faith. It has both a this-worldly dimension of the here-and-now and an otherwordly dimension of the somewhere-in-the-distant-future. In both of these views, though, it is something that both keeps us holding on and pushes us to continue moving forward.
Here are the passages (NKJV) we read and built the remainder of the discussion around…
1 Peter 1:3-12
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen[a] you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls.
10 Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us[b] they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into.
1 Peter 2:4-10
4 Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture,
“Behold, I lay in Zion
A chief cornerstone, elect, precious,
And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.”[b]
7 Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient,[c]
“The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone,”[d]
“A stone of stumbling
And a rock of offense.”[e]
They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.
9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.
1 Peter 5:5-11
5 Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for
“God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”[b]
6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, 7 casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
8 Be sober, be vigilant; because[c] your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. 10 But may[d] the God of all grace, who called us[e] to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. 11 To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
How Should We Interpret the Concept of Heaven?
One of the most common conceptions of hope had to do with the idea of an “afterlife,” some sort of consolatory existence that comes after this deficient existence has ended. The scriptures, as well as the tradition of the church and popular culture, refer to this existence as “heaven.” The writer of 1 Peter uses this very image in order to encourage the persecuted Christians to whom he is writing to keep the faith and hang on until the end.
I, along with many other people of faith, have taken issue with this conception of heaven in the modern world. First, the promise of heaven has often been used as tool of oppression throughout history. The poor, mistreated, enslaved, and abused have been taught to simply accept their lot in life since they, after all, have heaven to look forward to. Additionally, there seems to be a lack of moral integrity in the idea of heaven as a “reward.” It takes the altruism out of spiritual devotion and reduces it to a transaction. We are good in this life, because we think it will make us rich in the next one.
Going into this study, these were where my thoughts were going on the idea of “heaven.” It makes life harder for the oppressed and keeps positive change from happening in the here-and-now. And it also encourages people to be good solely for selfish reasons. After I got these thoughts out, though, I shut up and let other members of the group speak–and it sort of opened my eyes a bit…
One member of the group mentioned how the African-American community throughout history has used images of heaven as a means of coping with its plight. In the black church, the possibility of heaven has often been seen as glorious in the face of a hard life on earth. Another member of the group talked about working in a poor community and, when he attended services, they always wanted to sing the same song: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” While I may think that heaven is used as a weapon of oppression, that is often not how the oppressed see it.
When this life gets bad enough, another member of the group said, the hope of another one can be the only thing that keeps you going. Upon hearing this, I realized that some people do indeed need the promise of something more beyond this life–because it is unlikely that this life will ever become tolerable for them. This is, I believe, the situation being faced by the recipients of 1 Peter. They are being persecuted, they are barely hanging on, and the writer is reminding them that they still have something to hope for–even if they don’t see it in this life.
I think that each of us is inevitably going to view heaven differently, because we each have different situations with which we are trying to deal. We long for the heaven that our time on earth leads us to desire.
The God of All Grace: Moving Toward Perfection
When I was a teenager, I participated in a study group with the church I was attending at the time. God is called by many names in the Bible, and we were provided with a list. Each of us had to pick from the list the name of God with which we most identified. I chose the “God of all grace” from 1 Peter 5:10, and I had always remembered that. Over the last year, the existential significance of this conception of God has become much clearer to me.
To me, worshipping the “God of all grace” means that I recognize life as a gift. As a human being in this world, I am graced with the gift of consciousness, freedom, and possibility. Yes, life is broiled in suffering and absurdity, but the mere potentiality of overcoming such a human predicament hints at an existential grace despite of it all. There is reality, but there is also possibility–and that possibility is grace.
Besides my fixation on the “God of all grace,” there is another little phrase in 1 Peter 5:10 that really jumps out to me: “after you have suffered a little while.” This phrase is interesting, because something very similar is said in the beginning of the letter (1 Peter 1:6). It’s almost as if the writer is bringing the argument around full circle. Yes, he seems to be saying, you are suffering now; but if you could just hang on a little bit longer, everything is going to be okay.
I don’t know what I believe about the literal nature of heaven, about the immortality of the soul, or about the afterlife, but I think it’s enough to believe that–one way or another–everything is going to turn out okay. To me, this is hope in its simplest and purest form. The possibility of overcoming suffering is grace; its realization is hope.
I believe that the world is pushing forward to something new and better–to a state of completion, perfection, and redemption. Heaven isn’t a place so much as it is a time. This, for me, is hope. I hope not only that I would be brought to a state of completion but that all of humanity and all of creation would as well. I suppose, for now, my conception of Christian hope can be summed up in the following reflection from Daniel Migliore in his introduction to Christian theology, Faith Seeking Understanding:
“This is the spirit of Christian hope: to struggle and to take risks for justice, freedom, and peace for all people; to be zealous for the completion of God’s redemptive activity for the world; to live in the confidence that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:8:38-39); and to discover ever new reasons to give thanks and glory to God.”