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A hope that gives meaning

November 17, 2017

In a Facebook post years ago, I made this brief comment:

Without the (unpopular) doctrine of the judgment of God, ultimate meaning is ripped out of all the “good” things one can do, for there is no good; there is only the likable, the unlikable, and the insignificant.

Notice that I said that there is no ultimate meaning. In an email exchange with an atheist years ago, she acknowledged that there is no ultimate meaning in what we do, but she was happy to live with the immediate, here-and-now meanings that we see in things today; in other words, with what we as individuals count as meaningful (meanings which we may or may not share with others). But if these meanings aren’t connected to transcendent values–ones which are above us, rooted in what is permanent–then at best they are matters of emotion. I don’t mean to trivialize this by labeling it “emotion.” My atheist interlocutor spoke about spending time with her daughter, watching her grow and enjoying their relationship. This kind of thing is more than simply a happy feeling; it can affect one’s entire life and the lives of others. Nonetheless, another less honorable mother might find nothing meaningful, nothing satisfying and worthy of personal investment, in her child. This is an internal matter, internal to the person or persons involved. If nothing eternal is involved, how can anyone criticize the harsher mother? There is no ultimate value to the daughter or mother or their relationship. There is just niceness and kindness now. Granted, these aren’t things to be gainsaid, but they still are limited to the temporal; they are fleeting and will end. This internalism or subjectivity easily devolves into mere feelings or emotions. How is it shared with others? My ideas or beliefs have no hold on others beyond my ability to persuade them to belief them, too. But I can share them as feelings because (perhaps connected to the influence of Romanticism) feelings are what count; they connect with people because they have feelings, too. I don’t feel the same as you do about something, but I know what it is to feel. Maybe this is why what people feel about things is what really matters today. Think about interviews with people after momentous events: the interviewer will almost always get around to (or spend most of his her her time on) how the person feels about what happened. Or think of the how the emotions displayed at certain events are often mentioned. And, by extension, this may be why dissing or offending someone is the great sin of the day. Making someone feel bad is simply not allowed. No one can say that what I choose to do is really wrong in itself; if I count something in my life or some belief as meaningful and valuable, then no one else has the right to criticize me for it. To do so is to be a offensive. Either affirm me or be quiet.

But what if there is ultimate meaning in what we do and say? If there is, then we can connect the things we do in the here-and-now with eternal things; this meaningfulness points to purpose that transcends us. We don’t need to flit from one thing to another, as Americans are wont to do, to chase after the latest “in” thing in search of something that really counts. C.S. Lewis said that maybe we are not able to find the complete joy that we long for in life because we were made for something bigger than this world. I don’t know that the pursuit of joy that is unattainable here proves that an ultimate joy truly exists, but it makes sense of the claim that it does. I would suggest that meaning is on that same level. Even while we deny eternal, ultimate meaning, we chase after it, and maybe that chasing is a clue that there is a meaning that is beyond us. At least it makes sense of the belief that it does.

Long ago, the apostle Peter said that we should be willing to tell people why we have the hope that we do. This isn’t a cross-your-fingers kind of hope. One of my professors long ago told us that hope is to the future what faith is to today. The hope Christians have is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. We know there is something beyond us, something that makes our hopes in the here-and-now truly meaningful. With that knowledge, we can be people at rest, at peace, not given to chasing after one thing after another in order to find real satisfaction, true contentment; and there is no need to get panicky over the turbulence of our day. We really should be people of hope in our speech and in our lives on the personal and corporate level (in our churches) because there is a true hope that makes sense of all of this, that makes all of this count.

So a mother can find meaning in raising her child beyond how it makes her feel and even beyond the longer term meaning their interaction can have for her child in this life. But to be brutally honest, such meaning will completely die with the death of the universe (if not long before then) if there is nothing transcendent, nothing eternal that will not fade away. If there is something transcendent and eternal, what we put into others’ lives can contribute to their lives and to what they in turn can put into still others’ lives, all working toward becoming conformed to the likeness of Jesus–the one who has life in himself, who is eternal–and to being prepared for whatever lies head of us when death is no more.

Peter’s exhortation to be ready to give an account for the hope that is in us should not cause us to be afraid of such questions, fearing that we won’t remember all those apologetics answers we heard or read. Most people aren’t going to challenge us with the criticisms that apologists deal with.* We have this hope–both subjective and objective hope–because the God of the Bible really exists and because Jesus really rose from the dead and promised that we will too. Hope is rooted in reality, and it can reside deeply in our hearts.

Life here truly matters; it really means something, something greater than us. We can grieve over the circumstances of our day, but not as they do who have no hope. It is all in the hands of a God who is both sovereign and good.

 

*A real problem for me as someone who was immersed in apologetics for many years was that, because I heard or read these challenges over and over and over, I feared that they would be brought up in any conversation with an unbeliever, and that inclined me to hold back from talking about matters of the spirit with them. On the opposite side, apologists can easily be so focused on challenges that we make them issues when they aren’t for a given person. I still like what my apologetics professor said about this years ago. We should start with the cross and “back into” apologetics; that is, back up and answer questions when posed, and then move back up to the gospel. It should be emphasized with people apologists instruct that the first order of business is the proclamation of the gospel. There’s no need to start trouble by raising doubts in people’s minds through our own fascination with arguments and evidences.

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