Hope isn’t in heaven; for we do not hope for that which we possess. It is neither in hell; for there all hope is lost. It is only on Earth; it is only for the journey, which reveals its true purpose: to give strength to the wayfarer.
And history records its effect. In the words of G.K. Chesterton:
The Pagan said to himself: “If Christianity makes a man happy while his legs are being eaten by a lion, might it not make me happy while my legs are still attached to me and walking down the street?”…If a young girl, scourged and bleeding to death, saw nothing but a crown descending on her from God, the first mental step was not that her philosophy was correct, but that she was certainly feeding on something” (All Things Considered, The Modern Martyr).
Hope, as Chesterton recognized, was the muscle behind the martyrs as well as (we can add) those first virgins, apostles, monks, and even Christ Himself, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).
Hope is what distinguishes the Christian, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
…we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future…(Spe Salvi, II).
And this certain1 hope of a future (based on God’s omnipotence and mercy) transforms even the Christian’s present, as Benedict continues:
…(for) the one who has hope lives differently (Ibid).
In this post, we will take a look at that difference.
He who has a why to live can endure almost any how (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Epigrams and Arrows, XII).
Hope provides the responding why, to the question: “why endure?”
This is what Viktor Frankl, psychologist and acclaimed writer, discovered during his imprisonment in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
He discovered that the men most likely to survive were those who had something waiting for them outside the concentration camp (if they were to ever get outside).2
Analogously, by assuring the Christian of that which awaits him outside this life (both beatific and enduring) hope provides him with the strength to endure whatever may come to him from within it.
It allows him to cry out with St. Paul:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…in this hope we were saved (Rm. 8:18, 24).
Whether he be a prisoner in a concentration camp or a sojourner in a fallen world, hope saves a man from giving up—or giving in.
It is so effective at transforming the present (regardless of one’s surroundings) that it can turn even what ought to be, abstractly considered, a sorrowful life into a joyful one—as well as the opposite, if absent.
Dr. Kreeft illustrates both in his thought experiment concerning two travelers. To paraphrase, he writes:
Imagine a man traveling from his home to the town center by limousine, and with all the pleasurable food, drink, and company he could ask for. Such a journey, we would think, would be a joyful one; unless, of course, this man’s destination is to the gallows, to be executed as a convicted criminal.
For wouldn’t he be thinking along the way, “none of this matters, for it will soon be gone, and cannot prevent my execution.” His impending future would bring sorrow even into the present.
On the other hand, we can also imagine a man traveling from his house to the town center, this time, not by limousine, or car, or bike, but barefoot over fractured rocks. Such a journey, we would think, would be a sorrowful one; unless, of course, this man’s destination is to the throne, to be crowned an enduring king.
His future would turn even what ought to be a sorrowful journey into a joyful one, since along the way, surely he would be thinking, “all of this will have been worth it, and soon forgotten, once I am made king.”
From these hypothetical journeymen, Dr. Kreeft draws out the following conclusion: it is the destination, rather than the circumstances of the journey, which determine the condition of that journey (cf. Peter Kreeft, Ethics: A History of Moral Thought).
In a fallen world, where at times the journey can be no more pleasant than walking barefoot over fractured rocks, hope—and its beatific object—gives one the strength to endure.
This is the first difference hope makes: it makes for fortitude.
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly…But I discipline my body and keep it under control…(1 Cor. 9:25-26).
Hope provides the responding why, to the question: “why abstain?”
We are quite familiar with the need to deny ourselves present things for the sake of obtaining future things. Commonly, one may deny himself food for health, or sleep for academic or professional success.
In these or other various cases, it is the hope of obtaining some future good, which motivates us to abstain from present goods. Looked at another way, it is the fear of losing some future good, which keeps us from seizing present goods which may endanger it.
But what reasons might we be left with for denying ourselves whatever pleasure we please if our eternal good is not contingent upon it? In the words of St. Paul:
If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (1 Cor. 15:16).
We could say, of course, civil law, or the desire to be esteemed by others, or the pursuit of temporal success. Yet, none of these force temperance into the heart, since none of them have a knowledge of the heart (or perhaps an interest in it). None can say with our Lord:
…that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt. 5:28).
Temporal accountability, being unable to compel temperance at a spiritual depth, would leave the virtue either superficial or missing altogether.
On the other hand, true temperance, driven by a hope and fear set on the eternal, disciplines even the heart. Job gives us a good example:
I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I look upon a virgin? What would be my portion from God above, and my heritage from the Almighty on high? (Job. 31:1-2)
It is the hope of an eternal good, which compels a true, spiritual temperance reaching even into the heart.
Thus, we have the second difference hope makes: it makes for temperance.
People often talk about death as if it’s the worst thing that can happen to someone. As if it’s something that must be avoided at all costs (Sara Harrison, New York Times Magazine, Sept. 27, 2022).
Hope provides the responding why, to the question: “why maintain justice?”
Without hope in the next life, death may well be perceived as the greatest of evils, and thus avoided at all costs—perhaps, even at the cost of justice…
History gives us a well-known example.
When the plague struck the ancient world in the mid 200s A.D., which (according to historians)3 was severe enough to kill one-third of a metropolis’s population, the non-Christians immediately fled, abandoning both the sick and needy to save their own lives.
Here is the account by Dionysius of Alexandria:
The heathen…At the very onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead…(Eusebius, Church History, Bk. VI, Ch. XXII.)
Christians, on the other hand, remained in the cities to care for the needy, and many died because of it. Dionysius records this as well:
Most of our brother Christians show unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their very need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains…(Ibid.)
The difference between these two responses is hope.
The man who is assured of the next life, as justice’s reward, can willingly lay down his present one for justice’s sake. Injustice, not death, then becomes the greatest of evils. In Socrates words:
Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below…(Plato, Crito, 54b).
Thus, we have the third difference hope makes: it makes for justice.
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Ch. VI).
Hope provides the responding why, to the question: “why ask?”
Alice doesn’t have to ask the Cheshire Cat where to go because she isn’t going anywhere—at least not intentionally. According to the story, even cats know that without a destination, any road is as good as another.
As the tale tells, it is the end which makes for inquiry regarding the means; and without a destination, one need not ask the best way to get there.
In other words, an aimless life is exempt from questioning, and according to Plato, exempt from value:
…the unexamined life is not worth living…(The Apology, 38a).
On the contrary, hope makes us ask questions.
It makes us ask tough questions about how we are living as well as the choices we are making because—in the attainment of our hope—not “all roads lead to Rome.”
In a personal story, the effect hope has on practical discernment became clear to me one evening, strangely enough, while I was at Dave and Buster’s.
One of my fellow seminarians had received some gift cards to the arcade and invited me to come and help him spend them. When we first got there, we went (rather aimlessly) from game to game, just trying to have fun and waiting for the cards to run out.
But then after about forty minutes, we realized something that changed the rest of the evening.
We discovered, in the corner of the arcade, a small prize shop. There one could take his tickets from the games and buy something to take with him, even after his cards had run out.
Once we discovered that there was something which we could take with us, beyond the arcade, something that would endure, suddenly our decisions became much more careful and discerning.
We could no longer just play any game we wanted. We had to play the best game (the one which could yield the most tickets) and in the best way.
And I think there’s an analogy here.
Hope by setting the will on an eternal goal, makes for sobriety and maturity in determining the best means to that goal. It motivates a man to live, not in a haphazard and whimsical way, but in a careful and discerning way.
Thus, we have the fourth difference hope makes: it makes for prudence.
Hope makes for virtue.
Specifically, it makes for cardinal virtue: fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence.
Instead of effecting a “pie in the sky” dismissal of the world (as sometimes objected to it) hope ought to make the Christian an exemplary member within it; and by bestowing him with endurance, discipline, unwavering love for justice, and sober discernment.
Let us then cherish our hope, and draw strength from it. For, as Scripture says:
…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rm. 8:38).
1. That some who have hope fail to obtain happiness, is due to a fault of the free will in placing the obstacle of sin, but not to any deficiency in God’s power or mercy, in which hope places its trust. Hence this does not prejudice the certainty of hope (ST. II-II, Q.18, A.4).
2. As was said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Pt. I, pg. 84).
3. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, Ch. IV, The Epidemics.