Some years ago I attempted to keep fit by attending an aerobics class, in which we exercised ad nauseum to a high-volume song ‘Give Me Hope, Jo’anna.’ I imagined it referred to a young man and his lover-friend named Joanna, only to discover recently, to my total embarassment, that it arose from the 1980’s struggle years in Johannesburg, expressing the pain of Soweto’s citizens under the jackboot of the Apartheid military machine and the death of many innocent victims. Listen to the rendering of the song below (the sound and lyrics, poor at first, improve)…
Our question is one psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrestled with amid the horrific suffering of innocent Jews in the notorious Auschwitz death-camp: his ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ records the story of many fellow-prisoners who died almost immediately on losing hope of survival. Following the terrorist mass murders in Madrid in March of 2004, the killers proclaimed ‘You love life, we love death!’ A friend of mine in China tells of that massive nation’s soaring divorce rate: older folk, with financial support in mind, pressurize the younger set to marry early – but these same younger people grew up in 1-child households where they were the sole focus of their parents, their self-centredness definitely not making for healthy marriages! Jurgen Moltmann in his very recent ‘Hope In These Troubled Times’ mentions how humans cannot exist without the ecology and that God breathed his Spirit not only into humans but into all of his creatures (Ps. 104:24-30) – yet we are busy destroying these at an alarming rate. In my country SADAG reports that (no doubt accelerated by Covid isolation) 1 in 6 South Africans suffer from depression, anxiety or substance abuse: a family doctor in a small Western Cape farming community recently mentioned that approx. 80% of his patients are being treated for psycho-somatic illnesses. So, is there still any hope for our world, the Church, and you and me??
To tackle this really tough question, I invite you to travel back with me some 2,000 years to the life and times of the apostle Peter as he writes (startlingly) from Rome, under severe (documented) persecution from the notorious Nero: ‘May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! On account of his vast mercy, he has given us new birth. You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You have a pure and enduring inheritance which cannot perish – an inheritance that is presently kept safe in heaven for you. Through his faithfulness, you are guarded by God’s power so you can receive the salvation he is ready to reveal in the last time. You now rejoice in this hope, even if it’s necessary for you to be distressed for a short time by various trials. This is necessary so that your faith may be found genuine. (Your faith is more valuable than gold, which will be destroyed even though it is itself tested by fire.) Your genuine faith will result in praise, glory and honor for you when Jesus Christ is revealed!’ (1 Pet. 1:3-7/CEB). Is the man crazy, or has he got hold of something unique here??
The apostle Peter, impulsive bully turned self-effacing servant of Jesus the Christ (1), sent this powerful encouragement via his amanuensis Silas (Peter’s written Greek was poor) to the mainly Gentile diaspora-groups scattered throughout northern and western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Maybe Silas had interested Peter in this area because they had not been touched by the apostle Paul’s church-planting journeys. These new believers were struggling to make sense of their faith amid their persecution and relative isolation. [Interestingly, Peter writes about their ‘salvation’ from a trinitarian perspective: these Gentiles were ‘chosen by the Father, made holy by the Holy Spirit, because of the faithful obedience and sacrifice of Jesus Christ’ (1:2/CEB)]
Peter’s promise of hope is founded in the historical PAST. ‘God made this Jesus to be Lord and Christ when he raised him from the dead,’ Peter proclaimed in Jerusalem (Acts 2:36). Sadly, much of postmodern Christianity, as a result of lop-sided existentialist teachers going back to scholars like Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann, and in more recent times the top-selling American mystic Fr. Richard Rohr, have subtly prised biblical spirituality from Christianity’s classic, historical resurrection-roots (2). The highly rated English NT scholar, Prof. N.T. Wright of St. Andrews University, writing of the early Christian hope in its historical setting, states ‘Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and all you lose is two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second-century fathers as well’ (3). Back to our text, ‘May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! On account of his vast mercy, he has given us new birth. You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…’ (v. 3/CEB). In other words, Christ’s resurrection-life produced a similar life in Peter and his readers! Furthermore, this ‘new life’ was not based on a human philosophy or a teaching but on a person, the risen Christ. Turning to Peter’s fellow-apostle, Paul, we can’t imagine Paul’s message without the resurrection: “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins… he was buried, and he rose again on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the 12… then to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once – most of them are still alive… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I was born at the wrong time…. So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There’s no resurrection from the dead?’ If there’s no resurrection from the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either…. then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless… you are still in your sins, and what’s more those who have died in Christ are gone forever… But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead… Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too’ (excerpts from 1 Cor. 15/ CEB). The empty tomb was equally foundational in the writings of the early Church Fathers: Clement and Ignatius, Justin and Irenaeus, to name a few. It was one of the key-beliefs which infuriated the pagans in Lyon in AD 177 and drove them to butcher several Christians including their bishop. On a more contemporary note, the absolutely meticulous German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has written concerning the resurrection, ‘The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believed it happened, you have to change the way you live!’ As followers of Christ we don’t take some ‘leap into the dark’ but in fact a ‘leap into the light!
Peter’s promise of hope is realized in the PRESENT. (v. 3/CEB). It also holds true for the FUTURE (v. 4-5) More about these in Parts 2 and 3.
In concluding part 1 (so much could be said on this subject!), let me say that the conviction of serious Jesus-followers around the world is clear: we believe the only real hope for the Church and the world at large, lies in the historic Good News declared by Peter and his compatriots of the first centuries AD. I hope this conviction grows on my readers as we proceed. As one who has traveled widely, I have seen, over a life-time, it’s practical outworking in faithful little Christian assemblies around the globe, in the lives of the poorest of the poor, and among the most unlikely ethnic groups of the world.
(1) Cf. at least 3 cataclysmic events in the life of Simon Peter dramatically shaped him for his future apostleship: his inspired confession of the Christ (Mt. 16:13-20), his personal discovery of the empty tomb (Jn. 20:1-9) and the Spirit’s empowering at Pentecost (Acts 2). If able, take time to read these carefully, yet imaginatively.
(2) I’ve been following a South African academic presently lecturing in the UK, Dr. Frederik Mulder (same surname and clan), challenging the Dutch Reformed Church in SA whose senior seminary professors, without exception, deny the historical/bodily resurrection of Jesus. They have so bought into the existentialism of Bultmann and others that for them the empty tomb is no longer vital to faith. This departure from the historical faith is producing sad results in the DRC seminaries, pulpits and congregations.
(3) Cf. Tom Wright’s thoroughly researched and thought-through ‘Surprised by Hope,’ p. 54.