I must confess to a certain curiosity with why things turn out as they do. I read a lot of history, biographies, and stories of human successes and failures. Being a child of a particular age, I was raised with a certain degree of optimism. The bad times—World War II, the Korean War—were behind us, and once again we could get back to the normal business of pursuing happiness and success, which I was led to believe were easily within my reach.
Optimism is not hope, yet it is a recurring feature of life in good times. It is also a feature that all too quickly vanishes and reveals itself for what it is when bad times return. As a European, I lived through one of history’s great turning points, a turning point powerfully demonstrated in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The wall was not simply a physical reality, which had divided families, a nation, and a continent for decades; it was a symbol of the clash of visions and worldviews that battled for a season, not only for Europe, but for global dominance.
I can well remember the astonished newscasters as Germans embraced each other on top of the despised symbol of separation. Europe and the world seethed with the euphoria of change. The brave new world was being born, and optimism was the mood of the day (1989-1991). I heard breathless gurus of the age proclaim the dawn of unfettered freedom, and one even wrote shortly thereafter about “the end of history and the last man” in the sincere belief of the triumph of free market capitalism and liberal democracy.
Yet wisdom bids us to stop, look, and listen. In the first decade of the twenty-first century we have witnessed 9/11, bombings in Spain, Bali, and London. We have seen the debacles of Enron, WorldCom, and the fiascos of “Bear Stearns” (USA) and “Northern Rock” (UK). Optimism has met its match. Perhaps for some, they are seeing the collapse of hopes and the fulfillment of fears. The movie scene is reflectively filled with apocalyptic and nihilistic visions.
When hope fades, cynicism is often waiting in the wings. And this is indeed one of the great challenges of our time. Skepticism (there is nothing good and I know it) and cynicism (I can’t trust anybody or anything and I know this) seem reasonable choices. But is this a necessary outcome or orientation for us? I think not. Yet, if we have bought into a rationalist vision, if we have embraced the vision and values of our age uncritically, if faith is merely a part-time investment in an over cluttered life, then perhaps we don’t have the necessary orientation or resolve to face the issues and challenges of our time.
The Christian scriptures open up for us a view of the world that is very different: There is a God. This God is the creator, and He is personal, loving, willful, and particular. We see that despite being a good creation, a disruption and disorder has occurred and the drama of redemption unfolds. But the central character here is God! It is what God does, whom God appoints, and what God decides that makes the difference.
This is not to say that life according to Christian theology is pre-determined. I have seen too much, experienced too much, read too much, and pondered too much to believe that my choices are socially conditioned or illusory. I believe they are real. I have also seen too much, experienced too much, read too much, and pondered too much to believe that our choices are, as Lewis would say, “the whole show.” History is not a fatalist’s game. Humans do act, and often with serious and sad outcomes. The good news, I believe, is that we are not alone! Writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul reminded them that hope is real because it is anchored in one who is able to carry it, sustain it, and fulfill it (Romans 8:24-25; 28-30). History is moving to an end, and Christ offers a good end. Thus, the difference between optimism (short term and easily overcome) and hope (eternal and anchored) is where they are rooted. One leans on human effort; the other rests in God and God’s promises.
Stuart McAllister is vice president of training and special projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.