Easter Sunday. Why hope is better than optimism.

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Does Easter Sunday fill me with hope or optimism? I’ve just finished reading of Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith, in which he draws upon the distinction between hope and optimism offered by German theologian Jurgen Moltmann.

Hope and optimism… both have to do with positive expectation, and yet the two are very different. Optimism has to do with good things in the future that are latent in the past and the present; the future are associated with optimism…is an unfolding of what is already there. We survey the past and present, extrapolate about what is likely to happen in the future, and, if the prospects are good, become optimistic. Hope, on the other hand, has to do with good things in the future that come to us from “outside”, from God; the future associated with hope … is a gift of something new.

I find this a tantalising way of looking at things, and one that has significant implications for me.

First, it makes the resurrection of Jesus central to my faith. If Jesus’s bones are still rattling around in a grave somewhere in the Middle East then Christian faith is about optimism. His resurrection is simply a metaphor for the idea that his followers kept his ideals alive after his death. If however, God did raise Jesus from the dead, then something new, something from the “outside” occurred that changed everything.

Second, it reminds me that we really do need “salvation”. I don’t mean by this the idea that my soul will go to some spiritual dimension after death,but the idea that we really do need God to do something for us, to transform us and our world. Without this the future will simply be a rerun of the present. But with God’s work we can hope for something genuinely new, for the transformation of our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our societies, our economic and political systems, and our environment.

Third, it is a glorious reminder that Christian faith is about gift. The good things of God come to us from outside ourselves, received from the hand of God, an act of grace and generosity.

Both optimism and hope are good things, but hope takes me to a place optimism can’t.

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