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A Reason for Hope

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
Genesis 1:51
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Genesis 2:16-17

I don’t know about you, but lately I find myself waking up thinking the news today couldn’t possibly be worse than it was yesterday. And then it is. The division in this country threatening to break it completely apart, just as we are heading into the worst international crisis since World War II. The pandemic that never seems to end. Global warming already producing swarms of climate refugees, with the world unable to organize to fight it. A concentrated war by a major military power against civilians in Ukraine, intentionally making the country uninhabitable, including mass deportations and “filtration camps,” fully reminiscent of what the Nazis did to the Jews. I could go on, and I’m sure you could too. It often seems like Satan has stronger evidence than God for his existence.

When things get this bad, sometimes people just give up on this life and place their hope in an afterlife. I have just finished reading Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell. It is an excellent summary of religious views of the afterlife in Western tradition and how they developed. It also calls into question views many have taken for granted. As we see how these views changed over time, it is hard to justify any single vision of the afterlife as absolute.

At the end Ehrman tells us where he personally stands. The suffering and evil in this world make belief in a good God impossible. And without God, there can be nothing beyond this world. For Ehrman, the most likely scenario is that, just as we came into this life from nonexistence, after this life we pass back into nonexistence. It will be like an endless sleep, only without the dreams. Nothing really to be afraid of - maybe.

Ehrman’s view is hard to argue with. It seems no less plausible than any of the others mentioned in his book. And there is nothing about the afterlife, if it does exist, that anyone can prove. Even “near-death experiences” may possibly be explained as artifacts of brain chemistry, and not as glimpses of any higher reality. What happens after the great divide we call death? Nobody knows.

And so many approach it on the basis of faith. Often such faith derives from reading the scriptures too literally. When Jesus spoke of the “hell of fire,” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” he was using a language of symbols familiar to people of his time. Due to a morbid obsession with death and what lies beyond it, we may fixate on those symbols in an unhealthy way. The parables of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or the Sheep and the Goats, are not about the literal flames of hell. They are about the importance of how we treat others. But in our fascination with hell, we often neglect that. The result is a New Testament God far more vengeful and cruel than anything alleged to exist in the “Old Testament.”

The Scope of Reason

Faith may come from an experience of the holy, but it cannot tell us what happens after death. One person’s faith experience is also not accessible to anyone else, so cannot be a source of knowledge. As important as faith is, its role as an answer to the anxiety of death is limited. And the overwhelming presence of evil in all its forms has undermined the faith of many. So I find myself asking, then what about reason?

Reason also can only take us so far. One great limitation is that reason has no access to the numinous, the spiritual, the eternal, the holy, which faith claims to represent. Reason cannot assume beforehand the existence of any kind of spiritual reality. But the advantage of reason is its universal access. If reason can make sense of something for one, it should make sense for all. So can reason tell us anything about what may lie beyond this life? Can it provide any basis for hope in a world seemingly dominated by cruelty?

Let’s apply reason to the view that there is nothing beyond the observable, natural world; that we come from nothing and pass back into nothing when we die. How plausible is this?

Try to imagine, if you possibly can, that nothing exists. Then out of that nothing, a lightbulb suddenly turns on, and then shuts off after a few minutes, and disappears completely. The absurdity of this should be readily apparent.

Does it make any more sense to think of our world in the same way? That from some vast nothing it suddenly appeared, only to disappear back into nothing, with no other reality behind it?

This is essentially the rationalistic, naturalistic view. On the surface it may seem to have more scientific credibility, but even by its own standards, when examined closely, it fails. Things don’t just create themselves out of nothing. (Some modern physicists have speculated that empty space can create particles virtually out of nothing, but energy is still required for that, and energy is not nothing. And even empty space itself is not nothing. To contemplate true nothingness leads us to a boundary line that natural science cannot cross.)

So there must be some kind of reality that gives rise to the universe as we know it. This may sound like Aristotle’s argument for a “prime mover,” or the “first cause” argument for the existence of God. That would be pushing things too far. One cannot conclude the existence of God or an “Intelligent Designer” or a unique “prime mover” from these considerations alone. Right now, we can only say that reason leads us to conclude that the reality we know with our senses is not the only reality there is. Since I find inconceivable the idea of a lightbulb appearing out of nowhere, turning on for a moment, then disappearing into nonexistence, I find even more inconceivable the notion that the same could have happened with an entire world infinitely more complex.

So we may conclude, through the use of reason alone, the existence of a reality beyond the natural world. If you like, you may call this reality “God,” but that is purely a semantic operation. We still don’t know anything about this reality. Far more important than the (very badly formed) question of whether God exists is the question of whether God, or this other reality whatever it may be, is good. That is what we really want to know. The sheer existence of this “something else” by itself is of limited importance. Faith can be a resource for us only if we can have confidence in the benevolence of that in which we place our faith.

“Not Unreasonable”

We may now have reached the limit of how far reason alone can take us. We have seen, using reason alone, what seems inescapable. But perhaps we can go farther, to say what, through just the use of reason and observation, is at least “not unreasonable.” We have already established the plausibility if not inevitability of another reality beyond the natural world. There must be another reality whose existence can at least in part account for the existence of the physical universe. For purposes of this discussion, let us call this reality beyond the natural world “ultimate reality.” Since our universe is dependent on this other reality, this ultimate reality must be greater than our universe - not necessarily in physical size since such comparisons may not be meaningful, but in scope and power and perhaps even excellence.

In spite of all the evil and suffering in the world, we can make two key observations:

  1. All suffering and all evil are finite. No suffering lasts forever.

  2. There are hints of goodness in the world. The greatest is love. And the greatest love is non-self-interested love. This love could not exist in a world whose ultimate nature is evil. We could not even know evil as evil if we did not possess a sense of goodness against which to measure it.

Therefore it is “not unreasonable” to conclude that goodness must be the essence of ultimate reality.

This of course leads to the question of how to account for the existence of so much evil in this world. This question has puzzled philosophers and theologians for millennia. We cannot obtain a complete answer to this question on this side of ultimate reality. But maybe we can have just a clue, just enough to make faith “not unreasonable.”

We can observe this much: that without evil and suffering, there could be no love. Why not? Because there would be no awareness. If we never experienced any discomfort, we would remain in a state of ignorant bliss. Love cannot exist that way. Real love, not mere self-gratification, is founded on awareness. At the very least, there must be an awareness of the boundary between self and other, or else love is impossible. And only suffering breaks us out of our complacent comfort to become aware of the existence of self and other. Our own suffering makes it possible to identify with the sufferings of others, and that is the beginning of love. Love begins as compassion, literally being with the suffering of others. Obviously, without suffering there can be no compassion, and thus no love. And so love, in essence, is the awareness of the individuality of the other. (All of this is developed in much more detail in my book Judeochristianity: The Meaning and Discovery of Faith.)

Even if we grant all of this, we will still want to know if ultimate reality really is any better than this world. What if it is merely a continuation of the same thing? Or perhaps even worse? Could that be possible?

Not when we include the following consideration: the lesser cannot give rise to the greater. Any source of goodness must have within it the potential for goodness. And as the source of that goodness, it must possess goodness to an even greater degree, including creative power.

By way of analogy, only a soil rich in nutrients can produce a good crop. In time the crop may become spoiled by blight or parasites or bad weather. But the crop’s essential goodness derives from the goodness in the soil that gave rise to it.

So we can have confidence that ultimate reality is characterized by a greater goodness than what we know here in our earthly lives. This is the bedrock upon which we can place our faith: the existence of non-self-interested love. Such love cannot exist in a world in which evil is the ultimate reality.

So beginning with the exercise of reason, we arrive at a basis for faith. This kind of faith, not in any specific religious doctrine, but in the essential goodness of ultimate reality, is “not unreasonable.”

The “Good News”

Can we say even more? At this point we cross the threshold from reason to revelation. And on the questions we’ve been considering, the Bible has much to say. What we’ve established so far gives us a basis for taking this revelation seriously. But we need to be careful how we approach it.

The Bible has a term for ultimate reality. It is called the “kingdom of God,” or the “kingdom of heaven.”

We often think of the Bible, and specifically the New Testament, as bringing “good news.” What exactly is this “good news”?

The usual answer is that our sins are forgiven, because Christ suffered in our place the punishment we deserved, and he paid the price for our sins. That, we are often told, is the “good news.”

But that is not what Jesus taught. That is a later theological overlay imposed upon the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus taught about the kingdom of God. Against the current of his time, he taught that this kingdom is so unobtrusive we may hardly notice it. And that it is not something far off in the future, but is here right now. And that it is not for the strong and the powerful; even children will understand and enter it before the rest of us. It is the “pearl of great price,” which we are called upon to seek even in this life.

How does this help us cope with a world that has so much evil in it? It tells us that the evil we experience, however severe, does not have finality. There is something beyond it and better than it. Our starting point may be the first key observation mentioned above. No suffering lasts forever. It may be that only in death are all the injustices of this world finally rectified. We cannot know exactly how this will work out. The Bible has a symbol for it: it is called the last judgment. Jesus describes it in many of his parables, but only in very symbolic language. We do not know exactly how it works or what form it will take. But we can know that there must be something, that in some sense the gross un-goodnesses of this world will be addressed, because the reality that gave rise to this world must be better than even the goodness we do find in this world. Justice is part of goodness, and in this present world we see at the most only the bare beginnings of justice. The remaining part of justice must still be part of ultimate reality (God’s kingdom), even while still hidden from our view.

But we cannot stop at this point, or we risk a great danger. If this is as far as we go, our despair may tempt us to throw this present life away, to give up on it and count it as having no value, as we wait for something better after death. That is not an acceptable solution. And so we come to our second key observation: There are hints of goodness in the world.

There is no evil so severe in which we cannot find some hint of goodness. It may be small, and not come even close to compensating for the loss inflicted, but can still be discernible. Even in the midst of a genocide there may be those who risk their lives to shelter refugees. If, as is proper, we respond to them with awe, within that awe is an awareness of the higher value for which they stand - the awareness of ultimate reality itself. Very often, in times of worst suffering, we come closest to sensing this ultimate reality. The antithesis of an exhilarating, peak experience, it shakes us just as much. Within it we may sense a presence greater than ourselves, expressed in the love shown to those who suffer intensely.

We may also find that through our worst sufferings we grow the most, that we mature into the full individuals we were meant to become. Many of us would not be who we are without the painful things we have endured. Suffering can indeed make us worse, can embitter us and drive us to despair. But it can also force us to reach into ourselves to access resources formerly hidden, and also draw out our own compassionate response to others. I believe many of us would not want to give up the gains we have made through the traumas we have sustained. No doubt Jacob would have preferred to walk without a limp, yet would still not have wished to give up the right to be called Israel.

All of these signs witness to ultimate reality entering into our mortal world. The theological term for ultimate reality is “eternal.” Eternity does not mean endlessness, nor is it something that just happens after we die. It is this transcendent reality of which we have spoken, of which Jesus spoke, and it flows through our world in tiny rivulets not always immediately detectable, but providing a direction to our journey. If you look back on your life, chances are you will be able to see its traces.

Images of the Eternal

The image of kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery, expresses this beautifully. A lacquer mixed with powdered gold is used to hold the broken shards together, producing an aesthetic design.

mended pottery bowl
(I am indebted to Rev. Elise Brown for introducing me to kintsugi.)

This is how the eternal affects our present lives: not as an overwhelming or all-encompassing victorious force, but as tiny streams flowing through life, giving it shape, coherence, and meaning. There may come a moment, after this life is over, when time and space are exhausted and eternity is “all in all.” But even now, the eternal is not separate from this life. It is not something we wait for until we die.

And if we suffer enough in this life, we may be tempted to think of the eternal as something that happens only “after” death, thus giving up on this life completely. But Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is already present (Luke 17:20-21). It is not a question of “before” and “after.” What Jesus called the “kindgom,” and which we may call eternal life, encompasses life in this world, may make itself felt at any moment, and comes into full manifestation once earthly life passes away. It may look something like this:

mended pottery bowl

We exist within the eternal, and there is hope of witnessing its impress on our lives at any moment. But we may not see it right away. Paul wrote of the work of the eternal in our earthly existence:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:22-25)

And so we should value this life, because even if it brings us far more pain than pleasure, without it there would be no way to attain the consciousness of love. If there is at all a “why” to this short fraught life carved out of eternal space, it must have to do with its being love’s only way to make itself known.

Eternity is manifest not in the absence of suffering, but in the presence of direction. This is something we may not readily see but can always pray for. In the Bible, the best illustration of this is the story of Joseph. His life took many strange and dangerous directions, with a seeming dead end looming at more than one juncture. He might have easily given up in despair after his brothers threw him into the pit, or after Potiphar had him thrown in prison. And yet everything he went through proved necessary to take him to his eventual destiny, the position he reached as second to Pharaoh from which he had the power to save many lives. If we look back on our own lives, can we see any similar pattern, how the hardships we’ve been through have enabled us to be who we became? If so, then we can see how our lives have been touched by the eternal.

But someone will object: it doesn’t always happen that way. Some people are so crushed by their suffering that they just do not survive. As we’ve already considered, the full extent of the eternal may not become evident until after ths present life passes. But that is not all there is. The eternal is always here, always running through this life like streams through a vast open field. There is always a hope, no matter what we have been through, that we may see our lives nourished in those streams, even now.

And that is what we can pray for. We may not get very far praying that our present sufferings be taken from us. (At Gethsemane, that didn’t get Jesus very far either.) But we can always pray for direction: to know where our lives are leading us, and that somehow God may use even the evil that has befallen us for good. And even if that good does not appear to compensate for evil’s immensity, it may perhaps provide a clue that this evil is not all there is.

This brings us back to the Gospel’s “good news.” What exactly is this good news? It is not that God punished Jesus for our sins. That is not the good news; that is theology. The good news Jesus brought is that that there is something besides our suffering that eventually overcomes it, and that is called the “kingdom of God.” Always present but barely visible, the eternal flows through our lives. And when we are grasped by the reality of the eternal, we find that we don’t need to see the complete resolution of everything. We may still find many questions unanswered, many injustices still needing to be corrected. And perhaps working to correct those injustices will help us fulfill our destiny. We can still know that eternity - the presence of God - is real, in spite of all the evidence seeming to suggest that the devil is in charge. And that alone is reason for hope.

Another biblical image of eternity is “Eden,” literally meaning “delight.” It is God’s original world, which God called unqualified goodness. But in our present existence we have “knowledge of good and evil,” and our lives are fraught with ambiguity. But this is not our permanent state. “Kingdom,” “heaven,” and “resurrection” are all biblical symbols pointing to an ultimate reality beyond the knowledge of good and evil. And because we can have intimations of this ultimate reality even now, even while we live, faith becomes more than an illusion, and hope more than a dream. May we all be blessed to discover the sense of direction that emerges when we find ourselves in the presence of eternal life.

May 2022