No book of the Old Testament uses the Hebrew word for “hope” (tiqwah) as much as the book of Job. Most often, though, Job mentions hope only to lament its absence. He’s a corpse, clothed with maggots and dirt, his skin hardened. His days end “without hope” (Job 7:1–6). There’s hope for a tree. Cut down, it sends out roots to find the water that will revive it. But a man is not a tree. He lies down and doesn’t get up again until the last day (Job 14:7–12). Job is subjected to mockery and contempt. His eyes are dim with grief, his body is a shadow. He sleeps in Sheol and his hope falls to the dust with him: “Where now is my hope? Who regards my hope?” (Job 17:1–16). Job’s hope is as dead as he is.
According to the “standard account,” hope combines desire and belief; we hope when we desire a future good and believe we’re likely to attain it: “I hope it rains.” “I hope my Uber makes it on time.” We don’t experience hope if our desires are baseless or our beliefs false. Desires for improbable outcomes are fantasies, not hopes, and logical impossibilities are delusional rather than hopeful. This standard account seems to fit Job’s usage. He desires good outcomes, but he no longer believes they’ll come to pass. He longs for dawn, but expects endless night.
By the standard account, hope is a soft, passive emotion. In Scripture and the Christian tradition, it has sturdier qualities. Hope comes into its own when it takes the form of what the apostle Paul calls “hope against hope” (Rom. 4:18). Paul uses this phrase to describe the faith of Abraham. Yahweh promised Abraham and Sarah a son to bear the covenant promise, but Abraham is as good as dead and Sarah’s womb has been dead her whole life. Abraham desires a son by Sarah, but that’s impossible. Still, he believes the promise of the God who calls into being things that were not, the God who gives life to the dead (Rom. 4:17). Abraham is undaunted by the impossible because he trusts the God for whom nothing is impossible. His desperate circumstances incubate hope.
Abraham’s hope and Job’s despair grow from the same soil; they are alternative stances toward death. Job is hopeless because he suffers a living death that seems to be permanent. Abraham’s hope is, Paul says, a hope for resurrection, a hope that fresh life can spring from two old, dead bodies. In Scripture, hope is always hope for life beyond death. Israel hopes for exodus from the Sheol of Egypt, resurrection from the grave of exile, a Messiah to overcome the forces of death. Once or twice, this hope flashes into Job’s gloom: “Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:26). Even everyday hope strains toward resurrection. The sick hope for renewed health, prisoners for release, the lonely for love, the abused for rescue into safety. All want a different life. And, as Josef Pieper puts it, these everyday hopes imply a universal hope for humanity. “Even if I die,” the terminally ill may say, “life will go on.” But what if it doesn’t? Can we sustain individual hope without meta-hope for the world? All hope is hope for resurrection, ultimately for a general resurrection.
Thomas Aquinas locates hope among the “irascible” passions. For Thomas, hope is truly hope only when it is arduous. Desire, Thomas says, is simple concupiscence. Genuine hope involves a determination to overcome obstacles to reach the desired destination, and so has an element of ira, anger. Defiant in the face of death, hope takes on a note of desperation. “Hope against hope” isn’t soft, but fierce, wild, ferocious, even furious. And this fierce hope, the fruit of tribulation and trouble, doesn’t disappoint.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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