“Hope” in the Christian Testament

After spending some time explaining the words for and concepts surrounding “hope” in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the ancient Greek story of Pandora, and in Aristotle, I’m now ready to share with you what I found out when I did a study of the word we translate “hope” in the Christian Testament. This is the same word, elpis, ἐλπίς (noun), or elpizo, ἐλπίζω (verb), used by Aristotle and used for the goddess Elpis in the Pandora tale, but the Christ-followers who wrote the texts that have become the Christian Testament used the word in a somewhat different way. Part of this is probably due to the fact that these Jewish authors were used to the meaning of elpis in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX).

To recap, in Hebrew there is a word for hope within this lifetime (qwh or tiqwah), and a word that refers to a larger form of positive expectation and waiting, usually on God (yhl or tohelet). Both of these forms of hope refer to positive expectations for the future, and are often translated elpis in the LXX.

In classical Greek literature, however, elpis is an expectation for the future, but it can be in a positive or a negative direction. In the Pandora story, it is unclear whether or not Elpis should be considered the goddess of hope or of foreboding, or both. Aristotle distinguishes between elpis (expectation for the future) and euelpis (expectation for a good future). In order to have euelpis, one must move through fear in the direction of courage in order to continue to have hope that there will be a good outcome.

With all of these influences on their conception of elpis, the authors of the Christian Testament (mainly Paul) used elpis in a way similar to the LXX, though they seem to mean something similar to Aristotle’s euelpis. Sometimes in the LXX, words are translated into Greek to mean “hope,” while sometimes they are translated with the Greek word for “trust,” indicating that trust and hope are quite intertwined. Greek doesn’t have a real sense of a hopeful longing, or a hope based on trust and expectation of deliverance, so the authors used the closest term they can find, which apparently is elpis. (They must not have read Aristotle.) In the LXX and the intertestamental Jewish literature, there’s a pretty well-developed understanding of hope that goes beyond the individual, hope in God’s promises for the community, but by the time Jesus comes along, this is mainly expressed in the form of Messianic expectation, but much of this is based on a works righteousness: that the Messiah will come when the community practices the Law correctly.

Interestingly, Philo, a Jewish philosopher writing at about the same time as the original writings of the books in the Christian Testament, apparently had read Aristotle (not surprisingly), and when he writes about the Jewish understanding of hope, he specifies that he’s talking about euelpis. He talks about hope as a form of remembrance: remembering God’s good works in the past helps us have hope for the future. This goes along well with what psychologists have found regarding the need to have stories from our past on which we can base our realistic assessment of whether we should hope for a particular future outcome.

Christian Testament hope is based on the Hebrew understanding of the fullness of hope. It includes the characteristics of being fixed on God and looking forward to the future with patient waiting and trust. Faith and hope are tied together in the paradoxical certainty of what we cannot see (“faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” Heb. 11:1), because we cannot be certain about anything in the flesh, but we can hope in God even though we have to completely trust and have no control. Differently from the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians have a new sense of certainty in their hope, based on the salvific act of the cross and resurrection, and this forms the basis of their faith and hope.

There is not much mention of the term elpis used in this way in the Christian Testament outside of Paul’s writings, however, so I find that really interesting. Perhaps the other authors are using the term “good news” (ευανγγελιον) to mean what we think of when we say “hope.” Or perhaps, since there’s not a good Greek word for hope (and Jesus likely wasn’t speaking in Greek anyway), they’re using other words to attempt to get across the same concept, while Paul was familiar enough with the LXX to know that those authors had co-opted the word elpis to mean this communal, almost-eschatological hope. Or maybe, since the first generation(s) of Jesus’ followers expected him to come back at any moment, they didn’t need a word for long-term hope.

Perhaps, 2000 years later, we are more similar to the Jewish community, waiting in expectant hope, and trying to figure out what that looks like without getting caught up in works righteousness, apocalyptic conspiracy theories, or specific actions that we think will make Jesus come back (e.g., getting the Holy Land back under Jewish control because we think that will make Jesus return). Maybe at this point, the most useful understanding of hope from the Bible is the Hebrew word yachal or tohelet, the idea of the communal expectations for a positive future, trusting in God’s promises and based on the history of the word of God in the community across time. This is not a naive hope that assumes that everything will go well for the people of God; in fact, often this concept is brought up in the Hebrew Scriptures when things are not going well, and people are calling out to God (lamenting), reminding God of God’s promises and trying to figure out how to keep trusting through suffering and loss.

In our current time and place, with so many big problems facing us, from environmental degradation to socio-economic injustice to wars, famines, and refugees, what hope do we have of anything different? Can we speak of this hope with conviction after seeing the last century’s hopes of a “war to end all wars” dashed into radioactive particles?

I don’t think we can optimistically wish for a better world, but perhaps we can lament with our community, as the ancient Hebrews did. Perhaps we can groan with the whole community of creation. I think this is the type of hope that Paul is trying to get across in the oft-quoted ecotheology passage of Romans 8:18-25 (NRSV):

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 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.

In this passage it is clear that the world is not as it should be: there is a critique. Things need to change. Suffering and hope are juxtaposed. We are suffering, but we also have hope because we can envision the world as it should be. The whole creation participates, groaning in this lament, simultaneously critiquing suffering and hoping.

The terms translated “waits with eager longing” here have a meaning of continuous, active, expectant hoping. The word for “waiting,” απεκδεχομαι or apekdechomai, is in the middle mood, meaning it is a reflexive action in which the creation is acting and receiving the benefit of the action. In some way, the hope of creation is part of the act of “obtain[ing] the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” When we participate in creation’s groaning and longing, we receive the benefit of this. Our act of hoping engenders hope, and it perhaps implies that it is only by participating in the process with the whole of creation that we can receive the benefits of this eager longing and hoping. (Note: these thoughts on Romans 8:18-25 will appear in more or less the same form in my forthcoming article in Cross Currents, “Climatologists, Theologians, & Prophets: Toward an Ecotheology of Critical Hope.”)

It is this type of critical hope that I feel drawn to explore in my academic work right now, not simply studying it from an objective researcher’s gaze, but actively participating in bringing that hope about. I trust that by participating in the groaning lament, by recognizing and feeling the suffering, and by continuing to act in hopeful ways, I also get to participate in the “glory about to be revealed to us.”

References, in addition to those listed in the linked posts:

Christens, Brian D., Jessica J. Collura, and Faizan Tahir, 2013, “Critical Hopefulness: A Person-Centered Analysis of the Intersection of Cognitive and Emotional Empowerment,” American Journal of Community Psychology 52(1–2): 170–84.

Kittel, Gerhard, ed. “ελπιϛ, ελπιζω; απ-, προελπιζο.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eighth printing, Δ—Η:517–35. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.

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3 thoughts on ““Hope” in the Christian Testament

  1. I’m doing a study on I Peter and “Hope” is a major theme in an epistle that talks about Christians as “aliens and exiles”. I appreciate so much the foundation information you have provided about the Greek and Hebrew perceptions of hope and how that likely shapes the Christian writer’s (and believer’s) notion of hope. Best wishes in your future writings!

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