There is good Christian hope and bad Christian hope, alternatively known as real hope and false hope. The world–rightly–accuses Christians of trafficking in much false hope, and this is an unfortunate result of our not reading our own book which provides ample instruction in distinguishing between hopes we ought to have and hopes that will get us and others killed.
False hope: In this world you will not have much trouble.
Real hope: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (Jesus in John 16:33, NIV.)
We too often tend to regard and receive any sign of hope as a good thing, yet hope is often the deadliest emotion. This insight is at the heart of what is known as the Stockdale Paradox, named for Admiral James Stockdale, an eight-year POW in Vietnam. That Stockdale was a man of great hope there is no doubt:
I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.
But here is the paradox: Stockdale observed that a certain kind of hope actually poisoned many of his fellow prisoners:
They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.
The Lord not only gives real hope; equally, he banishes false hope. Consider this interaction between the Lord and the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11 (NIV):
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
Seeking to replace the narrative of Revelation with the numbers of various prophetic schemes is thus exposed as false hope: There is a reason the Lord does not reply to the martyrs with the assurance, “by Christmas” or “by Easter” or “on May 21, 2011.” As with Stockdale, the Lord offers real hope and only real hope: Martyrdom will go on only as long as necessary. It will be the defining event of the church in every generation that awaits his return, and the church will ultimately value it so much that it will not trade it for anything.
It is enough, says the Lord, to know that hope does not disappoint: Death in witness to the gospel will be neither senseless nor endless. But seeking to go beyond this–turning Revelation into a series of cosmic crossword puzzles to be decoded in order to produce Your Definitive Guide To The End Of The World–will only serve to weaken our faith.
Our quest for certainty and exactitude is often our undoing as believers. When the Lord does not return by Christmas, when our suffering does not end by Easter, what is exposed is that we have put our faith in the wrong place; we have hoped with counterfeit hope. If the Lord is ambiguous, he is ambiguous for our own good. Like Stockdale in the POW camp, the Lord knows what it takes to keep us alive and our head in the game here on earth: Certain knowledge of the outcome, combined with indeterminacy of the events that await us between now and then.
How long, O Lord? A little longer, but only as long as necessary.