Reject Optimism
March 27, 2024

A response to Gage Crowder’s “The Hole in our Hope?”

Already, the first pages of the Bible promise a bright future. The story starts with the creation of heaven and earth, where heaven is perfect, but the earth is in a state of formless emptiness. Yet, God takes hold of the earth and, in six days, plants the Garden and places Adam there. Then God gives Adam and Eve an epic task to go where no man has gone before and continue the work of heavenizing earth. Here, we can fast-forward to the last pages of the Bible, where John describes the City of God. This is the end of history as we know it. From the Garden to the City is how the Bible can be summarized. Jesus confirms this reading of the Bible in the Great Commission when He sends His apostles to disciple all the nations and gather them into one City of God.

The story is about heavenizing the earth and, more importantly, humanity coming to maturity—our growing in the likeness of God. Yet, to grow and mature is neither quick nor easy. It takes time and effort. As James B. Jordan reminds us in Through New Eyes, Adam had to become a scientist before he could become a craftsman or a ruler. He had to study the world to take hold of it and transform it. However, since knowledge is often used in the Bible as a synonym for love (as in Genesis 4:1), we could conclude that to know is (almost) as hard as to love. It requires commitment, endurance, and sacrifice. We cannot be better students than we are lovers. And Adam, at the Fall, turned out to be as bad a student as he was a lover. This was because Adam was a child who needed to mature. He was to learn how to be a student and how to love his wife. But love does not come easy, as James B. Jordan remarks in From Bread to Wine: love is the fruit of matured hope, which is the fruit of matured faith.

Acquiring knowledge and learning to love was not easy even before the Fall, after which things got really complicated. But if, for Adam, it was hard to be a good student and a sacrificial lover, how much more difficult was it for his descendants after the Fall? Abel was killed for trusting God, Sethites eventually compromised, and Cain was a successful constructor but a terrible ruler. This is not what we could anticipate after reading the first two chapters of the Bible for the first time without knowing how the story unfolded. Our expectations and predictions would rather be more optimistic and, therefore, totally misplaced. We could expect the good guys to stay good and the bad guys to be outsmarted by the good guys, and we could not be more wrong.

It is true that in Christ, the sting of death has been destroyed, and we have access to the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. We do not live in exile anymore. Yet, this does not mean that history has been reset and that we are like Adam before the Fall and can enjoy a fresh start. We need to live with the consequences of sin accumulated over millennia of human history and with the consequences of our personal sins. This is another reason why we should not be optimistic. We must wrestle not only with immaturity, as Adam did, but also with sin. Besides, time will consume and destroy most of our achievements. Death, even with its sting removed, will thwart our best plans and sometimes bring us to despair. We might turn out to be new Abels martyred for the Gospel, or new Sethites seeking compromise with Cainites in exchange for temporal gratification, or new Cainites well known for their artistic skills yet with cruel hearts. This is why the words of Martin Luther are so essential in our discussion: “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals.” Fearing our hearts should make us pessimistic because pessimism is the “recognition of the deep incompetence of the human heart” (Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism). Adam’s nature was incompetent as far as he was a child, and he needed to mature. After the Fall, human nature became even more incompetent (to use Scruton’s terminology) due to the corruption caused by sin.

Yes, God is overcoming the incompetence of human hearts. He even uses our weaknesses and failures to demonstrate His power and faithfulness. He will forge what is corrupted into something glorious. But it will take time, and we are not there yet. So, the discussion about optimism vs. pessimism is not so much about God’s power or faithfulness, the patterns of history, or the mysterious ways of the Divine Providence, but rather about our pilgrimage to the City of God through history. It is not about the ultimate outcome of history but about our way to it. And even though we experience and observe the good fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection in history, it does not mean that we should expect steady progress at all stages of history and our personal development. Christians are still martyred for the Gospel, children still die, and friends still fail. And we still have much to learn about being good kings and loving husbands.

This is why Gage Crowder’s proposed term, “paschal postmillennialism,” is to be preferred over “optimistic eschatology.” As Paul reminds us, “Through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). However, the problems we face are not only tribulations suffered for the Gospel. We must not forget that we live under the Sun as described by Ecclesiastes. These two aspects of human existence overlap but are not identical. We suffer not only from tribulations that fall upon us due to our faithful Christian life but also from the fact that we are limited and immature beings: we come to this world as impatient fools, we are slow to learn, we are inclined to egoism, we love shortcuts, we grow old and grumpy, and we die. The tears of a sower are caused not only by the anticipation of a Philistine raid incited by the harvest but also by the realization of his weakness and sinfulness. The more we know ourselves, the harder it comes to be optimistic. Yes, we might have more reasons to be optimistic in ten thousand years as we slowly mature in Christ, but even then, we will not be perfect yet.

Therefore, we should not be optimistic about our endeavors, i.e., we should not anticipate their best possible outcome, for we are still mortal juvenile sinners. Moreover, if “possible” means “within the limits of ability,” our achievements will be below them for the same reason. On the other hand, it does not feel proper to apply the term “optimism” to God and talk about Providence in terms of the best possible outcome within the limits of God’s ability. Postmillennialism is not Leibniz’s theodicy, and we should not employ his language to discuss Christian hope. It is just too bleak and weak. It is not glorious enough. But this is all optimists can do: imagine utopia, which by default is a creation of incompetent imagination and falls short of the unspeakable future glory the Bible tells us about.1 Therefore, the language of optimism seems improper when talking about Christian eschatology.

Instead of using the phrase “optimistic eschatology,” we should talk about hopeful eschatology. We must remember that Christian hope is neither optimism promising a quick way to utopia nor shallow hope, which evaporates when facing tribulation or even the brute reality of life.2 Instead, it is the hope of Abraham: hope against hope of an old man with a barren wife whom God promised that he would one day become a father to the multitude. It does not anticipate a smooth path to swift victories, but instead, it braces for a long struggle with many bitter twists and turns. It is the hope of Jacob, who had to wrestle with God for all of his life and who, after receiving the badge of victory (i.e., his broken hip), still had to face the Egyptian peregrination of his son before he could finally rest. This hope stems from faith, i.e., trust in God, and is a synonym for endurance. This kind of hope can be forged only by faithful facing the misfortunes and hardships we encounter on the way to future glory. Optimism, which can generate only “fool’s hope,” will not help us here, as it will inevitably betray us and leave us in the cold with nothing but despair, depriving us of any true and lasting achievements.

However, the case is different when it comes to discussing pessimism— of course, the right kind of pessimism, “which means simply recognizing the deep incompetence of human nature,” as opposed to “the wrong kind, which tells us to stop hoping” (Scruton). This kind of pessimism reminds us that we should not anticipate the best outcome within the limits of our abilities because we are mortal, immature, and sinful. So, we, by default, perform below our abilities. Therefore, as much as I agree with Gage Crowder that “our eschatology needs to transcend the unhelpful category of optimism,” I disagree that we should treat pessimism similarly. These two are not opposites. They are more like a disease and a cure, for pessimism is a cure for the disease of optimism because it warns us against relying on infantile utopias spawned by fraudulent imagination. Pessimism liberates us from the surface, shallow hope of fools and thus makes a place for deep hope, which is necessary to deal with our “incompetent nature” on the one hand and tribulations through which we must enter the Kingdom on the other hand. Thus, pessimism makes it possible to enjoy glimpses of future glory even in this life because pessimism, contrary to optimism, does not feel the rush to haste to new things in the vain hope that the new must inevitably be better than the old. Neither does it assume that we always, almost by necessity, know how to transform the not-so-perfect present into a more glorious future and that we can actually accomplish it sooner rather than later.

  1. I wrote more on utopian thinking in Utopia, A Brief Critique. ↩︎
  2. Since I wrote about hope in Deep Hope, I will not repeat here everything that I said there. ↩︎
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