Love, as St. Paul explained in 1 Corinthians, is the greatest of the three theological virtues. Faith is the theological virtue most commonly debated and pondered by theologians and apologists. Hope, on the other hand, has among many Christians a status similar to the Holy Spirit: vague in character, forgotten in conversation, and an enigma in everyday life.
Human and Theological Virtues
A virtue is a habit, or a consistent and “firm disposition to do the good” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1803). The human virtues are the attitudes that control man’s actions and passions according to reason and faith. They include the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They prepare man for communion with God, which ultimately comes through the divine gift of the theological virtues, which in turn “dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity” and “adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature” (CCC 1812). The origin and object of the theological virtues are one: the Triune God. They direct man to God, they are infused into man by God alone, and they are made known to man by divine revelation.
The Catechism defines hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817). The German Thomist Josef Pieper wrote in his classic work On Hope (in the volume Faith Hope Love) that “in the virtue of hope more than any other, man understands and affirms that he is a creature, that he has been created by God.” Philosophers, he went on, would not describe hope as a virtue unless they were also Christian theologians. Pieper means that hope—the desire for fulfillment beyond what is found in time and history as opposed to the hope we have for good health or a long life—makes no sense unless there is a personal and loving God.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains in the Summa Theologiae that “man’s happiness is twofold.” The first happiness belongs to human nature and can be obtained by man’s natural efforts. The other, he writes, “is a happiness surpassing man’s nature and man can obtain by the power of God alone, by a kind of participation of the Godhead, about which it is written that by Christ we are made ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4)” (ST I-II.62.1). Because this supernatural happiness surpasses what man is naturally capable of, he is reliant on God to provide the ability to achieve it.
Man as Status Viatoris
Man is a pilgrim. In Pieper’s discussion of hope, he says that man is status viatoris—in the “condition or state of being on the way”—drawing on St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it [comprehendisse] yet” (Phil. 3:13, NASB). To be on the way means “to be making progress toward eternal happiness,” or the fulfillment found in the beatific vision.
Understanding the nature of hope means accepting that Christians live in a state of tension and yearning but that our natural instinct is to flee from tension and fulfill the yearning with false hopes and dangerous distractions. We are meant for communion with God, but we are pilgrims this side of heaven. We are meant to rest in heaven, but we toil on earth; we are spiritual and material. We are sinners who, by God’s grace, are being saved. Every day, in ways big and small, this tension affects our lives.
This is the “eschatological tension” that John Paul II referred to in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia. It is the desire to rest in God; it is the tension that is “kindled by the Eucharist” because the “Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth” (EE 19). Those who partake of the Eucharist and who share in the life of the risen Christ have tasted the marriage supper of the Lamb, but they are still on their way to the New Jerusalem. The late Holy Father overtly connected the Eucharist with the theological virtue of hope:
A significant consequence of the eschatological tension inherent in the Eucharist is also the fact that it spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us. Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of “new heavens” and “a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. (EE 20)
The Bible is, in many ways, the story of man on the way to his final home. In the Old Testament there is growing hope for the kingdom of God and for an eternal covenant that would be established by the coming Messiah. Although this Old Testament hope is always rooted in dependence on God and his promises, it is also focused on material prosperity, freedom from political oppression, and the gift of numerous descendants.
The Promised Land
Gradually in Scripture there comes the realization—or the revelation—that there is an afterlife beyond this earthly realm. There is hope for the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, the promised Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead. “God revealed the resurrection of the dead to his people progressively,” the Catechism states. “Hope in the bodily resurrection of the dead established itself as a consequence intrinsic to faith in God as creator of the whole man, soul and body” (CCC 992). In the century or so prior to the birth of Jesus, the book of Wisdom speculated about the afterlife and its promise of hope for the righteous man persecuted by apostate Jews. It did not contemplate the specific nature of heaven. It was enough that it existed.
The specifics came with the Incarnation. Jesus often spoke of the coming kingdom of God in which those who shared in his life would become adopted sons of the Father. The Beatitudes are filled with specific reasons for hope, pointing beyond earthly bounds to a new Promised Land (CCC 1820). St. Paul wrote about the hope of glory established in, by, and through Jesus Christ:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Rom. 5:1–5)
Hope is not only central to the Christian life; it is also a distinctive mark of the Christian view of life, death, and history. Christian hope, in fact, is a scandal and an offense to the skeptic, the agnostic, and the atheist. It is an affront to forms of Christianity that exist only as systems of morality without any basis in the actual source of Christian hope—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which conquers the great enemy of man: death.
Hope and the Culture of Death
In the Dictionary of Theology, Rev. Louis Bouyer wrote that “even today, one of the most urgent problems facing Christian thought is to give a greater emphasis to the definition of supernatural hope in the context of the different hopes harbored in the modern world.” Christian hope, he explained, cannot be confused with a natural though doomed attempt to achieve human perfection. This is especially important in the face of evils that have been perpetrated in the name of social, political, and technological “progress.”
In recent decades, theories about politics and society have frequently been based on the belief that freedom, human dignity, and justice are shifting cultural values or man-made ideas created to meet particular needs at various points in history. This is the essence of trendy theories that undermine belief in an objective, transcendent moral order. Their materialist assumptions lead to the belief that man’s “hope” and “meaning” is found in material things—ranging from political movements to fine wine to video games—and that progress is inevitable because of advances in science and technology. Man’s hope for anything beyond himself is diverted into dead ends, including the literal ones produced by abortion, euthanasia, and other “solutions” to man’s material problems.
In a culture of death, the tension that man experiences as one who is “on the way” must be dulled or destroyed. As Peter Kreeft shows in Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing, the questions “In what may I hope?” and “What may I hope for?” are either infrequently asked or are relegated to the realm of private belief. Sometimes they are “answered” by pointing the questioner to earthly hopes for improved health, longer life, more justice, less hate, a helpful government.
But man is desperate to reach beyond himself, to find fulfillment beyond this world. Christians should readily pose questions pointing to true hope: Why do I exist? What is the meaning of my life? What am I living for? Is there something beyond here and now? It is Christian hope, based in the gospel, that answers man’s questions about his ultimate destiny.
The Source of Hope
The issue of death is especially significant to humanity in the context of hope. It is in the face of death that “the riddle of human existence grows most acute,” the Second Vatican Council stated (Gaudium et Spes 18). Yet it is one of the great curiosities of human existence in our day that man avoids discussing death seriously. Even funerals are stripped of references to death, and it is common to hear that a loved one “will live forever in our memories,” as if those memories will not eventually pass away, too. Man dreads his extinction and revolts against the idea that after death he will be no more. Man “rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter” (GS 18).
If death cannot be conquered, there is no hope. If there is no hope in a future beyond this world, there is no meaningful life in this world. As the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote so starkly in his book Religion, “If the course of the universe and of human affairs has no meaning related to eternity, it has no meaning at all.” Any vision of life that ignores human mortality cannot be a source of authentic hope, which is why Pieper points out that man must ask of his hope, “What, and on the basis of what?”
But if there is meaning, there must be eternity, and if there is eternity, there is hope. If there is hope, there is a source of hope: the risen and glorified God-Man who has conquered death by death. The hope he gives “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
Despair and Presumption
Christians sometimes misunderstand the nature of hope. The two biggest distortions of hope are despair and presumption. As dissimilar as they appear, they are both forms of hopelessness and, therefore, sins against hope. Both are based on faulty views of God and man. Those who despair give up hope in salvation from God “for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins” (CCC 2091). It is common to associate despair with depression and, in many cases, to discount the culpability of the one who despairs. Yet there is a despair that is not simply a mood or an emotion but a decision of the will. It is, ultimately, a rejection of Christ and his gift of redemption. The root of despair is acedia, or spiritual sloth, which refuses the joy offered by God and is actually sickened by God’s goodness.
Presumption is a form of hopelessness because the man who presumes has come to believe that he is no longer “on the way” to a future fulfillment—which comes, by God’s grace, only after death—but that he has already attained the goal of eternal life in this life. The Catechism explains the two forms of presumption:
Either man presumes upon his own capacities (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit). (CCC 2092)
The first type of presumption is a form of Pelagianism, the heretical belief that man has the ability to save himself. It is closely related to pseudo-religions (such as liberation theology) that attempt to create the kingdom of heaven by political means. The other form of presumption is found in the beliefs of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, whose brand of “eternal security” promises that once they have made a profession of faith (“asked Jesus into their hearts”), they are saved. Period. This presumption, Pieper wrote, reveals a failure to understand the “true pilgrim character of Christian existence” and demonstrates a “lack of humility, a denial of one’s actual creatureliness and an unnatural claim to being like God.”
Fundamentalists who believe that Catholics “don’t know if they’re saved or not” are convinced, in the words of James G. McCarthy, former Catholic and author of The Gospel According to Rome, “that Biblical salvation is secure, for it does not depend upon man but upon God.” This thinking fails to distinguish between the promises of God, which are always true and steadfast, and the choices of man, which are not. The object of hope—salvation—remains secure, but the subject of hope—man—can accept, reject, despair, and presume at any time. We don’t possess free will only when we make our initial choice of God’s gift of salvation; the capacity to later reject, deny, or trample it is always with us.
The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim. 2:11–13)
This is not the language of presumption or eternal security but of authentic hope and free will. We are warned that denying God will result in God denying us—because he respects the gift of free will he has given man. God is faithful. But we can be unfaithful. To think otherwise is presumptuous.
Until All Hope Is Gone
“I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Without that hope, there is no hope at all. This side of the life to come is a challenge to hope, a humble signpost pointing the way to our final home, where hope, like faith, won’t exist. Faith will be fulfilled and hope will be complete in heaven. Only love will remain.