On Advent Hope: Insights from Scripture, Science, and Jazz

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“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jeremiah 23:5

Hope in God, Not Hope in Hope (or Worse)

Advent is a season for hope, but not “hope in hope.” Instead, it’s hope grounded in God’s coming in Jesus, who fulfilled messianic prophecies. Even more, the church believes that what God has done in Jesus will be brought to completion in the age to come when “the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Because, right now, we know the world isn’t way it’s supposed to be.

Karl Marx objected, arguing that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” leading to economic injustice on the earth as people hope for “pie in the sky.” Yet hopeful believers have changed this world. William Wilberforce worked tirelessly to end slavery in 18th century England. Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech—powered by the vision of a just world to come—advocated for changes here and now.

As I read Scripture, when we hope, we take steps to change this world. I take recourse —as I often do—in the words of C.S. Lewis, “Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

Biblical hope leads to action, and strikingly, so does hope as scientists study it.

Hope, Not Toxic Positivity

Similarly, hope viewed from secular studies isn’t sheer optimism, nor is it toxic positivity. The first tells us just to have a positive outlook—that “things will get better”—and the second denies the problems of this world and does nothing about it.

Scholar John Parsi, director of the Arizona State University Hope Center, believes that optimism doesn’t require a person to act. On the other hand, working from a scientific definition of hope, he offers these insights. “Hopeful people cannot just wish things into existence. Hope requires a person to take responsibility for their wants and desires and take action in working towards them. Optimistic people see the glass as half full, but hopeful people ask how they can fill the glass full.”

  • Here’s an accessible article (which I quote above) called “The Science of Hope: More Than Wishful Thinking,” and a brief video interview with John Parsi.
  • The John Templeton Foundation has excellent resources on hope and optimism.
  • Physicist and theologian Bob Russell’s essay (which I quote below) can be found in the book Science and Theology: The New Consonance.

God’s Hopeful, Continuing Creation

This active form of hope also connects God with creation. In quantum physics, ours is a dynamic and unfolding world. As my mentor and dissertation advisor Robert John Russell once said, in view of quantum indeterminacy, God is continually creating. He has written, “In short and metaphorically, what one could say is what we normally take as ‘nature’ is in reality the activity of ‘God + nature.’ Alternatively, from this perspective we really do not know what the world would be like without God’s action.”

How does the classical world we inhabit, with its regularity and natural laws, arise from this indeterminate quantum world? Bob is clear to add that there isn’t exactly ordering out of chaos. He’d rather point to God’s continuing work in creating. “God creates the (classical) world not by ordering its structures (‘order out of chaos’) but by creating the quantum processes that produce the classical world.”

Bringing Hope

I’m going to add one final element as we engage in this world with hope—improvisation.

Learning how to improvise as a jazz musician happened far earlier in my life than learning about Jesus. And now that they’re both a part of my life, one of the connections that I’ve noticed is that the hope of my faith invites me to improvise, not just in music, but in life. Why? Because improvisation is based on hope—that hope that something better is coming. Improvisation is founded on the conviction that it’s not just what’s written on the music sheet, but what you create in time and as the future unfolds—that makes the music.

With that in mind, listen again to theologian and physicist Bob Russell, God is continually creating, and we know where God’s creation is headed. That means, as I see it, we can join God in this work. (By the way, some use a similar term “created co-creator” for this.)

Let us then lean into the vision at the end of time, where there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). And let us bring to mind that day God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

That vision should lead us to act. In fact, biblical, scientifically grounded, hope directs us to ask, What steps will we take to make this vision come to pass here and now in this Advent season?

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor


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