St. Paul’s phrase that we ought to ‘hope against hope’ is both enigmatic and encouraging.
Here is the context as it appears in the Douay-Rheims translation:
Who against hope believed in hope; that he might be made the father of many nations, according to that which was said to him: So shall thy seed be (Romans 4:18).
The phrase can be perplexing. Isn’t hope a good thing? Isn’t it one of the theological virtues? Why would one need to ‘hope against hope’?
The key to interpreting this verse, according to commentators, is the role that belief plays. Paul is contrasting hope alone with hope anchored in faith. One commentator defines the first kind of hope as mere probability. The second is “an assured confidence, grounded on the divine promise.” Another commentary says it’s the difference between hope based on human nature and hope that is supernatural.
Without the supernatural, hope becomes something we all want but realize that is unattainable. ‘Hope and change’ was the motto of a certain presidential campaign that ended up not delivering much of either. All too often we recognize that natural hope is impractical. Hence the idiom: ‘Don’t get your hopes up.’
The plural—hopes—is revealing. Without God, in whom all things find their unity, hope disperses. Without God there are hopes, but no hope.
The problem of hope apart from God was recognized by the early Greeks before the time of Christ. In Greek, the word is elpis. For the Greeks, elpis was not virtue but vice. It was ranked among the dangerous passions that afflicted the minds of men—like eros, which is associated with sexual desire or lust. People who had elpis were hopelessly delusional, cursed by the gods and doomed to a tragic fate.
This kind of dangerous hope is viewed by the Greek historian Thucydides as one of the driving factors behind the failed Athenian invasion of Sicily. The role of hope comes out in a speech by one of the generals, Nicias, to his men:
I have, therefore, still a strong hope for the future, and our misfortunes do not terrify me as much as they might. Indeed we may hope that they will be lightened: our enemies have had good fortune enough; and if any of the gods was offended at our expedition, we have been already amply punished. Others before us have attacked their neighbors and have done what men will do without suffering more than they could bear; and we may now justly expect to find the gods more kind, for we have become fitter objects for their pity than their jealousy (The Peloponnesian War, 7.77).
The ensuring battle expose how unrealistic Nicias’ hopes were. His men rush into the Assinarus River in complete disorder. The account is a gripping image of what worldly hope without faith might lead men to do:
Once there they rushed in, and all order was at an end, each man wanted to cross first, and the attacks of the enemy making it difficult to cross at all; forced to huddle together, they fell against and trod down one another, some dying immediately upon the javelins, others getting entangled together and stumbling over the articles of baggage, without being able to rise again. Meanwhile the opposite bank, which was steep, was lined by the Syracusans, who showered missiles down upon the Athenians, most of them drinking greedily and heaped together in disorder in the hollow bed of the river. The Peloponnesians also came down and butchered them, especially those in the water, which was thus immediately spoiled, but which they went on drinking just the same, mud and all, bloody as it was, most even fighting to have it (The Peloponnesian War, 7.84).
Without being ordered according to faith and charity, hope, as a natural inclination, drives men mad. The army completely breaks down: they trample each other in the water, their bloodlust is matched by their gluttonous drinking, and, in the end, they sink to the level of drinking the blood of their comrades. One is reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s warning about ‘virtues running wild’:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone (Orthodoxy, 26).
Of course, we must draw a distinction between faith, hope, and love as theological virtues and faith, hope, and love as they exist on the natural plane. The hope that drove the Athenians wild is not the same hope Christians cherish as a virtue. But the two are related in some way. In the story of the Athenians we perhaps see a reflection—like a photographic negative—of what hope is like when it doesn’t come from God.
Of course that all changes with the arrival of Christianity, foreshadowed by figures like Abraham. For us, hope is not a delusion or dangerous passion because it is grounded in faith. As Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This, then, is the meaning of St. Paul’s phrase. As Christians, we hold to supernatural hope against the hopes of the world. We hope even when it seems like all hope is lost. This seems indispensable in today’s world when all seems so hopeless—whether it’s our hope for someone fighting an addiction, or battling a grim cancer diagnosis, or struggling with some other chronic suffering. Really, for all of us, the only hope we truly have is the hope God gives to us.