In John Bunyan’s abiding allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, hope is personified in two ways. Hopeful is the traveling companion of Christian, the story’s protagonist, along the winding journey toward the Celestial City. Hopeful was born in the town of Vanity and grew up with great expectations of the things of the fair; honor and title, ownership and ease were his great hopes. But he had suffered bitter disappointment in these pursuits and found only shipwrecks of his own optimism. In this valley of emptiness, Hopeful was able to recognize the full and solid quest of Christian. And thus, Hopeful’s drastic conversion of hope begins with pilgrimage and community.
The other character marked by hope in Bunyan’s tale is encountered near the river one must cross on foot in order to enter the Celestial City. Vain-Hope is a ferryman, who offers to ferry travelers across the River of Death so that they don’t have to cross on their own. Yet as one man discovers, it is a promise that gets him across the river, but destroys all hope of staying there. In the end, Vain-Hope is a deadly end.
With these two lucid pictures, Bunyan divides hope in two, possibly simple, but maybe wise, categories: the life-giving and the destructive. Considering all the ways in which we use the word, it seems easily an oversimplification. In the painting above, for instance, artist George Frederic Watts shows a female allegorical figure of Hope, for which the painting is titled, sitting on a globe in a hunched position, blindfolded, clutching a wooden lyre with only one string left intact. According to Watts, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.”(1) G. K. Chesterton, who was far from alone in his criticism of Watt’s image, suggested that a better title for this work would be Despair. Chesterton describes the lone string of Hope’s lyre as “a string which is always stretched to snapping and yet never snaps. . . the queerest and most delicate thing in us, the most fragile, the most fantastic, is in truth the backbone and indestructible. . . Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors.”(2)
Hope is a word I have often wished we had several different options from which to choose (much like ‘love’ in Greek, which puts at our disposal four completely different pictures). Regrettably, we use the same word for ‘hope’ whether we are hoping for light traffic or longing for a cure. We speak of hope with a sense of whimsical curiosity (like Herod who had heard of Jesus and hoped to see him perform a miracle), and with a sense of dread or uncertainty (like those who hope cancer will not strike anyone near them). We propose hope with a sense of joy (like Paul who longed that he should see the Thessalonians again), as well as other motivators (like the teachers of the law who sincerely hoped they would catch Jesus in something he said). In this mess of motive and intensity, Bunyan’s two pictures actually offer some clarification. Namely: hope is not a static thing. Like Hopeful and Vain-Hope, our hopes move us ultimately toward something—toward God perhaps or toward something else.
Along the way, we will, of course, carry longings both weighted and light-hearted. And we undoubtedly grieve the death of certain hopes throughout our lifetimes, hopes that dissipated, hopes that failed to move us in the directions we were anticipating, hopes that simply changed. But these are not always dead ends. Sometimes hope must rise from the ashes of lifeless dreams in order to redirect us. But we are always moving, and in this, the Christian admonishment to “be joyful in hope” may even be a helpful guide.(3) We simply cannot do so if we are living in fear of the alternative. Hopeful’s companionship would not have been helpful had he despaired at their chances of getting to the Celestial City. Yet neither would Christian and Hopeful have made it to those shores if the Celestial City were not real. Even when joy is our motivator, it must lead us to hope upon pathways of reality.
I was startled recently by the striking thought that all hope, whether vain or false or rightful, not only leads us to an end, but will come to an end itself. Vain-Hope and Hopeful have this in common actually. One carried a hope that ended in death, the other a hope that ended at the gates of the Celestial City. “I sink in deep waters,” cried Christian in the river as his sins came to his mind. “But I see the gate,” said Hopeful “and men standing at it ready to receive us.” Hope took them across the River of Death and then died itself—in fruition—at the shore.
It is this sort of hope that the Christian story invites the world to take hold of in joy and in certainty as an anchor for life itself. As people in this world, we can be led by someone greater than ourselves, by the vicariously human Christ who has gone before us making a way, and this same Christ who will come again to bring us onward. We can labor toward his promises, holding indications even now, moving toward a Holy City where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. There he will stand before us, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last; and our hope, then materialized, then actualized, will bow to its rightful end.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) George Frederic Watts, Hope 1886, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/george-frederic-watts-hope-r1105604, accessed 26 August 2016.
(2) G.K. Chesterton on G.F. Watts, (London: Duckworth and Co., 2008).
(3) Romans 12:12.