‘Hope for the future has become a thing of the past.’ So quipped Woody Allan. For many people his words correspond only too closely with their lived experience.
Someone remarked to me the other day, ‘I no longer watch the TV news. It’s too depressing.’ Disillusion is widespread with politicians and the political process, with the economy, with the media and its capacity for distortion and manipulation, and also with the institution of the church which too often is seen to cloak within its own borders the same failures it denounces in others.
When this is coupled with a recognition of the growth of extremist violence, slavery, poverty and oppression in the world today, it is not surprising that hope has given way in many hearts to a quiet sense of despair about the future.
Men and women, however, have always dreamed of a better world. At least since classical times human hope for the future and an ideal society has found expression in various utopian visions which challenged the prevailing order.
Thomas More, for example, offered such a vision in his famous Utopia, in which he described a fictional and complex island society.
The problem for all such dreams and visions of a better world is that they come up against and are ultimately defeated by the pervasive presence of evil.
If human hope is to find itself well grounded, it somehow must be able to take full account of this dark power and find its base in the defeat of evil.
The joyful message of Easter is that it offers us all precisely this solid foundation for hope. Easter tells us that evil does not ultimately win, that death is not the end, that God forgives, that new life is possible, and that the future is suffused with the hope of glory.
It is both sad and challenging that the hope-filled message of Easter has been so widely lost in our society.
A 2010 survey showed that 53% of children in the UK were unaware of the religious significance of Easter and 30% thought it was to celebrate the birthday of the Easter Bunny!
The situation presents two major challenges. The first is for the church itself to find a clearer understanding of what we mean by resurrection and the life to come.
Too often, for example, we have conceived of heaven as a place of relevance only after death and as a disembodied, ethereal existence quite remote from any of the realities of space-time living with which we are now familiar.
This has more to do with Platonic thought than with the Bible which, as Tom Wright among others has shown clearly, speaks of heaven not as a ‘future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like.’
In this perspective, God’s space and ours, though very different, are extremely close to one another – as close as is the risen Saviour who prays for us at God’s right hand.
The real alternative to the false myth of utopian progress is God’s purpose, achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus. These have secured the ultimate defeat of evil and bring heaven and earth together in a perfect ‘marriage’.
The future is irradiated with the sure hope that God’s will shall be ‘done on earth even as it is in heaven.’
The second challenge for the church is to reach out with the Good News of Easter hope to the many people, of every age, who are looking for a realistic spirituality and a sense of purpose and direction in life. These, the Easter message of new creation wonderfully provides.
New research in Scotland has shown that many more people have embraced and live by the Easter message than declining statistics for church attendance on a Sunday morning would indicate.
The full import of this research has still to be assessed. It looks as if the increasing numbers of informal gatherings of people to explore their faith provides a sign that the decline in Christian faith in our country is considerably smaller than was previously assumed.
It is certainly the case that the Easter message of joyous hope has never been more needed, or relevant, than now. And it is the church’s highest privilege and calling to proclaim and embody that message, in every possible context, throughout all the communities of our land.