Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a friend who closely follows the region shared a meme of a soldier with the caption, “Hey friend, listen, I know the world is scary right now, but… it’s gonna get way worse.” For Ukrainians in places like Bucha and elsewhere, the world did get worse. For others, the fear that they, their families, and their communities will face a similar fate if Russia succeeds explains why they fight so tenaciously. After all, Vladimir Putin has never accepted Ukraine as independent or sovereign, and he has argued that Russia and Ukraine are “one people.” So it appears that his regime has the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the Ukrainian nation. If surrender would result in genocide or other war crimes, no realist should expect potential victims to lay down their arms easily. Meanwhile, fears remain that Russia could use a nuclear weapon if it cannot win. Last December this war seemed unlikely to many—it was just too irrational or unreasonable. Even if Russia invaded, analysts hoped that it would go for a minimalist goal because trying to take the whole country would be an unwise strategic mistake. Just as the World War I and World War II devastated the myth that mankind was progressing toward some utopian future, Europe’s new war has reminded the world that human achievements have not eliminated mankind’s potential to create terrifying horrors.
In Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter, Timothy Keller reflects on how and why the secular hope of progress has failed, and he instead offers the Christian reason for hope. He began writing this book early during the COVID-19 pandemic and after his cancer diagnosis. The world’s realization in 2020 that modern technology did not eliminate the risk of widespread disease dented society’s hope of steady progress. Yet as the Presbyterian pastor explains, humans have never been able to make progress on their own. They have no hope, “unless there is a God who has promised to guide history not to an end but to a new beginning, to a world in which finally death and evil are completely destroyed and justice and peace reign supreme, the sign of which is the resurrection.”
For Keller, Christians have spent too little time considering the implications of the resurrection while focusing on Christ’s death on the cross. But the cross and resurrection should be considered together, as they both form the “Great Reversal” that gives Christians “the basic shape or pattern” by which they should live, upon which multiple chapters elaborate. In addition to reversing how the world operates on multiple levels, the resurrection created the “Already-but-Not-Yet Kingdom,” which many Christians believe will exist until Christ’s return when God will make all things new. During this current post-resurrection era, the world has already improved and can gradually become better, though not continuously upward. God is working through the Holy Spirit to make lives better, but the final age when all is made right is not yet here. The horrors of human depravity still remain. Keller’s elaboration is very Christian realist, a rejection of both utopianism and defeatism:
The kingdom of God is already here, but not yet in its fullness. We must not underestimate how present the kingdom of God is, but we must also not underestimate how unrealized it is, how much it exists only in the future. Because the kingdom is present partially but not fully, we must expect substantial healing but not total healing in all areas of life.
The implications of this are significant. If we overstate the “already” of the kingdom to the exclusion of the “not yet,” we will expect quick solutions to problems and will be dismayed by suffering and tragedy. But we can likewise overstress the “not yet” of the kingdom to the exclusion of the “already.” We can be too pessimistic about personal change. We can withdraw from engaging the world, too afraid of being “polluted” by it.
Keller makes the case that the secular hope of progress has its roots in this Christian theology that after the resurrection the world we live in (not some future world) can improve, especially as other religions did not have this same expectation. But secular philosophers removed God, the reason hope can exist, from their equations. They also ignored the consequences of original sin, which prompts humans to take their achievements and use them for selfish gain. Those who do not have the hope that the resurrection offers frequently turn to despair after seeing the world’s tragic realities, as H.G. Wells did after scientific reason failed to stop World War II.
Early in Hope in Times of Fear, Keller spends a chapter to briefly give evidence that the resurrection occurred. In this he points readers to other authors, particularly N.T. Wright, who go into more detail. Then he spends the majority of the book elaborating on how the resurrection affects Christians’ lives and alters the nature of their hope. While they will still go through difficulties, the Great Reversal changes Christians so that they can endure whatever occurs. They recognize that the resurrection of Jesus promises not just restoration in the future, but also a present that improves not because of human agency, which always fails, but because of God’s grace at work.
The book offers various observations for how the Great Reversal plays out in Christians’ lives. For example, when writing about class relations Keller discusses Jesus’s instruction that Christians should not host parties for those who could return the favor. For the Roman world, such events allowed participants to network and move up in society. If the lower classes came, they could offer nothing. But their exclusion created a systemic injustice because they could not gain access to the benefits of society, which the powerful hoarded. So biblical teaching reverses this practice, and the resurrection begins an era when Christians can through grace (not their own ability) humbly follow this command to work against injustices.
In the same chapter about justice, Keller proposes that Christians should focus their efforts on local issues rather than trying to address broader, national debates. He justifies this by saying national governments are ineffective, so believers can accomplish more by working on local problems. I similarly argued that Christians who love their neighbors should pay attention to and participate in state and local politics, mostly because those governments affect the daily lives of Americans much more than the federal government.
Toward the end of the book, the chapter “Hope in the Face of Suffering” is perhaps the best, and readers may want to reread it again across different seasons. It includes lessons from Joseph’s life—such as how God took what was meant for evil and turned it to good—which are worth remembering and meditating upon.
Keller is correct to emphasize that believers should contemplate the resurrection and its implication on their lives. Too often society desires a renaissance—a rebirth of some past glory. But for Christians who reflect upon their community and its history, a rebirth is not wholly desirable because depravity runs too deep and often kills what is good. Instead, they should desire a resurrection—a raising from the dead that which is good because God made it good—in their lives, relationships, communities, and world.
In this already-but-not-yet age, Christians must wait for the day when Christ returns and the final resurrection occurs. But Easter offers an opportunity to meditate on Christ’s empty tomb and its implications. Keller’s Hope in Times of Fear gives readers a way to think through the meaning of this season. Even as the people fear pandemics, social strife, wars, death, recessions, and more—the resurrection offers reasons for hope.