What Is Biblical Hope?

And why it matters
two hands engaged in a pinky promise
Monthly theme image featuring a young girl holding a growing plant and the December theme Faith and Hope

Tragedy and hope are often equally plausible. There is no logical reason to assume that things will be better tomorrow than they are today. Indeed, as Jonathan Sacks, the former rabbi of London, has pointed out, a tragic interpretation of life is as coherent and as consistent with the facts of history as a hopeful one. The difference, then, between tragedy and hope lies not with the facts of our lives but with our interpretation of them.

And it is precisely here that biblical hope makes all the difference. Indeed, a central theme in Scripture is that tragedy does not have the last word. In the midst of trauma and oppression, and sin and injustice, God does not give up on us and calls on us not to give up on one another and the world around us. 

Thus, biblical hope is not simply about passively wanting something to happen or to be true. But what precisely does it entail? Why does it matter? And how do we live into it? This blog seeks to address these questions by discussing three themes—promises, forgiveness, and repentance—and how they relate to the Holy Spirit’s work of creating hope within and around us.  


Biblical hope is rooted in God’s promises to us, promises that, in turn, enable us to make promises to one another. God’s promises are about a world where mercy and justice prevail over cruelty and injustice, and where there is harmony not only among human beings, but also within the natural world. Isaiah, for example, provides us with a vivid image of a Messiah who rules with righteousness and justice, and of a world where wolves live with lambs, and leopards and kids lie down together, and a child leads them all (Isaiah 11:6-7). In turn, Jeremiah speaks of a time when God’s mercy, righteousness, and justice will prevail over those who “boast” in their wisdom, wealth, and power (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

These biblical images remind us that we are not at the mercy of forces beyond our control. We do not have to accept passively what is, but can instead begin to imagine and live into a different kind of world. But they also imply that we are not simply called to fulfill our own egocentric and ethnocentric desires and interests. The same God who knows and cares for me, knows and cares for others—and indeed, the entire world. Thus, God’s promises of a new world, for us and for others, provides us with a space not only for our own freedom, but for our being able to make promises to others and in this way realistically create for ourselves and one another a trustworthy world.


Yet we often fail to keep our promises, and others often fail to keep theirs. And so here another theme is important for understanding biblical hope—God’s forgiveness of us, which, in turn, enables us to forgive others. Indeed, Christians affirm that out of love God has in Jesus the Messiah, indeed, entered our own and the world’s patterns of sin and injustice, and dysfunction and death, in order to liberate us so that, healed and transformed, we might live into the justice and righteousness of the Messiah’s life. A biblical understanding of forgiveness is perhaps best characterized by the Greek word aphesis, which has to do with being liberated from bondage or released from forces that hold us in their grip. It has to do with the way both victims and perpetrators—albeit in different ways—are released or liberated from the dysfunctional forces that keep them hooked or stuck in cycles of oppression and violence (Isaiah 61:1).


The ongoing process of receiving and giving forgiveness is not simply instantaneous, but involves a lifetime of ongoing renewal. Thus, it cannot be divorced from repentance, which drawing on the Greek word, metanoia, has to do with the ongoing renewal or transformation of our minds and hearts (Romans 12:2), so that we are defined not by the world’s dysfunction but by God’s good purposes for us and the world around us. As we receive God’s promises and forgiveness we now can, with “unveiled faces,” reflect and behold God’s reign of mercy and justice to one another and in this way be transformed (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Such repentance will involve grieving over what we have done or what others have done to us. More importantly, however, it will involve turning around and stepping into a different world, one now defined by God’s promises amidst life’s vicissitudes and God’s forgiveness amidst what seems irreversible. 

The Spirit’s groaning

So, how does all this come together in our lives? In Romans 8, Paul explicitly links the work of the Holy Spirit with our being able to live in hope. If Jesus as the Messiah embodied God’s reign of justice and mercy in his human life, then as those baptized into his death and life, we too are called to embody God’s reign in our lives. Indeed, the same Spirit that empowered Jesus’ life and ministry now empowers ours. Paul uses the word “groan” to describe how the Spirit empowers us by embodying hope in our lives. The Greek word for “groan” (stenagmos) has a double meaning, especially when interpreted in view of its verb forms: it can mean either to suffer and to complain, on the one hand, or to give birth, on the other. With this word, Paul depicts how, precisely amidst the suffering and injustice we find within and around us, the Spirit groans through us, giving birth to the Messiah’s life (Romans 8:18-28).

Through the Spirit’s groaning, not just our physical bodies but also all of the social bodies in which we participate (for example, as family and friends, as congregations and neighborhoods, and as societies and nations) become places where God’s mercy and justice are manifest. Precisely in this way, amidst all the death-dealing dysfunction that often opposes God’s reign in these spaces, the Spirit creates the hope within and around us that makes all the difference—not just for us but also for those within our midst. 

Further reading

  • Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, The Ethics of Responsibility (New York: Schocken Books, 2005).

The Gospel of Matthew: Life in the Way of God

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Lois Malcolm

Lois Malcolm

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