The global pandemic has been an attack not only on our bodies, but on our spirits. As we all remember vividly, the first several months brought illness, fear, isolation, grief, strife, and uncertainty. I particularly missed worshipping in person and singing with my church. Worldwide, rates of major depression and anxiety disorders went up.
In 2021, my spirit feels under attack in different ways. Once the vaccines arrived, I had more cause for optimism—the people I loved were protected by the vaccine, it was easier to plan for the future, and my church resumed regular worship. Yet the biggest source of attack I feel hasn’t gone away: the increasing polarization and vitriol in our culture. At the beginning of the pandemic, I actually thought that the polarization would diminish, because our society would come together to fight the common enemy of COVID-19. I was sure wrong! The polarization only escalated, with “science” and “faith” increasingly landing on opposite sides of the divide. I now fear that the increased polarization will be with us long after COVID is under control. I’m not seeing many signs for optimism.
Polarization is a problem that science can’t solve. If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is what science can and cannot do. Researchers have done amazing things: identified the virus, determined what actions would limit the spread, and developed vaccines that are effective and very safe. Yet the pandemic has made it clear that science can’t heal our larger societal problems. Science can’t reduce anger, forgive sins, build mutual respect, or fill us with compassion for others. Science can’t fill us with hope. Our world is in desperate need of all these things, but science can’t deliver. The good news is that Christ can.
Hope is acting in the confident expectation of a future good. By its very definition, we hope for things we do not yet have (Romans 8:24-25). Hope is looking toward a better future even when current circumstances are dire, choosing to identify and see hope. Hope is more than wishful thinking—hope looks a grim reality in the face, yet sees something transcendent beyond it, and chooses to live accordingly. Austin Channing Brown, in a study course alongside her book I’m Still Here, interviewed Brenda Salter McNeil about hope in the context of fighting racism. McNeil makes a distinction between hope and optimism: optimism is what we feel when current circumstances give a reasonable expectation that things will improve. But for all those times when circumstances look grim, we can still choose to hope. Hope is lived out in small actions—the steps we take every day as we look toward a future good. Without hope, we become overwhelmed, cynical, and despairing. Psychological research has documented the measurable benefits of hope, including reduced depression and anxiety, a stronger sense of meaning, and better health.
As an astronomer, I have sometimes found hope during the pandemic by looking at the stars. The heavens remind me that there is a Creator, a loving, powerful Person who is above and beyond our earthly circumstances.
Christ gives us hope
Christ-centered hope is particularly powerful. As pastor and theologian Tim Keller shared in a recent interview about his new book, Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter, Christian hope keeps us both from naive optimism and from cynical despair. Wishful thinking isn’t powerful, because it is easily broken by bad circumstances; Christian hope recognizes that suffering and injustice will be with us because the kingdom of God has not fully come. Despair isn’t powerful, because it makes us listless and disengaged; Christian hope shows us a better way.
We have hope because we have been redeemed.
Because of Christ’s resurrection, our sins are forgiven and death has been conquered. We are not our own, but belong, in body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ. We are part of God’s big story, in which all things—from my soul to the whole creation—will be set right in the end. We know how the story ends.
We have hope in a loving, powerful Creator.
The Bible tells of people who lived through the worst of circumstances, yet put their ultimate hope in the love of God (such as Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:19-24). As an astronomer, I have sometimes found hope during the pandemic by looking at the stars. The heavens remind me that there is a Creator, a loving, powerful Person who is above and beyond our earthly circumstances. He has not been defeated by COVID, and his love is as vast as the universe (Psalm 103:8-11). We are not alone.
We live out our hope by imitating Christ.
Our hope is about more than a distant future. God’s response to human suffering was to come in the person of Christ and walk with us in our humanity. Christ healed the sick, fed the hungry, and took the worst of our suffering on himself on the cross. Christ then calls us to follow him, to imitate him. So, like him, we come alongside the suffering, work against poverty, share the good news of the kingdom, and sacrifice ourselves for others. It isn’t easy. When I see the increasing vitriol and falsehoods of our polarized divides, I am tempted to despair and to think my actions won’t matter. Then I remember that I am not called to solve this world’s problems, I am called to imitate Christ. And so I take hope and again work to love and respect my neighbors, even when I think they’ve got it wrong or they lash out at me.
We are encouraged in hope by fellow believers.
Thankfully, we don’t have to sustain hope on our own. For many years, the women in my Bible study have been a great encouragement to me. We regularly share our struggles and help each other move from cynicism to hope, from judgementalism to compassion. The Christian life is a team effort, not a solo performance. In fact, church attendance—corporate worship and participation in a faith community—has well-established proven health benefits, as detailed in this recent article in Christianity Today.
Science equips us to act
What is the role of science in all this? Doesn’t science give us hope? Certainly science gives us cause for optimism at times, as I felt when the vaccines were announced. But when the going gets tough, science simply isn’t equipped to sustain ultimate hope. The key, though, is that science equips us to act on that hope. God has given us the gifts of science, medicine, and technology, a wealth of powerful tools that we can use to care for others.
Science doesn’t force us to act, science equips us to act.
Science equips us in multiple ways, giving us:
- Knowledge of the problem. During the pandemic, scientists identified the virus, determined how it is transmitted, documented the spread, and warned the world.
- Tools and remedies to counteract the problem. Biomedical researchers dropped everything to develop new treatments and vaccines. New antiviral pills are on the horizon.
- Risks and benefits of those tools. Public health experts track the disease and can tell us “if you meet as a large group, here are the risks with masks and risks without masks.” The vaccines also have risks and benefits; I’m in a vaccine study and have seen first hand how carefully the immunologists work to measure the vaccine’s side-effects as well as its effectiveness against COVID.
Some Christians fear that scientists are trying to limit their freedom and dictate their behavior. To be sure, doctors and public health officials have a responsibility to make recommendations for the health of us individually and as a society. But those are recommendations. It falls to government officials, school superintendents, business leaders, and individuals to make choices based on the information from scientists. As BioLogos wrote in a statement last year, “Invoking ‘science’ is not a one-word rationale for public policy; many factors need to be considered…Thoughtful Christians may disagree on public policy in response to the coronavirus, but none of us should ignore clear scientific evidence.” Christians can view science as a way that God gives us the knowledge, tools, and risk/benefit analysis we need to make good decisions about our health. Then we make our choices, praying for God to give us wisdom to follow him as well as possible. Science doesn’t force us to act, science equips us to act. Faith and science can work hand in hand when faith gives us hope, wisdom, and compassion and science gives us the tools to act.
If faith and science work together so well, why has there been so much pushback from Christians against science? Keep in mind that the loudest voices don’t represent everyone; many Christians have been vaccinated and many pastors support it. Yet is it true that Christian groups have been slower to vaccinate than atheists and agnostics. I believe this is not a lack of hope, but a lack of truth and discernment about science. Loud voices and social media have spread misinformation amplified by foreign forces to the extent that many Christians have been hearing outright lies rather than the knowledge, tools, and risk/benefit analysis developed by the scientific community. At BioLogos, we work with knowledgeable, believing scientists to understand the scientific information and convey it to you in a Christian context.
So where do I find hope? My hope is ultimately in Christ. Like the apostle Paul, I can be confident that “he who began a good work in me will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). When my hope sinks, I am encouraged by the hopeful actions of other Christ-followers. The church around the world is a global community of hope, transcending politics and human division because we follow one Lord. The church is far from perfect, but we strive together to imitate Christ, sharing the good news of the kingdom of God and taking small hopeful steps every day. Imagine what could happen if this global community of compassion were to act as one! May the Holy Spirit move through the church, leading us to truth. May God give us wisdom, fill us with compassion, and equip us to act with the tools of science, medicine, and technology. Then, faith and science can work hand in hand to heal a hurting world.
Dear BioLogos reader ...
In the escalating vitriol in our culture, “science” and “faith” have found each other on opposite sides of a polarized divide. Truth and community are under attack.
If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is what science can and cannot do. Scientists and doctors have done amazing things during the pandemic—identified the virus, treated the disease, and developed safe vaccines that work.
But in these polarized times, science can’t reduce anger, forgive sins, build mutual respect, or fill us with compassion for others.
Science alone can’t give us hope. Faith can. Join BioLogos today in reaching a world desperate for hope. Your tax-deductible donation will be the difference between someone encountering misinformation, or a thoughtful, truthful, and hopeful Christian perspective that shows faith and science working hand in hand.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.