Why Christians Should Not Be Optimists

By: Akos Balogh

I’ve noticed people aren’t as optimistic about the future these days. In our post 9-11, post-GFC, post-Trump era, people are increasingly anxious. Optimism no longer abounds – at least not like it used to.

Australian social researcher Hugh McKay has recently written about this in his book Australia Reimagined: Towards a More Compassionate, Less Anxious Australia. He details the challenges facing Australian society: the growing epidemics of loneliness and poor mental health; disappointment in political leadership; loss of faith in institutions (church, banks, government); and social media outrage. It’s a confronting list.

Twitter on the screen of a phone that someone is holding

But in an interview early last year, McKay finishes by saying that in spite of these challenges, he’s optimistic about the future:

“What I’m more optimistic about is that our sense of being human, and the sense of connectedness with other humans, will prevail – and will be the thing that pulls us back from the brink of disaster.”

Yes, there are challenges in life, and across society. But optimists like McKay believe that things will turn out alright in the end – a key definition of optimism. [1]

Is McKay right to be optimistic? Is such optimism the attitude Christians should have, as we navigate this fallen world with all its joys and challenges?

It may sound like a strange question: after all, isn’t optimism better than it’s polar opposite, pessimism? Given the choice between the two, wouldn’t you rather be an optimist? Isn’t optimism a godlier attitude?

And yet, I don’t think it’s that simple. As provocative as it sounds, I don’t think Christians should be optimists (at least not in that sense).

And here’s why.

1. The Bible Is Not Optimistic. Nor Is It Pessimistic Rather, it is realistic about our world.

The Bible is not optimistic about our world. It declares from the beginning that our world is broken, fallen, and full of hardship for humanity (e.g. Gen 3:16-19). Yes, there is much beauty in this world, but just as there are seasons of peace and love, there are also seasons of war and destruction (e.g. Eccl 3:1-8). Sin corrupts our very humanity (e.g. Rom 1:18-30).

And yet, the Bible is not pessimistic – in the sense of ‘believing that bad things are more likely to happen than good things’. Scripture does describe and predict awful things (i.e. from chapter 3 of Genesis onward), but it does so realistically: as things really are. And so we’re not called to be classic pessimists, who are constantly negative and expect the worst. We’re called to see reality as it is – in all in its pain and glory. This will mean having realistic expectations of life in this fallen world.

So the Bible doesn’t call us to be optimists (nor pessimists), but realists.

And yet, there’s more: we’re not merely called to be realists, we’re also called to be hope-ful.

2. Christians Are Called to Have ‘Hope’

Two people sitting and standing at shore watching the sunset near the Sydney Opera House in panorama photography

Eternal hope, as opposed to worldly hope.

McKay and many others are right to look at this world, and realistically examine what’s wrong with it.

But the Bible doesn’t just leave us with a picture of reality.
It also promises that things will turn out for the best – just not in this lifetime.

Even in the midst of the catastrophe that is ‘the fall’, God promises humanity a ‘serpent crusher’ that will crush Satan’s head (Gen 3:15). And soon that promise starts to be fulfilled: from the call of Abram in Genesis 12, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s own Son – the ultimate serpent crusher.

And so, things will turn out for the best: if we have been reconciled to God through Jesus, things will turn out right for us, in the end. But it will only happen when we enter into the fullness of resurrection life: a new Creation, in the presence of our God and Father, forever.

And so, we don’t need to live with the rose-coloured glasses of worldly optimism, pretending that things are better in this world than they really are. Instead, we can face this world in all its awfulness, and grieve even as we have a secure hope:

• We will be healed one day of that chronic illness;
• One day, our wheelchair bound bodies will rise and walk;
• Our marital problems will be fixed, when all relationships are restored and made whole;
• Our cancer ridden bodies will be restored;
• The problem of aging will be solved;
• Death itself will be a thing of the past.
• There will be world peace, such as humanity has never known.
• We won’t suffer any persecution for our faith.

Christians shouldn’t be optimists – thinking that things will more than likely turn out for the best in this world (although in God’s grace, things may well turn out better than we deserve). But Christians should have hope – confidence in our eternal inheritance that will soon be ours (1 Peter 1:3-4).

And that’s worth putting our confidence in.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)

[1] While optimism can also mean ‘looking on the positive side of life’, I limit optimism in this post to ‘the confidence that things will turn out well in this world.’ – See https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/optimism

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.