Some of you who read this have responded to my request for feedback. One of the brothers asked if an eternal hope and belief in an afterlife are the same or different. It was a distinction I had not thought about. I believe the distinction exists, and would like to articulate what I believe are some of the ramifications.
It seems to me that most people believe in something after death. All religions have this belief in common. Only a minority believes that when a person dies he ceases to exist. The Hebrews who lived as slaves in Egypt were exposed to a belief in an afterlife – as attested by the pyramids. With or without a promise of eternal life to the individual in the Old Testament, I think the average Hebrew believed in an afterlife, even though it may have consisted in nothing more than an eternity in Sheol. A belief in an afterlife however is very different from an eternal hope.
Hebrews 11:1 says: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hope defines the object of our faith; we express faith in the direction of our hope. In the Greek, faith and believe are the same word; faith is the noun and believe is the verb. Faith/believe is commitment without knowing. Therefore we can define faith as “risk taking.” When we say that we have faith in the airline getting us to our destination, or we have faith in the surgeon’s ability to perform a successful operation, we are saying that we take a risk in flying or having surgery.
Thus, hope defines the object of our faith. We say we hope the operation will be successful, or we hope we will arrive safely at our destination. We define hope in terms of what we perceive to be gain. We never say that we hope the operation will be a failure, or we hope we lose our money invested in the stock market; we always say the opposite. In summary, we take our risks in the direction of what we consider to be gain.
Biblical faith is always active, never passive. James talks about a passive faith: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” Faith without taking the risk of obedience is “dead faith.” James says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” We demonstrate our hope in the promises of God by being His obedient servants; the risk of faith is found in obedience.
We can have a strong conviction in an afterlife without being the obedient servants of God. Thus, we can say that we hope in eternal life, but because we take no risks in the direction of that hope, we cannot, in a biblical sense, say that we hope in the fulfillment of God’s promises. The existence of hope always requires risks. James says such people have a “dead faith:” “faith without works is dead.”
We can easily deceive ourselves on this issue: We can confuse obedience with agreement. Many appear to obey God in the sense that they agree with His expectations; they are moral people. You cannot say that you obey God unless you have confronted the issue of finding yourself not wanting to do His will, voted against yourself, and did it anyway. For example, the only recorded instance of Jesus meeting God’s will and not wanting to do it is the agony through which He went in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” We learn obedience when we, like Jesus, know God’s will and don’t want to pay the price of doing it, but because of our eternal hope, nevertheless obey Him.
Many in the body of Christ live lives of selective obedience, that is, they “obey” when they agree. If they don’t wish to obey, they call the biblical command “cultural,” or they say, “I know God prohibits divorce, but He wants me to be happy, and besides, He will forgive me.” Such people may believe in life after death, and even say they have an eternal hope, but James says that their faith is dead.
Hebrews 11 gives an account of Old Testament saints who had an active faith, taking risks in the direction of their hope: “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: 33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35 Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: 36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: 37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; 38 (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: 40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” So also, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego demonstrated an eternal hope when they chose the fiery furnace: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us, He will deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and out of thy hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
So we see then, that many of God’s people in the Old Testament had an eternal hope, demonstrated by the risks they took in choosing death rather than disobedience – in spite of Scripture never recording the promise of an eternal hope to the individual. Conversely, many today claim the promises of an eternal hope offered in the New Testament, while refusing to take the risks inherent in a life of obedience. Such people deceive themselves. They think they have an eternal hope when in reality they have nothing more than a belief in an afterlife.
As one of the brothers said, “Most people, professing Christians as well as non-Christians, have definite beliefs about the afterlife, at least as it pertains to them. Most professing Christians think their afterlife will be no different from the apostle Paul’s. They would either not agree with or not understand the distinction you make when you tie hope to obedience. So in their thinking, belief in an afterlife is synonymous with an eternal hope. They hope to spend eternity with Jesus, just as you and I do. All this to say that I would characterize their problem as being out of touch with what the Bible teaches.”
Continued reflections on Joshua, Judges, and Ruth
From the death of Moses to the death of Joshua, God expressed no displeasure with Israel, except in the case of Achan taking of the spoils of Jericho. With Achan, the nation responded in accordance with the command of God, and all was well. When the individual sins and the nation responds biblically, God is satisfied and the nation remains secure.
Israel spent the time between the deaths of Moses and Joshua in war as she conquered the land. Judges records a series of cameos in which Israel continually strays from God. When Israel is secure she sins and when in captivity, she repents. We are never more vulnerable to temptation than when all is well. Tribulation stimulates dependence.
God calls to Israel’s mind His deliverance from Egypt when the people sin and need deliverance from their enemies. “When the people of Israel cried to the LORD on account of the Midianites, the LORD sent a prophet to the people of Israel; and he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of bondage; and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land; and I said to you, `I am the LORD your God; you shall not pay reverence to the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not given heed to my voice.”
Salvation/deliverance by God for the nation of Israel began in Egypt and had nothing to do with the people’s sin. Jesus used the Passover to commemorate His death. It dealt with temporal deliverance rather than eternal deliverance. Thus, when David gave thanks when bringing the ark to Gibeon from the home of Obed-edom, he prayed: “Say also: ‘Deliver us, O God of our salvation, and gather and save us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to thy holy name, and glory in thy praise. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!” Then all the people said ‘Amen!’ and praised the LORD.” Salvation was God’s deliverance from the hostile nations. So also David prayed when God promised to establish his house forever: “What other nation on earth is like thy people Israel, whom God went to redeem to be his people, making for thyself a name for great and terrible things, in driving out nations before thy people whom thou didst redeem from Egypt?”
Scripture teaches that “believing” God constitutes the condition that people in both the Old and New Testaments must meet in order to have a relationship with Him. But God, not man, defines the content of what must be believed; we cannot assume because we must believe that we are sinners in need of God’s salvation that God imposed the same condition on the people of Israel.
Grateful for an eternal hope,
 James 2:19,KJV
 James 2:24, KJV
 James 2:17, KJV
 Hebrews 5:8, KJV
 Hebrews 11:32-40, KJV
 Daniel 3:17-18, JPS
 Judges 6:8-9
 1 Chronicles 16:35-36
 1 Chronicles 17:21 (emphasis mine)