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Deaths of Despair and Lives of Hope in a Cynical Age

April 2nd, 2020 | 19 min read

By Joshua Heavin

Upon falling into the hands of Giant Despair, Christian and his friend Hopeful were imprisoned without any provisions for days on end and while enduring beatings. In John Bunyan’s 17th-century allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian eventually laments, “Brother, what shall we do? The life that we now live is miserable. For my part, I know not whether it is best to live thus, or to die out of hand. My soul chooseth strangling rather than life, and the grave is more easy for me than this dungeon (Job. 7:15).”

Hopeful replies that “Indeed our present condition is dreadful, and death would be far more welcome to me than thus for ever to abide; but yet, let us consider, (what) the Lord of the country to which we are going hath said.”

He then recalls for Christian why they should not take the life of another or oneself, and reminding his friend that others had escaped from the captivity of Giant Despair before. Hopeful concludes, “… ‘my brother, let us be patient, and endure a while: the time may come that may give us a happy release; but let us not be our own murderers.’ With these words Hopeful at present did moderate the mind of his brother; so they continued together in the dark that day, in their sad and doleful condition.”

Despair is an ancient menace, but the rise of “deaths of despair” in recent years warrants reflection on its contemporary manifestations.

Deaths of Despair and Social Distancing

Much has already been written about the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic crisis and the threats it poses to the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, and the global economy, but Ezra Klein disturbingly describes how coronavirus will also cause a loneliness epidemic as a consequence of urgently-needed social distancing, quarantines, and shelter-in-place orders. This could be a very grim time, and already has been for some.

Doctors at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas usually see about eight cases of physical child abuse per month; they saw six last week, one resulting in death. Those who find daily life almost unbearable apart from a global pandemic, and who rely on social involvement or group therapy such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are likely entering some very dark times. While FaceTime and Zoom video meetings are better than nothing, they provide a weak substitute for face-to-face, person-to-person interaction to those who cling to social connections for dear life.

But even before the isolation and fragmented society this pandemic has created, a congressional report from last September provides grim historical context for “deaths of despair” as a surging trend. Noting the difficulties involved with defining “deaths of despair,” the report settles on the definition of “deaths by suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis,” a trend not only affecting middle-aged people but millennials in particular. The causes of this dark trend are complicated and multifarious. Ross Douthat asks, “are deaths from drugs and alcohol and suicide a political, economic or spiritual crisis?” and rightly concludes that these are all intertwined.

It is somewhat well-known that Millennial humor is extraordinarily weird, and not uncommonly dark. Gallows humor can sometimes offer mild escapism from our dystopian news cycles spanning ecological crises, crushing student loan debt, humanitarian disasters, racial injustice, incompetent or corrupt politicians, and much else; according to Blue Cross Blue Shield, apparently millennials will get sick and die faster than the previous generation.

Yet, that a sizeable portion of the population feels collective despair about the future is more than innocent meme-making to let off steam. Even those who wish to argue, as Elizabeth Bruenig does, that existence is a good, or, as Gracy Olmstead contends, that reproduction of the human race is a worthwhile endeavor in the face of climate change, perceive the need to make such arguments against a kind of widespread nihilism.

All of those causes are deserving of greater nuance and reflection than is possible in one essay. But one question in particular is worth considering: what are we to do when what should be a secure ground of hope, for example, Christian faith and our involvement in a local church, can suddenly or gradually become a bitter, disillusioning, or hostile thing to us?

Despair and Disillusionment with the Church

In the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote a handbook on “what we are to believe, what we are to hope for, and what we are to love.” After carefully summarizing the differences between these three in the Christian Scriptures, he concluded that “there is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither love nor hope without faith.” But the cords binding love and hope to faith have begun to fray for many of us today.

When institutions fail or disappoint us we can understandably become suspicious or even cynical; statistically, millennials have very little confidence in most major institutions. But when religious institutions fail us it can be all the more disillusioning, painful, and maddening at the hypocrisy precisely because the institution describes itself as “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

The latest, bleak data from the Pew Research Center foretells a grim picture of millennial church involvement. While the causes are complicated, an important difference in this trend compared to older generations is that young people today are not taking a break from church as young adults and returning later in life, but simply leaving altogether. The implications of that are vast, and Christine Emba observes that “Religious and other civic organizations will atrophy – and not just from lack of funds. Faith and practice can’t persevere through our generation without attendance, and neither can the hope they bring.”

There are, of course, stark moral scandals or outright evil that can be covered up and enabled by our churches. On Reformation Day of 2019 Jake Meador reminded triumphalistic Protestants that “the Reformation was deeply concerned with calling a decadent and morally corrupt church that was choking on its own wealth and power to repentance,” and notes disturbing contemporary trends of rampant sexual abuse crises, the shameless opportunism of the court evangelicals, and the pervasive influence of the prosperity gospel. But more subtly, we might simply become bored with what our churches actually are, given what they claim to be and what we imagine that they could be or should be.

The wear and tear of relationships can lead us to feel personally let down by those we once admired, or we accrue a multitude of smaller frustrations over the course of a lifetime of church involvement. Perhaps those we thought to have had integrity, possibly including our own selves, are more expedient than we were previously willing to acknowledge or admit. Or, more poignantly, perhaps the church simply was not present to see or care for us when we needed them most after we have given much of ourselves in the church’s service. Where enough of these lesser pains accrue over the decades, the entire exercise can cumulatively begin to feel like an exhausting farce.

Sources of Cynicism

Every age is tempted to sensationalize its problems as unprecedented in scale and degree, and undoubtedly there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The confidence trick was not born yesterday, but the unique possibilities of contemporary public life have arguably forged a kind of golden age for grifters. Beyond cartoonish examples such as Fyre Festival, or the more ghoulish Theranos, the last few years of public discourse have left many increasingly on edge as to whom is even acting or speaking sincerely or ironically. When certain politicians vehemently and consistently denounced the current president as a menace to our country who must be actively opposed, but now carry water for him almost regardless of the cost to our country and world, it is difficult to conclude such persons stand for little more than expediency.

Likewise, beyond the cynicism of the court evangelicals striving to outdo one another in sycophancy before a national audience, the average pastor or priest is tempted with a much more subtle temptation towards opportunism. Because rival lords and idols constantly seek our attention, it might be a powerful testimony to Christ’s lordship over all things to refuse these lords the attention they crave by talking about something else, namely, the Lord Jesus himself; yet, simultaneously, knowing silence in the face of grave injustices against the stranger, the orphan, and the widow might be as bad or worse as the brazen hypocrite.

Haunting questions can sometimes emerge in this vein: do our churches, institutions, or publications stand for the truth – but only as much truth as our board of trustees, donors, or patrons find convenient? How often are we willing, like the disciples at the last supper, to ask, “Is it I, Lord?” How willing are we to testify like Nathan “thou art the man!” to king David, or testify to repentance before Herod – even if it means beheading? After the zeal of being a new convert to the faith has long since departed, and year after feckless year in Christian institutions drag on, these fears can be reified that there is not a little bad faith in the household of faith.


For these and other reasons, we should inquire what the grounds are of a distinctively Christian vision of “hope.” The late theologian John Webster introduced a 2007 essay on “hope” as follows:

Christian hope is a moral phenomenon; but it is so derivatively, and the derivation is one of the clues to its Christian character. For, on the one hand, to speak of Christian hope is most properly to speak of the object of Christian hoping, that for which the Christian hopes, namely the personal divine subject ‘Jesus Christ our hope’ (1 Tim 1.1). Hope is this one, Jesus, before it is a set of attitudes or undertakings on the part of those who hope in him… Christian hope is hope in God, for the God confessed by the Christian fellowship is ‘the God of hope’ (Rom. 15.13).

The subtlety of Webster’s claims should not be missed. Above and beyond any action of “hoping” that we might do or perform, a distinctively Christian vision of “hope” is the singular person Jesus, who has united himself with us. In the person of the crucified and risen Messiah himself we have a singularly inexhaustible and living hope. As “God with us,” and more specifically as the ascended, presently interceding, and returning one, “we have this sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever” (Hebrews 6:19–20). We do not presently see everything in subjection to him. What we do see is him, made perfect in suffering, risen, ascended, interceding, and returning (Hebrews 2:8-10).

At least one important reason why the Messiah is our hope is that the kind of time that the crucified and risen Messiah has entered into is different from the kind of time that he was born into. The time Jesus was born into was ‘Adamic’ time, a time of entropy and death, that annihilates everything and remembers nothing. But “the Messiah being raised from the dead, will never die again; the death he died, he died to sin – once. But the life he lives, he lives to God” (Rom. 6:9–10). God’s new kind of time, a time of life, has been entered into by the resurrected Messiah who has and will unite us with himself by his Spirit, that we might share in his resurrection and life. As Grant Macaskill writes in the preface to his recent Living in Union with Christ:

That person, Jesus Christ, is not just the one who brings us hope; he is our hope… The possibilities of our lives are limited not by our own natural capacity for goodness and love but by the perfections and prospects constituted by this other person, Jesus Christ.

The Friends of Jesus

Where appropriate, those who have been harmed by their lived experiences of the church might need extended time to heal and recover from the church which, understandably, might never happen for some; they are most worthy of our prayers and compassion.

But because Christ himself is our hope, that is cause for a patient but restless continuing with the church that is his body, with and relentless push for reform. Amidst truly egregious failings past and present both in the church we can nonetheless confess that “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” That is not so much as a description of our experience in this age, but is confessed often in contradiction of our experience of the church, testifying to an audacious, eschatological expectation, that God will be faithful to complete the good work that he has begun in us. Our words and deeds of faithfulness now – in our urgent struggle to become unified, sanctified, catholic, and apostolic – are signs that testify of Christ’s coming kingdom to our present evil age, from which Christ has and will deliver us (Gal. 1:4, 6:15).

Thus, against the nihilists and the temptations of totalizing cynicism, life in Christ involves a mode of watchful hope amidst the particular manifestations of despair in our age. As St. Augustine writes in Book I, chapter 35 of “The City of God Against the Pagans”:

But let this city bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hidden those who are destined to be fellow citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theatres with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are destined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation.

We must exercise caution within the church; there are those in our midst who appear virtuous but may well harm us or otherwise let us down. As Augustine notes in his examples, hypocrisy is a real problem; it is not to be excused or rationalized, but owned and repented of. But additionally, as the parables of Jesus constantly illustrate, things might not actually be as commendable as they initially appear; God’s wisdom and power might be revealed in something as weak and foolish as a crucified Messiah.

Accordingly, we should be supremely unimpressed where celebrity culture or cults-of-personality appear in our churches. We must become better attuned to the ways God dwelt among us as one who served, rather than the one who reclines at the table (Lk. 22:27), and to how God is presently working and speaking in and through the foot washers and in the house of a leper. As Philip Ziegler indicates in his Militant Grace, “the church as a creation of the Word [is] a provisional and pilgrim community gathered, upheld, and sent to testify in word and deed to the gospel for the sake of the world” (29).

If the source of hope is neither somewhere deep inside ourselves, nor found in human institutions, but rather in Christ himself, then find a small group of fellow pilgrims and live faithfully alongside them in relationships of mutual love and support, testifying by lives of gentleness against the powers of our age that the crucified and risen Messiah, judged once already in our place, is coming to judge the living and the dead.

The church not only can, but will fail us; such is the nature of the institution, that God has had grace on sinners in Jesus Christ. This is never an excuse for abuse or unrepentance, which must be opposed on every side, but neither does the church’s failures nullify the grace that is in Jesus Christ. Building upon Augustine’s opposition to the Donatists, who argued that the efficacy of the sacraments could be nullified if those who administered them proved faithless, a few Protestant Confessions powerfully speak to the failures of ministers. For example, the Westminster Confession used by Presbyterians and Reformed Churches states in 27.3:

The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.

The 39 Articles are even more pronounced, declaring in XXVI: “Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments,” as follows:

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Hidden away in these anti-Donatist clauses in our churches’ confessions are powerful resources against clericalism or deference to a good ol’ boys club, subtly demanding a reforming ethos to our doctrine, practice, and worship. They should be cause for hope to those of us alienated or disillusioned with churches we once loved, if we are able to imagine these churches existing in a healthier way and we have the means or capacity to faithfully endure and work for change. The church is not our hope, but the Lord Jesus Christ himself is our hope, with whom the church is united. The church in all of its words and actions is continually summoned before and judged by this Word of God, in and with whom we are slain and made live, and upon which the church depends for its very life as branches upon a vine.

The Weirdest Friends on Earth

While commenting on the rise of various forms of “weird Christian twitter” among young people today, Tara Isabella Burton observes that the rise of this trend among young people bespeaks “the institutional failure of other, far less weird forms of the faith”; elaborating, she adds:

Iterations of Christianity that have been too willing to accommodate the secular world have, in many cases, become subservient to them — places you go to get “good values” or “community,” no more or less ontologically meaningful than, say, a volunteering session. Once Christianity abandons its fundamental weirdness, then there is no reason to choose to sit in a pew for an hour or two on a Sunday rather than, say, going to SoulCycle, or practicing a more immediately beneficial form of self-care. The only Christians left, in the end, may be the Weird ones.

Contemporary society provides a hyper-abundance of endless amusement but an austerity of faithful friendships marked by costly commitment to one another, repentance, forgiveness, truth, physical touch, shared meals, and love, in an age lonelier than ever. Amidst the social distancing of COVID-19 that could last well into the summer, these avenues might be increasingly precluded and such loneliness might be a very real danger to many.

But the news of “God with us” in the person of Jesus Christ disrupts not merely our individual hesitancy to love others, but as the crucified and risen Lord, his cruciform Lordship testifies against the systems of efficiency and expediency that can dehumanize and alienate us. John Swinton writes with respect to intellectual disabilities in his Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Time, and Gentle Discipleship that this should fundamentally call into question what it means to be human, and what it means to live in God’s new time of life that has appeared in the risen Messiah:

The ideas of slowing down; taking Sabbath, finding Sabbath moments; learning to be gentle, patient, and perseverant; coming to know what it means to become friends with slowness; and becoming friends of time (the practices of timefulness) are not easy to understand or to value in a world filled with clocks and meaningless evolutionary history. However, if in God’s coming kingdom “slow is the new fast” and if gentleness and vulnerability are the new modes of transformative powers, we find ourselves in a quite different understanding of what the ‘problem’ of disability actually is and who it is that the problem belongs to (83).

Very suddenly, a kind of slowness has been thrust upon our entire society by this pandemic, providing an unusual opportunity to either distract ourselves to death with entertainment, or examine ourselves and our own mortality. Now that many of us are stuck at home, what or whom do we usually value or overlook?

During this time it is important to look out for one another, and perhaps especially try to text, call, or video chat with isolated friends, singles, or those who especially rely on social connections and might feel embarrassed reaching out for connection. Many churches commendably are not meeting in person but doing everything they can to care for people by digital means during this pandemic. Social distancing impresses upon us that even during normal times the best of friends can let us down, and we in turn let others down many, many times. But we do not have to descend merely into an abyss of despair.

Beyond whatever effort we can martial with our frail faculties for hope, the Christian ultimately is torn away from the nihilism and cynicism of this age to be crucified with the risen Messiah (Gal. 2:19). He intercedes for us as priest “by the power of an indestructible life” and binds us to himself as friends in the new time of life (Hebrews 7:16). It is only on this basis, united with him, that we can exhort one another not merely to exercise the virtue of hope, but to cleave to him for dear life: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

Whatever the new normal in our society is after the pandemic of 2020, deaths of despair will arguably be an even more serious problem. The testimony that Jesus of Nazareth is the crucified and risen Lord of heaven and earth offers far more resources for hope than vague expressions of belief that everything will be okay, mere wishful thinking, or merely belonging to a community. It annihilates all notions of progress or immanentizing the eschaton as a human project; it crushes objections that Christianity offers other-worldly hope to placate the oppressed from seeking justice now; it affords us resources for re-imagining our world under the dehumanizing forces of neoliberalism as God’s good creation subjected to the powers of Sin and Death, that Christ has redeemed and will renew when the on judged in our place returns to judge the living and the dead.

Our hope is the person of Jesus Christ himself, crucified, risen, ascended, and returning. It may be a considerable period of time before churches can gather again yet, even so, Jesus promised us “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Therefore we can boldly confess in our present weakness, fear, and frustrations, as a protest against the powers of this age, that “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church; We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins; We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come. Amen.”

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Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.