This article was originally written for Core Christianity.
It’s no secret that I’m an ardent fan of The Lord of the Rings — both J. R. R. Tolkien’s original works and the film adaptations by acclaimed director, Peter Jackson. Both the trilogy of books and movies comprise monolithic achievements in the realms of literature and cinema. Both remain masterpieces of storytelling and art. There’s an intriguing line, though, in part three, The Return of the King. At this juncture, the kingdom of Gondor has been invaded by the dark lord Sauron and his army of orcs. The siege of the citadel Minas Tirith is about to be underway. And on the eve of “the great battle of their time,” the wizard Gandalf and the hobbit Pippin have the following exchange:
“Tell me,” [Pippin] said, “is there any hope?”
Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. “There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope . . .”1
This revelation of hopelessness is jarring, especially considering its source, Gandalf the White, a bona fide hero. It’s puzzling, too, that he would call it a “fool’s hope.” The inside joke here is that Gandalf had repeatedly referred to Pippin (surnamed Peregrin Took) as a “fool of a Took!” Thus, in this case, hope would live on for this happy fool as the war broke out. But if you’re wondering how this applies to you, well listen up, because you too have a fool’s hope. The Christian’s hope of salvation by free, unadulterated grace is the glad hope of fools.
Stop and think about it. Have you ever really considered how foolish your hope is in terms of worldly reason? It really is mind-boggling. The apostle Paul admits as much when he says, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is the power of God to us who are being saved.” (1 Cor 1:18) The cross is foolishness to the world, to the unbelieving heart and mind. It doesn’t follow sound reason that a God would degrade and disgrace himself so much in love that he would lower himself to his creation — all the way down to man’s level. But such a foolish impossibility is what Jesus accomplished for us, for you. Emptying himself and taking the form and likeness of man is the great depth of humility to which Christ has stooped. (Phil 2:7–8) And he so stooped because he so loved you.
Only a fool would hope in such humiliation. Only a fool would find so great a victory in so great a defeat. And so it goes that God calls us to be happy fools for his sake. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1:25) To the world, it appears foolish, silly, and nonsensical to find hope in the execution and death of Another. It’s absurd to the unbeliever that the admission of hopelessness is the beginning of true hope — but that’s exactly what faith in the gospel is. It’s built upon an illogical one-way transaction.
Oh, the unspeakable greatness of that exchange — the Sinless One is condemned, and he who is guilty goes free; the Blessing bears the curse, and the cursed is brought into blessing; the Life dies, and the dead live; the Glory is whelmed in darkness, and he who knew nothing but confusion of face is clothed with glory.2
And so it is we have this glorious truth: The way of salvation works on reverse operations, not according to man’s logic but according to God’s grace. The holy One is made the sinner so that the sinner can be made holy. The guilty are pardoned and the sinless One is punished. And the more we give up hope in ourselves, the more we’re made to hope in him. “The more we feel our guilt the more fit we are for mercy,” asserts Charles Spurgeon; “the more broken down we are with hopelessness, on account of our own lost estate, the more room there is for the triumphs of Christ.”3 By declaring you have no hope left in yourself and that you believe in Christ’s salvation, you’ve embarked on your journey of foolish hope. Hope that is confident, sure, and immovable. Hope that rests not upon the whim and fancy of man’s feelings but upon the firm, solid, and finished work of Jesus Christ. Christian, hope on in the glad hope of fools!
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of Rings (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), 83.
Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, quoted Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Great Reformation in Europe, edited by Laird Simons (Philadelphia: Flint & Co., 1870), 378.
Charles Spurgeon, Storm Signals (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1885), 170.