Every generation mints its own currency of catchphrases, its own peculiar ways of thinking about and describing its world. A prominent meme in all forms of media at the moment is that of being on ‘the right side of history’ or ‘the wrong side of history’. From issues of identity and sexuality, British and American political polarities, and the environmental doomsday narrative, the greatest shame for contemporary people is to be on the wrong side of the perimeter, to place oneself outside of the boundary lines of acceptable belief and practice. Western culture has formed an exclusion zone to which all who are not on board with its worldview are to be consigned.
Biblically speaking, there are a multitude of problems with this view, too many in fact for one article. In this post I want to think through three ways in which the Bible views and articulates history, and how these stand in stark contrast to what our world is currently saying about it.
History as cycle
Our world believes that history works on the basis of lines which can be drawn between now and then, between presently acceptable and historically abominable. We are conditioned to think that history is moving from A to B to C etc. with predictable progress. Opening the book of Ecclesiastes provides a powerful corrective to such thinking. There is ‘nothing new under the sun’ is one of the powerful and somewhat depressing observations that the Preacher makes about human existence. He pushes all of the boundaries which are available to him – wealth, sexual promiscuity, personal aggrandisement etc – only to discover that history is incurably cyclical, and that human behaviour is inherently forgetful of the past and wasteful of the present. This is such a vital message for our age.
Our take off and ascent technologically is fast outstripping the fuel reserves needed for straight and steady flight, we are giving ourselves away to an ever watching, unfeeling world, and we believe that we are uniquely progressive in doing so. Culture views the contemporary as a constant cusp, a threshold transgressing exercise in moving forward. Scripture tells us that while time might pass, while the expression of human ideals might change, we are always essentially the same, nothing ever changes about us substantially or existentially.
History as descent
The accusation that one is on the wrong side of history, or approbation for those who are on its right side, is based on the idea that history is linear, but also that history is honing our views and attitudes to be more humane, more enlightened. The idea of a linear progression in history is distinctly modern, and extremely resistant to empirical evidence. In spite of the murderous and genocidal outworking of the twentieth century, in spite of our innate capacity for directing technological progress against our own souls, our society still believes in an upward trend in human understanding and behaviour. The zeitgeist, with all of its entailed shibboleths and incipient intellectual apartheid, is acclaimed as the pinnacle of how humans should think and feel, judge and behave. The ideas of today are inherently superior to those of previous periods, we are on an intellectual and moral evolutionary scale which has a nameless utopia at its zenith.
Once again, Scripture speaks in a radically different way. The Apostle Paul characterised the last days (which he endured as much as our present generation) as being marked by people becoming worse and worse, of degeneracy, of decline, of moral degradation. Far from evolution and graduation, Paul marked the trajectory of human history before the return of Christ as one of dissolution and regression. We cannot read our Bibles and believe that men and women are waxing better and better, we cannot entertain the idea that contemporary views are the arbiters of biblical truth, or that mankind is in some way realising an increasing superiority over its forbears. If Christians find themselves on the ‘wrong side of history’ this is more akin to being on the security of the river bank while culture drifts towards the crest of a fatal waterfall. There is a line between remaining stationary and moving forward, but the former is to be much preferred to the latter.
History as a whole
All of the above is viewed from the vantage point of merely human history. Scripture shows to us that our experience of time is cyclical, that our trend as creatures is downwards, but we are desperately limited in terms of how we conceive of chronology. We are never able to read the entire volume of history, we are never privy to anything more than the contour lines of the chapter that we are in, we are never indulged with a plot summary from our own observations. History for us is unfolding, unpredictable, and transitory.
The Bible’s picture of God and history is utterly different. He sees the end from the beginning, and because he is not temporal, because he is eternal, history for him is a whole, it is an ever observable unit whose outcome is as certain as his purposes and as inevitable as the glory which he has ever enjoyed. For God there is only one side to history – his. There is an ineluctable outcome in history from God’s perspective, the redemption of his people in Christ Jesus his Son, the vindication of his purposes, the subjugation of his enemies, and the ultimate glorification of his name. There are no dips or hollows in God’s view of history, there are no blindspots; in one sense there is no nuance – only the whole which is ever in his hands and under his control. As Christians we are inherently on ‘the right side of history’ when we are on his side of history, and though the world declaim our position, though it defame our beliefs, there is no loss, only victory, when we worship the one who literally made history, who moves in history, and who is at work to magnify his name for eternity.