Many Christians limit their view of God to what he does for them and ignore his hand in human affairs.
Few questions are as crucial in today’s world as what is the meaning of history. After the trauma of two world wars within one lifetime, the nightmare of Hitler’s Germany, and the futility of Vietnam, our generation is crying out for an answer to this question. It is an answer the church of Jesus Christ ought to know, because it is given to us in the Bible. For many centuries, however, the church and its theologians barely noticed the Bible solution, found in material that could have provided it with a theology of history. It is unfortunate that many Christians today limit the power of Christ to his personal relationship to the individual believer and see virtually no connection between Christ and world events. Such an attitude denies essential aspects of our Christian faith.
We should therefore examine more closely this question of the meaning of history. Let us look first at two interpretations of history that we must reject. The first of these was found among the ancient Greeks, who had what may be called a “cyclical” view of history: things occur in endlessly repeated cycles, so that what is happening today will someday be repeated. On the basis of such a view, however, it is impossible to find any real meaning in history. One conceivably could live for certain individual goals in life, but history itself could not be thought of as moving toward a goal, for history only repeats itself.
Time and history for the Greeks represented a realm from which one longed to be delivered. Oscar Cullmann has pointed out that such an understanding of history profoundly affects one’s understanding of redemption: “For the Greeks, the idea that redemption is to take place through divine action in the course of events in time is impossible. Redemption in Hellenism can consist only in the fact that we are transferred from existence in this world, an existence bound to the circular course of time, into that Beyond which is removed from time and is already and always available” (Christ and Time, Westminster, 1950).
A second view of history that we must reject is that of the atheistic existentialists for whom history is totally without meaning. These people can find no significant pattern in history, no movement toward a goal, only a meaningless succession of events. One is left with what would appear to be sheer individualism: each person must try to find his own meaning in life by making significant decisions. History as a whole is devoid of meaning. This view of history is also incompatible with the Christian view. Christianity does see meaning in history without denying the importance of individual decision.
Let us examine several of the main features of a Christian interpretation of history.
God discloses his purposes in history. This is true primarily of what is commonly called “sacred” history, which I prefer to call “redemptive” history: the history of God’s redemption of his people through Jesus Christ. This redemption is rooted in Old Testament promises, types, and ceremonies. It is fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it will be consummated in the new heavens and new earth that are still to come. This redemption has a historical dimension, as it involves the history of mankind (at its beginning), the history of a nation (Israel), the history of a person (Jesus of Nazareth), and the history of a movement (the beginning and early years of the New Testament church). These histories unveil or disclose God’s redeeming purpose for mankind.
The events in this “redemptive history” revealed God before there was a completed Bible. One could even say that God revealed himself to man primarily through historical events—for example, the Exodus, the crossing of the Jordan, the return from captivity, the birth of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the outpouring of the Spirit. But these events need to be interpreted before their revelatory message can be understood. The Bible, therefore, is both the inspired record of these events and the inspired interpretation of the divinely intended meaning of the events. Thus it is that only as the event of the Exodus is interpreted by the writers of the Old Testament is it understood to be a revelation of the redemptive power and love of Israel’s God.
But we have looked so far only at the “redemptive history” found in the Bible; however, since “redemptive history” is the key to the meaning of all history (because it is at the center of God’s dealings with man), and since all of history is under God’s control and direction, we may say that all of history is a revelation of God. This is not to say that history is always crystal clear in its message. Truth is often on the scaffold, and wrong is often on the throne. Nevertheless, we believe history does reveal God and his purposes.
That god is in control of history is clearly taught in Scripture. Old Testament writers affirmed that God’s kingdom rules over all (Ps. 103:19), even over the kingdoms of the nations (2 Chron. 20:6), and he turns the heart of the king wherever he wishes (Prov. 21:1). New Testament writers tell us that God accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11), and that he has determined the times set for the nations of the earth and the exact places where they should live (Acts 17:26).
That God is in control of history does not mean he manipulates people like puppets or robots; man’s “freedom” to make his own decisions and his responsibility for those decisions are at all times maintained. What it does mean is that God overrules even the evil deeds of men so as to make them serve his purpose.
An outstanding Old Testament illustration of this is found in the story of Joseph, who, after his brothers had sold him into slavery, became the chief ruler of Egypt under Pharaoh, and was thus instrumental in preserving many, including his own family, from famine. The words with which Joseph addressed his brothers after his father’s death underscore God’s sovereign lordship over history: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20).
The supreme New Testament illustration of God’s sovereign control over history is, of course, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Though unquestionably the most wicked deed in history, even this terrible crime was completely under God’s control: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28). Precisely because of God’s control, the most accursed deed in history became the heart of God’s redemptive plan and the supreme source of blessing to mankind.
All of history, therefore, fulfills the sovereign purposes of God. Nations rise and fall in accordance with God’s will; he uses them as he pleases and overrules their plans. He does the same thing with individuals.
Christ’s first coming was the single most important event of human history. His coming, therefore, had decisive significance for all subsequent history, even for all preceding history. The Bible teaches us to see human history as completely dominated by Jesus Christ. History is the sphere of God’s redemption; in it he triumphs over man’s sin through Christ and once again reconciles the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Through Christ God has once and for all won the victory over death (1 Cor. 15:21–22), Satan (John 12:31), and all hostile power (Col. 2:15).
Christ’s centrality in history is symbolically depicted in the fifth chapter of the Book of the Revelation: only the Lamb is deemed worthy to take the scroll and to break its seven seals—which represents not only the interpretation of history, but the execution of the events of history.
Christ has brought in the age of the kingdom of God. The world is no longer the same since he came: an electrifying change has taken place, and unless we recognize this change, we do not really understand the meaning of history.
No biblical writer laid so much stress on the fact that Christ ushered us into a new age as did the Apostle Paul. In Colossians 1:13 he says God “has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,” implying that we have been delivered from the power of the old eon of sin (Gal. 1:4). In Ephesians 2:5–6, Paul teaches that God has “made us alive together with Christ, … raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places,” implying that we are even now by faith living in the new age. In Romans 12:2 he specifically enjoins his readers not to be “conformed to this world [or age; the Greek word is aiōn] but to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
The common Pauline contrast between “flesh” and “Spirit” is not so much a psychological contrast between two aspects of our being as a contrast between lifestyles that belong to two power spheres, or to two eons: the old and the new. There is a similar contrast between “old man” and “new man” in Paul’s writings. “Old man” refers to the old age or eon in which man is a slave to sin, whereas “new man” designates the new age or eon in which man is liberated from the slavery of sin and is free to live to the praise of God. The New Testament believer has been transferred from the old age of sin into the new age of Christian freedom (cf. the author’s The Christian Looks at Himself, Eerdmans, 1977).
History’s goal is new heavens and new earth. Though Christ has ushered in the new age, its final consummation is still future. The Bible therefore sees history as directed toward a divinely ordained goal. That history has a goal is not an idea that is unique to the Hebrew prophets; it is also taught in the New Testament. What Old Testament writers depicted as one movement was seen by New Testament writers as involving two stages: a present messianic age and an age that was future, with the first coming of Christ to be followed by a second coming. The established kingdom of God has not yet come to its final consummation, and though many Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled, many await fulfillment.
The New Testament believer, therefore, is aware that all history is moving toward this final consummation that will include the second coming of Christ, the general resurrection, the day of judgment, and new heavens and new earth.
In order to understand the meaning of history fully, therefore, we must see God’s redemption in cosmic dimensions. Since the expression “heaven and earth” is a biblical description of the entire cosmos, we may say that the goal of redemption is nothing less than the renewal of the cosmos, or our “universe.” Because man’s fall into sin affected all of creation (Gen. 3:17–18; Rom. 8:19–23), redemption from sin must also involve the totality of God’s creation.
This cosmic dimension of redemption is clearly taught in such passages as Ephesians 1:9–10 and Colossians 1:19–20. According to Romans 8:21, nothing short of the total deliverance of all creation from its “bondage to decay” will satisfy the redemptive purposes of God.
What are some of the implications of this interpretation of history for our understanding of the world in which we live?
1. The characteristic activity of the present age is missions. Since Christ has indeed inaugurated the kingdom of God and given us the Great Commission, the great task of the church today is to bring the gospel to every creature. Christ himself said, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). According to 2 Peter 3:9, one reason why Christ has not yet returned is that the Lord is patient with men, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” These considerations all add up to one thing: the missionary activity of the church is the characteristic activity of this age between Christ’s first and second coming.
2. We live in a continuing tension between the already and the not yet. The New Testament believer lives in the last days, but the last day has not yet arrived; he is in the new age, but the final age is not yet here. Though he enjoys the “powers of the age to come,” he is not yet free from sin, suffering, and death. Though he has the first fruits of the Spirit, he groans inwardly as he waits for his final redemption.
This tension gives the present age its unique flavor. The Christian today enjoys blessings the Old Testament believer never knew; he has a far richer understanding of God’s redemptive plan. But the Christian is not yet at the end of the road. Though he is now a child of God, it does not yet appear what he shall be (1 John 3:2). Though he knows he is in Christ and no one can ever pluck him out of Christ’s hands, he realizes that he has not yet laid hold of perfection and he must still daily confess his sins.
Since Christ has won the victory, we should see evidences of that victory in history and in the world around us. But since the final consummation of the victory has not yet taken place, there will continue to be much in history that we do not understand, that which does not seem to reflect the victory of Christ. Until the final day of judgment, history will continue to be marked by a certain ambiguity.
3. There are two lines of development in history. The tension described between the already and the not yet implies that alongside the growth and development of the kingdom of God in the history of the world since the coming of Christ we also see the growth and development of the “kingdom of evil.” In the parable of the tares (Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43) Jesus taught that the tares (weeds), which stand for the sons of the evil one, will keep on growing until the time of harvest, when they will finally be separated from the wheat. In other words, Satan’s kingdom will exist and grow as long as God’s kingdom grows, until the day of judgment.
Here again is the ambiguity of history: history does not reveal a simple triumph of good over evil, nor a total victory of evil over good. Evil and good continue to exist side by side. Conflict between the two continues during the present age; but since Christ has won the victory, the ultimate outcome of the conflict is never in doubt. The enemy is fighting a losing battle.
4. All our historical judgments must be provisional. Here again the ambiguity of history is implied, for we know that in the last judgment good and evil will be finally separated, and a final evaluation of all historical movements will be given. Until that time, as Jesus said, the wheat and the tares grow together. Thus all of our historical judgments on this side of the final judgment must be relative, tentative, and provisional. We can never be absolutely sure whether a specific historical event is good, evil, or—in case it partakes of both—predominantly good or predominantly evil.
We often tend to see historical movements and forces in simple terms of black and white: “the church is good; the world is bad.” In reality, things are more complicated than that. There is much that is bad in the church and there is much that is good in the “world.” Abraham Kuyper used to say, “The world is often better than we expect it to be, whereas the church is often worse than we expect it to be.” Historical events therefore must not be seen simply in terms of black and white, but rather in terms of varying shades of gray.
Yet the fact that all historical judgments are provisional does not mean that we need not make them. Even fallible judgments about the significance of historical events are better than no judgments at all. According to Hendrikus Berkhof in Christ the Meaning of History, “World history is not black or white, but it is not an even grey either. The eye of faith recognizes dark grey and light grey, and it knows that these gradual differences originate in differences of principle.”
5. The Christian understanding of history is basically optimistic. The Christian believes that God is in control of history and that Christ has won the victory over the powers of evil. The ultimate outcome of things, therefore, is bound to be not bad but good; God’s redemptive purpose within the universe will eventually be realized, and “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
Unfortunately, however, Christians are often unduly pessimistic about the present age. Many Christians tend to lay the emphasis on the evil they still find in the world rather than on the evidence of Christ’s rule. Their motto seems to be, Why paint the ship when it’s sinking? Such a view of history does not do justice either to the present rule of God or to the victory of Christ; it is therefore a denial of an essential aspect of the Christian faith.
Though the Christian is realistic enough to recognize the presence of evil in the world and the presence of sin in the hearts of men, he is still basically an optimist. He believes that God is on the throne and that he is working out his purposes in history. Just as the Christian must firmly believe that all things are working together for good in his life, despite appearances to the contrary, so must he also believe that history is moving toward God’s goal, even though world events often seem contrary to God’s will. History does indeed have meaning, and that meaning is ultimately good.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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