A Christian View of History
If we want an analogy with history we must think of something like a Beethoven symphony—the point of it is not saved up until the end, the whole of it is not a mere preparation for a beauty that is only to be achieved in the last hour. And though in a sense the end may lie in the architecture of the whole, still in another sense each moment of it is its own self-justification, each note in its particular context as valuable as any other note.[i] –Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History
The intellectual leaders of the Nazi party, the Marxist-Leninist Communist movement, and the Enlightenment each developed a framework for understanding their movement’s position in the grand framework of history. Each of these positions developed a fundamentally similar historical metanarrative, namely, one of gradual change brought about by the efforts of the people, bringing salvation from their era’s greatest societal evils. By comparison, a contemporary American metanarrative shares the same underlying philosophy. Though all of these metanarratives promise salvation, they ultimately lead to pessimism and a burdened life. Moreover, they are fundamentally flawed in that they minimize the pervasiveness of evil and place an over-confidence in human nature. By contrast, the Christian metanarrative of sin, redemption, judgment, and glorification gives hope, purpose, and meaning to life while properly describing evil and human nature.
One of the most easily identifiable historical metanarratives in the past century is that of the Nazi Party. Produced by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935 after the Nazi Party had achieved total political dominance and popular support in Germany, the classic propaganda film, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) provides an excellent summary of Nazi ideology.[ii] The film’s opening prologue contains the only direct commentary in the film:
On 5 September 1934, 20 years after the outbreak of the world war, 16 years after the beginning of our suffering, and 19 months after the beginning of the German renaissance, Adolf Hitler flew to Nuremberg again to review the columns of his faithful followers.[iii]
A long aerial flyover of the German countryside follows, in which the camera tracks the shadow of an airplane as it passes over Nuremberg. Crowds of people wait for the Nazi Party Congress to begin. The shadow bears a striking similarity to the outline of a cross and echoes strong subliminal biblical themes of salvation and redemption. The message is clear: Hitler and the Nazi Party bring salvation to the German people.[iv]
Hitler makes this implied salvific imagery explicit in his speech towards the end of the film, in which he articulates a metanarrative of salvation from worldly struggles through progressive change. In this speech to close the Party Congress, Hitler promises that Nazi leadership will usher in a beautiful future for Germany. He argues, further, that this future will only occur if the German people make four commitments. They must first be committed “body and soul” to the Reich. Second, they must be dedicated to action: “the mere pledge, ‘I believe,’ is not enough; instead, [the most dedicated Germans] will swear to the oath, ‘I will fight.’” Third, they must pursue total order and discipline, for the Party “will be unchangeable in its doctrine, hard as steel in its organization.” And fourth, they must “do the mustering out and the discarding of what has proven to be bad and, therefore, inwardly alien to us.”[v] In summary, the establishment of the Reich relied on the German people and would be the ultimate triumph of their wills. In the Nazi metanarrative of history, Germany saw an unjust period of disgrace in the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time, Germany saw that both unity built upon religious loyalty to the Nazi party and a purging of the weaker members of the nation would cause the Reich to “endure for millenniums to come.”[vi] The people, through the Nazi Party, would bring an end to Germany’s economic, social, and political ruin and would restore the country to its deserved place at the center of the world stage.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin pushed a fundamentally similar worldview. A Marxist-Leninist view sees history leading towards revolution and the emancipation of the proletariat, the working class. The bourgeoisie currently sit at the top of society by controlling capital, technology, and other means of production. This system puts the bourgeoisie at odds with the proletariat, for, to satisfy their own economic needs, the bourgeoisie rely on the constant subjugation of the proletariat and an exploitation of their labor. Subjugation and exploitation make the capitalist system inherently unstable, for they will incite the proletariat to revolution and to their liberation through the establishment of a communist society. In the Marxist-Leninist view, the salvation and liberation of the working class will come when it is sufficiently dedicated to revolution of the existing social order.vii In this metanarrative, as in the Nazis’, the pivotal aspect is the people’s united will.
Other, less radical ideologies have a similar underlying narrative of gradual progress bringing salvation. During the Enlightenment, French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) posited that there are three stages to life. He wrote:
The law is this, that each of our leading conceptions—each branch of our knowledge— passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive.[viii]
As life progresses from one stage to the next, it slowly rids itself of intellectual errors. In the Theological stage, societies believed all natural phenomena were caused by direct action from one or more supernatural beings. In the Metaphysical stage, society replaced the idea of a concrete God with metaphysical constructs. In the Scientific stage, society began to examine the world through logical inquiry, developing mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology, and the other sciences to give full explanation to what society had previously attributed to religion or metaphysical concepts. Sociology, which Comte saw as the Queen of the Sciences, could remedy all human ills. At its core, this metanarrative is of gradual progress driven by improvements in the human mind and will.[ix]
In a similar fashion, many Americans today believe that humanity is progressing, gradually ridding the world of its greatest evils through the triumph of the will. Consider a common perception of American social history. The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment worked to abolish slavery. The following Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were part of a long struggle to give the emancipated slaves full civil rights and suffrage. The Nineteenth Amendment established women’s suffrage and is part of an ongoing movement for women’s rights. Now, eyes have turned toward the topics of immigration reform and sexual freedom. There are debates about green energy, healthcare, alleviating poverty in third world countries, stopping human trafficking, and much else. This is the story of the power of the human will. The fight today takes many forms—legal action, government intervention, non-profit work, enhanced engineering design—but the goal is always the same. We are trying to build a better world around us through the triumph of our wills.
Although this narrative appears convincing and even desirable, for it says the future is ours to shape into something great, under more critical examination, it has three grave weaknesses. First, the triumph of the will narrative can lead to a pessimistic and hopeless outlook on life. If history is the story of attempted progress, the contemporary world may appear to have the glory of ushering in the future, but one or two centuries henceforth, today’s economic, social, political, religious, and intellectual state may appear stale and outdated. The truly extraordinary individuals may be remembered, but human life otherwise is destined to someday be perceived as backward.
Secondly, this narrative of history places an overwhelming burden on the current generation. If the future is ours to create, it is our responsibility to prevent making errors that leave a negative impact on society. Likewise, it is our responsibility to prepare the next generation to preserve what we have built, and we are to blame if it does not perform well. Just as the once-glorious Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, what one generation left as a powerful society could, in the space of a few generations, see utter ruin. Life is a perpetual struggle to improve, or, at least, to prevent collapse.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the validity of this narrative comes into question upon further scrutiny, for human nature itself prevents humanity’s progress, preventing our wills from ever triumphing. Shortly after the My Lai massacre in 1968, Time published an essay, written from a secular perspective, that spoke of “a dark underside” to human nature.[x] “Today’s young radicals,” it reads,
are almost painfully sensitive to these and other wrongs of their society, and denounce them violently. But at the same time they are typically American in that they fail to place evil in its historical perspective. To them, evil is not an irreducible component of man, an inescapable fact of life but something committed by the older generation, attributable to a particular class or the “Establishment,” and eradicable through love and revolution.[xi]
While the “young radicals” had high hopes of improving society, they fundamentally misunderstood the problem. According to Time, evil is not a problem man faces but a part of man himself.
The Pennsylvania Gazette published an article with a similar theme in 1974. In response to a theologian who published a book offering hope for humanity if it returned to the purity of the “inner world” of the imagination, Robert Lucid wrote that this hope in the purity of the human soul was foolish:
Three generations of American literary artists, however, have testified that the cruelty, the viciousness, and indeed the insanity rampant in our society are things which came exactly out of our own ‘interiority;’ that our institutions were not flown in from the moon but are in fact projections of structures envisioned deep in the pits of our imagination.[xii]
This understanding of human nature adds a deeper pessimism to the triumph of the will metanarrative. It leads to hopelessness regarding change and it thoroughly undermines the worldview.
Contemporary America, a generation separated from the Vietnam War, may not as a whole have as pessimistic a view of human nature as set forth by Time and the Pennsylvania Gazette, but perhaps we are overly optimistic. Current estimates by the International Labor Organization place the number of victims of forced labor at 21 million men, women, and children worldwide. While we can praise ourselves for ending chattel slavery in America, forced labor, human trafficking, and other forms of modern slavery continue in many countries across the globe including our own.[xiii] One can try to blame “the system” for fostering an environment that breeds corruption, but ultimately, the system simply provides room for individuals with evil intent to pursue their desires. Unless human nature improves or every opportunity to do evil is removed, eradicating forced labor or any other social evil will be difficult, if not impossible.
Time may cause the current generation to reflect on modern day slavery, on the Rwandan Genocide, on the conflict in the Middle East, on the Great Recession, and on much else, reminding us again that human nature is not as pure as we think, and that history is not marching forward as triumphantly as we hope. The strength of the metanarrative of progress and the triumph of the will falls short under examination. It robs life of any lasting purpose and meaning; it places an overwhelming burden on each successive generation to perform well, and it does not properly describe the complexity of progress and the persistence of evil. American journalist H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) once wrote, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”[xiv] The suggestion that human nature triumphs over social ills to build a better world is just that—neat, plausible, and wrong.
To the story of history that appears to accurately describe the state of the world, relieve the burden of each generation to prevent regress, and imbue each person’s life with meaning and purpose, Christianity provides an alternative proposition. A Christian reading the articles in Time and Pennsylvania Gazette finds no surprise in their description of human nature, for it strongly echoes some of the aspects of the biblical narrative of history, which includes four core principles. First is sin. The world, though created as perfect, became corrupted in the Fall. Christians believe that when Adam first disobeyed the law of God by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, sin entered the world, marring the natures of all people and inclining their hearts away from the good. In the words of Scripture, which sound not too different from the Time and Pennsylvania Gazette quotes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”[xv] The late pastor-theologian, Dr. James Montgomery Boice called sin the “essential problem of the human race.”[xvi] In describing the effect sin has on our ability to pursue the good and move society forward, Dr. Boice said, “It’s one thing to plan how things should be—it’s one thing to envision a utopia— but it’s quite another thing, quite an impossible thing, to actually get men and women in their sinful state into that utopia.”[xvii] While we may fantasize about the future and devise grand plans, the Christian view of history is that sin will inevitably frustrate those plans. From generation to generation we do not see a gradual improvement of human nature; rather, each generation starts with the same corrupt nature and faces the same barriers to progress.
Beyond merely frustrating the plans of men, sin incurs God’s judgment. The Apostle Paul, in his New Testament letter to the church in Rome, wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[xviii] Sin is a transgression against God’s law and, like any transgression of human law, incurs judgment.xix In God’s judgment, sinners are subject to his wrath. To the church in Ephesus Paul expounded, “We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”[xx] God promises that at the end of history, he will act as judge over all people from all times, punishing those who break his commands.[xxi] This, then, is the second principle in the Christian narrative of history: God’s judgment on all people as sinners.[xxii]
If the Christian narrative of history were only the tale of sinful natures bringing judgment and punishment, it would certainly be the ultimate pessimistic worldview, much more pessimistic than the secular position outlined above. In this narrative, however, between sin and judgment sits an offer of redemption. The third principle, then, is redemption. The Bible recounts that because of his love for his people, Jesus Christ came to earth and entered our historical framework to die, in order to remove the guilt of our sins. He intercedes for us before God’s judgment throne.[xxiii] He is a “propitiation” of the wrath of God “to be received by faith.”[xxiv] Christianity teaches that through faith in Christ, we are saved—not from poverty or oppression but from the wrath of God.xxv
As part of Christ’s salvific work, he sends the Holy Spirit to renew our natures in order that we can pursue the good. In the words of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, God says, “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”[xxvi] With renewed natures, we can fulfill the commands to “love your neighbor as yourself,” to “give justice to the weak and the fatherless [and] maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute,” and to “continue to remember the poor.”[xxvii] The renewal of the Christian’s nature not only frees him from the judgment resulting from sin but also frees him to pursue the good in a way that his nature would otherwise prevent him from doing. Christianity thus both affirms our desire to see progress over social evils and provides the ability to pursue such change.
Finally, the fourth principle in the Christian narrative of history is the glorification of those who are saved. When the Bible speaks of glorification, it does so in promise of a future where God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”[xxviii] This will be the final end to sin as the perfection of God’s Kingdom. It is the ultimate satisfaction of our desire to see an end to the evils of this world.
From these principles of the Christian narrative of history, we can draw three conclusions. First, the Christian view affirms our desire to see the improvement of society. It commands that we help the economically and spiritually poor in this world and anticipates a world in which all pain and sorrow are gone. Second, the Christian view of history is inherently optimistic and indeed truly hopeful in that it, unlike any other worldview, both recognizes the evil of sin and provides a solution to it. Third, it says that all lives are meaningful. Whereas the secular view places the greatest value on lives and cultures that actively advance society, Christianity teaches that it does not matter what era of history in which we live or what our net benefit to society is. Although it is certainly of value to eliminate injustice and improve society, what is of infinitely more value is how we respond to Christ’s work on the cross. The proper framework for understanding history is not the triumph of humanity but the story of sin, redemption, and judgment. The great question of life is how we respond to the offer of redemption and where we will stand after the final judgment.
All people thus live in a critically important time in history. No matter where a person stands in the economic, political, technological, social, or intellectual course of history, he stands on equal footing regarding his own salvation and the way he acts towards those around him. In the words of twentieth- century Cambridge historian Sir Herbert Butterfield, the Christian narrative of history is not like a train, which travels toward a particular station and can be judged based on how close to the station it is, how quickly it is approaching that station, and whether it will arrive on time. Instead, the Christian narrative of history is like a symphonic masterpiece, for “though in a sense the end may lie in the architecture of the whole, still in another sense each moment of it is its own self-justification, each note in its particular context as valuable as any other note.”[xxix] The harmony of the Christian metanarrative is more beautiful than that of the greatest symphony. In a way that no other metanarrative does, it gives life meaning, value, and hope for renewal of the broken world around us.
i. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950) 67.
ii. Richard Meran Barsam, Filmguide to Triumph of the Will (London: Indiana University Press, 1975) 14.
iii. Barsam, 5.
iv. Barsam, 31-3.
v. Barsam, 62-63.
vi. Barsam, 63.
vii. Hans Heinz Holz, “Downfall and Future of Socialism” in Nature, Society and Thought, 3 (1992).
viii. Auguste Comte, The Positive Philosophy, vol. 1, trans. and ed. by Harriet Martineau (Batoche Books, 2000) 27 <http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ ugcm/3ll3/comte/>. ix. Harriet Martineau, trans. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (New York: Appleton, 1853). x. “On Evil: the Inescapable Fact,” Time, (5 December 1969): 27.
xi. “On Evil,” 27.
xii. Robert F. Lucid, “People’s Religion,” Pennsylvania Gazette, (March 1974): 7.
xiii. “Forced labour, human trafficking and slavery,” International Labour Organization, 28 June 2014, <http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/>.
xiv. H. L. Mencken, “The Divine Afflatus,” New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917).
xv. Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV).
xvi. James Montgomery Boice, “The March of Time” (lecture in the series, A Christian View of History, by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and the Bible Study Hour). Much of the content of this lecture is paralleled in James Montgomery Boice, “The March of Time,” in Foundations of the Christian Faith: a Complete and Readable Theology (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968).
xvii. Boice, lecture.
xviii. Romans 3:23 (ESV).
xix. For a classic exposition on the nature of divine law, see questions 90-108 of the Prima Secundæ of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which comprise his “Treatise on Law.”
xx. Ephesians 2:3 (ESV).
xxi. See Acts 10:42; I Peter 4:5; II Timothy 4:1.
xxii. Boice, lecture.
xxiii. See Romans 8:34.
xxiv. Romans 3:25 (ESV).
xxv. Boice, lecture.
xxvi. Ezekiel 26:36-7 (ESV).
xxvii. Mark 12:31; Psalm 82:3; Galatians 2:10 (ESV).
xxviii. Revelation 21:4 (ESV).
xxix. Butterfield, 67.
Nathaniel Schmucker ’15 is from Wayne, PA. He is a double major in History and Economics modified with Math.Auguste Comte, Dr. James Montgomery Boice, evil, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Butterfield, history, Hitler, hope, human trafficking, literature, Marx, Marxism, politics, Robert Lucid, sin, slavery, Vladimir Lenin