History is a frustrating subject for many people. For many, it is only of interest to the extent it bears on one’s personal heritage. It is often seen as boring because it has no perceived meaning or relevance. I remember one student in a college class on ancient history saying angrily, “This is just a history of war.” He was largely correct because, when we view history, we often have to focus on the conflicts and who won. The victors, then, invariably write the history books to justify their actions.
Missing the Big Picture
We have even more difficulty assessing the meaning of contemporary history because we perceive a self-interest in the struggle and its outcome. Even when we try to step back and look at events dispassionately, it is easy to get lost in the details, and we often focus on those that seem prominent at the time. When we look back at the political and cultural issues of even a few years ago, we realize that it is not hard to miss the forest for the trees when we look for the important trends of our own day.
This has always been the case. Josephus, the most important historian of first-century Palestine, took little notice of Christ or Christianity. He was Jewish and had no interest in Christianity, and he wrote for a Roman audience so he wrote ably of politics and military campaigns, the things that mattered to first-century Romans. This narrow perspective meant that he failed to appreciate the most important development of his day. The atoning work of the incarnate Christ and the beginning of His church represented the most significant event of human history. Satan was defeated, redemption was accomplished, and the earth-centered humanistic dream of a culture without God that Scripture calls Babylon, and of which Rome was then a part, was doomed to failure. The Kingdom of the Messiah would come to prominence, though the Roman Empire would collapse. This is exactly what the prophets had said would happen. In terms of the prophesies of Daniel, for instance, Rome had largely accomplished its role, and the focus of history was now on the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Josephus missed all of that because he focused on the apparent power players of his day.
Hebrews 12:26–28 refers to the work of God in history after Jesus as a shaking of heaven and earth, the purpose of which was, “the removing of those things that are shaken” so “that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.”
This passage, obviously a synopsis of historical events after Jesus Christ, follows what has been called the “honor roll of faith” in Hebrews 11, which lists historical figures who acted in terms of their faith in God. It mentions individuals from Abel through the prophets who obeyed God and were blessed and used by Him. They were individuals who stood faithful in faithless times and ordered their priorities in terms of what they confessed.
Then, in chapter 12 verse 1, the lesson is stated for us: we have their example behind us and we have the course that Christ has laid down before us: therefore, we should “run with patience the race that is set before us.” In other words, the faith, the assumption, these saints had that God’s promises were sure, together with the historical knowledge of Christ’s finished work and His commission to the church, should give us the fortitude of faith that enables us to live in terms of the certainty that our work in terms of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is not in vain.
Too many Christians today view the world as did Josephus, in terms of the Rome of our day. They are focused on the leaders of our modern Babels who themselves believe they are controlling history. To do this is, however, to miss the ongoing work of God in history and their responsibilities in terms thereof. If we do not have faith in the God of history, we will, like Josephus, focus only on the men of history. It is for us, rather, to speak as did the apostles who knew the power of God and the shaking it surely represented throughout history.
Transcendent or Immanent Meaning?
How are we to view history, not just that long past, but our own history, in fact, all of time? We must begin by seeing that time itself is a creation of God. Scripture gives its beginning at the Creation and its end at the final judgment. Man is constrained because he is a finite creature with a finite lifetime in this finite world in this finite provision of God we call time. Contrast that with the comment by Dostoyevsky, who once noted that if there is no God, then all things are possible. That is the hope of man in rebellion against God, the dream of Babel, a world where anything is possible for man.
The nonbeliever has a problem with history, namely, where does meaning come from? History is full of billions of occurrences. The course of history has often hinged on one particular, seemingly minor, event. Without a providential view of history, it is easy to say history is chance, a parade of random events. That is in fact the conclusion of postmodernism: there is no meaning, no big picture.
If there is no transcendent meaning governing history, the only one, if one is possible, must be immanent, present in the cosmos and time-bound. This can lead me onto two different paths. If history is entirely immanent, it can be either ignored as meaningless or seen as the sole source of meaning. Take your pick: no meaning in history or all meaning within time and history.
Every denial involves a corresponding affirmation of some kind. The denial of transcendent meaning is often for the purpose of ascribing an immanent source of meaning. Since the Enlightenment, and particularly after Darwin, modern man thinks in terms of a naturalistic faith to explain the big picture of life, history, and social order. Naturalism explains all things and occurrences in terms of the characteristics inherent in matter. No naturalistic ideology can countenance a supernatural because naturalism is an affirmation of a particular faith. The denial of the supernatural necessitates the affirmation of the natural. To the extent naturalism claims to give any recognition to the supernatural, it usually reduces it to an aspect of the psychology of man, which, in reality, makes it naturalistic.
The Bible does not give a naturalistic view of history. It presents all human existence in a moral perspective, stemming from a transcendent order the source of which is a sovereign God of all His creation. It presents our history as the outworking of both man’s sin nature and that sovereign God’s gracious redemption. History is the outworking of man’s position relative to either Genesis 3:5 or Genesis 3:15. Genesis 3:5 was Satan’s bogus offer to man that he could be “as gods, knowing good and evil”; Genesis 3:15 was God’s promise that He would send a seed of the woman to crush Satan. All men are in relation to God either in terms of Adam (sinfulness, the curse, and judgment) or in terms of Jesus Christ (redemption, justification, regeneration, and sanctification), in terms of covenant faithfulness or covenant rebellion.
Man was created a moral being, and despite the Fall remains a moral being, so man has to accept time, matter, and history as moral issues. His understanding of these things will be in terms of his relation to God. Man’s problem is his rebellion against God and the meaning that comes from His sovereign creation and providence. That is why the writers of Hebrews had to remind Christians to think of the future in terms of their faith, as did the saints of old.
Given their denial of the God of Scripture, the position of the postmodernist is a reasonable one because without God, time and history are at best only empty pages on which man tries to impose an artificial meaning, usually for the purpose of social and political control. Many years ago history was replaced in government schools by social studies: history and cultures were “studied” to reeducate young men and women on how they were expected to think and act in the “social” order the educators sought to create.
Man’s life is so short, however, that his artificial meaning rarely outlasts him. Man consistently fails to create a meaning greater than himself because he is not, in fact, a god knowing, or determining, good and evil. The stories of God’s providential movements in history are to remind us of the fact that He always controls history. The past is “His story,” and the future is His will.
Without some transcendent purpose to time and history, all that is left for man in Adam is the moment. The past then has no lasting relevance. If anything, it becomes a hindrance, a burden to man because its events constrain him in the present. The future, then, is either meaningless chance or an artificially imposed meaning. All that is left such men is the existential moment, and postmodernism can be seen as no more than a form of existentialism.
Men in Adam do still love to play as though they were gods, so the answer of some to meaningless time and history is the creation of an artificial meaning, a substitute for the providential view of history by God. Karl Marx tried to impose an artificial historical meaning. Darwin tried to impose an artificial science and narrative of man’s origins. Freud fabricated an interpretation of man’s early family experience. What man is trying to do when he forces an artificial meaning into time and history is replace God’s predestination.
Naturalism presents a world that lacks meaning, that needs meaning, but because it presents no transcendent meaning, it presents an open door to contrived meaning, and all naturalistic meaning will be immanent and thoroughly humanistic.
The naturalistic view of history has man as the interpreter of time and history. This presumed prerogative is applied to Scripture, which is assumed to be natural and subject to a rewrite that excludes the supernatural. The only Jesus tolerated is the historical Jesus, one that is entirely human, the product of human history. But this is not the final humiliation of Christ. Man knows his knowledge is always changing, so he takes it as his prerogative to make Jesus and Christianity constantly evolving. Not only has Christ’s relevance and Christianity evolved, it is said, they must be allowed to continue to evolve. The concept of the historical Jesus does not allow any room for fixed orthodoxy.
It is only humanism that has a problem with meaning in history. The Christian faith allows us to live with an imperfect understanding of history because we know complete and perfect understanding is in the God who governs history, not in the process itself. The Christian can know there is meaning in history without seeking it from within history. Transcendent meaning dictates submission in faith; immanent meaning necessitates that man find that meaning.
Modern man has increasingly rejected God as the source of meaning. The Enlightenment reacted against religion and revelation, and advanced science and reason in their place. The Enlightenment faith was in nature and reason. The Enlightenment’s rejection of Biblical faith was concurrent with a faith that law was inherent in nature and that man could discern it by reason.
Beginning with the French Revolution, this shift from Christianity to humanism quickly sparked revolutions in terms of the new view of man and social justice. Karl Marx welcomed revolution and saw it as the power that drove historical process from one stage to the next. He even had a perverse version of the Kingdom of Heaven in his belief that communism would usher in the final stage of social evolution. For his followers, meaning was in Marx’s dogma. Communism was a “moral” force. Revolution was the power from below that forced history forward to its predetermined climax, which Marx revealed to his disciples. These operated with a religious dedication, an evangelistic zeal, an ideological devotion to the unfolding worker’s paradise he promised.
To the Enlightenment’s social evolution, Charles Darwin added biological evolution. It was Darwin who embedded naturalism in the modern mind. He represented a new faith in how the world operated, a greater antithesis to theism. Marx’s belief in revolution was one that held that the essential power and force is from below, not above. Thus Marx welcomed the work of Charles Darwin with delight. Darwin provided a reason to believe that power was from below. Darwin thus changed man’s view of the past, the future, and himself. Darwin shifted the West to a thoroughly naturalistic worldview.
The Chaos of Rebellion
Humanism is not a monolith, nor is it a single movement. All forms of humanism share a common philosophical assumption, a belief in man as the measure of all things, based on that promise of Satan in Genesis 3:5. When men rebel against God’s reality, however, they do not march in lockstep. They run helter-skelter in chaotic panic; they contradict one another constantly.
Darwin thoroughly separated modern thought from Christian presuppositions, but in doing so, he destroyed the Enlightenment’s basis for its brand of humanistic thought. The Enlightenment held to natural law and the supremacy of man’s reason. Darwin destroyed the possibility of relying on either, because his view on man’s origins described nature as chaotic and man’s reason as an evolutionary latecomer; after Darwin neither nature nor reason could be the basis for anything. Darwin’s foundation of biological evolution became not the basis for a great new beginning for man, but the cause of an emerging loss of belief in any possibility of meaning. Darwin had thrown a bomb into the Enlightenment’s intellectual presuppositions and paved the way for postmodernism’s rejection of any meta-narrative.
Sigmund Freud then further discounted man’s reason and even his consciousness, saying man was controlled by his primitive past. Freud explained guilt in terms of man’s supposed subconscious memories of his evolutionary beginnings, yet his work and its acceptance also represents the moral character of modern man’s rebellion against finding meaning in God. Freud dedicated his life to explaining guilt, yet he never once claimed to be able to remedy it. All he offered was a naturalistic explanation, and modern man preferred that to repentance and faith. Freud gave psychology a thoroughly humanistic perspective, which men still cling to, but he could not bring unity to rebellion. The March 27, 2006, issue of Newsweek published a chart illustrating twenty-three spin-off revisions of Freud. Once man is the measure, there can be as many meanings as there are men.
Karl Marx recognized the problem of meaning for modern man, so he avoided trying to find it. Instead, he chose to change things. Marxism is now increasingly seen as an artificial construct that only does harm in the context of the real world. We must pray that one area of humanism after another will soon be regarded as similarly artificial and absurd. The world does not need humanism’s artificial meanings. Man needs the truth that there is a sovereign God. The answer to a world without meaning, or with an artificially imposed one, is still found in God. Of course, this is a meaning man fears because it is a moral meaning against which he is in rebellion.
The ugly reality of artificial meaning imposed on time and history is that it inevitably means imposing, like Marxism, not only meaning on, but also control over, man. Just as God’s predestination implies God’s providence and governing, so man’s predestination implies man’s governing, man’s control.
Modern humanism has been very hard on humanity. Back in the 1960s when humanistic clichés were regarded with reverential deference, cartoonist Charles Schulz once had one of his characters admit, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!” According to Gil Elliot’s Twentieth Century Book of the Dead, in thetwentieth century, a higher percentage of the world’s population died at the hands of other men than in any other century in recorded history.
Flight from Reality
Naturalism seeks meaning within the confines of time and matter, but it cannot find meaning, only a flight from the reality of a world that is governed by its Creator and His law. This is the message of Scripture, and is why it begins with God as the Creator and ends with Him on the throne of heaven.
When man rejects this meaning, he has to make up his own. Man thus creates modern superstitions and mythologies by which he teaches and reinforces them. These irrationalities are then projected onto reality. The Enlightenment thinkers developed a mythological source of law and social order. Darwin created a biological mythology of origins. Freud created a mythology of psychology and anthropology. Marx created a mythology of historical process. Without God, man is lost in his attempts to create meaning or hope.
The world is full of men and women who see the events around them as did Josephus. They see what man the rebel is doing, not God, and so they miss the most important trends of history.
The world of humanism is in crisis. As many of us saw the Soviet Union collapse, we will see the further disintegration of a civilization built upon a repudiation of God and His Word. The mythologies of modern man will fail him, but this must be seen as part of the great shaking spoken of in Hebrews.
Christians all have a dual citizenship, and our Lord was very clear as to our primary allegiance. It is our part to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness so that we will be part of “those things which cannot be shaken” and which will remain.