Too often, we fall on one side or the other when discussing history. Either the past was a semi-utopia compared to present day, or it was a nightmare that we’re finally escaping.
Branko Milanović, economist for the World Bank and professor of economics, grew up in Communist Yugoslavia. His memories of that time are far from dismal, however. In fact, he often finds accounts about the torments of those living beneath the ‘boot of Communism’ disconcerting and discordant with his own youth.
In a post titled “How I Lost My Past”, he mused on his discomfort with the doom and gloom stories of Cold War era Europe. “It is in part because I never believed in them and because my personal experience was quite different. Rather than believing in the end of history, I saw the end of the Cold War as an ambivalent event: good for many people because it brought them national liberation and the promise of better living standards, but traumatic for others because it brought them the rise of vicious nationalism, wars, unemployment and disastrous declines in income.”
His relatively benign memories of living under a government system much demonized in the West call into question many of our dearly held narratives about bygone days.
“Was the past good or bad?” Joshua Rothman wrote in The New Yorker, reflecting on Milanović’s writings about Communist Europe. “Are we on the right track or the wrong one? Is life getting better or worse? These questions are easy to ask—pollsters and politicians love asking them—but surprisingly hard to answer. Most historical and statistical evidence shows that life used to be shorter, sicker, poorer, more dangerous, and less free. …Others concede that life used to be worse in some ways, but wonder if it wasn’t also better in others—simpler, more predictable, more spiritual.
“It’s common to appreciate modernity while fearing its destructive potential. (Life expectancy may be higher today, but it will be shorter after the nuclear-climate-bioterror apocalypse.) If being alive now doesn’t feel particularly great, perhaps living in the past might not have felt particularly bad. Maybe human existence in most times and places is a mixed bag.”
While a black and white retroactive view is an easy one to take, it’s perhaps not the most useful or healthy mentality.
One view of history is to assume the past was much better than the present day, as if we’re all tumbling down a slide into a quagmire of modern horrors and unprecedented moral failure.
Anyone who wants to paint the past with a rosy brush might reconsider after any honest history book or by taking a long look at these graphs about human mortality rates in just the last 200 years. It's a sobering reminder of how many people died from childbirth, diseases or conflicts before the advent of modern science (not to mention that death was usually agonizing and protracted death as the local herbalist slapped leeches on your arms and stuffed your gangrenous cut with rosemary).
While the governmental and social failings of the West in recent decades are nothing to scoff at, they are dwarfed by the centuries of debauched Roman rule, the breathtakingly brutal culture of feudal Asia or Mesoamerica and the tribal wars in Africa that have cycled through for centuries.
Even the Bible doesn’t attempt to make the history of God’s own people sound peachy. Judges as well as the first and second books of Samuel and Kings all essentially document the fairly universal failure of judges, prophets and kings to run their nation with anything even remotely resembling true righteousness or justice.
Everyone likes the parts about King David because he’s the highlight in a long, dark stretch of Israel and Judah’s annals, but even his reign was marked by war, famine, plagues and more than one attempted coup d’état. The body count during David’s tenure is daunting, and a lot of those fallen weren’t just his enemies; they were his own people too. The Bible also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging David’s troubling relationships with women and that he was, in at least one case, almost certainly a rapist. He’s called a man after God’s heart because he had the humility to constantly repent of his sin, not because he was the paragon of virtue ruling Camelot.
David Wilkerson mused on this topic of human corruption in society often. He wrote, “The Psalmist addresses this phenomenon when he asks in bewilderment: ‘Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed’ (Psalm 2:1–2).
“It is all a demonic fury directed against Jehovah God and his Son, Jesus Christ. And the various forms this wrath is taking are becoming more and more potent. Right now, we see Christ’s words played out before us on the world stage: the children of Satan are clearly doing their father’s bidding. …Yet, none of this satanic wrath is new. We see example after example of such demonic madness throughout history.”
In the words of Ecclesiastes’ author, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV).
If the vast majority of human history is some variation of the same old failures, why compare and contrast or even contemplate any of it at all?
The temptation of an honest look over history is to fall into a crushing sense of futility. Why keep looking backwards only to be disappointed by humanity’s long and troubled wrestling with sin and staggering attempts at glory? Just forge forward and hope that matters will be better or least different! Besides, the church is becoming more and more sanctified, and therefore believers of today should be far more advanced and ‘Christian’ cultures much purer than back in the ancient days…right?
This mentality is a fallacy inherent to ‘progressive’ Christianity, as Evan Wilkerson points out. “The implication is that we’re now more evolved and enlightened than even the Old Testament prophets. But is this how scripture speaks of itself? Is this how Jesus Christ speaks of scripture?”
Christ didn’t ignore biblical history in all its shambles and all its flaws. In fact, he pointed to something vital in it when he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18, ESV).
The law along with all the desperate warnings of the prophets pointed at mankind’s inability to redeem itself. Adam and Eve had never found a way back into Eden. The best of humanity, the King Davids and others, had still fallen short of the holy mark. History could not be forgotten because history relentlessly begged for a savior stronger than any man or woman could ever be.
Scripture subtly offers another reason for us to value history. The book of Hebrew’s famous ‘hall of faith’ chapter invites us to be inspired by the conviction and trust in God that was held by believers who came before us. “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. …But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:13,16).
In part of his book The World’s Last Night, C. S. Lewis addressed the popular debate of whether the present is better or worse than the past. He wrote, “It is our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters. But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producers, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are ‘on’ concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it.”
The values of history, though, never seemed to lay in demonizing the past, catastrophizing the present or attempting to guess at the future.
In a newsletter sermon, David Wilkerson reflected on an incident with his longtime friend that illustrates a proper view of history so well. “Former gang leader Nicky Cruz held evangelistic meetings not long ago in a gang-infested borough of London known as Hackney. The crime rate there was spiraling out of control, and Nicky was invited by the chief of police to speak.
“The mayor of Hackney is gay, as are many of the city council members. When they learned Nicky would be speaking, they looked into his website and found a statement saying the Bible calls homosexuality a sin. (The context was Nicky’s response to a letter. Nicky added, ‘Homosexuality is not the problem; sin is the problem. The same is true of fornication, adultery, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse.’) These leaders began a campaign to keep Nicky from speaking, and the wrath they brought against him was awful. He was called intolerant and homophobic… As all this wrath was being spewed at Nicky, he was advised to make compromising statements to the press. Nicky refused, instead demanding equal rights to hold public meetings, just as other groups enjoyed.”
At this point, it would’ve been terribly tempting to be overwhelmed by the sense of evil, to point at the current government figures and say that they or the dissolute spirit of the modern age were the real problem. Instead, Nicky never lost sight of this war as an ongoing, historic, spiritual one, and he had a part to play in the battle.
“A law firm took up Nicky’s cause and represented him, winning the case. When Nicky held his meetings in Hackney, the Holy Spirit came, and Jesus manifested his power. The auditorium was packed each night, and at week’s end some 1,500 people had asked Jesus into their hearts. That number included some gang leaders, as well as addicts and prostitutes. Seven gangs in the area ended up calling for temporary peace. All told, after Nicky’s meetings, the crime rate in Hackney dropped 14 percent.
“I ask you: was all of that wrath actually directed at Nicky? No, it was aimed at the redeeming power of Christ, the transforming power of the gospel, and it came because there was a great fear of being convicted for sin. …Is it any wonder Satan’s wrath was so stirred?”
When we examine the past, let’s not get lost in whether it was better or worse than the present. It is our reminder of what happens when humanity attempts to play god and define good and evil apart from the Lord. It is the testament of those saints who have gone before us, our cloud of witnesses, so to speak. It speaks to our need for a Savior and encourages us to run well the race set before us, the road beneath our feet at this very moment.