This article was originally published on Advocates for Truth as “Are Christians on the Right Side of History?“
In recent years, we have become familiar with the phrases “the right/wrong side of history.” It was a favorite phrase of President Obama, and, just recently, Senators who acquitted President Trump were said to be on the “wrong side of history.” Likewise, with the recent passage of the Equality Act in the House of Representatives, those from the LGBTQ+ community have said that passing the bill will put our nation on the “right side of history.”
But what does it mean to be on the right or wrong side of history? Does this way of thinking fit with the Christian understanding of history and morality?
Different Views of Time
One excellent article in Business Insider goes through the different views of time that various cultures around the world hold to. Generally speaking, Eastern cultures tend to hold to a cyclical view of time. This emphasizes the repeating cycles that we observe in life, like the rising and setting of the sun every day, the seasons, or the orbits of celestial bodies. In a cyclical view, there is plenty of time. Things will tend to go on as they always have. Western culture, on the other hand, tends to hold to a linear view of time. In a linear view, time is a commodity that is passing by like water in a river. It is something which can be used or wasted. Time progresses towards the future, which is determined by actions taken in the present.
Thus, views about being on the right or wrong side of history heavily rely on a Western or linear view of time. For there to be a right or wrong side to history, there has to be progress towards a certain end. Such claims specifically make a moral judgment about the past in light of present standards, or it judges current events in light of how they think future generations will judge the present.
The Bible’s View of Time
The Bible combines elements of both the cyclical and linear views of time.
The cyclical view of time is built into creation itself: the sun and the day/night cycle; the lunar cycle gives us months; the four seasons created by the earth’s tilt and orbit around the sun create a yearly cycle (Genesis 1:14-18, 8:22, Psalms 104:19). The Lord also declared the Sabbath holy, creating weekly cycles (Genesis 2:3, Exodus 20:8).
The Bible was written from an Eastern perspective and often exemplifies an Eastern or cyclical view of time. For example, Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:9-11,
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.”
This kind of mentality emphasizes the cyclical nature of life. Nothing is new under the sun and, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
On the other hand, we also see elements of a linear/Western view of time in Scripture. When God made everything in Genesis 1, it is described as an ordered progression of days. When God acts in history, he acts at particular moments with particular people over the course of time. The history of Israel is full of events of God acting within time, whether we are talking about the call of Abraham, the Exodus, the Conquest of the Promised Land, or the Exile. Scholar C. Elmer Chen writes that in Scripture, “Time is conceived primarily as a context for specific events rather than as an abstract dimension…It is inseparably linked to God’s acts and humankind’s response in the story of creation, from its beginning to its consummation.” There is an arc and a progression of time and history over which God is sovereign (Acts 1:7). God both acts within time and yet seems to not be bound by it (2 Peter 3:8).
The best example of a linear view of time is the gospel itself. The incarnation of Christ was foretold beforehand (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14), and his life, death, and resurrection were all a part of God’s foreordained plan to redeem us from sin (Acts 2:23; Ephesians 1:9-10, 3:8-11; 1 Peter 1:20-21). Likewise, God predestined us and so ordered all these things “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). Since then, Christians have lived in the “last days” and the “last hour” (2 Timothy 3:1, Hebrews 1:2, 2 Peter 3:3, 1 John 2:18). As Christians living today in 2021, we not only can look to the past and what God has done, we can also look to the future, where we can expect an eternal kingdom and inheritance with Christ (Ephesians 1:11-14, Colossians 1:13, 1 Peter 1:3-5). Yet, in the present, we live in an evil age (Galatians 1:4, 1 John 5:19), and it is our knowledge of God’s actions in history and our future hope that give us comfort and purpose in the here and now (Romans 8:18-25).
Time and Morality
When we hear the phrase “the right/wrong side of history,” this comes with a moral judgment. As was mentioned previously, this saying implies a moral judgment of the past in light of the present, or it judges the present in light of how we think future generations will judge us. From a biblical perspective, to make moral judgments in this manner is flawed for a couple of reasons:
- It presumes to know how future generations will judge the present. This is why I used the phrase “how we think future generations will judge us.” No one can really know how societal norms will develop or change over time. To presume to know such things with certainty is prideful and arrogant (Proverbs 27:1, James 4:13-17).
- Likewise, it can also presume that the moral judgment of the present to be better than the past. While we can certainly acknowledge that moral progress can and has been made over time, it should not be presumed that “progress” in-and-of-itself is always good. As we will see in the next point, morality cannot truly be based on some generic notion of “progress.”
- More fundamentally, these claims rely on subjective morality. Claims about being on the right/wrong side of history base their morality on what society says is good or bad. If society (or future societies) gets to decide what is right and wrong, then there’s no objective basis on which to call something wrong—past, present, or future.
Slavery is a good example of this. For most of human history, slavery has been normative in most human societies. If you had lived back in such a society, would you have said that slavery was wrong or would you have been influenced by what your culture says is right or wrong? Was it wrong for society in the past to practice slavery since it was widely accepted by their culture? If morality is subjectively based on whatever a society at the time says is right or wrong, then we wouldn’t be able to say that slavery was objectively wrong. In the United States, since there’s near-universal agreement that slavery is wrong, we could say that it is wrong for us to practice slavery today, but we wouldn’t be able to judge a past society for what they believed at the time to be morally acceptable. Only if morality is objective and based on something other than majority opinion can we say that what past societies did was wrong because morality is no longer based on an ever-changing consensus. In order for morality to be true for all times and places, it needs to be rooted in a source which transcends time and place, namely God’s Word, his character, and his nature (John 14:6, 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Revelation 19:11).
Ultimately, there is only one right side of history, and that is determined by the Lord of history himself, the “King of the ages” (1 Timothy 1:17). Morality is rooted in God, and time is God’s creation. The right side of history will be most readily seen when Christ returns a second time in glory to rule and reign in righteousness (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 11:15). But in the present, we are told to “number our days” and to make “the best use of the time” so that we may become wise and live righteously (Psalms 90:12, Ephesians 5:15-16, Colossians 4:5).
The phrases “the right/wrong side of history,” as they are commonly used, are deeply flawed. Fundamentally, these sayings ignore the fact that morality is objectively based on God, not on whatever society agrees on. Without objective morality, there can be no definitive right/wrong, let alone a right or wrong side of history. Additionally, such judgments presume to know too much about how future generations will judge the present. In our finitude, we can only guess what future generations will think (or even whether there will be future generations—Christ might return by then!). While we certainly need to steward our present circumstances with an eye towards how our decisions will affect the future, morality is not determined by how we think future generations will judge us.