“You’re on the wrong side of history.”
These days, Christians hear that sentiment, if not those exact words, on a regular basis. But this isn’t exactly new. For the last two thousand years, in places all around the world, Christians have regularly found themselves called to live lives that are out of step with the prevailing cultural winds swirling around them.
In our own time, biblical teaching increasingly cuts against the broadly held belief that each of us is the master of our own life, the final judge of what is true and, maybe even more importantly, what leads to happiness. And so, for example, a biblically faithful view on the topics of sex, gender, and family is increasingly seen as not simply old-fashioned, but rather repressive and even bigoted…and therefore on the wrong side of history.
How do we respond in light of this? A couple of thoughts:
History doesn’t make moral judgments. Only a person can do that.
If we’re looking for some kind of impressive figure named “History” who is carefully and impartially weighing our actions in order to pronounce them right or wrong, well, we’re never going to find it. That’s because history isn’t a person. And only a person can make moral judgments.
So when we say that a person is on the wrong side of history, what we’re actually saying is that he or she is on the wrong side of someone’s judgment. And most of the time—and this is crucially important—that “someone” turns out to be the opinion of the majority or an otherwise influential group within the culture.
Now, in some cases these opinions are very good. Thankfully, almost everyone in our culture believes things like slavery is morally repugnant, or that we should provide for and nurture our children.
But what exactly makes us we confident these beliefs are right? This may seem like a strange or unnecessary question until we realize that not everyone has always thought they were. Slavery has been very common in human history, across different races and cultures, including our own tragic past in America. And sadly, more than one culture has gone so far as to sacrifice its own children to gain the appeasement or blessing of one god or another.
These historical realities lead to a whole bunch of important questions. Why is one belief the correct one now, when in another time and place it wasn’t? Is it simply because more people hold it now? Does that mean it could once again become wrong if it becomes less popular at some point in the future? And are we assuming that when a culture does change its beliefs over time, it always changes them for the better? What reason do we have to believe that? And by the way, what exactly qualifies one group over another to be able to judge things as right or wrong, good or bad, better or worse?
You might be surprised at how few people, if pressed, have compelling answers to these questions.
In the end, opposing God is what it means to be on the wrong side of history.
I mentioned that we need to translate “the wrong side of history” into “the wrong side of someone’s judgment.” But the questions above point to the fact that the someone is never ultimately me or you. It’s never a group of elite societal trendsetters. It’s never the majority of this or any other generation. The someone is God himself.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. And he was exactly right. It bends toward justice just like it bends towards truth, beauty, and goodness. It bends that way because God is the one bending it, and he is the very definition of all those things.
Think about it for a minute. God’s own character is the only true and final standard of goodness and righteousness. Moreover, the God who created time and space is the one who is actively unfolding history according to his good and wise purposes. And the biblical record is crystal clear that God’s kingdom is the only one that will be left standing in the end (see Daniel 2). Opposing that kingdom and its King? That’s what it truly means to be on the wrong side of history.
This truth is critical for two reasons. First, it challenges us when we’re tempted to side with any other “kingdom” in whatever form it may present us at the time—greater social acceptance, more financial resources, more influence and power, or simply more comfort. All those things that seem so strong, so permanent, so valuable and necessary at present will one day be scattered like chaff in the wind (Dan. 2:31-45).
But secondly, it’s a great encouragement for us to stand with the true Kingdom and to follow its King. No matter what hardship that brings us at present—and for some it may be hard indeed—that will never be a bad choice. On that we have the sure promise of the Lord of history himself (see Mark 10:29-31, 2 Cor. 4:16-18).