“You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history do you?”
That’s a question regularly posed to people who may not be excited about a direction our culture seems to be trending in at any given moment. And it goes almost without saying that, as Christians (and even more specifically those who view the Bible as authoritative), we sometimes find ourselves in that group.
So how to respond?
Tim Keller, Don Carson, and John Piper recently tackled that question in a short video packed with much needed biblical perspective and pastoral wisdom. So rather than reinventing the wheel, I’ll include the full video here along with some summary thoughts.
A few of the points I found most helpful (along with a related thought of my own):
- As Carson notes, it’s important to remember that history (or at least this age of it) has a glorious end, one brought about by Jesus Christ himself. He will usher in new heaven and earth as he fully and finally defeats evil, sin, and death. Considering this future, Carson gives voice to the obvious point: “I want to be on the same side of history and Jesus is.”
- Carson also reminds us that some historical trends that once seemed to have a good deal of momentum turned out to be mere fads and even “frightfully wrong.” For example, many supposedly scientific notions involving race and eugenics—notions that became fully realized under the tyranny of Nazism—were once quite popular. Present conditions, then, are often a poor predictor of genuinely good historical outcomes, or as Piper puts it: “To be on the side of history today might [mean] being on the side against history tomorrow.”
- Piper also makes a crucial logical point: “History is happenings, and happenings can’t dictate what ought to happen.” In other words, history is a record of events. It doesn’t make value judgments. Only persons can do that.
- This brings me to a related point that Keller, Carson, and Piper didn’t directly address. When people speak of the “wrong side of history,” I always want to ask, “According to whom?” When we use words like “right” and “wrong,” we’re implying a standard by which we evaluate such things. But whose standard are we supposed to use? Why should I agree with someone else’s judgment about a given social trend? Is it merely what the majority thinks? Any knowledge of the past should make us realize that the majority has often been spectacularly wrong. The truth is that any binding standard has to be more than a personal preference. To have legitimate grounds to determine what we should and shouldn’t do, it has to come from someplace both outside and higher than us. Another way of saying this is that it has to come from God himself. Only by acknowledging this fundamental fact can we talk about what is or isn’t on the wrong side of anything.
- Toward the end of the video, Keller helpfully points out that the wrong side of history argument tends to be used inconsistently. His question to anyone who uses it goes something like this: is there a cultural or societal trend going on right now that you don’t like? Does that then put you on the wrong side of history? The fact is virtually no one believes the world is heading the right direction in all respects. So do we only claim the weight of history when we happen to agree with it?