Is There a ‘Right Side’ of History?
The rate at which new language and orthodoxies are accepted into the public consciousness is dizzying. Our language has the power to redirect public discourse, channel new pathways of thought, and supply oxygen to movements otherwise unable to gain momentum. Just a few years ago, no one would have guessed our cultural lexicon would now include such terms as “social distancing” or “wokeness.”
But these are the obvious examples. A less noticeable turn of phrase becoming more common in public conversation concerns the need to be on “the right side of history.” Google Trends indeed appears to confirm a general uptick in the idiom’s prevalence over the last several years. Today, the expression “the right side of history,” innocuous enough on its face, belongs to a family of progressive talking points deployed in identity politicking. It is an a priori assertion of the moral uprightness of those causes alleged to help the oppressed.
Invoking the final analysis of history has the convenient effect of lumping together one’s opponent’s viewpoint in with a variety of heresies, literal and figurative, and taking the melodramatic moral high ground. To advocate against the sexual revolution, for instance, or to even be accused of racism in the face of manifest racial injustice all around us, is to join the ranks of Nazis and flat-earthers on the wrong side of history. By contrast, the one who falls on history’s good side can immediately enjoy being counted on the side of the angels.
If we were to conduct an autopsy on the so-called culture wars of the last several decades, it is clear that this tactic has much to do with why evangelicals lost on homosexual marriage and sexuality. The revolution could not have made its case without piggybacking on the moral capital of the civil rights movement originally pioneered by racial minorities suffering true marginalization. And by the time evangelicals realized they had been played, the proverbial horse had left the barn.
We must not be taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit (Colossians 2:8) and must instead take every argument captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Rather than ignore the enemy’s stratagem, we ought to anticipate it, harness it, and redirect it—engaging in presuppositional jujitsu, if you will.
The next time someone challenges your biblical convictions on law, morality, society, or salvation as repressive or troglodytic, consider three presuppositions that underlie the colloquialism “the right side of history”:
- Objective morality. If there is a “right” side of history, there is a wrong side as well. But who determines this standard? Who stands as a judge over history? Who defines what is good and evil?
- Linear time. If history is cyclical, as Eastern religions assert, or if it is the result of random natural forces, as secularism holds, there is no sense in speaking of “sides.” To speak of history having right and wrong sides implies that history has an author, an arc, and an eschaton. History is progressive; it is going somewhere.
- Final judgment. Whether one falls on “right” or “wrong” side of history must be knowable, or the statement in question would have no meaning. History, then, apparently culminates in a final determination in which its author somehow asserts his divine prerogative and separates the righteous from the wicked.
Any argument that contains a claim about history’s judgment cannot grow except in the soil of capital borrowed from a Christian worldview. If any of these abve presuppositions prove false, claims like, “You must affirm the legitimacy and goodness of LGBTQ lifestyles or you are on the wrong side of history” lose their force. (Think how empty such a statement would seem in the context of traditional Buddhism, for instance—where the universe is annihilated and recreates itself every several billion years!)
But it is not enough to internally critique the worldview of the unbeliever; we must interject the revealed truth of God, or else our apologetic task is incomplete.
How to Be on the Right Side of History
Scripture confirms the three presuppositions above. God stands ageless from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2), but he created the universe in what can only described as a fixed point in time: “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1). In creation, he stamped his objective moral law upon the cosmos and its sentient inhabitants as the extension of his essential character of goodness and holiness (Romans 1:18-21). And the universe as we know it will not last forever in its current state; heaven and earth will “pass away” (Matthew 24:35), and there is an “end” (1 Corinthians 15:24). The upright and evil alike will each receive their due, consigned to either eternal punishment or reward; perfect justice will reign, a new creation will rise from out of the old, and God will be all in all.
Unlike the counterfeit eschatologies that fuel today’s social movements, drawing from Hegel and Marx, in the biblical framework, the perfect state does not appear at the apex of aeons of human striving and bloodshed for a synthetic social ideal. Rather, the perfect state, the kingdom of God, is introduced from entirely outside the natural order. Only God usher in his kingdom (Matthew 6:10), because the corruption of sin renders mankind incapable of attaining to it. Jesus sums it up in this way:
“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:40-43, ESV)
With this as our foundation, it is entirely reasonable to want to be on the right side of history. We ought to yearn to be on the side of God and of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and to stand on the last day. This is at root what it means to fear the Lord.
But in Scripture’s story arc, God does not invade our fallen realm with his sin-conquering kingdom all at once. The perfect, future age does not plop down onto our fallen timeline as a single cataclysm as the Jews in Christ’s day falsely anticipated. As one pastor has put it, nowhere do we read, “Behold, the kingdom of heaven cometh like the 82nd Airborne.” The good news of Christianity is that the final ending has already slipped into history midway through to bring relief for those indeed seeking to be on its right side. This is the mystery of the kingdom to which the majority of Christ’s parables refer (cf. Matthew 13:1ff).
Like the Israelite spies sent into Jericho to save Rahab before the invasion was ever mounted, God chose to intervene on our planet by slipping in unnoticed before bringing his final wrath to bear. The kingdom of God began its graduated, two-stage arrival into history in the man Jesus Christ.
- By obeying the law of God and offering himself as the final prophet, priest, and atoning sacrifice, Jesus brought the old spiritual order to a convulsive close.
- By enduring crucifixion on behalf of sinners, Jesus brought the final judgment into the present and exhausted its power over his people.
- By rising from the dead, Jesus rendered the down payment on the final resurrection.
- By establishing his church as a gathering of believers from all nations and tongues, Jesus offers a foretaste of the final, eschatological ingathering of the righteous.
- And by presently ruling and gradually putting every spiritual and physical opponent under his feet, Jesus ever hastens the last day, our blessed hope.
In Jesus, the “end” of the world has already begun. Godless ideologies, worldly social movements, and political fads will come and go. Oppressive governments, prejudiced peoples, and unjust laws will crumble under the judgment of God and the gospel-motivated action of his people. Nations and societies sprout and fade like leaves. But it is those who know Christ who are decisively on the right side of history.
History’s author and judge has written himself into the story midway through. We do not need to wait until the end to know where we stand; he has already given us his terms of peace. If we bow the knee to him and him alone, the blood of his Son is at the ready to purge us of all our guilt, personal and corporate, present and historic.