Christianity and History – Introduction
When it comes to Christianity and history, “Paul regarded the resurrection as an event in history supported by the strongest possible eyewitness testimony, including his own (1 Corinthians 15:5–8). For Paul, the historicity of the resurrection was a necessary condition for the truth of Christianity and the validity of Christian belief.”1
The basis for the Christian worldview appeared in human history about two thousand years ago in the person of Jesus Christ. While “Christ died for our sins” is solid orthodox Christian theology, “Christ died” is history. Shattering Christianity’s historical underpinnings would surely shatter its doctrine and thus the entire worldview.
Christians also believe that the Bible is God’s revealed Word in the form of a trustworthy book grounded in history. Thus, for Christians, history is supremely important. Either Christ is a historical figure and the Bible is a historical document that describes God’s communications with humanity and records events in the life of Christ or the Christian faith is bankrupt (1 Corinthians 15:14).
If the Christian perspective is correct, history has already revealed the worldview that fits the facts of reality. Christians believe redemption was offered to humanity two thousand years ago and that it works as powerfully today as it did then.
Christianity and History – The Bible and History
When considering the claims of Christianity and history, we must ask, “Can we trust the Bible to tell us the truth about God’s actions in history?” Most of the negative criticism of the Bible, as Norman L. Geisler says, “is pre-archaeological based on unproven philosophical presuppositions that have subsequently been antiquated by archaeology. As with the Old Testament, the positive case for the historical reliability of the New Testament is based on two main points: the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts and the reliability of the New Testament witnesses.”2
The first area we must explore when judging the historicity of the Bible is the question of authorship. Was the Bible written by eyewitnesses of historical events, or were some books written many years after the fact by men who had only heard vague accounts of the events they attempted to describe? For example, did one of Christ’s apostles write the book of Matthew, or did some unknown scribe with no firsthand knowledge of Christ’s life write the book to strengthen the case for Christianity?
Today’s scholars have little doubt that the books of the Bible were written largely by eyewitnesses. William F. Albright, a leading twentieth-century archaeologist, writes, “In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century (very probably sometime between about A.D. 50 and 75).”3
Even H.G. Wells, a confirmed atheist, acknowledges that “the four gospels . . . were certainly in existence a few decades after [Christ’s] death.”4 The evidence concludes that the historical accounts in the Bible were written by men living in that historical period.5
However, a second objection arises. Perhaps, say the critics, the Bible was an accurate historical document as it was originally written, but inevitable mistakes made by copyists over hundreds of years have rendered it inaccurate and unreliable. At first glance, this objection seems plausible. But one archaeological discovery made nearly half a century ago shattered this theory. Gleason L. Archer, Jr. explains: “Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 per cent of the text. The 5 per cent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”6 That is, a manuscript one thousand years older than the oldest copy of the Bible previously known to exist proved the transmission over that time span to be virtually error-free.
In fact, archaeological discoveries have consistently supported the veracity of the Bible. Nelson Gluck says, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.”7 Harvard’s Simon Greenleaf (the greatest nineteenth-century authority on the law of evidence in the common law) believes “that the competence of the New Testament documents would be established in any court of law.”8
Christianity and History – Purpose in History
When looking at Christianity and history, Christians view history through the concepts of creation, fall, and redemption, a progression of events beginning with God’s good creation, humanity’s rebellion against God, and God’s ultimate plan for divine intervention, redemption, and restoration. Thus, all of creation is sacred and stands under the blessing, judging, and redeeming purposes of God. This belief of creation/fall/redemption/restoration has vast ramifications for humanity. If the Christian philosophy of history is correct, then not only is the overall story of humanity invested with meaning, but every moment that we live is charged with purpose. C.S. Lewis explains, “Where a God who is totally purposive and totally foreseeing acts upon a Nature which is totally interlocked, there can be no accidents or loose ends, nothing whatever of which we can safely use the word ‘merely.’ Nothing is ‘merely a by-product’ of anything else. All results are intended from the first.”9
Indeed, understanding how God works in our lives helps us understand how God directs the course of history. Butterfield explains, “[T]here are some people who bring their sins home to themselves and say that this is a chastisement from God; or they say that God is testing them, trying them in the fire, fitting them for some more important work that he has for them to do. Those who adopt this view in their individual lives will easily see that it enlarges and projects itself onto the scale of all history.”10 Therefore, purpose and meaning saturate every aspect of a Christian’s life.
In order to speak accurately about purpose, however, Christians must speak not only of God’s activity throughout history but also of the ultimate goal toward which He is leading us. Purpose implies constant supervision by God, a direction for the course of human events, and an ultimate end or goal. For Christians, history is moving toward a specific climax—the Day of Judgment (Acts 17:31; Romans 2:11–16). At that point, Christ’s victory over sin will become apparent to all and Christians throughout history will be allowed to share in His triumph. This is the good news of Christianity, the truth that makes all earthly trials bearable. Paul sums up this faith: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:11–18). The ultimate direction of history is toward a triumphant close. Even at this very moment, God is moving human history closer to that end—which, in a very real sense, is only the beginning.
Christianity and History – Conclusion
The Christian view of history centers in the reliability of the Bible. The historical foundation of the Bible, as recorded in both Testaments and substantiated by archaeology and secular writings, has stood the test of time.
Because of the biblical understanding of the fallen nature of humanity, Christians are able to form a consistent view regarding the past, the present, and the future as well as our role in history. We may freely choose to obey or disobey God, but it is only when we obey that we can affect history positively. Regardless of our choices—for good or for evil—God will work through our actions to direct history toward His ultimate end: a Day of Judgment, the restoration of the heavens and earth (1 Timothy 6:13–19; 2 Peter 3:13), and the new age to come with Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This belief in a climactic conclusion causes Christians to adopt a linear conception of history that reflects the vast meaning with which God has endowed history. Wise men still seek Him, and for good reason, for He is the only source of meaning in history and in life.