There is a proverb from the Soviet period: “History is hard to predict.” The re-writing of history was a common political action – enough to provoke the proverb. Students of history are doubtless well-aware that re-writing is the constant task of the modern academic world. The account of American and World History which I learned (beginning school in the 1950’s) differs greatly from the histories my children have learned. Some of the re-writing was long overdue – while other projects have been more dubious.
Of course, re-writing is not a recent phenomenon. Virgil’s Aeneid was an effort to re-write history, giving Rome a story to rival Greece’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Reformation became a debate not only about doctrine but also about the interpretation of history and the Church. The rise of historical studies in the modern period, which questioned long-held beliefs about the historical veracity of the Scriptures, created an anxiety within modern Christianity. Many of the debates that permeate Christianity at the present time turn on questions of history and historical interpretation. As the debates rage, history becomes increasingly harder to predict.
I would suggest that it is a mistake to describe Christianity as a “historical” religion, despite the space-time reality of its central events. It is more correct to describe Christianity as an “eschatological” religion – a belief that the end of all things – the fulfillment of time and history – has entered space and time and inaugurated a different mode of existence. To put it in the simple terms of the Gospel: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Historical events (in our modern way of thinking) are part of the great canvass of cause and effect. Seen in this manner, history becomes the fixed and unchangeable reality, its events the immutable unfolding of God’s plan. With this thought comes the anxious searching for “what happened,” and the unceasing arguments and doubts that inevitably arise. This view exalts space and time to a place of ascendancy. God may intervene and act within that context, but the reality of space and time remains the definitive stage of existence.
A rather tortuous point within this understanding is the power of a single, historical lifetime. Roadside signs in the South ask the question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?” The troublesome thought within this is that the actions played out over a span of seventy or more years establish the fixed result of eternity. History triumphs over the eschaton.
To my mind, this is a reversal of the story of salvation. History exercises a sort of tyranny in our lives. The mistakes we make and the consequences that extend beyond them threaten to bind us to the past. We think of ourselves as the product of the past, shaped and formed by what has been. Our history controls our destiny, haunting every movement and decision.
The story of our salvation is the deliverance from tyranny, the smashing, and destruction of that which binds us. As surely as Christ trampled down death by death, he trampled down the dominion of history. The coming of the Kingdom of God is the entrance into history, into space and time, of the fulfillment of space and time, a liberty fashioned according to the image of the resurrected Christ. The End of all things is not the result of what has come before. The End does not belong to history.
The Scriptures place the End outside of history. It is a transcendent reality that is drawing all things towards itself. Christ is described as the “Beginning and the End.” He is the revelation of the End of all things, the purpose towards which all things were created and the point towards which all things move:
…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph. 1:9-10)
The teachings of many Fathers is quite clear on this point. The “cause” of our existence is in our end, not in our beginning. This is sometimes described with the Aristotelean term, telos, and at other times as the logos of our person (particularly in St. Maximos). This is most especially true when we think of the whole of creation. Humanity is created as the image and likeness of God, the very image and likeness that is the logos of our existence. The creation itself should be seen as being created in the image and likeness of the Kingdom of God, an image and likeness that it will fulfill when it is given its true liberty:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom. 8:20-21)
This “deliverance from bondage” is precisely that to which Christ refers when He speaks in Nazareth:
And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” (Lk. 4:17-19)
When John the Baptist sent a question to Jesus, to be sure He was the One who was to be expected, Christ echoed this very passage:
Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me. (Matt. 11:4-6)
These are a description of the “signs” of the Kingdom’s coming into the world. Things are set right and are revealed for what they were always intended to be. Their end is revealed.
Death is the verdict of history. Life from the dead is the verdict of the Kingdom of God. As pure history, the forgiveness of sins is impossible: what we have done, we have done. Only the freedom that is given from outside of history can transform and shatter the bondage that history seeks to put upon us. As such we can say:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Cor. 5:17)
The “new creation” is precisely the “new heaven and new earth” referenced in the Revelation of St. John. As such, we cannot “progress” towards such an end: the end already exists. It remains only for the end to be made manifest.
Christ enters history in the Incarnation. The womb of the Virgin exists within space and time. But, in that Christ (who is the End), is the very One who is contained in that womb, the womb itself is transformed. It becomes “more spacious than the heavens.” She whose womb it is becomes “more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.” It is this eschatological reality that enters the world that makes real and true those things that are spoken of as allegory. The Ark is a “type” of the Virgin Mary (for there God’s presence is made manifest), but it also is the Virgin Mary because that which makes her the Virgin Mother of God also makes the Ark the Seat of His Shekinah glory.
Bearing all these things in mind, St. Paul directs our attention away from history and its laws of cause and effect:
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col. 3:1-4)
The Apostle wreaks havoc on a purely historical existence. We “were” raised with Christ. Our lives “are hidden” with Christ in God. Our life “will appear.” In Christ Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come into the world. It is already revealing itself in our midst.