The preacher of Ecclesiastes remarked, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl. 1:9). He wisely continued, "Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after" (1:10-11).
Some might not see this as wisdom but as the ramblings of a pessimistic madman. However, it is wisdom concerning how our current culture perceives and judges history.
Today, there is quite a fury of action to scour the history books, particularly recent history (i.e. the last 30 years), to find the things our society now deems unacceptable and demand retribution (or at least an apology). We think we are reaching the pinnacle of the human experience, and all of history must now bow to us.
How foolish of us. Do we not realize those who come after us will treat us the same? They will look at how our society is run and mockingly humiliate us for thinking we are something special. We are not on the verge of anything new, regardless of how technologically advanced we think we are.
History is, as the wise preacher said, cyclical. It is a cycle of man's pride seeking to raise him to the heights of heaven, only to crush him to the depths of hades. Kingdoms rise and fall, and ours will fall too. That is not pessimism but realism. It is simply the realization that what has happened in history will happen again, even if not in the same way.
We can be both disappointed and optimistic at the same time. However, all is not lost if we let history be our guide.
I wanted to write this article to address the widespread pessimism and pride caused by a particular view of the end of times—the view that says the world is just getting worse and worse. Once it reaches its limit, Jesus will rapture all the Christians away, marking the beginning of the end. To be clear, I am not debating eschatology. I am simply pointing out an unhealthy and unchristian attitude accompanying a simplistic interpretation of the Bible.
That the world is getting worse and worse is quite a modern idea, and the version we see originated somewhere between 1970 and 1980 or at least became popular around that time through the likes of Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye. Before 1960, Western Christians were optimistic about the state of the world. Then, after World War 1 and 2, evangelical revival came to America, and Christians felt they were winning the culture war again. But when the sexual revolution of the 60s hit, it was a significant blow to the advancement of Christian morals in society. As a result, the sentiment among Christians turned, and they began to focus on the immediate return of Christ.
The reality is Western Culture has taken a turn for the worse. But does that mean we should expect the apocalypse any moment now?
We can look at the example of Christians during the fall of Rome. Because of Constantine, Rome was a bastion of Christianity. Christians flourished, and the Christian religion became established and strong in society. So when Rome fell, it was no surprise many Christians thought Christianity was finished. Some great men who helped shape the church through their writings and teachings ran for the hills and lived in caves until they died. But others, like Augustine, wrote about the kingdom of heaven that never falls.
As history records, Christianity thrived after Rome, but differently. In his book, The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan displays how Christianity survived the fall of Rome in the small villages along the Silk Road. Then, Christianity moved out into the 'unknown world' and became a worldwide religion.
When we think of this example, its clear history as our guide helps us remain calm and collected in turbulent times. There are more probable conclusions to the downturn of Western Civilization than simply apocalypse. Maybe our society will collapse so Christianity can flourish elsewhere. Perhaps it's simply another shift in the world's history, leading to humanity's flourishing in another place. Or, maybe, it is the last movement of history, and the end is nigh. We don't know.
But I observe that apocalyptic thinking tends to cause pessimism and complacency. It can be a form of pride, where we think we deserve to get out of here without much of a struggle because of how wicked the world around us is. This is an unchristian approach to the world around us. If we truly believe God is at the helm of history, in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), we will be optimistic. If we take the words of Paul to the Colossians to heart: "For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (1:16-17); how can we be pessimistic? We ought to be confident in God with enough humility to say, "Whatever You have planned is best."
The history of the world is more than a guide for dealing with end-times pessimism and pride; it is a guide for many other things, things to which you probably don't realize it speaks. Don't neglect history. It teaches us how to live today.