History really does matter
History really does matter
16 January 2018
After a recent debate at a university in England, I was chatting with the CEO of the British Humanist Association and a group of students, most of whom were atheists. During the conversation, I mentioned Jesus and one of them piped up: “Jesus never existed!”
Slightly taken aback, I pointed out that the majority of historians including atheist historians, such as Bart Ehrman (see his book The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth), have no time for such a position. I also pointed out that the evidence for Jesus is far more than we have for other figures from antiquity, so if one rejects Jesus, one loses vast swathes of history. “That’s no problem,” the student replied, “history is meaningless: it’s just one person’s interpretation.”
Feeling in an iconoclastic mood, I looked at her and asked: “If I were to post on social media that following our conversation, you fell to your knees, made a weeping repentance, and became a Christian, would that be okay?”
“No, it’d be a lie!” she responded.
“But I thought you said that all history was just a matter of interpretation,“ I continued. “Now you’re claiming that historical truth does matters. Which do you believe?”
History matters. And if one tries to deny it, ignore it, or reduce it just to interpretation in a fit of postmodern pique, it has a habit of turning around and biting you on the rear. The importance and impact of history casts a long shadow and one can’t understand politics or culture without thinking historically.
Yet we live in a culture so plagued by the tyranny of the immediate that history is often ignored or overlooked. In an age where what matters is the latest tweet, the latest trending hashtag, the latest news bulletin, it can be tempting to forget the importance of history.
I was recently debating the gay rights activist, Peter Tatchell, on a radio show. We were discussing where human rights was best grounded — in the atheist belief that we are just matter and molecules, or in the Christian understanding that human beings are made in God’s image? Peter seemed to think human rights simply are.
I quoted William Hague from his biography of William Wilberforce: namely, that Wilberforce and the other abolitionists did their work so well, that we now assume as self-evident that all people have rights and that it is wrong to own another person. But Hague points out those ideas are grounded in a very Christian view of human worth, value and dignity, and we forget the soil from which the flower of human rights grows at our peril.
History really matters. It matters especially so for Christians because Christianity is the only historically grounded faith. One could remove Buddha or Mohammad from history and those religions could still exist. The Qur’an could have come with somebody else, or another person could have taught the four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. By contrast, Christianity is not a set of ideas taught by Jesus Christ; Christianity is Jesus Christ.
It’s no accident that the first Christians, in describing the message of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, chose the Greek word euangelion, from which we get the English word “gospel”, which means, literally, “good news”. Professor Tom Wright, the renowned historian and theologian, unpacks the significance of this: “[M]any people today assume that Christianity is ... a religion, a moral system, a philosophy.”
In other words, they assume that Christianity is about advice. But it wasn’t and it isn’t. Christianity is, simply, good news. It is the news that something has happened as a result of which the world is a different place ... One can debate the merits of a religion, moral system, or philosophy, but a news event is discussed in a different way. Either the event happened or it didn’t. If it did happen, either it means what people say it means or it doesn’t.
Why does history matter? Because without history, you can’t understand the modern world. But for Christians, there is more: history matters and should be taken seriously because God took history seriously enough to step into it. And if the story of Jesus we have in the New Testament is true, then the euangelion, the gospel, the good news is that because of what God has done in history, you and I can have a future.
Andy Bannister is the director of the UK-based Solas Centre for Public Christianity.