Through the Israelites, God confronted many nations’ prevailing notion of history, which as we will see still exists today in altered forms. This notion found its source in the deification of creation, especially aspects of agriculture, the crux of their societies. As missiologist Arthur F. Glasser explains in Announcing the Kingdom:

Fundamentally, the religious systems of the ancient world were similarly complicated polytheisms. They were designed to bring people and society into harmony with the rhythmic yearly cycle of nature in which life is recreated each spring and the sequence of fertilization, growth, harvest, and death recommenced. People saw themselves as “bound in the bundle of life” with nature, where all sorts of gods and goddesses interacted with one another (harmoniously!) and thereby preserved order against demonic powers that sought to disrupt the beneficent status quo.

In contrast with their neighbors, the Israelites knew time to be a progression, not a march of ceaseless cycles. From God’s first interaction with Abraham, Israel’s patriarch received a promise and a command that asserted this reality. Time is moving forward, and it has a purpose.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land and that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless and make your name great, so that you will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3).

The “harmony” of his life was disrupted. But evil was not the result. Rather, this intrusion constituted the greatest good. The prospect of comfort dwindled in comparison to a mission culminating in worldwide worship. Abraham turned his back on the status quo, looking forward to a fulfillment that cycles, by their very nature, could never supply.

The Framework of Civilization

Continuing on Abraham’s journey, the Israelites received God’s instruction about what their unique society should look like. And so we see the framework for a civilization of astounding charity and cohesion, demonstrated toward both the national and the foreigner. However, the realization of such a society only makes sense in light of a God who holds the reins of history, leading it to a specific destination. The Israelites, in contrast to their neighbors, knew society as only a means, never the end. God was the end, and society served to point other nations to him. Only this purpose, progressing through all of history, provides the impetus and standard for the difficult action of establishing that way of life. That is, it calls us to abandon the conveniences of society and other temporary things, choosing instead the tough work of molding these temporalities into a form congruent with the goal of history.

It is this truth that makes the biblical view of history every bit as relevant and distinct now as it was then. Today, much of Eastern culture, through the religious tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism, has permitted the cycle to infiltrate nearly all aspects of existence. Life is relegated to a system of reincarnations, and the universe itself to an incessant rhythm of expansions and contractions. On the other hand, much of Western culture has kept Israel’s progressive view of history but jettisoned God. The notion of progress remains, but it is a progress by humanity, for humanity.

One view of history has a deity but no progression. The other has a progression but no deity. However, only a progression supplies a true impetus for action, and only a deity supplies any sort of standard for that action. Exalted apart from the other, action evades accountability, and the standard seeks, at best, stability, or at worst, escape.

Twin Evils

Historically, these potentials have played out many times through either cycle-based fatalism or atrocity for the sake of progress. The former is demonstrated by the caste system of Hinduism, which not only subjugates the “untouchables” to a life of destitution but also glorifies this subjugation as a necessary part of the greater harmony. As for the latter, Dostoevsky summed it up well when he wrote that, “Without God, everything is permissible.” With these prophetic words he set the stage for the 20th century, which, among other massacres meant to materialize utopia, witnessed Stalin murder as many as 20 million on Dostoevsky’s native soil.

By contrast, we see the necessity for a history that has both a deity and a progression, bringing us back to the Israelite’s one and only God who orchestrates the symphony of history. However, we learn from the Old Testament that even this wasn’t enough. Despite their mission and because of their humanity, they, like all peoples, exalted themselves rather than God. Eventually they found themselves decimated, dispersed, and despairing. They not only failed their task but, worse still, found it impossible to fulfill. Not surprisingly, amid the inter-testamental period, apocalyptic writings suggest that the only hope of many was an abrupt and unfulfilled end to history. To them, history simply seemed unsalvageable.

From Despair to Hope

This is the honest and accurate despair of the human situation. But through God’s revelation, it leads us to the gospel. So perfect were the standards God laid out that only he could fulfill them. And that is exactly what he did through Christ. We not only needed a deity and a progression, but we also needed God to perform in our place the redemptive action that this view of history demands. Without him, the standard of action would crush us, and the impetus would only mock our futility. Even more, so powerful was this intrusion of eternity into history that Christ’s historical yet timeless work on the cross proved all along to have been what made God’s calling of Abraham possible. All acts of God’s past and future “progress” find their source in his mediation.

This historical vantage point means everything to everyday life. Not only does it help us navigate and engage the many inadequate views of history encountered in a pluralistic society, but it also directs us to an essential truth. The reason that Christianity alone can trace history is because Christianity is much more than mere religion. It is big enough to encompass all things. It is reality itself. This assures us, despite any oppression enacted through fatalism or atrocity, that nothing escapes God’s plan for history. In turn, with an impetus of joy and the already completed action of Christ, we confidently continue in Abraham’s call. We work for the day when “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) will worship the Lord. We both desire and anticipate the fullness of time, when God will “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8).