Are We on the ‘Wrong Side of History’?

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“You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, do you?”

What do we Christians make of this increasingly common question, usually posed in regard to our supposedly passé—even evil—beliefs about sexuality? How should believers respond? Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper offer some pastoral wisdom and biblical guidance in this 6-minute video.

Below is a slightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Don Carson: The question itself presupposes a certain view of history, an inevitability of certain social trends that are going that way no matter what we do and you don’t want to be on the losing side—that’s what is meant by it.

But if you look at history another way, that is, space and time are going to unravel as the Lord Christ, the Lord of history, brings all things to pass—you bet I want to be on the right side of history! It’s going to come to a glorious end in a new heaven and a new earth, the beginning of all things, resurrection existence. And so I want to be on the same side of history as Jesus is. So there’s a sense in which you have to go sort of offensive on it.

Having said that, then there are some other things that need to be said. When certain trajectories begin to play out in history, sometimes they’ve been really frightfully wrong. Some scientific things—the study of the shape of the human head in order to determine who is retarded or not—I mean, that was universal science at the beginning of the 20th century. Or certain views of racism and Nazi genocide; that was all part of science and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of history—that was the argument that came out of the Marxists and came out of the Nazis. It’s very faddish; it’s very temporary.

At the end of the day, Jesus still remains King. If I look at the right side of history on that question on a longer haul, they’re increasingly in the dustbin of history even though at a certain time that sort of argument would have looked very powerful. Now it looks slightly silly.

So one has to return to Scripture, confess Jesus as Lord, understand where history is going from a Christian faith perspective. And then after that, then I’m happy to start talking about suffering for Christ against the history that’s overseen by Satan himself, who’s the ruler of this dark age in some derivative fashion. And in that sense, I don’t want to succumb to the trends of history at all. I want to fight them.

Tim Keller: Sounds like if you’re the pastor and your Christian member comes to you, I really do think that one of the things you said there, where you say to the Christian, “I want you not to be discouraged, since Jesus Christ is coming again, the only way to be on the right side of history is to belong to him. And I want you to realize that we Christians are on the right side of history.” That would be a really good pastoral help, I think, to the discouraged Christian who feels like “Maybe we’re really out of step.”

I think the other stuff, though, would be good fodder to give him to talk to his friend about. Well, what about this pastor [pointing to Piper]? What would you say about this?

John Piper: It would depend on whether he would tolerate my insisting on definitions or not. Because I would want to say, “What do you mean?” before I answer him. But if that’s the direction he meant, I thought of two historical, logical responses, and a couple of biblical responses.

The first ones are “History is a flow and history changes, and so to be on the side of history today might be being on this side, against history, tomorrow. And so we’ll wait and we’ll see where it’s going.” And the second thing I’d say is, “History is happening, so happenings can’t dictate what ought to happen. It’s a logical confusion to say that what is tells what ought to be.” And so I would say, “So that’s what you’re saying? You want me to determine what I ought to do by what is? Which group of is-ness is going to determine [it]?” Those would be two.

But biblically I’d go exactly the two directions you went, Don. When Christ is the final, complete, dominant, visible, manifest Lord of history, I want to be on that side. But short of that, Second Thessalonians 2, a man of lawlessness rises up, he’s sweeping away millions in deceit at the end of the age. And I want to be on the wrong side of that history, that historical moment. I don’t know how long that will last. But it crops up. There are many antichrists who come up along the way. They take swathes of history under their control and, man, do I want to be on the wrong side of those seasons of history. So I’m getting my “ought”—where I want and ought to be—not from the flow, but from the interpreter of the flow, called the Bible.

Tim Keller: Here’s my little conversational strategy. If someone says to me, “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, do you?” I usually say, “Is there anything right now happening in history—is there any historical trend right now going on that you don’t like?” And almost always, the person says, “Well, yeah.” And I say, “Well then, aren’t you on the wrong side of history? And why should I not stand against some historical trend.” And that usually ends it.

And especially if I’m talking in New York, to most people I say, “Don’t you see rising inequality? Isn’t it possibly true that only after World War II was there not that but in general that capitalism brings about rising inequality?” Most people in New York would say, “Absolutely.” I say, “Aren’t you on the wrong side of history if you vote for a Democrat?” Generally speaking, they say, “I see your point.”