The Book of History

History 101

Why does the world place the year 1 CE where it is? Why not, for example, use the Islamic calendar and make this the year 1443 CE. Or why not use the Buddhist calendar and make this the year 2565 CE? Or perhaps we could start with a technological development, such as the first movable type printing press in China, making this the year 981 CE. Why are we instead in the year 2022 CE?

In answer to this question, some scholars might give insightful analysis about cultural imperialism and the geopolitical advantages of Europe. They might offer a dozen reasons why Spain and Portugal and England dominated the globe for several centuries.

And yet when it comes to our view on history, one unique fact towers above all the others: Christianity is the one and only worldview that basis its beliefs about the past not upon any presuppositions, nor upon any mystical revelations, but rather upon eyewitness accounts of historical events.

Every other view of history starts with presuppositions before asking, “What happened?”

  • Gnosticism asks, “What did various teachers say God revealed to them through angels or visions?” Gnostics must presuppose that those mystical revelations are true even when they contradict many eyewitness accounts.
  • Islam asks, “What did the prophet Muhammad say the angel Gabriel revealed to him starting in the year 622 AD?” Muslims must presuppose that those mystical revelations are true even when they contradict many eyewitness accounts going back 2000 years.
  • Mormonism asks, “What did the prophet Joseph Smith say the angel Moroni revealed to him starting in the year 1823 AD?” Mormons must presuppose that those mystical revelations are true even when they contradict many eyewitness accounts. (A similar strategy is taken by every other cult.)
  • Buddhism asks, “What can we learn about compassionate living from Siddhartha Gautama and other enlightened teachers?” Although Buddhists admire Jesus and his teachings, they presuppose that there is no personal God and, therefore, that any contrary eyewitness testimonies about history must not be true.
  • Hinduism asks, “What can we learn from various teachers about living edifying, uplifting, and fruitful lives?” Although Hindus admire Jesus and his teachings, they presuppose that there are many gods and, therefore, that contrary eyewitness testimonies about history must not be true.

At the end of the day, all this “enlightenment” proves to be about as helpful in understanding the past as pointing a dozen spotlights at the night sky to try to see the stars. By contrast, Christianity simply asks, “What did the eyewitnesses claim to see and hear?” (Deuteronomy 4:32-34; Luke 1:1–4; Matthew 11:4; Acts 4:20; 1 Corinthians 15:1–8; 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1-3, etc.) Although the Bible includes many mystical revelations from angels and prophets, those are always, only about the future—not the past. (Deuteronomy 18:21-22; Galatians 1:8)

What happened?

The story of Jesus of Nazareth only fills about 20 pages. The Bible says that he was miraculously born to a virgin in Bethlehem, a farming village in Israel. (We used to say that was the year 0 CE, but today we place the date at about 4 BCE.) When he was born some foreigners arrived and asked, “Where is he who was born King of the Jews?” This made the current ruler of Israel, Herod, paranoid enough to have all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed. However, the Bible says that an angel warned his father of this threat and told him to move the family to Egypt.

Before Jesus was twelve they returned to Israel. Then the next 18 years of his life go unrecorded. At the age of thirty, Jesus began a teaching and healing ministry in Israel. He performed many miracles while he taught people how to love God and love people. About three years later the Jews arrested him on charges of treason because he claimed to be the Son of God and the King of Israel. They convicted him and then executed him by crucifixion. The Bible says that three days later he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. But before he left he commissioned his followers to go make more disciples and to plant churches. He promised to return someday to rescue his church and bring justice to the earth.

Jesus’ followers obeyed him with great zeal, and within 50 years Christianity was spreading rapidly across the Roman Empire. We have over 10,000 fragments from which we verify the historical consistency of the Biblical manuscripts. Scholars have studied these various scrolls, parchments, and manuscripts for variants, and every known discrepancy is cataloged here and here.

From day one a competing religious sect, called Gnosticism, began offering competing versions of the life of Christ. Later Muhammad offered his account, followed by many others. This could easily be one of the most controversial historical issues on the planet. Many wars have been fought due to religious convictions.

Nevertheless, only Christianity looks at history without any presuppositions. We are not making any value judgments here (many will boast about having blind faith), but are just observing the facts. Now although the Christian faith likewise rejects the claims of these other religions, it still does not do so on the basis of presuppositions. On the contrary, it looks at the claims and asks, “What evidence is there to support these claims—not just the claims about other historical leaders (such as Gautama or Muhammad), but also the claims about Jesus of Nazareth? Are there any eyewitnesses or does this demand blind faith?” Now although the Bible does contain many mystical revelations given through visions and angels, those are always, only about the future, never the past. When it comes to history (with the exception, of course, of Genesis 1-2), the Bible lays claim to God interacting with people directly. For he says that he is God with us, Immanuel.

Although it takes faith to believe the testimonies of the Bible—including its own claims of inerrancy—it is not blind faith in mystical revelations but rather reasoned faith in eyewitness accounts. It is, in principle, like the faith it takes to believe that George Washington served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797, or that Nazi Germany systematically murdered six million Jews between 1941 and 1945. You can’t witness such things taking place, so you must trust the evidence—that it is not fake news.

Respect for the Facts

Now many people think that blind faith is admirable. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that the way we teach history profoundly effects the present, giving political authority to some and taking it away from others. That’s why many countries will have vast disagreements about what happened in the past.

For example, just as some countries deny the veracity of the Holocaust, many other countries dispute other major historical events, such as the Armenian genocide, the Nanjing Massacre, the Tiananmen Massacre, the colonization of Australia, the Indonesian mass killings, etc. In the United States, we have huge differences of opinion about the colonization of the Americas, or about why Texans fought at the Battle of the Alamo, or about who won the 2020 presidential election.

Likewise, when we ask, “What exactly happened 2022 years ago in Bethlehem?”, the various answers to that question mark some of the most contentious political issues that we have ever known. Indeed, from the day he was born—when some foreigners arrived and asked, “Where is he who was born king of the Jews?”—to the day he was executed for treason, Jesus of Nazareth was perceived as a political threat.

It is very telling that even Jesus’ closest disciples expected him to lead a political revolution. Even after he rose from the dead, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”[i] They still had not caught on to his teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, much less to his plan for a global movement of churches. Today we are very familiar with cross-cultural missions and with what Christians call the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), but his disciples would not begin to catch onto this vision until about six years after his resurrection. After that, it took an Old Testament scholar like Paul to connect the dots from the Hebrew Scriptures and show that this had been God’s plan all along.

In hindsight, it all makes perfect sense to us now to believe that the Creator would reveal himself to us directly as Immanuel (God with us). So why had Jesus not given them these theology lessons from the beginning? Perhaps it was for the same reason he didn’t try to explain heliocentrism to them. Just as navigators could follow the stars long before they understood what the stars were, so also Jesus followers could follow him long before they understood what was doing.

The point is that they learned to carefully study the events and testimonies—as well as prophecies—from the past to gain an accurate understanding of history. After all, history must start somewhere. Let it start with what people saw happen.

Respect for Individual Conscience

Now when we’re talking about how history gives some groups authority, we’re also talking about moral authority to enforce laws and justice. So is it any coincidence that just as the Christian worldview looks at history rationally rather than blindly, it looks at morality in the same way?

 That is to say that the God of the Bible did not enforce his will on people in a might-makes-right manner, scaring away any analytical thinking. To the contrary he said things like, “Come now, let us reason together: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow”[ii] and, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”[iii] He would rebuke them for putting blind faith in carved images and for so quickly forgetting about past events. “Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen.”[iv]

Likewise, Jesus deliberately taught in a way that challenged people to listen and think carefully. He often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This had a polarizing effect, so his disciples asked him why he spoke in parables that many people didn’t understand. He answered, “So that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand.”[v]

It is no surprise that this view of authority that respects individuals’ ability to think rationally and act responsibly—to govern themselves according to faith in revealed moral truth rather than blindly submitting to power-hungry governors—this view of authority laid the foundation for democratic governments. For when all is said and done, we can move in one of only two directions: we can either search and feel our way to the Author of life and morality (Acts 17:27), or we can embrace self-righteousness. Any review of history reveals what logic demands: the later says that might makes right.

That is something that the proponents of the new fad, Critical Race Theory, cannot deny. They may persuade some people that there are no such things as objective historical facts. Nevertheless, they must admit that, when it comes to morality, all they can see is a survival-of-the-fittest mindset that devours the weak.

By contrast, because the Judeo-Christian worldview holds that we are not the authors of morality, we can look back and recognize when we got things wrong. Then we can repent and change course. Although morality is intuitive and even emotional, it is first and foremost cognitive. Therefore, the weak can challenge the strong.

Respect for Rationality

In addition to having political consequences and moral consequences, the way we view human history also influences the way we view natural history. When a people’s entire sense both of identity and of responsibility is rooted in blind faith, that will cripple their ability to use reason in other areas. By contrast, if they are told that nature’s God calls for them to cry out for understanding and to mine for it as for silver, and that he expects them to rise to the occasion and think carefully, then they will naturally expect to find rationality governing all of life—including nature itself.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.[vi]

People who grew up with this view of nature saw it as “the product not of logical necessity, but of rational deliberation and choice,” said Stephen C. Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.

As Robert Boyle, one of the most important figures of the scientific revolution and the founder of modern chemistry, explained, the job of the natural philosopher was not to ask what God must have done, but what God actually did.[vii]

Again, there is a profound difference between, on the one hand, blindly presupposing what must have happened and, on the other hand, inquiring and seeking to understand what did actually happen. Nevertheless, even today, in the 21st century, there is still an intellectual war raging on college campuses as to whether we should even allow students to ask the question, “Who is the Author of scientific truth?” Only a totalitarian worldview says that is not an excellent question.

Respect for Spirituality

The evidence strongly suggests that what propelled Europeans to dominance had nothing at all to do with the Europeans themselves, nor with their location. Instead, it had everything to do with the worldview upon which they were built. For unlike all other stances, the Judeo-Christian worldview sees rigorously fact-checked history as sacred.

Until recently most nations identified any significant dates by using the terms Before Christ (BC) and Anno Domini (AD), which is Latin for “In the year of our Lord.” However, many people decidedly do not want to refer to Jesus as “our Lord”, nor do they want to give him the title of Christ, which is Greek for Messiah or Anointed One. Therefore, political leaders as well as scholars have switched to using the terms Before the Common Era, BCE, and Common Era, CE.

But regardless of what terms we use, the events of first century Israel made such a profound impact on the world that the ripple effects continue to grow. Any religion or worldview worth its weight in dust has to say something about Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps we can ignore other religious leaders, but not the one whose life we measure the years by, not the one who said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”[viii]

We have little choice but to respond to his claims. We can exalt him, patronize him, or try to explain him away. But anyone who tries to ignore him will fight an increasingly desperate battle. Teachers and preachers, governors and kings, historians and scientists—they all have to do something with him.

So let us look at some of the propositions more carefully. We’ll start with Gnosticism’s question.

[i] Acts 1:6

[ii] Isaiah 1:18

[iii] Zechariah 4:6

[iv] Jeremiah 6:10

[v] Mark 4:12

[vi] Psalm 19:1-3

[vii] Meyer, Stephen C. Return of the God Hypothesis (p. 35). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[viii] Revelation 22:13

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