This realisation The Nature and Destiny of Man

By Reinhold Niebuhr

A Christian Interpretation (Re-printed 1943)


Chapter X

Everything in human life and history moves towards an end. By reason of man’s subjection to nature and finiteness this “end” is a point where that which exists ceases to be. It is finis. By reason of man’s rational freedom [to choose] the “end” has another meaning. It is the purpose of and goal of his life and work. It is telos (A telos (from the Greek τέλος for "end", "purpose", or "goal") is an end or purpose).

This double connotation of end (The meaning that a word suggests or implies) as both finis and telos expresses in a sense, the whole character of human history and reveals the fundamental [underlying] problem of human existence All things in history move towards both fulfillment and dissolution, towards the fuller embodiment of their essential character and towards death.

The problem is that the end as finis is a threat to the end of telos. Life is in peril of meaninglessness because finis is na seemingly abrupt and capricious termination of the development of life before it has reached its true end of telos. The Christian faith understands this this aspect of the human situation. It shares an understanding of the tension between time and eternity with all other religions. But it asserts that it is not within man’s power to solve the vexing problem of his subjection to, and partial independence from, the flux of time. It holds, furthermore, that evil is introduced into history by the very effort of men to solve this problem by their own resources.

The evil thus introduced by the “false eternals” of human pride complicates the problem of historical fulfilment. The culmination of history must include not merely the Divine completion of human incompleteness but a purging of human guilt and sin by Divine judgement and mercy.

We have previously considered the implications of the revelation of God in Christ for the interpretation of history , and sought to establish that the Kingdom of God as it has come in power means a disclosure of the meaning f history, but not the full realisation of that meaning That is anticipated in the Kingdom which is to come, that is, in the culmination of history, It must be remembered that a comprehension of the meaning of life and history from the standpoint of the Christian Revelation includes an understanding of the contradictions of that meaning in which history is perennially involved.

Such an understanding by faith means that the world is in a sense already “overcome”; for none of the corruptions of history, its fanaticisms and conflicts, its imperial lusts and ambitions, its catastrophes and tragedies, can take the faithful completely unaware. 1


1 Thessalonians 5:3--6 KJV

3 For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.

4 But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.

5 Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.

6 Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.


The light of Revelation into the meaning of life illumines the darkness of history’s self-contradictions, in fragmentary realisations of meaning and its premature and false completions. But obviously such a faith points to an end in history’s incompleteness and corruption is finally overcome. Thus history as we know it is regarded as an” interim” between the disclosure and the fulfillment of its meaning. Symbolically this is expressed in the New Testament in the hope that the suffering Messiah will “come again” with “power and glory” 2


Matthew 24:30 KJV And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.


Men shall “see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.


Matthew 26:64 KJV Jesus saith unto him, “Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you’, “Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.’”.



This hope of the Parousia in New Testament thought is sometimes dismissed as no more than a projection of those elements of Jewish apocalypse to which the first coming of Christ did not conform and for the satisfaction of which a “second coming” had to be invented. On the other hand it has frequently been taken literally and has thus confused the mind of the church. The symbol of the second coming of Christ can neither be taken literally nor dismissed as unimportant. It participates in the general characteristic of the Biblical symbols, which deal with the relation of time and eternity, and seek to point to the ultimate from the standpoint of the conditioned. If the symbol is taken literally the dialectical conception of time and eternity is falsified and the ultimate vindication of God over history is reduced to a point in history. The consequence of this falsification is expressed in the hope of a Millennial Age In such a Millennial Age, just as in a utopian one, history is supposedly fulfilled despite the persisting conditions of finiteness. On the other hand if the symbol is dismissed as unimportant, as merely or primitive way of apprehending the relation of the historical to the Eternal, the Biblical dialectic is obscured in another direction. All theologies which do not take these symbols seriously will be discovered upon close analysis not to take history seriously either. They presuppose an eternity which annuls rather than fulfils the historical process.

The Biblical symbols cannot be taken literally because it is not possible for finite minds [definable limits] to comprehend that which transcends and fulfils history. The finite mind can only use symbols and pointers of the character of the Eternal. These pointers must be taken seriously nevertheless because they express the self-transcendent character of historical existence and point to its Eternal ground. The symbols which point towards the consummation from within the temporal flux cannot be exact in the scientific sense of the word. They are inexact even when they merely define the Devine and eternal ground of history in terms of contrast to the temporal. They are even more difficult to understand when they seek to express the Biblical idea of an eternity involved in, and yet transcending, the temporal [temporary. The eschata or “last things” in New Testament symbolism are described in three fundamental symbols.

1.      The return of Christ, 

2.      The last judgement.

3.      The Resurrection.

They must be considered in order.


1. The Parousia

The idea of the return of the triumphant Christ dominates the other two symbols. The judgement and the Resurrection are a part of the vindication (having definite or definable limits) of God in the return of Christ. To believe that the suffering Messiah will will return at the end of history as a triumphant judge and redeemer is to express the faith that existence cannot ultimately defy its own norm. Love may have to live in history as suffering love because the power of sin makes a simple love of triumph impossible.

But if this were the ultimate situation it would be necessary either to worship the power of sin as the final power in the world or to regard it as a kind of second god, unable to triumph, but also strong enough to avoid defeat. 1 In Zoroastrianism, the only other historical religion beside Judaism and Christianity, this dualistic conclusion is actually drawn and history is conceived as an equal battle between the good and evil God. But even in Zoroastrianism the good God triumphs in the end; Genesis 3:15 KJV And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise His heel.

The vindication of Christ and His triumphant return is therefore an expression of faith in the sufficiency of God’s sovereignty over the world and history, and in the final supremacy of love over all the forces of self-love which defy, for the moment, the inclusive harmony of all things under the will of God.

This return of Christ stands at the “end” of history in such a way that it would sometimes appear to be a triumph in history and to mean a redeemed temporal-historical process. But according to other, and usually later, interpretations, the fulfilment of the historical process is also its end in the quantative sense; and the redemption of history would appear to be its culmination also. This twofold aspect of the final vindication of Christ implies a refutation in Biblical faith of both utopianism and a too consistent other-worldliness. Against utopianism the Christian faith insists that the final consummation of history lies beyond the conditions of the temporal process. Against other worldliness it asserts that that the consummation fulfils, rather than negates, the historical process. There is no other way of expressing this dialectical concept without running the danger of its dissolution (the act or process of resolving or dissolving into parts or elements). The dissolution has, in fact, taken place again and again in Christian history. Those who believed in the simple fulfillment of history have been arrayed against those who believed that historical existence was robbed of its meaning in the final consummation. Both parties to the debate used Christian symbols to express their half-Christian convictions.

If we analyse the meaning of the two subordinate symbols of the “last judgement” and the resurrection it becomes clear that, according to Biblical faith, some aspects of history are refuted more positively while the meani9ng of historical existence as such is affirmed more unequivocally than in alternative conceptions.


2. The Last Judgement

The symbol of the last judgement 1


Matthew 25:31-46 (KJV)

31 When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory:

32 And before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth His sheep from the goats:

33 And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed Me: I was sick, and ye visited Me: I was in prison, and ye came unto Me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer Him, saying,’ Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?’

38 ‘When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?’

39 ‘Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me.’

41 Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:’

42For I was an hungred, and ye gave Me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink:’

43I was a stranger, and ye took Me not in: naked, and ye clothed Me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited Me not.

44 Then shall they also answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’

45 Then shall He answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to Me.’

46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.


2 Corinthians 5:10 KJV For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.


In New Testament eschatology contains three important facets of the Christian conception of life and history:

1.      The first is expressed in the idea that it is Christ who will be the judge of history. Christ as judge means that when the historical confronts the Eternal it is judged by its own ideal possibility, and not by the contrast between the finite and the Eternal character of God 1 Augustine interprets the idea that we must be “made manifest before the judgement seat of Christ “ as follows: “God the Father will in His personal presence judge no man, but He has given His judgement to His Son who shall sow Himself as a man to judge the world, even as He showed Himself as a man to be judged of the world.” De civ Dei, Book 14 chapter 27. The judgement is upon sin and not fineness [resurrection]. This idea is in logical accord with the whole Biblical conception of life and history, according to which it is not the partial and particular character of human existence which is evil, but rather the self-love by which men disturb the harmony of Creation; as it would exist if all creatures obeyed the Divine will.

2.      The second facet in the symbol of the last judgement is its emphasis upon the distinction between good and evil in history. When history confronts God the differences between good and evil are not swallowed up in a distinction less eternity. All historical realities are indeed ambiguous [cryptic]. Therefore no absolute distinction between good and evil in them is possible. 2 This is the point of the parable of the Wheat & Tares, both of which must be allowed to grow until the harvest (final judgement) because they cannot always be distinguished from one another. Matthew 13: 24—30. But this does not obviate the necessity and possibility of a final judgement upon good and evil. To be sure the righteous, standing before the last judgement, do not believe themselves to be righteous, 3 Cf, Vol, Ch, II. and their uneasy conscience proves the final problem of history to be that, before God, “no man living is justified”. There is no solution for this final problem short of the Divine mercy and the “forgiveness of sins. We already noted the import of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement. It affirms that the ultimate mercy does not efface the distinction between good and evil; for God cannot destroy evil except by taking it into and upon Himself. The very rigour with which all judgements in history culminate in a final judgement is thus an expression of meaningfulness of all historic conflicts between good and evil. Yet the necessity of a “final” judgement upon all other judgements is derived from the ambiguity of these conflicts.

3.      The third facet in the symbol of the last judgement is to be found in its locus at the “end” of history. There is no achievement or partial realisation in history, no fulfillment of meaning or achievement of virtue by which man can escape the final judgement. The idea of a “last” judgement expresses Christianity’s refutation of all conceptions of history, according to which it is its own redeemer and is able by the process of growth and development to emancipate man from the guilt and sin of his existence, and to free him from judgement.

Nothing expresses the insecurity and anxiety of human existence more profoundly than the fact that the fear of extinction and the fear of judgement are compounded in the fear of death. The fear of extinction = the fear of meaninglessness. When life is “cut off” before any obvious completion; or when finis so capriciously [impulsive] frustrates the possibility of achieving telos [end], the very meaningfulness of life is called into question. But before faith can apprehend the Divine mercy which completes our incompleteness and forgives our sins it must confront the Divine judge.  In that confrontation it is not death but sin as the “sting of death” which is recognised as the real peril. For the ending of our life would not threaten us if we had not falsely made ourselves [instead of God] the centre of life’s meaning. 1 In one of the profoundest Jewish apocalypses, the fourth Ezra, the fear of extinction is compared with the fear of judgement. Judgement is regarded as preferable to mere extinction because it is a part of the consummation of life; “Woe unto those who survive in those days! But much more woe unto those who do not survive. For they that do not survive must be sorrowful knowing, as they do, what things are reserved in the last days but not attaining unto them.

But woe also unto them that survive, for this reason, that they must see great peril and many distresses even as these dreams do show. Yet it is better to come into these things incurring peril, than to pass away as a cloud out of the world and not see what shall happen in the last time.” 4 Ezra 13—15 forward; 

Literal conceptions of the allegedly everlasting fires of hell have frequently discredited the idea of a final judgement in the minds of modern Christians. But moral sentimentality in modern Christianity would probably have dissipated [dispersed] the significance of the idea of judgement, even if a literalistic orthodoxy had not seemed to justify the dissipation. It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture or the temperature of hell; or to be to certain about any details of of the Kingdom of God in which history is consummated. But it is prudent to accept the testimony of the heart, which affirms the fear of judgement. The freedom of man [to choose], by which he both transcends and is creative in history, makes the fear of a judgement beyond all historical judgements inevitable. Many a court of opinion may dismiss us with a: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”; but we will deceive ourselves if we believe such a judgement to be final. If men are fully aware, they will discern an accent of the fear of judgement in the fear of death. The fear of death arises merely from the ambiguity of finiteness and freedom [to choose] which underlies all historical existence; but the fear of judgement is prompted by awareness of the mixture of sin and creativity which is the very substance of history.


3. The Resurrection

The idea of the resurrection of the body is a Biblical symbol in which modern minds find the greatest offence and which has long since been displaced in most modern versions of the Christian faith by the idea of the immortality of the soul. The latter idea is regarded as a more plausible expression of the hope of everlasting life.


Ecclesiastes 12:7 (KJV) Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.


and St Paul declares….


1 Corinthians 15: 49--57 (KJV)

49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.

50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.

51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.

57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.


It is true of course that the idea of the resurrection transcends the limits of the conceivable; but it is not always appreciated that this is equally true of the idea of an immortal soul. The fact is that the unity of historical existence, despite its involvement in and transcendence over nature, makes it no more possible to conceive transcendent spirit, completely freed of the conditions of nature, than to conceive the conditions of nature transmuted into an eternal consummation. Either idea, as every other idea which points to the consummation beyond history,  is beyond logical conception. The hope of the resurrection nevertheless embodies the very genius of the Christian idea of the historical.

·        On the one hand it implies that eternity will fulfil and not annul the richness and variety which the temporal [temporary] process has elaborated (worked out with great care and nicety of detail).

·        On the other it implies that the condition of finiteness and freedom [to choose],  which lies at the basis of historical existence, is a problem for which there is no solution by any human power. Only God can solve this problem.

From the human perspective it can only be solved by faith. All structures of meaning and realms of coherence, which human reason constructs, face the chasms of meaninglessness when men discover that the tangents of meaning transcend the limits of existence. Only faith has an answer for this problem. The Christian answer is faith in God who is revealed in Christ and from whose love neither life nor death can separate us

In this answer of faith the meaningfulness of history is the more certainly affirmed because the consummation of history as a human possibility is denied. The resurrection is not a human possibility in the sense that immortality of the soul is thought to be so. All the plausible and implausible proofs for the immortality of the soul are efforts on the part of the human mind to master and to control the consummation of life. They all try to prove in one way or another that an eternal element in the nature of man is worthy and capable of survival beyond death But every mystic or rational technique which seeks to extricate [explain] the Eternal element tends to deny the meaningfulness of the historical process with its infinite elaborations of that unity. 1 Professor John Ballie has called attention to the fact in his profound study of the Christian hope of everlasting life that the Platonic conception of immortality is but a more philosophical version of the primitive and animistic sense of a shadowy survival after death. Such a survival, according to Professor Ballie, may be convincing but not comforting. And the Life Everlasting, Ch 4.

The consummation of life in these terms does not mean the preservation of anything significant in either the individual or the collective life of man in history.

As against these conceptions of consummation in which man denies the significance of his life in history for the sake of affirming his ability to defy death by his own power, The Christian faith knows it to be impossible for man or for any of man’s historical achievements to transcend the unity and tension between the natural and the Eternal in human existence. Yet it affirms the Eternal significance of this historical existence from the standpoint of faith in a GOD, who has the power to bring history to completion.

In the symbol of the resurrection of the body, the “body” is indicative of the contribution which nature makes to human individuality and to all historical realisations. We have previously noted that human individuality is the product of both the self-consciousness of spirit, and the particularity of a finite natural organism. 2 Cf, Vol I, Ch III. In the same way every cultural and spiritual achievement, every social and political organisation in history, embodies both natural conditions and normative concepts which transcend and defy the particular and unique situation in which they develop. Climate and geographical limits, poverty and plenty, the survival impulse, and sexual desires, and all natural conditions leave their indelible mark upon the spiritual constructions of history. Yet historical achievements transcend these limits in varying degrees of freedom [to choose]. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul implies that Eternal significance can be ascribed only to that element in the historical synthesis which transcends into conditions. If this implication is followed to its logical conclusion nothing remains in eternity but an undifferentiated unity (not having any distinguishing features), free of all particularity and distinctions. We have previously observed how this conclusion is ruinously drawn, particularly in Buddhism and Neo-Platonism.

The doctrine of the resurrection of the body implies that Eternal significance belongs to the whole unity of an historical realisation in so far as it has brought all particularities into the harmony of the whole (in plain words “belongs to everybody”). Consummation (to bring to a state of perfection; fulfil) is thus conceived not as an absorption into the Divine but as loving fellowship with God. Since such a perfect relation with God is not a human possibility it depends upon the mercy and power of God. Christian faith can only trust His mercy to deal with the recalcitrance of sin (resisting authority or control), even as it trusts His power to overcome the ambiguity of man’s finiteness and freedom (to choose)

It is important to recognise that the rational difficulties which confront us in the doctrine of the resurrection are not all derived from literalistic corruptions of the doctrine; and they are, therefore, not all surmounted  (a problem or a difficult situation) if literalism is disavowed. Even if we do not believe that “the earth will give back those that it treasured within it and Sheol will give back that which it had received and hell will return that which it owes” 1 Similitudes of Enoch, LI, 2 we are still confronted with the formidable difficulty of asserting what seems logically inconceivable, namely, that eternity will embody, and not annul, fineness, or, in the words of Baron von Hugel, that the “total abidingness of God” will not destroy our “partial abidingness”.  This rational difficulty partly explains the inconsistencies of Jewish apocalyptic writings, which furnished the background of new Testament conceptions. Sometimes they presented the consummation of history as something which occurred on this side of the “end of time”. In that case the “resurrection of the just” was believed to usher in a millennial age upon this earth Sometimes, particularly in the later apocalypses, the fulfillment and the end of history were conceived as coinciding; and all limitations of nature and time were believed to be transcended in the consummation. 1  (A) Edwyn R Bevan observes: “As time went on, and the thought of the religious Jews became mature, it was largely realised that no Kingdom of God limited by the essential conditions of earthly life could satisfy the spirit of man “ The Hope of the World to Come”, Page 26.

(B) R H Charles makes the same point, believing that eschatological thought gradually yielded to the conviction that “the earth, however purified, is no fitting place for an Eternal Messianic Kingdom.” A Critical History of the Doctrine of the Future Life in Israel, page 220.

The second (B) idea is of course more tenable (capable of being held, maintained, or defended) than the first. But if the first had not preceded, and left its mark upon the second, the latter might well have had little to distinguish it from Greek conceptions of immortality. The whole Hebraic-Biblical conception of the unity of the body and soul, and of the meaningfulness of the historical process was bound to lead to to this wrestling of the mind of later Judaism with the insoluble problem. New Testament thought wrestled with it too. St Paul was convinced that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.” 2


1 Corinthians 15:50 (KJV) Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.


But this conviction did not drive him to the conclusion that everlasting life annuls all historical reality for which “the body” is the symbol. He believed rather that “it is sown a natural body and is raised a spiritual body” and that the consummation means not to “be unclothed, but clothed upon.” 3


II Corinthians 5:4 (KJV) For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.


In that succinct phrase the Biblical hope of a consummation which will sublimate (To be transformed) rather than annul the whole historical process is perfectly expressed. It is not possible to give a fuller or more plausible account of what is implied in the Christian hope of the fulfillment of life; and it is well to remember that the conditions of finiteness make a more explicit definition of the consummation impossible. It is therefore important to maintain a decent measure of restraint in expressing the Christian hope. Faith must admit “that it does not yet appear what we shall be.” But it is equally important not to confuse such restraint with uncertainty about the validity of the hope that “when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” 1


1 John 3:2 (KJV) Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.


The Christian hope of the consummation of life and history is less absurd than alternate doctrines which seek to comprehend and to effect the completion of life by some power or capacity inherent in man and his history. It is an integral part of the total Biblical conception of the meaning of life Both the meaning and its fulfillment are ascribed to a centre and source beyond ourselves. We can participate in the fulfillment of the meaning only if we do not seek too proudly to appropriate the meaning as our secure possession or to effect the fulfilment by our own power.




If there are partial realisations of meaning in history, as well as corruptions and distortions, it ought to be possible to discern them from the vantage point of the true end. For this reason a Christian interpretation of human destiny requires one further view of the meaning of history in the light of what is believed about the character of the ultimate consummation. If the final consummation fulfils, rather than annuls, historical meaning, the real content of this meaning must be illumined by the light of faith, Furthermore it must be possible to gain some insight into the character of the sinful corruptions of meaning, particularly since they are mostly derived from the error of regarding partial realisations as the final fulfillment.

Such an examination of history in the light of the Christian interpretation of the end must begin with a distinction between two dimensions in the relation of eternity to time.

·        Eternity stands over time on the one hand,

·        At the end of time on the other.

·        It stands over time in the sense that it is the ultimate source and power of all derived and dependent existence. It is not a separate order of existence. For this reason the traditional connotation (A connotation includes the emotions or associations that surround a word) of the concept,  “supernatural”, is erroneous  (containing error; mistaken; incorrect; wrong). The Eternal is the ground and source of the temporal [temporary]. The Divine consciousness gives meaning to the mere succession of natural events by comprehending them simultaneously, even as human consciousness gives meaning to segments of natural sequence by corresponding them simultaneously in memory and foresight.

·        Eternity stands at the end of time in the sense that the temporal process cannot be conceived without a finis; and eternity cannot be conceived as having a finis. Eternity outlasts time, though we know nothing about either an abrupt ending of the world or of the gradual dissipation of its natural energies. Our effort to picture the relation in spatial terms always leads us astray and prompts us to project a particular point in future time which will also be the end of time. This effort to picture the end of time from inside the time process is the cause of most of the literalistic corruptions of the Christian conception.


The two dimensions of the relation of eternity to time results in two perspectives upon the meaning of history.


1.      From the one perspective we discern those qualities and meanings of history which seem to have absolute significance without reference to their relation to the continuum of history. An act of martyrdom, or of perfect sacrifice may or may not have discernible historical consequences, and may be appreciated without reference to the consequences. It may “be recorded in heaven” without being obviously recorded on earth. There may also be a “final” judgement upon particular evils in history without waiting for a “last” judgement, i.e., suspending judgement until all its historical consequences have been recorded.

2.      On the other hand a “final” judgement about any historical matter may be a judgement which seeks to comprehend a particular event, act or quality in history in the light of its consequences in history. It is not possible, of course, for finite minds to reach a vantage point from which they could deliver final judgement from either perspective. But their effort to do so is illustrative of the two dimensions of history in its relation to the Eternal. 1


It might be well to observe at this point that the synoptic symbol of “The Kingdom of God” is more “existential” (exists) than the Johannine and Greek conception of “eternal life”. To place “eternity” and “time” in juxtaposition is to distinguish primarily between the flux of process and the principle which underlies the process. The juxtaposition of “Kingdom of God” and history implies a more and existential definition of the relationship. The sovereignty of God over all creaturely wills has the same two relations as eternity has to time. It is on the one hand the authority of the source of life over all life at any moment, It is on the other hand a sovereignty which is finally vindicated in the end.


In so far as the freedom of man [to choose] to be creative in history implies a freedom over history itself, there are tangents of freedom which stand in direct relation to eternity. The dimension of history prompts, and would seem to justify, Leopold von Ranke’s famous dictum 2 Cf, Ueber die Epochen der Neueren Geschichte = about the epochs of Modern Story, that each moment of time and history is equidistant (equally distant) from eternity. But the dictum is only partially justified, for it leaves the other dimension of history out of account (unaccounted for). History is also a total process which requires understanding from some “last judgement.” 3 Benedetto Croce seeks to do justice to the two dimensions of the historical in the words: “Every act stands altogether in relation to itself and altogether in relation to something else; it is both of repose and a stepping stone; and if it were no so it would be impossible to conceive the self-surpassing growth of history.” History on the Story of Liberty,  P90. An act cannot stand only in relation to itself. It must be related to some realm of meaning, but it can transcend the meaning of the historical process.

In so far as every act and event, every personality and historical construction, is immersed in an historical continuum it takes its meaning from the whole process. If we look at history only from “above” we obscure the meaning of its “self-surpassing growth”. If we look at it only from a spatially symbolised end we obscure all the richness and variety which is expressed in its many parts.




A effort to comprehend the meaning of history from the standpoint of the Christian faith must include three aspects of it:


1.      The partial fulfillment and realisations as we see them in the rise and fall of civilisations and cultures;

2.      The life of individuals;

3.      The process of history as a whole.


In considering these three aspects it will become apparent that the view “from above” must predominate, enough though it cannot be exclusive, in the consideration in the consideration of the first two aspects. The view from the “end” must predominate but not be exclusive in viewing history as a whole.


1. The Rise and Fall of Cultures and Civilisations.

History is filled with many achievements and constructions which “have their day and cease to be”. The rise and fall of empires and civilisations are the most obvious examples of the pluralistic aspect of history (Having multiple aspects or parts), but they ar not, by any means, the only manifestations of this aspect. The rise and fall of particular governments and oligarchies within a given civilisation, the growth and decline of specific cultural traditions, or of eminent families in a community, or of various types of voluntary associations, or of even more minor historical concretions (hard facts), are equally illustrative of the pluralism of history.

Whatever meaning is to be found in this pageant of recurring life and death must be discerned primarily, though not wholly, “from above”. Each historical configuration may be regarded as an integral realm of meaning, for its relation to the whole historical process is minimal or, at any rate, obscure.  

The pluralistic interpretation of history has received a new impetus in recent years by the work of Oswald Spengler and, more recently, by Arnold Toynbee’s monumental inquiry into the rise and fall of civilisations. 1 Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West. Arnold J Toynbee, The Study of History. These and similar pluralistic interpretations conform to Ranke’s principles of historical interpretations, summarised in his conception of equidistance of all temporal [temporary] events from the Eternal. But even historical pluralism cannot escape the question of comprehensive meaning.  It seeks to find some principle of coherence in the rise and fall of various civilisations. Spengler believes that the processes of nature are the only clue to the meaning of the growth and decline of various world cultures. According to his thesis there is no unity in history but the common fate of diverse and incommensurate civilisations (If one thing is incommensurate with another, it doesn't fit or is out of proportion). This common fate is governed by the laws of nature. All civilisations pass through ages analogous (similar, analogous, parallel mean closely resembling each other) to spring, summer, autumn, winter; which is to say that historical organisms are equated with natural ones. Thus thr freedom of history [to choose] is regarded as either wholly illusory or at least as completely subordinate to nature. It cannot be denied that, since the freedom of history [to choose] rises on the ground of nature-necessity, historical destiny is always partly determined by the vitality and decay of the natural factors underlying any historical achievement. Empires and cultures may “grow old” ; and fail to survive perils in their age which they could have surmounted in their youth.

Yet, as Toynbee points out, the failure of civilisations always involves something more than mere weakness or age. They perish because they make mistakes in meeting some new challenge or complexity of history. Every civilisation makes some fatal mistake in the end and perishes. But these mistakes are not under the law of natural necessity. Unlike individual life, the collective and social organisms of history could ideally be perpetually replenished by new life and strength. But this would require that they be perpetually adapted to to new historical situations. Their final failure to do so is always a fate into which they are tempted by their freedom [to choose] and is not due to natural necessity. 1 It is to Toynbee’s great merit to see this element of tragic destiny in history where Spangler sees only the organic growth and decay of historical organisms. Cf, The Study of History, Vol, IV, particularly pp 260ff. Toynbee unnecessarily emphasise the role of a minority, in the period of creativity; and of the degeneration of this minority into a “dominant” minority, maintained by repression, in a period of decay. There are undoubtedly such minorities in all social and political organisms; and in so far as failure and decay is caused by errors in judgement and action they must be attributed particularly to the portion of the community in which its will and mind are articulated. But the cause of the failure are always many. Could the decay of contemporary France be ascribed to the faults of any particular minority only? Does not history point to a much more complex source of such a breakdown?

Sometimes they perish because pride of power prompts them to extend themselves beyond the limits of human possibilities. Sometimes the oligarchy which has been instrumental in organising a society becomes purely repressive and destroys what it has created (Political repression is the persecution of an individual or group within society for political reasons) Sometimes the strategies and techniques of yesterday are falsely applied to new situations and problems to which they are not relevant. This mistake may be regarded as a form of the intellectual pride which falsely raises contingent factors in history to the eminence of false absolutes. 2 Toynbee’s analysis of this “nemesis of creativity” (something that a person cannot conquer, achieve, etc) is very convincing. He defines the confusion of the contingent and the absolute as the “idolisation” of “an empirical self”, of “an empirical institution” and “an empirical technique.” Ibid, IV, pp. 261 ff.

Sometimes civilisations perish because they are beguiled by philosophies of “detachment”. Their spiritual leaders flee prematurely to some illusory realm of supra-historical serenity and equanimity [composure] and betray their responsibilities in history. 1 The weakness of the rule of Marcus Aurelius in the declining days of Rome belong in this category. It is significant that the most “saintly” of Roman emperors should have hastened, though he certainly did not initiate, the decline of Rome, under the influence of Stoic idealism which made apatheia (from a-"without" and pathos "suffering" or "passion") the final good. Some of the “Christian Idealism” of our own day, dreaming of a Kingdom of God which is completely irrelevant to the tragic facts and problems of history, stands in the same relation to the decline of Western civilisation’. There are other, and profounder, causes of our difficulties. But modern “idealism” has certainly aggravated our problems. Modern technical civilisation may perish because it falsely worshipped technical advance as as a final good. One portion of a technical society may harness techniques to the to the purpose of destruction and vent its fury upon another portion of the civilisation, which has grown soft by regarding the comforts yielded in such great abundance by a technical age as the final good. If we sought to do full justice to all the various possibilities of decline and causes of decay we would find ourselves merely recapitulating [summarising] the various types of human sin.2 Cf. Vol I, Chs VII and VIII. They would fall into the two general categories of the;

1.           sins of sensuality,

2.           the sins of pride.

In the former the freedom of history [to choose] is denied and men creep back to the irresponsibility of nature.

In the latter the freedom of man [to choose] is overestimated.

Men seek to complete history without regard to the contingent (dependent for existence) and finite character of the self,  individual or collective [nation], of the culture or civilisation, which they make the basis of their pretension. This is the sin of imperialism. or they seek to abstract human freedom [to choose] from history. This pride of mystic other-worldliness makes the human spirit not the master of history but the agent of its own emancipation from history. 

All these various forms of historical decline and destruction have one common characteristic. They are not merely biological death. The Augustinian dictum: “It is not by death that we sin but by sin that we die,” May be partly untrue when applied to individual life; for individual existence is rooted in a natural organism subject to the conditions of finiteness. 1 Cf Vol 1 Ch, VI. But it is a very apt description of the death of civilisations. It is by “sin that they die”.


Genesis 2:17 (KJV) But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.


They are not determined by absolute natural necessity. Their mistakes and errors are made in the same freedom [to choose], out of which their creativity arises. The mistakes are never prompted by mere ignorance. The “vain imagination” of sin is in them.

It would be wrong , however, to view the history of the world’s many cultures and civilisations with an eye only upon their decline. They die in the end; but they also live. Their life is a testimony of the creativity of history, even as their death is a proof of the sin in history. The vast variety of historic organisms, the richness of their elaborations of human potentialities, the wealth of their many cultural forms and social configurations, are as certainly a testimony to the Divine providence under which they have grown, as their destruction is a vindication of the Eternal judgement, Which they are unable to defy with impunity.

In their weakness and youth, while making their way in history against all the preils of life, they are revelations of the power of God Who “hath chosen….things which are not, to bring to nought things that are,”


2 Corinthians 1:28 (KJV) And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:


In their glory, when the disintegration of evil is already apparent in their life and yet ultimate destruction is is so long postponed, their fate reveals the “longsuffering” of the Divine mercy. For God’s judgements are never precipitate (a deposit of solid particles) and the possibilities of repentance and turning from the evil way are many. According to the degree with which civilisations and cultures accept these possibilities of renewal, they may extend their life indeterminately. But at some point or other they make the fatal mistake, or a whole series of fatal mistakes. Then they perish; and the Divine majesty is vindicated in that destruction. 1 Here we must recall the relevance of the prophetic conception of the rise and fall of empires and the belief that their destruction represents a vindication of the Divine Majesty against the pretensions of false majesty. This and many similar predictions of doom upon the various empires are always followed with the refrain: “In that day shall they know that I am the LORD.”


Ezekiel 28: 17—18 (KJV)

17 Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground; I will lay thee before kings, that they may behold thee.

18 Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffick; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee.


It is not possible to make some simple distinction between the period of creativity in a civilisation and culture, every empire and nation, reveals destructive elements in its period of creativity, even as there are creative elements in its period of decline. 2 The tendency towards nationalistic Messianism is a case in point. Every culture at some time or other makes explicit Messianic pretensions and conceives the ambition of making itself the centre of the universal community (and not God). This Messianism is the overt (open) form of the pride which is covert (closed, secretive) in all particular communities. Sometimes this Messianism is a last gasp of life in a decaying world. A culture seeks to obscure its mortal fate by this pretension. Thus it was a decaying Egyptian sacerdotal state (priestly, after 1600 B.C.) which made the most extravagant Messianic imperial pretensions; and Dante’s vision of a Holy Roman Empire was the swan song of Ghibelline imperialism (members of two opposing factions in German and Italian politics during the Middle Ages). The Messianic pretensions of the idea of the Russian nation as “Christophorus” developed after the Russian church had ceased to exercise a decent restraint upon the political will-to-power of the state and were unconsciously intended to hide that failure.

But on the other hand a very youthful and creative American civilisation compounded the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God with the “American dream.” It was in the early part of the 19th century (circa 1800-40) that American culture expressed its contempt for a “decadent” Europe (a decadent life of excessive money and no sense of responsibility) by hoping that history would be fulfilled on American soil.

In between these pretensions of youth and of age are such aberrations as Lionel Curtis’ identification of the British Empire with the “City of God” (Cf Curtis, Civitas Die). How can we know until we have more historical perspective whether the messianic pretensions of Anglo-Saxon imperialism (which are frequently made more extravagantly in America than in Britain) are the swan song of a dying Anglo-Saxon world, or the egoistic corruption in the creative function of this world in organising a world community?

 But we know that there are periods in which creativity predominates; and other ages in which corruption and destruction predominate. If the whole of history is viewed from inside a period of creativity it is given a false meaning; because the entire historical process is falsely identified with a tangent in a particular age of a particular culture. If the whole of history is viewed from the vantage point of a period of decline it is threatened with meaninglessness. For the course of history is falsely identified with the doom of a great civilisation. Whatever meaning there is in in the rise and fall of civilisations can be known only “by faith”; for it must be viewed from the vantage point of an eternity above history, which no man has as a possession but only by faith. From such a vantage point history is meaningful, even if it should be impossible to discern any unity in its continuing processes. It is meaningful because Eternal principles are vindicated in both the life which overcomes death in rising civilisations, and in death which overtakes proud life in dying ones. 1 It is impossible to write about the life and death of civilisations in a period when it is still uncertain whether we are in the throes of death or the birth pangs of a new life in the history of Western civilisation, without a special word about the relevance of the Christian interpretation of human destiny to our own situation. The genius of the Christian faith which makes it impossible either to view the trials and tumults of a civilisation with detached and irresponsible equanimity (composure), or yet to identify the meaning of life (on this fallen earth), with the preservation of our culture and civilisation

We are at the moment engaged in the limited task of warding off a great peril which arose when a virulent form of corruption challenged the remnants of our civilisation Our obtuseness in understanding the relation between this virulence and the more static corruption out of which it developed, our tardiness in meeting the peril, the domestic disharmonies and nationalistic prejudices which made a united action against a common peril difficult and halting: (Wheat & Tares all these weaknesses place the outcome of even the limited struggle in doubt. The outcome of the larger issues is even more problematic. We do not know whether Western civilisation has the resources transcend nationalistic parochialism (narrowness of interests or view) sufficiently to fashion a world community, compatible with the interdependence of a technical age; or whether it can solve the domestic economic problems, aggravated by the dynamics of a technically advanced industrial process.

Standing inside such a civilisation our responsibilities are obvious. We must seek to fashion our common life to conform more nearly to the brotherhood of the Kingdom of God No view of history sub specie œternitatis = under the guise of œternitatis dare beguile us from our historical obligations. But if we should fail, as well we may, we can at least understand the failure from the perspective of the Christian faith. In so far as we understand the failure we will not be completely involved in it, but have a vantage point beyond it. We could not deny the tragic character of what we discern but we would not be tempted to regard it as meaningless.


2. The Individual and History.

The plight of the individual in his relation to the whole process of history is derived from his twofold relation to the historical process. His creativity is directed towards the establishment, perpetuation and perfection of historical communities. Therefore the meaning of his life is derived from his relation to the historical process. But the freedom which makes this creativity possible transcends all communal loyalties and even history itself. Each individual has a direct relation to eternity; for he seeks for the completion of the meaning of his life beyond the fragmentary realisations of meaning which can be discerned at any point in the process where an individual may happen to live and die. The end of an individual life is, for him, the end of history; and every individual is a Moses who perishes outside the Promised Land. But each individual also has an indirect relation to eternity. In so far as he takes historical responsibilities seriously he must view the problem of fulfillment from the standpoint of the ultimate and final “end”. 1 The Ezra Apocalypse (Fourth Ezra) states this problem of individual life succinctly: “But Lo O Lord thou art ready to meet with Thy blessing those that survive in the end; but what shall our predecessors do, or we ourselves or our posterity?” (V 41). Or again: “How does it profit us that an Eternal age is promised us, whereas we have done works that bring death? And that there is foretold us an imperishable hope, whereas we are so miserably brought to futility?” (V11:119—120).  

If the Eternal fulfillment of individual life is comprehended merely from “above”, the social and historical meaning of life is destroyed. Individual life is regarded as an end in itself. This is precisely the effect of not only mystic doctrines of fulfillment but also of many orthodox Protestant versions of eschatology, in which the “end” stands only above history and the Biblical idea of the “end” is obscured. 2 Reformation theology is on the whole defective in failing to preserve the Biblical conception of the end; and modern Barthian eschatology accentuates this defect. It pays little attention to a possible meaning of history as a continuum and speaks of eschatology in terms of the Eternity which impinges upon every moment of time.

On the other hand modern protests against these Christian (and sometimes non-Christian) forms of “other-worldliness” make the mistake of trying to fulfil the meaning of life in the historical process itself. Thereby they not only obscure the reality of of individual freedom [to choose] in its transcendence over history but also deny the finite character of the historical process.

In their crudest forms the purely social and historical interpretations of life bid the individual to fulfil his life in his community. The breadth of the communal life and the majesty of its power supposedly complete and fulfil the partial interests and inadequate power of the individual. The relative immortality of the community is intended to compensate for the brevity of an individual’s life. The difficulty with this solution is that each individual is so much more, even while he is so much less, than the community.

His years are briefer than those of his community; but both his memories and anticipations have a longer range. The community knows only of its own beginnings, but the individual knows of the rise and fall of civilisations before his own. The community looks forward to the victories, and fears the defeats of history; but the individual dissects a more final judgement.  If the nations stand before that last judgement too, they do so in the conscience and mind of sensitive individuals. The brotherhood of the community is indeed the ground in which the individual is ethically realised. But the community is the frustration as well as the realisation of individual life. Its collective egotism is an offence to his conscience; its institutional injustices negate the ideal of justice; and such brotherhood as it achieves is limited by ethnic and geographic boundaries. Historical communities are, in short, more deeply involved in nature and time than the individual who constantly faces an eternity above and at the end of the time process. More refined forms of social and historical schemes of redemption bid the individual to fulfil his life and compensate for the brevity of his years by his relation, not to any particular historic community, but to the historical process itself. 1 An historian of the 18th century describes the substitution of “posterity” for eternity in 18th century thought as follows: “For the love of God they substituted love of humanity; for vicarious atonement (performed) the perfectibility of man through his own efforts, and for the hope of immortality in another world the hope of living in the memory of future generations….The thought of posterity was apt to elicit from 18th century philosophers and revolutionary leaders a highly emotional and essentially religious response.” Carl L Becker, The Heavenly City of Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, page 130.

The essentially religious character of this appeal to posterity (descendants of one person) is perfectly expressed in the words of Diderot: “O posterity, holy and sacred! Supporter of the oppressed and unhappy, thou who are just, thou who art incorruptible, thou who wilt revenge the good man and unmask the hypocrite, consoling and certain idea, do not abandon me. Posterity is for the philosopher what the other world is for the religious.”

We have previously considered the reasons why it is impossible to regard history as redemptive and why the hope of an adequate judgement and a sufficient fulfillment of the life of the individual in the historical process must lead to the most pathetic disillusionment.  It may suffice at this point to illustrate and recapitulate previous analyses of this problem by the simple expedient of imagining ourselves the “posterity” to which the 18th century appealed and noting the incongruity (inappropriateness) of being regarded as the “supporters of the oppressed”, as “holy and sacred”, in short as worthy or capable of being the final judges or redeemers of those who have gone before us. We are furthermore so deeply involved in the preoccupied with our own perplexities that we are as disinclined, as we are unworthy, to act as surrogates for God.

Yet there is always an element of TRUTH in these simple appeals to history as the fulfillment of life; for the meaning of life is to be found partly in man’s involvement in historical tasks and obligations.

The New Testament answer to the problem of the individual is given from the standpoint of both the eternity which is “above” and the eternity which is at the end of history. The idea of a “general resurrection”, in which all those who perished before the fulfillment of history are brought back to participate in the final triumph, does justice to both the value of individual life, without which the fulfillment of history would be incomplete; and to the meaning of the whole course of history for the individual, without which his life cannot be fulfilled.1 The idea of a general resurrection in later apocalyptic literature, in which New Testament conceptions of the resurrection a are rooted, is sometimes erroneously regarded as an indication of the triumph of individualistic religion over previous tribal or nationalistic ideas of the fulfillment of life. R H Charles, in his otherwise authoritive work in this field, commits this error (Cf, R H Charles, Eschatology). The idea of a general resurrection in Jewish apocalypse, which permits those who perished before th final triumph to participate in it, does of course recognise the problem of individuals who die before th social meaning of life is fulfilled. But on the other hand it also implies a mutual relation between individual and social fulfillment and makes each dependent on the other.

The participation of individuals of all ages in the age of fulfillment is implausible when taken literally; but it is symbolically profound. It relates the eternity which stands over each moment of time to the eternity in which the time process id fulfilled.

The symbol of the resurrection of the bod is, even without the conception of a general resurrection at the end of history, both more individual and more social in its connotations than the alternative idea of the immortality of the soul. It is more individual because it asserts eternal significance, not for some impersonal nous (mind)  which has no relation to the actual self, but for itself as it exists in the body. This self bears within it the anxiety and insecurity of finite existence on the one hand, and the capacity to touch the horizons of the Eternal on the other hand. The hope of the resurrection affirms that ultimately finiteness will be emancipated from anxiety and the self will know itself as it is known.

The idea of the resurrection is more social because the historical constructions of human existence, the cultures and civilisations, the empires and nations, and finally the whole historical process, are, just as individual life, the product of a tension between natural conditions and the freedom [to choose] which transcends nature.  The idea of the resurrection implies that the historical elaborations of the richness of Creation, in all their variety, will participate in the consummation of history. It gives the struggles in which men engaged in to preserve civilisations, and to fulfil goodness in history, adding significance and does not relegate them to a meaningless flux, of which there will be no echo in eternity. 1 It is significant that radical sectarianism frequently recognised the relevance and meaning of the idea of the resurrection in its polemic [argument] against a too individualistic orthodox Christianity. Cf Particularly Man’s Mortality by Richard Overton, the leader of 17th century Levellers.

Neither utopian nor purely other-worldly conceptions of fulfillment do full justice to the paradoxical relation of the individual to the historical process. The individual faces the Eternal in every moment and in every action of his life; and he confronts the end of history with his own death. The dimension of his freedom [to choose] transcends all social realities. His spirit is not fulfilled in even the highest achievements of history; his conscience is not eased by even the most unequivocal approbation (having only one meaning;& an expression of warm approval) of historical courts of judgement; nor need it be finally intimidated by historical condemnations. On the other hand the individual’s life is meaningful only in its organic relation to historical communities, tasks and obligations.

The relation of the meaning of life to parenthood is a convenient microcosmic example of this double dimension of individual life. No individual parent fulfils the total meaning of his life in his relation to his children. There are innumerable facets of meaning which are comparatively irrelevant to the vocation of parenthood. But on the other hand it is not possible to divorce the meaning of life from the vocation of parenthood. Parents must be “justified” in the lives of their children. But children are hostages held by the future.  The fulfillment of the life of the parents depends upon the realisation of character in their children. Thus the present must wait upon the future for its final fulfillment.


3 The Unity of History.

However meaningful life may be in the individual patterns and collective configurations which are appreciated “from above”, or from the standpoint of their direct relation to the eternal source and end of meaning, history as such represents a total realm of coherence which requires comprehension from the standpoint of its ultimate telos (end)

Even without any one explicit principle of comprehension, or any adequate philosophy or theology of history, the most cursory examination of history will yield certain tangents of coherence and reveal minimal relations of unity. A consistently pluralistic conception of history is not tenable, or even plausible. It may be, as Aristotle observed, that the arts are lost and found many times in the course of history.  It may be that a Roman civilisation must realise certain social standards completely de novo (again), without reference or dependence upon the achievement of these standards in a Babylonian or Egyptian civilisation. But on the other hand there is always a residual minimum of social and cultural experience which is deposited by one civilisation and used by another. The history of science cannot be traced without beginning with the mathematics and astronomy of Egyptian priests. The science and philosophy of Western civilisation obviously rest upon Greek foundations; and Western statecraft is inexplicable without an understanding of the Roman-Stoic presuppositions. The Hebraic-Christian interpretation of history, which we have sought to elucidate in these pages, has its roots in Babylon, Egyptian and Persian forms of Messianism. There are, in short, cumulative effects in history. Even Spengler is forced to admit that, when new civilisations are built upon the ruins of old ones, their character is partly determined by the way new life absorbs,  adapts itself to, and grows around the old ruins.

The inner relation of successive civilisations to each other may be described as “unity at length” or in time. The inner relation of contemporary civilisations to each other may be described as “unity in breadth” or in space. The former unity is more obvious than the latter one. The history of Western civilisation is, for instance more clearly related to Greece and Rome than it is to its own contemporary China. Yet there are minimal relations of mutual dependence even in “breadth”. While the Western world has elaborated science and techniques to a greater extent than the oriental world, it would not be possible to comprehend our Western scientific development without understanding the contributions of oriental scientific discoveries towards it. 1 Cf, Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilisation.

Perhaps the most significant development of our own day is that the Cumulative effect of history’s unity in length (or in time); is daily increasing its unity in breadth (or in space). Modern technical civilisation is bringing all civilisations and cultures, all empires and all nations into closer juxtaposition to each other; (Remember that this was written by Reinhold Niebuhr and was reprinted in 1943). The fact that this greater intimacy and contiguity prompt tragic “world wars” rather than some simple and easy interpenetration of cultures, must dissuade us from regarding a universal culture” or a “world government” as the natural and inevitable telos (end) which will give meaning to the whole historical process,,,,,,,

On the other hand it is obvious that the technical independence of the modern world places us under the obligation of elaborating political instruments which will make such new intimacy and interdependence sufferable. This new and urgent task is itself a proof of the cumulative effects of history. It confronts us with progressively difficult tasks and makes our very survival dependent upon their solution (and not God’s). Thus the development of unity in breadth is one aspect of the unity of length in history.

These facts seem obvious enough to occasion some agreement in their interpretation, even when the presuppositions which govern the interpretations are divergent. It must be agreed that history means growth, however much the pattern of growth may be obscured by the rise and fall of civilisations (more on this later). Though one age may have to reclaim what previous ages had known and forgotten, history obviously moves towards more inclusive ends, towards more complex human relations, towards the technical enhancement of human powers and the cumulation of knowledge.

But when the various connotations of the idea of “growth” are made more explicit a fateful divergence between the Christian and the modern interpretation of human destiny becomes apparent. As we have previously noted, the whole of modern secular culture (and with it that part of the Christian culture which is dependent upon it) assumes that growth means progress. It gives the idea of growth a moral connotation (An idea or meaning suggested by or associated with a word or thing) It believes that history moves from chaos to cosmos by forces immanent within it. We have sought to prove that history does not support this conclusion. The peril of a more positive disorder is implicit in the higher and more complex order which human freedom (to choose) constructs on the foundation of nature’s harmonies and securities.  The spiritual hatred and the lethal effectiveness of “civilised” conflicts, compared with tribal warfare or battles in the animal world, are one of many examples of the new evil which arises on a new level of maturity. 

Two other examples of this aspect of history may be cited.

·        The sanity of a mature individual incorporates physic complexities and tensions into a tolerable unity, richer and finer than the simple unity of childhood.

·        But it is also subject to aberrations from which children are immune. Children may be abnormal but are usually not subject to insanity.

The political cohesion of a great national or imperial community has a breadth and extent beyond that of a primitive tribe. Furthermore it embodies social complexities of which tribal unity is innocent. The achievement of unity (Unity is an open-minded, spiritual community that helps people discover and live spiritual potential and purpose through affirmative prayer) within this complexity represents growth toward “maturity”. But every such realm of political order is filled with tensions which may become overt if not carefully “managed”. The communities of history are political artefacts. They lack the security of nature and are exposed to the perils of human errors, and the aberrations of human freedom (to choose). No conceivable historical growth can therefore make a possible world government of the future as stable and secure as the order of a national community; just as no national community is as immune from disorder as the family or the tribe. 

The new Testament symbol for this aspect of historical reality, this new peril of evil on every new level of the good, is the figure of Antichrist  (False Prophet and the Antichrist system when it is brought into play in the near future); The Antichrist belongs to the eschata, to the “last things” which herald the end of history. 1 The specific term of Antichrist is found only in the Johannine epistles;


1 John 2:18 (KJV) Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.


1 John 4:3 (KJV) And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.


2 John 7 (KJV) For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. 


In these references the figure is not particularly identified with the end. But the Johannine epistles provide an explicit term for a general New Testament idea, which is variously expressed. Jesus’ vision of the end includes the appearance  of those who;


Matthew 14:5 (KJV) For many shall come in My name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.


Matthew 24:24 (KJV) For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.


Mark 13:22 (KJV) For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.


Not only the most explicit form of pride, but also final conflicts and wars belong to the end of history.


Matthew 24:6 (KJV) And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.


In the apocalyptic sections of the epistles Christians are assumed to have insights into history which will make it impossible for them to understand “sudden destruction” when other men say “peace and safety”


1 Thessalonians 5:2 (KJV) For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.


“Perilous times” are predicted when “men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, “etc.


2 Timothy 2:2 (KJV) For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,


Cf also Revelation 16:16—18 (KJV)

16 And He gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.

17 And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, “It is done”.

18 And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.


Revelation 19:19 (KJV) And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him that sat on the horse, and against His army.


Closely related to to this idea of the final evil at the end of history, is the general anticipation of evils in the course of history, which believers will understand but by which the world will be taken unawares.

The New Testament symbol of the Antichrist was appropriated by Catholicism primarily for the purpose of designating potent fees of the church. This polemic use of the symbol obscured the fact that the ultimate evil might be not the denial, but the corruption, of the ultimate TRUTH (again) This is the point which the Protestant Reformation made in levelling the charge of Antichrist against the church itself. But neither Catholicism nor the Reformation used the symbol of the Antichrist effectively as a principle of general historical interpretations Modern Protestantism has not understood the significance of the symbol for obvious reasons. It has, therefore, been used, and misused primarily by literalists who have sought to prove that some current and contemporary Napoleon, Hitler, or Caesar, conformed to the prophecies of Antichrist or had a name, the letters of which could be tortured to yield the number 666. 1


Revelation 13:18 (KJV) Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.


The “Beast” of the book of Revelation is quite rightly related in Christian eschatology to the conception of the Antichrist for it is also a symbol of the final form of evil, demanding blasphemous worship of itself.


Revelation 13:4 (KJV) And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?


The inclination of contemporary millenarian literalism to identify some current embodiment of evil Antichrist corresponds to a recurrent tendency in all apocalypses. It is probably as natural for an age to think of evil as to make the mistake of regarding the good which it embodies as the final good.2 Thus the book of Daniel places the Graeco-Macedonian Empire in the position of the ultimate evil, believing that, “when the wickedness of the empire has gone so far as to deify itself and deny all reverence to anything higher, it demands and brings the Divine intervention. Its hour has struck and with it the hour of the world’s salvation.” Adam Welch, Visions of the End, p124.

In later Jewish and Christian apocalypses it is the Roman, rather than the Graeco-Macedonian Empire which has this unenviable position. In the “Eagle vision” of the Ezra Apocalypses the sins of Rome are regarded as embodying and accentuating all previous evils and thus pointing to the end of history 4 Ezra 12:15

The idea of Marxist apocalypse that capitalism is the final evil, the defeat of which will mean the destruction of evil in history, is a secularised version of this same illusion.

The belief of an age that it has reached the end of history is pathetic, even though understandable. If we must have such illusions the apocalyptic versions of it have the merit, at least, of picturing history as moving towards a climax, and of regarding the consummation not as the mere display of the triumph of the good over the evil but as a desperate conflict between the two.

But an adequate Christian philosophy of history requires better use of the symbol of the Antichrist than as a polemic (controversial argument) weapon against contemporary foes or as the bearer of inadvertent insights. scattered amongst literalistic illusions.

In the New Testament the symbol is integral to a total and consistent view of history, according to which the future is never presented as as a realm of greater security than the present or as the guarantor of a higher virtue. The Antichrist stands at the end of history to indicate that history cumulates, rather than solves, the essential problems of human existence.

This does not mean that evil has its own independent history, culminating in the final idolatries and blasphemies of the Antichrist. Both the Civitas Dei (The city of God) and the Civitas Terrena (States earthly) grow in history, as Augustine observed. But they do not have their separate histories. The evil which appears at the end of history is either a corruption of the final good or it is an explicit denial and defiance of that good which would be impossible without the juxtaposition of the good. This is to say that evil is negative and parasitic in origin, even though its effect is positive, and its power something more than inertial resistance. Modern tyrannies are not the end product of a long history of tyranny in which ancient evils have been consciously refined to their present consistency of evil. They are rather characteristic corruptions of a mature civilisation in which technical instruments have become more effective tools of tyrannical purpose. Modern idolatrous religions, which conform so perfectly to the vision of the “Beast” who demands religious worship for himself, and of the “false Christs” who “deceive the very elect”, are not the final fruit of an independent history of idolatry. They are explicit forms of self-worship which gain their power by consciously defying higher religious and moral standards. Modern international anarchy is not the fruit of a long history of anarchy. It is, rather, the corruption and disintegration of a system of order. It is so terrible because it presupposes potential or actual mutualities (mutual dependence) on a larger scale than those achieved in previous civilisations. 1 Paul Althaus emphasise the negative character of the Antichrist in relation to Christ in His Die Letzten Dinge, p. 273. (The Last Things). The final evil is thus dependent on the final good. Either it consciously and explicitly defies the Christ, in which case it requires Christ as a foil (frustrate, thwart, foil, baffle, balk mean to check or defeat another's plan or block achievement of a goal); or it is a lesser good, claiming to be the ultimate one, in which case it requires Christ as a cloak. The one form is the Antichrist of the sinners and the other the Antichrist of the righteous. But in either case the force of the Antichrist, though parasitic and negative in origin, is so positive in effect and so stubborn in purpose that no force, immanent in history, is capable of encompassing its defeat. The Antichrist who appears at the end of history can be defeated only by the Christ who ends history.

All the known facts of history verify the interpretation of human destiny implied in New Testament eschatology. Yet most of the philosophies of history, both ancient and modern, have sought to obscure either one or the other aspect of history which Biblical eschatology illumines. Ancient philosophies of history either denied the meaningfulness of history entirely or they saw only the limited meaningfulness of its allegedly recurring cycles. Modern philosophies have emphasised the unity of history and its cumulative tendencies; but they ought to obscure and deny the perils and evils in the cumulations of history, so that they might regard history itself as the God of redemption.

If we inquire more closely why these mistakes were made, our consideration of the end of human destiny brings us back to the problems of the beginning. For the most plausible explanation of the mistakes is that they were prompted by the desire to find a way of completing human destiny which would keep man’s end under his control and in his power. The ancient world sought to do this by emancipating the spirit of man from the flux of finiteness or subordinating his freedom [to choose] to the flux. The modern world has sought redemption by regarding the process of history itself as a guarantor of the fulfillment of human life.

In every case the “vain imagination” of human pride entered into these calculations and determined the result. “Honest” mistakes may account for some confusion. The freedom of man [to choose] transcends the flux of nature in such a way that the hope of completely severing the spirit from the integuments (In biology, integument is the natural covering of an organism or an organ) of nature is an understandable illusion. The processes of growth in history are, furthermore, so obvious that the modern error of confusing growth with progress may be regarded as an equally inevitable mistake. Yet both these mistakes also rested upon a wilful disregard of some of the obvious evidences. It is obvious that man does not have the power to extricate himself from flux and finiteness, as idealists and mystics of the ancient and the modern world believed. It is equally obvious that history does not solve the basic problems of human existence but reveals them on progressively new levels. The belief that man could solve his problem either by an escape from history or by the historical process itself is a mistake which is partly prompted by the most universal of all “ideological” taints: the pride, not of particular men and cultures, but of man as man.

For this reason it is possible to make a truer analysis of human destiny upon the basis of a religious faith which has disavowed human pride in principle, though it must not be assumed that any particular Christian analysis will not exhibit in fact what it has disavowed in principle. But if the Christian faith really finds its ultimate security beyond all the securities and insecurities of history; if it is really “persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”, 1 Romans 8:38—39.


Romans 8:38—39 KJV

38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.


It may dissuade men from the idolatrous pursuit of false securities and redemptions in life and history. By its confidence in an eternal ground of existence which is, nevertheless, involved in man’s historical striving to the very point of suffering with, and for Him, this faith can prompt men to accept their historical responsibilities gladly. From the standpoint of such a faith history is not meaningless because it cannot complete itself; though it cannot be denied that it is tragic because men always seek prematurely to complete it.

Thus wisdom about our destiny is dependent upon a humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and our power. Our most reliable understanding is the fruit of “grace” in which faith completes our ignorance without pretending to possess its certainties as knowledge; and in which contrition (repentance) mitigates our pride without destroying our hope.