Restoration Quarterly Vol. 1 No. 1 (1957): 17-20

Time and History

J. D. Thomas

Inspiration’s evaluation of the lives of many of the Old Testament characters is stated in the terms, "He did that which was right in the eyes of Jehovah," or "He did not that which was right in the eyes of Jehovah." Very obviously it will be of small importance whether the epitaph on a man’s grave stone could carry "He made a million dollars," or "He exercised tremendous power." The Bible indicates that the real meaning of a man’s life should be measured in terms of his acceptance to God.

What meaning is there in history, and what value is there in time? We are told that "time is stuff that life is made of," but we note that different people over the world evaluate time differently, and give different values to the meaning of history. The ancient Greeks had a "cyclical" view of time, which means that time constantly repeats itself and nothing new ever happens.

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According to Pythagoras each man lives his allotted time on the earth, goes "below," is reabsorbed, and later is reborn as another individual, man or animal. If he was good, he will have a noble birth the next time; otherwise, he will probably be a tyrant or a person of lesser quality. At death his "soul" is reabsorbed into its original source and later reissued as another individual. There is in this, of course, a doctrine of "immortality." In this Greek view, however, there is no room for single, one-time events to occur, such as the death of Christ, because nothing really ever happens in any time cycle unless it has happened in all other previous cycles. This means, then, that the history of past events cannot be really significant or meaningful to people of our generation, because whatever has happened will happen again, and there can be no real meaning for historical events as such.

The Hindu, Buddhist, and other Eastern concepts of time and history are similar to that of the Greek view except that in rebirth, the Easterners hold that a man might come back into the world as a plant or animal instead of as a man. They also hope for the rare possibility of reaching "Nirvana" by being good enough, over a long enough number of lives. The Greek view here also would allow that one might conceivably get to the point where he could cease "transmigration."

In due course the Biblical view of time offset and overcame the Greek view in the outlook of Western man. The Biblical view of time is that God is in eternity, transcending time. Time itself is significant for man and has as its focal points, a creation, a final end or consummation, and a mid-point of history which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

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In this Biblical view there is teleology, or purpose, in God’s plan for humanity, and consequently, purpose in every individual’s life. In this "straight-line" view of history, events do not automatically repeat themselves, and there is a place for important single-events such as the creation, crucifixion, and judgment, any of which is of great significance in relation to the purpose of the world and the meaning of human existence. This means, then, that each individual’s life is of a tremendous importance, and since we will not be involved in a "transmigration," whatever we are to do in life must be done at the present time, and we have to make the most of our opportunities, now. No doubt this Biblical view has permeated American philosophy sufficiently to really be the underlying cause of the American "know-how," and our ability to get things done. We go by clocks and calendars and are influenced by strong psychological pressures toward personal efficiency, because we know that we will never have another chance, to do what we hope to do.

Liberal theology has modified this Biblical view of time in recent years.

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The liberal view is like the Biblical view only in that it is "straight-line." However, it is more akin to the Greek view, in that in liberal philosophy there is no beginning, no end, no purpose or teleology; there is no real, historical "death, burial, and resurrection" of Christ, and there is no real meaning for history or time, as in the Biblical view. The liberals are influenced by Hegel’s philosophy of "progress," which recognizes a naturalistic, constant growth to higher levels of human achievement and development. Actually, the liberal line must be slanted upward, to indicate that man is, by his own wits, going to reach an ultimate "Utopia," or blessed-state of existence, right here on the earth. To them this will be the "Kingdom of God." They are extremely optimistic and, of course, extremely man-centered and have not much need for God in their picture. Their outlook is based on "natural" theology, and since they reject the supernatural altogether, it is truly more like the Greek view than the Biblical view.

As a reaction to the liberal view, we have the time concept of the Neo-Orthodox theologians, the group which is becoming dominant in America today and which is responsible for the great "revival of religion," as the newspapers are phrasing it. These men have seen the emptiness of the liberal outlook and hope to arrive at a view that really allows a meaning for history. For this reason they accept most of the important Biblical terms. They speak of "an active God," and when referring to time they use the words "creation," "consummation," "Christ event," etc.

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However, these existential thinkers are required ultimately to deny reality and historicity in these events, since they reject the miraculous, and even accept radical historical criticism. They believe that such events as Christ, creation, and the judgment should be taken "seriously, but not literally," and are therefore to be mythologically interpreted. Since they do not accept these important single-event as being actually historical, we are forced to say that the New-Orthodox also, actually have no meaning for history.

The average American citizen is either under the Biblical, Liberal, or New-Orthodox view of time or some combination of them. Most Protestants are simply confused. However, most of us realize that we will have only our "three score years and ten" to make our mark, and we therefore make it a point to try to make our own personal history meaningful. It seems, therefore, that the Biblical view is still the dominant philosophy of time to the average American, and perhaps is the basic reason for our national "efficiency."

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Whereas the Liberal view was influenced by Hegel’s "dialectical idealism," we find that Karl Marx was influenced also by Hegel, but he rather holds to a "dialectical materialism," which means that he feels that the dialectic tensions between the capital and labor groups in society will eventually be resolved by an "economic determinism." Thus the Communist also has a straight-line view of history, very much like that of Liberal theology, in that there is no miracle or supernatural activity whatever.

There is no place for a creation, for the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, or for a final consummation. Single events are not significant, and there is no meaning for history. They, like the Liberals, are expecting an ultimate Utopia which is certain to come in the future and will be resolved into the ideal Communist state. Since there is no real meaning for time or history to the Communist, this can perhaps explain why the Communist people were in no hurry in Korea, while our American soldiers were fretting about the fact that an important part of their lives was being "wasted."

If we can believe the Biblical view of time is correct; if we can say that there was a creation and there will be a consummation and judgment; and if we can accept the Bible teaching that there was a true historical death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, then it behooves all men to recognize the consequent importance of history and the value of time. We should all get busy doing that which is "right in the eyes of Jehovah," as our really serious purpose in life.

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