A Little History is a Good Thing

In the year 1347 a merchant ship docked in the port of Genoa, in Italy. Three years later 1/3 of the population of Europe, 30 million people, were dead. This ship landing in Genoa brought the black plague to European shores and despite the best efforts to stop its spread, spread it did. These were the days prior to knowledge of viruses which made the plague all the more terrifying. A person could be perfectly healthy one day and dead the next with no idea what caused the infection. People lived in near constant fear that they would get sick and die in days if not hours. Many could only conclude it was judgment from God.

I have always enjoyed reading history and I have been checking a lot of history books out of the public library this summer. Reading history, something many find dull, is fun! But it is also educational, and I believe it helps keep me sane.

What I mean by this can be demonstrated by simply turning on your television and watching the news. News commentators, political analysts, and even religious talking heads often speak as if the end of the world is drawing near. Whether it is the environment being destroyed and in turn humanity dying out, or terrorists attacking, or the economy tanking, or the thing in your home that could kill your kids (more tonight at 6!) the mood is often fearful.

I do not want to discount the legitimate fears that people have or the suffering people are going through, but maybe this is where a bit of history helps. Most people throughout history would wake up each morning with the possibility of bandits or armies attacking their town and killing everyone. If that did not happen, there was always the possibility of a sickness killing them that today would not even cause us to miss work thanks to modern medicine.

If we look at Christian history, Christians have usually thought they were living in the final generation before the end. At times it appears the apostle Paul thought Jesus would soon return. Tertullian, and other early church fathers, believed that the Roman Empire was the only thing holding back the barbarian hordes, and with them the antichrist. Of course, Rome did fall to the barbarian hordes but the world did not end (although the whole thing caused Augustine to write the classic City of God).

Tom Holland’s book The Forge of Christendom focuses on the turn of the first millennium and all of the craziness going on at that time. Many Christians believed the 1000th anniversary of Christ’s birth would be the end of the world, or perhaps the 1000th anniversary of his death (1033 AD), or the 1000th anniversary of some other event in his life. Barbara Tuchman’s older book, A Distant Mirror, is about the turbulent 1300s, the time of the plague and many wars which all contributed to religious upheaval. Again, many thought the end was near. Later on during the 1500s as the Ottoman Turks were pressing into Europe some thought their coming was a sign of the end and that they were an instrument of God’s judgment.

Yet the world kept turning…

I think there are lessons here. For me, it is a reminder to not lose my head and get too worried. No matter how things bad are (in America at least) they could be a lot worse: we could be dying of plagues and having to defend our houses from invading armies. Perhaps we hear religious people talking about signs that the end is near, that Jesus is soon going to return. Maybe, but a little history reminds us that pretty much everyone since Jesus’ ascension into heaven expected him to return in their generation. Jesus’ return now is just as likely as it was in the 1500s, the 1300s and the 900s.

Second, as Christians, may we live out a confidence in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is the Creator, Savior and Sustainer of all that is, was or ever will be. Do we too quickly forget that God is sovereign, in control? Through the ages, the people of God have had confidence that God is in control and no matter what happens, even death, cannot separate us from the Savior’s love. The early Christians believed that when they faced persecution God would either save them in this life, or they would die and God would save them through that. Either way, they would be with God. So the question is, do we have a long view of things, beyond this life and into the very presence of God? Do we believe that no matter what happens, if we stick with God through thick and thin we will be okay in the very end no matter what happens now?

On my best days I believe that. Often I don’t. My prayer is that I believe it more often.

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