History and the Christian Faith

by Michael Gleghorn

historyThe Importance of History

Can we really know anything at all about the past? For example, can we really know if Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon in the sixth century B.C., or if Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical person, or if Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address? Although these might sound like questions that would only interest professional historians, they’re actually important for Christians too.

But why should Christians be concerned with such questions? Well, because the truth of our faith depends on certain events having actually happened in the past. As British theologian Alan Richardson stated:

The Christian faith is . . . an historical faith . . . it is bound up with certain happenings in the past, and if these happenings could be shown never to have occurred . . . then the . . . Christian faith . . . would be found to have been built on sand.{1}

Consider an example. Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. Now, in order for this belief to even possibly be true, the crucifixion of Jesus must have occurred in history. If the account of Jesus’ death on the cross is merely legendary, or otherwise unhistorical, then the Christian proclamation that he died on the cross for our sins cannot be true. As T. A. Roberts observed:

The truth of Christianity is anchored in history: hence the . . . recognition that if some . . . of the events upon which Christianity has been traditionally thought to be based could be proved unhistorical, then the religious claims of Christianity would be seriously jeopardized.{2}

What actually happened in the past, therefore, is extremely significant for biblical Christianity. But this raises an important question: How can we really know what happened in the past? How can we know if the things we read about in our history books ever really happened? How can we know if Jesus really was crucified, as the Gospel writers say he was? We weren’t there to personally observe these events. And (at least so far) there’s no time machine by which we can visit the past and see for ourselves what really happened. The events of the past are gone. They’re no longer directly available for study. So how can we ever really know what happened?

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For the Christian, such questions confront us with the issue of whether genuine knowledge of the past is possible or whether we’re forever doomed to be skeptical about the historical events recorded in the Bible. In the remainder of this article I hope to show that we should indeed be skeptical, particularly of the arguments of skeptics who say that we can know nothing of the past.

The Problem of the Unobservable Past

It shouldn’t surprise us that the truth of Christianity depends on certain events having actually happened in the past. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). For Paul, if the bodily resurrection of Jesus was not an actual historical event, then faith in Christ was useless. What happened in the past, therefore, is important for Christianity.

But some scholars insist that we can never really know what happened in the past. This view, called radical historical relativism, denies that real, or objective, knowledge of the past is possible. This poses a challenge for Christianity. As the Christian philosopher Ronald Nash observes, “. . . the skepticism about the past that must result from a total historical relativism would seriously weaken one of Christianity’s major apologetic foundations.”{3}

But why would anyone be skeptical about our ability to know at least some objective truth about the past? One reason has to do with our inability to directly observe the past. The late Charles Beard noted that, unlike the chemist, the historian cannot directly observe the objects of his study. His only access to the past comes through records and artifacts that have survived to the present…

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History and the Christian Faith – Probe Ministries

 

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