In 1990 and 1991, I took groups of students to Switzerland and Germany to study during our school’s January term. On both occasions, we went to the infamous concentration camp Dachau. It was an emotionally taxing experience to stand where evil occurred, where Jews entered and at least 35,000 were murdered. Standing next to the gas house and looking out where thousands were buried, I was amazed this place of evil had green grass and a quiet stream flowing through.
How is it possible for the site of a concentration camp to recover? How is it possible for Germany to become a thriving and functioning democracy? How is it possible people could again believe we should try to continue human civilization?
Behind these questions is an even bigger question. What is the driving force of human history? We can learn an important lesson about who we are in history by contrasting two different answers to that question, one by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the other by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.
Hobbes’s Account of Perpetual Conflict
Hobbes lived during the tumultuous and destructive English civil war of 1642–51. He feared social chaos and wrote Leviathan to overcome it. He advocated for a dictatorial ruler who tames people’s violent instincts and ensures justice.
To Hobbes, the state of nature is a perpetual war of people against people, and, consequently, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” We lock our doors at night, and we would hold tight to our pistols if we were trapped in a room with our inveterate enemy. In such a fearful world, we must rely on two laws of nature: first, it’s best if we live in peace; and second, given humanity’s inclination toward conflict, self-defense is a natural right. The government therefore has authority to enforce conformity and squelch recalcitrant dissenters.
Standing next to the gas house and looking out where thousands were buried, I was amazed this place of evil had green grass and a quiet stream flowing through.
Hobbes has a point. Human history is filled with conflict and violence. In World War I, 22 million soldiers and civilians died, and 23 million more were wounded. It was thought to be the war to end all wars. But within a generation, the world was at war again, and in a more violent and destructive way. Eighty-five million people died due to World War II in a six-year period.
One would think such misery would have convinced civilization to stop mass killing, but within less than a generation, 60 million people died for political reasons under the tyranny of the Marxist-communist regimes of the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia.
Now we’re faced again with war in Ukraine and the possibility of war in Asia. The 20th century alone seems to validate Hobbes’s account that we live in a perpetual state of conflict and that the driving force of history is people’s collective will either to wage war or defend themselves by going to war. Though many work hard for peace and to improve civilization, for some, Hobbes is right: the forces of destruction define human history.
Isaiah’s Deeper Plot
Another account is found in Isaiah’s great vision of God at work. His book reads as one prophetic interpretation of human history. It records the chaotic and war-torn epochs of Assyria conquering Israel in 722 BC and then Babylon laying waste Judah and Jerusalem in 586 BC. In a sense, Isaiah lived in a Hobbesian world.
But the prophet knows Yahweh is the Lord of all nations and that he works through people for justice in spite of the rage and mayhem of the times. Isaiah sees a deeper plot—Yahweh judging, shifting, and directing human history toward the day when swords and spears will be turned into plowshares and pruning forks, when all the bounty of the world will come to Jerusalem and people will no longer cry but instead feast on a shared wealth, a shared respect for each other, and a shared love of the Maker of the new heaven and new earth.
The prophet knows Yahweh is the Lord of all nations and that he works through people for justice in spite of the rage and mayhem of the times.
In the vision of chapters 58 and 61, the prophet describes the activity of a special group of people who rebuild the ruins of the cities, repair the breaches of the walls, and restore the streets. They join the sovereign providential work of the Lord and restore the damages of history so the acceptable year of the Lord will emerge. This group overcomes the debris and rubble of human hatred and violence, heals the grief and sorrows of the generations, and prepares society to welcome rightly the true Lord of all people.
War Doesn’t Have the Final Word
For Isaiah, though war is real and horrible, it’s not the last word. The real theme of human history and the destinies of nations is God’s hand overcoming the forces of destruction and restoring people to their true purpose. God wrestles good out of evil. Like a great director of an orchestra, God moves the score of human events past the cacophonies of destruction toward a grand crescendo where his people celebrate life in community with him and one another. In a violent world, the way to see the Lord’s providence at work is to witness and participate with God wrestling justice, righteousness, peace, and human fulfillment out of the forces of destruction.
The other force to human history is the one Isaiah foretold: the force of restoration that repairs the ruins, rebuilds the walls, heals the breaches, and lays the foundations for a new heaven and new earth.
But we must ask a question. Is Isaiah’s belief a mere wish projection? Is it an opium to anesthetize people’s hopelessness? No, Isaiah’s belief in the principle of divine restoration is as real to our experience of history as Hobbes’s principle of destruction.
God’s Teleology at Work
There’s a teleology at work, which can be seen in the integrative tendencies of nature and of human history. It can be seen in the grass beginning to grow again outside Dachau—and that’s not the only place to see it.
In 2007, I went to the beaches of Normandy. When our tour took us to Omaha beach, we stood where nearly 2,400 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded on June 6, 1944. What horror, what loss. But the beach was quiet with the constant sound of the breaking waves. Later that day, we went to the U.S. cemetery, one of the world’s most noble, beautiful, and inviting landscapes. How can beauty come out of such horror? How can places like Normandy and Dachau (and a thousand other places like them in human history) be recovered, rebuilt, and healed?
It’s true that fear, destructiveness, and war are with us, but it’s also true that God and his restoration is at work. Hope has not evaporated from the human experience. Civilization continues. Children are born and reared. Beauty persists, and faith in God and goodness remain. Destruction cannot cause restoration. Evil cannot cause goodness. But the Lord is wrestling redemption out of chaos, just as Isaiah foretold. Only one question remains: To what are we contributing?
Dennis L. Sansom