Why learn history? Why does it matter? The adage that whoever is ignorant of history is doomed to repeat it—ignoring at present what precisely the statement means and whether it is true—implies at the very least that historical knowledge is worth acquiring as a necessary ingredient for shaping our future into a desirable outcome. Why should we have any confidence that historical knowledge can (indeed, must) help us to do this?
The proverb cited above assumes the negative: the situation in the past was bad because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do otherwise; if we do otherwise, we will not end up in the same bad situation that they did. Maybe, maybe not. But I would like to look at a positive rendition of the same principle. Let’s assume that the situation in the past was good because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do it too; if we do, then we will end up in the same good situation that they did.
Take for example your friend who says to you, “I went to Joe’s Restaurant, and boy, was it ever good!” You think, “I’d like a dining experience that makes me as happy as my friend is. If I do what my friend did, I’ll get what he has.” So you ask him questions—when are they open? where are they located? and so forth. And you take his advice: you do what he tells you to do.
Seems reasonable, right? We do it all the time, every day, every time we take anyone’s advice to do anything.
This might, in principle, apply to historical knowledge about situations of greater impact on comfort or pain, for more people than the individual, with wisdom gathered from longer ago and further afield, than the case of your friend who went to Joe’s. However, when we try to apply it we run into some problems.
First, is there any experience in the past that we truly want to repeat? We can find features of almost any place, time, and culture that we would like to experience in our near future. But in those same situations there are invariably features that we do not at all wish to experience. But can the features we desire exist apart from the whole complex of the situation of that place, time, and culture? To use an analogy, can we take one gene out of the whole strand and splice it into the present for the desired outcome without the undesirable parts of the strand and without harmful side effects? Maybe we can, maybe we can’t; maybe with some things but not with others. But it seems dubious.
Second, even those conditions in the past that we think we want, would we actually like them once we had them? Maybe, maybe not. In the case of the friend who went to Joe’s Restaurant, he might have very different tastes from us. We might go to Joe’s and have the same experience objectively but experience it very differently subjectively if we don’t like the same foods that our friend does. And what if we don’t have the same experience? What if service is inconsistent? What if our friend is prone to exaggerate?
On the other hand, the better we know our friend, the more we could trust him. We might have experience that shows that we do like the same things that he likes and that he does not exaggerate. But how do we do the same character vetting, so to speak, with people who lived in the past? How do we know that we would like what they thought was good? And that leads to still another problem—very often, probably most of the time, people in the past (like people in the present) did not focus on what was so good about their situation but what was bad. We might look back and say that they had it pretty good in one respect, but they generally do not testify to it being so good. What if our hopes are too high?
Third, how do we know how to get what they had? Assuming that people who experienced our desired situation in the past were conscious of it and did enjoy it, did they have a prescription for how to arrive at it? Did it come about by their effort or the effort of previous generations? Or did they sort of fall into it by dumb luck? And even if they did have a prescription that they would give us if they could, how much faith do we have that they are correct? For example, a group in the past might say that they were so prosperous because of their faithfulness to tradition, but is that really the reason for their prosperity? Another group might say their prosperity came because of their devotion to individual liberty, but is that so? In other words, can we trust that people living in any given time know enough about how they got where they were to be able to give an account of its causes?
Fourth, if we knew the causes if past success, if we believed the prescription of the ancients, could we possibly replicate it? The causes may have been—probably were—complex and/or enormous. To use an analogy, we might know that strong winds cause big waves, but that does not mean we can move the air.
So there is much reason for skepticism—or at least some major hurdles to overcome—in order to restore what we like from the past. But there is one past situation, and probably only one, in which this hope is fulfilled: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
This is not because Jesus’ resurrection gets a special pass to evade the rules that apply to all other past situations. To the contrary, it is because the event of his resurrection is uniquely competent to pass all the tests.
First, do we want to repeat Jesus’ resurrection? I certainly do. There is no complaint here about wanting one aspect of it and not another. It is not as though I want my body to be raised but my mind to be elsewhere or vice versa. It is not as though I want to be raised from the dead but with a different sort of body than he had or suited to different purposes. The totality of eternal life—not just perpetual living, but a qualitatively different life that extends perpetually—is plenty appealing to me. I want what he’s having, and don’t change a thing.
Second, would I actually like it once I had it? This is the trust issue—can I trust that what Jesus found desirable and what his followers who knew him and saw him raised found desirable is what I too would desire? It is possible that I might be deceived, yes. But I do not think so. I cannot imagine how a self that is impervious to death, weakness, pain, and attack, that is radiantly glorious and exudes peace and joy, could have any downside—or at least any downside comparable to the downside of life as we know it. In other words, if I got it, I might not care for it, but it seems well worth the risk.
Moreover, Jesus himself seems to be a trustworthy individual. His life and his death reveal a sharp contrast between himself and the humans around him. He seems, quite simply, to be a much better person, perhaps immeasurably so, than any other human in his world or in mine. If I can trust some people around me to however limited a degree, I ought to be able to trust Jesus too.
Third, do I know how to get what he has? Again, the answer is yes. Jesus taught extensively, and his followers who spent the most time with him did too, about how to achieve the eternal life that he gained. Did they know what they were talking about? This is where the magnitude and the uniqueness of the desirable condition that Jesus exhibits play critical roles. If Jesus truly did rise from the dead this way, to which so many witnesses attest, then he achieved something that is absolutely unequalled. There is nothing to compare it to. That strongly suggests that there is nothing to compare him to. Where did the power come from to raise him from the dead? He says it was his Father, God. It certainly came from somewhere. No one else has an alternative explanation. If there was an alternative explanation, that would be one thing, but without that alternative it seems wise to trust the one person who experienced it and to do what he says.
Fourth, can I do what he says? Indeed I can, because Jesus’ prescription is limited only in part by large historical trends affecting masses of humans. For the most part, it just applies to me. Yes, I need to hear the story and the prescription, and that is outside my control. But once I do hear, then it is up to me what I do with it, and no external forces can violate or interrupt that (though they may be affirming or hostile toward it). And his prescription is astonishingly doable. He simply wants me to renounce my life—the thing I want to exchange anyway—and trust him that he will get me what he has that I want if I want him to. Every other instruction that he gives is simply the most rudimentary actings-out of what it is like to have the thing that I say that I want in the first place.
Is it possible for any person from any time, place, and culture to reach back and have access to that life of Jesus? Can the outcome be produced in our future wherever we find ourselves? It can indeed, because Jesus not only rose from the dead but ascended into heaven, as itself was observed by human witnesses and explained by angelic ones (who in turn can be trusted, because their announcements about Jesus’ resurrection were proven valid by the human witnesses later). By ascending into heaven, the life that Jesus has that I desire is located beyond the vicissitudes of change in this world. He took that human life into a realm that cannot be violated and that is equally accessible to all places and times. Furthermore, he said that that realm is coming here to replace this one in some form—all of this world, all places, times, and cultures.
The resurrection of Jesus is the one truly and uniquely replicatable event, the one historical situation that we may desire with confidence, being sure that our choices in the present may reproduce it for ourselves.