There are two very basic competing views of man’s progress. The first belief, which is generally rooted in Modernism and the hope that scientific discovery will unleash a utopia for man, is positive. Man’s ethical and spiritual evolution is pushing us to greater and greater heights. Whereas we once were primates and now we are men, we also once endorsed barbaric practices and now we are refined. The course of history is one of men getting better and better, of leaving off the unenlightened shackles of ignorance and embracing man’s destiny as paragons of virtue.
The other view is certainly less positive. It does not view man as being on a course towards moral perfection but says that man is just as likely on a downward trajectory. End times prophecies in the New Testament, for example, speak of wars and man’s moral deprivation in the end times. It is expected that man will fall away from God’s will, not that he will either run to it, or be able to get along just fine without it.
Well, which view is right? Surely we can just look at history and decide, right? Well, kind of. On the one hand, chattel slavery is surely a mark against man and abolishing it does indicate moral progress. On the other hand, slavery remains a very common reality in our world today, only it is most commonly in the form of sex slavery. Arguably, the slavery of the Romans and Greeks was more humane than chattel slavery, so progress doesn’t look to be in an upward move in that regard.
But more people have more “rights” now, so surely that is a good thing, right? For example, women can vote, and segregation has been outlawed. That’s progress, right? Well, that would certainly count as progress, but at the same time, we have legalized a medical practice that has taken the lives of 60 million babies. So, are we on the right side of history if we are just trading off one wrong for another? Wouldn’t real moral progress be seen across the proverbial moral board? After all, to look at things on a grand scale, more Christians were martyred in the 20th century than all others combined and one need only look at the death tolls in Nazi Germany, Mao’s China and the Killing Fields of Cambodia to ask if modernity has brought us to higher moral ground.
And, by the way, all of this assumes there is some meta-moral worldview that any of us can appeal to in the first place! “Moral progress” assumes there is some ultimate standard of “good” and “bad” and “right” and “wrong” that we all know and can all access. We know we are making progress, because we all know the ideal. But many among us would not affirm an objective, ultimate moral standard, for they know that to do so they would have to affirm God’s existence. And to do that, they would have to acknowledge what God would say about our morality.
And this brings us to the phrase under discussion in this essay: “the right side of history.” This assumes the first positive view of man’s progress: that man is on an upward trajectory and whatever happened in the past is necessarily worse than what will happen in the future. It assumes that when future generations judge this generation, they will judge the moral progress we have made as an obvious good, just as we do regarding slavery, segregation, suffrage, etc. So many live now in fear of what future judgments will be upon this time in history. And they live so as to be on what they believe will be the “right side” of history’s judgement.
The most obvious example of this is what is commonly thought to be our generation’s civil right’s issue: same-sex marriage and now transgender rights. Those who promote changes to our understanding of marriage and gender do so because they assume their vision of the future is what history will judge favorably. What they are missing is that it is not the judgment of future generations that we are to fear: it is the author of all history – God.
For there is no “right side” of history. There is only a “right side” with God. There are only men and women who are bound to the period of history in which they find themselves. During that time, men and women will have to choose if are willing to be faithful to God or not, and let God be the only judge of history that matters. After all, the idea of moral progress is a myth. For all of the hopes of the 20th century, they were burned in the fires of war, genocide, and social experiments that utterly failed. Who is to say that the current experiment we are embarking on will also not fail?
That’s the problem with believing you know what future generations will consider good. This is perhaps possible if you believe God is the author of history. But if you do not, you are likely looking to future, not-even-yet-existing future generations to justify yourself. It would be far better to worry more about God’s judgement than those you will never know.