This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine Issue 1, Volume 4: Hello, New Year issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

The 19th century ended with Western civilization’s obsession with its own demise. French writers called the final years of the 1890s fin de siècle, the end of the century. For many, it wasn’t just the calendar end of the century—developments in politics, economics, religion, and art were actually leading to the death of American and European culture. Psychologists even contributed theories as to how societies reach the point of no return, such as an obsession with the ego and being influenced by weaker, barbaric cultures. In England, Oscar Wilde and his fellow aesthetes shunned traditional morality and promulgated a view of art that moved from the objective to the subjective realm. Ultimately, the ideas that developed in the fin de siècle would encourage reactionary movements and the rise of fascism.

Strangely, the 20th century echoed similar sentiments. Movies such as Dark City, The Matrix, and Fight Club espoused a pessimistic view of human nature and the future of Western society. Grunge music gave a voice to the hopelessness of Gen-Xers while radio pop-rock, with its vapid lyrical content and cookie cutter sound, reflected America’s hollowness at the end of the millennium. Francis Fukuyama, the American neoconservative prophet, even declared the 1990s to be “the end of history” (which for him meant the establishment of liberal democracy and capitalism). Although separated by one hundred years, the end of the 19th and 20th centuries brought about an eerily similar zeitgeist self-aware of its own decay.

Reclaiming the Bible as story helps us to live in the tension between our experience, with its various cycles, and the ending to which history is moving.

Philosophers and thinkers have postulated various theories of time and history—how time functions, why events tend to repeat themselves, and how we can break the vicious cycles that societies find themselves in. Since the rise of Christianity, theorists have promoted the “linear” theory of time—events are moving forward in history toward an end, a telos, which is the consummation of all things at the return of Jesus Christ. However, some Enlightenment and modernist philosophers, rejecting Christianity in favor of opposing worldviews, have offered a convincing alternative that involves some form of a “circular” theory of time, in which events come back around again in a similar or even the same form in the future. While these views seek to adhere to our experience of the world, they fail to provide real hope for their adherents. The answer to these challenges to “linear” views of time isn’t a heavy handed return to a system that can’t help us make sense of why history repeats itself—we need a better model that takes into account both our experience and the telos to which we are heading. In short, Christians must not be taken off guard whenever things happen that echo other events in history. We must know how to read history while promoting the hope of the gospel and the promise of God’s coming kingdom.

In his work The Gay1 Science, Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher and self-proclaimed “Anti-Christ,” continued his ongoing critical assessment of the West, especially its Christian foundations and decadent morality. His most famous diatribe against Western Christendom appeared in §125, where he placed the phrase “God is dead” in the mouth of a madman, proclaiming the freedom of humanity to go its own way without regard to an objective reality defined by any sort of deity.

In the place of this, Nietzsche offers an alternative to the encroaching nihilism that inevitably appears when the world is suddenly devoid of meaning. He writes in §341:

What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you…’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’2

This concept, which Nietzsche later calls “the eternal return,” appears throughout his writings as his atheistic replacement for Christian eschatology. Since God no longer functions as the grounds for morals (something which Nietzsche had jettisoned as early as his work The Genealogy of Morals), human beings are free to create their own meaning and future. But how does one not slip into such a depression and anxiety that suicide seems the only option? Nietzsche believed this thought experiment would act as a way to cope with and even enhance the quality of one’s life: “My formula for human greatness is amor fati: not wanting anything different, not forwards, not backwards, not for all eternity. Not just enduring what is necessary, still less concealing it…but to love it.”3 Through embracing all that life offers, Nietzsche thought that mankind could move beyond weak moralities like what Christianity offered and become something new and beautiful, true “Supermen.”

Although Nietzsche’s reputation in the early 20th century was tarnished by his sister’s association with Nazism and her efforts to edit his works to conform to Nazi ideology, his thought was widely disseminated abroad through the efforts of Martin Heidegger and Walter Kaufmann. Modernist philosophers, following in the footsteps of Nietzsche and others, continued to work through the issues that arose in the absence of God. The French philosopher Albert Camus, a contemporary of the famous existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, founded the school of thought known as absurdism. Camus suggested that humanity lives in a world without a god or presence to provide any kind of meaning. Instead, we must find our own way in the face of such daunting meaninglessness.

Camus provides an analogy to answer the question: “Why not just commit suicide when there is no reason to live?”4 In Greek mythology, a man named Sisyphus tricked the gods into allowing him to dwell again on the earth after his death. In retaliation for his cunning, the gods punished Sisyphus by condemning him to roll a giant boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down—for all eternity. Camus pointed to the event of the boulder rolling down the hill as the tragic moment where Sisyphus continually confronts the absurdity of his situation, lacking reason or purpose in pushing this boulder up the hill again and again. However, the person who embraces the absurdity of it all is the one who triumphs over his or her own situation. Camus believes that scorn that overcomes one’s fate leads to contented happiness that is better than suicide.

Camus’s theory of time is similar to Nietzsche’s in that both deny the reality of God, both create their own pseudo-eschatological scenarios that provide the basis for their ethics, and both believe that time is circular, whether actually or only conceptually. However, whereas Nietzsche believes that humanity faces the world and creates meaning in order to overcome it, Camus’s absurdist man confronts it in order to be content. Both men confront the issue of morality and mortality with atheistic views that bank on the capital of Christianity: the quest for meaning, the need for a narrative to help make sense of the world, the move from sin to redemption, and the hope of a better future. The circular bent of Camus’s philosophy of absurdism is based upon the analogy of the myth of Sisyphus rather than the Greek metaphysical underpinnings found in Nietzsche.

At the time of Camus’s death, another writer was asking similar questions about the nature of time and our place within it. Philip K. Dick, sci-fi writer and part-time mystic, was obsessed with the history of early Christianity, especially the Gnostic movement. Dick included biblical themes and characters in his stories while avoiding explicitly naming Christianity as his primary influence. In an undelivered speech from 1978, Dick questions the nature of reality and totalitarian attempts to shape and control it. He discusses an incident where he accidentally recounted a story from the biblical book of Acts in his own fiction writing without ever reading it. Dick also talks about living out the same scene in his own life a few years after the novel was published without realizing it.5

This leads him into an interesting conclusion:

“I have gazed at a constantly changing world and declared that underneath it lies the eternal, the unchanging, the absolutely real. But how has this come about? If the real time is circa A.D. 50, then why do we see A.D. 1978? And if we are really living in the Roman Empire, somewhere in Syria, why do we see the United States?”

For Dick, everything he sees is simply a replay of things that had happened during biblical times. Although he knows rationally who the president is and that Disneyland doesn’t exist in Judea during the time of Christ, he is somehow living out events that had happened many years in the past. “Time passes, thousands of years pass, but at the same instant that we see this contemporary world, the ancient world, the world of the Bible, is concealed beneath it, still there and still real. Eternally so.”

Dick’s vision of time functions similarly to how a wormhole in space would work. Usually, when one moves from point A to point B, the moving body runs in a straight line from A to B. However, wormholes remove the necessity for traveling along a line and bring point A to point B while still remaining in their respective spaces. So it is with Dick’s theory of historical time: Although we are living in a time and space that is our own, our realities, in some way, mimic or reflect the time period found in the New Testament. Dick was particularly interested in the way that America reflected the Roman Empire and its habit of crushing any type of dissent that it thought would compromise the system.

Although Dick’s beliefs are bizarre by any standard, his concerns reflect the secular age’s desire for a theory of time that would provide meaning to life after Christianity. More so than Nietzsche and Camus, Dick seems to give Christianity a place in his own philosophy of reality, even if his own conception of it does stretch the boundaries of anything approaching orthodoxy. His circular theory of time seeks to provide an answer to the perennial question: If things are so different, then why do they keep looking the same? Governments are still corrupt, bureaucrats still seek to control reality, and good people are forced underground to live their quiet lives in secret. And there doesn’t seem to be an escape from this cycle of history.

It is impossible for a Christian conception of time to totally subscribe to any of the beliefs listed above. Most of them are atheistic and therefore are irreconcilable with Christianity and Dick’s view, acknowledging his Christian underpinnings, cannot be wholeheartedly accepted because he relies almost entirely on his experience and an eccentric reading of biblical texts.

One thing is for certain, however: Nietzsche, Camus, and Dick provide a compelling understanding of history that help us frame how events over time correlate. Although experience should not be the interpreter of our reality, there is still the feeling that things are repeating themselves in slightly altered ways. Maybe the traditional Christian interpretation of time simply does not account for our experience.

For better or worse, theologians in the 20th century have often promoted the linear view of history without much thought. This is defined as “movement of history towards a telos, a final outcome.” No Christian can dispute this definition at face value, since technically it is correct. We know from the book of Revelation that human history is moving full speed toward final judgment and redemption. We’re waiting patiently for the new heavens and the new earth. However, strictly linear views of history cannot take into account the seemingly cyclical nature of events. History seems to continually repeat itself—peace giving way to war, liberty to tyranny (and back again), life to death. How can we live within this tension of movement and repose? Does the Bible even have a category for this type of back and forth or are we stuck longing for that final day without understanding our place in the universe now?

It’s not that the Bible has given us an outdated or warped vision of the world, it’s just that we haven’t been listening very well. The patristic and medieval periods of church history tended to read Scripture in liturgical settings that placed the hearers within the message of the text. During the post-Reformation period, theologians began looking to the Bible as a text filled with datum to be mined and placed accordingly into a system. This aligned with our Enlightenment tendency to rely on rationality as the final arbiter of knowledge and purpose. With this shift, the church forgot what it meant to read the Bible primarily as a story rather than as a database.

However, reclaiming the vision of the Bible as story helps us to live in the tension between our experience, with its various cycles, and the ending to which history is moving. Scripture is filled with themes and events that are revisited and revised throughout the various books. Genesis begins with the wedding of Adam and Eve, and the story ends with the marriage banquet between Christ and His church. God delivers His people out of Egypt in the exodus of the Old Testament, and He ultimately delivers His people from Satan, sin, and death in the new exodus. Adam sinned, and the garden and we are still living with the effects today, hating ourselves and hating one another. These biblical echoes are God-breathed, built into the very fabric of the cosmos by the creator Himself.

No book of the Bible is so wrapped up in this concept of moving forward in circles like the book of Revelation. John the Seer is not only surrounded by symbols and language borrowed from earlier biblical texts, his visions also move back and forth between present and future, viewing the same events through different lenses. Contrary to narrow 20th century readings of Revelation, the text has a message for its own audience as well as for us, which is that evil is always afflicting the Lord’s people. There will be times of persecution and times of safety. Empires will rise and fall. But there will be a day when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This is made clear in Revelation 17 with the vision of the great prostitute. John tells us this woman sat on a beast “full of blasphemous names” and held in her hand a golden cup “full of abominations.” Most striking of all is the name given to the prostitute: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” Christians who were listening to this book being read would have immediately connected this woman with the Roman Empire, which was beginning to persecute the Christian religion. This is almost explicitly stated in 17:18, with an angel declaring to John that “the woman you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” But the image is connected to an earlier empire that also persecuted God’s people—the Babylonian empire that sent the Israelites into exile in 6th century B.C. History, in a sense, has repeated itself, manifesting evil and persecution in eerily similar ways across time. As the Babylonians, so the Romans, and so every society and government that extends its arm against the saints.

This type of recapitulation is what sets Christianity against philosophers like Camus and Nietzsche, who are aware of the cyclical nature of life because of their own experience. The Christian faith looks forward in hope to the day when all things are made new while living in the midst of cycles of time that have us face life and death, persecution and peace. While atheistic views attempt to provide meaning minus metaphysics, the biblical conception of history embraces the providence of God who is creating and working through repeated patterns in history.

It’s helpful at the end of all this to ask: What does it matter that Christians adopt a “linear-cyclical view of history”? Given that this seems fairly theoretical at first glance, such a mental map gives Christians the ability to analyze their lives and culture with wisdom and hope. People approach new developments in any area with a cocktail of emotions: fear, joy, anxiety, anger, cynicism, apathy, and so on. This is especially true in our reactionary culture, where pseudo-news sites craft clickbait titles to emphasize maximum outrage for profitable clickthroughs. These types of sites assume the reader will angrily react instead of engaging in thoughtful analysis. However, living with an awareness of how events have a way of repeating themselves while moving toward the redemptive end of time provides readers with the mental and emotional tools to not lose hope in the face of injustice or horror or death. That is not to say that living in the midst of tragedy will be easy—but that there will be a steady light shining in the darkness.

The start of another year is a reminder that all things can become new again. While we continue to live in the midst of tragedy, hopelessness, grace, mercy, or hope, we must remember that these cycles are not unending. Nietzsche’s vision of an “eternal return” is hopeless because it does not offer an end to our often miserable existence. The Christian vision of history acknowledges our experience while endowing it with meaning. This year, when we continue to hear the echoes that have been sounded in times past, whether of war or politics or economics, remember that you’ve been here before. This is our human experience, this historical déjà vu. But there is a day coming when history will find its end. Until then, our understanding of history will help us to live in it—no matter what events we will have to repeat.

Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.


1. i.e., ‘joyous’

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff, p. 223.

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. Duncan Large, p. 34.

4. Camus’s retelling of and commentary on the myth can be found in The Myth of Sisyphus, pp. 119–123.



To read this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine in full today, become a member for as little as $5 per month. Members also get full access to all back issues, free stuff each month, and entrance to our exclusive members-only group on Facebook—and you’ll help us keep the lights on. Join now.

1 Comment

Comments are now closed for this article.