Wednesday, April 1, 2015

HISTORY: No Good Guys, No Bad Guys?

Twins killed 1483 by Uncle Richard
After teaching a lesson in Church History last Sunday on Peter Waldo, I received a friendly and very respectful push-back from someone who was taking issue with there being any real good guys or bad guys in history. The following was my reply:

Sounds like you have been doing some pretty close reading and processing of English history. If I'm tracking with your observations about history, it seems that you are coming to the conclusion that there are no good guys and bad guys in history (with the exceptions you noted). In the case you presented from the War of the Roses, I can see how it would be pretty hard to find a good guy in that episode (though I think we would agree that the young boy victims were not bad guys in the way their murderous Uncle Richard was a bad guy).

But your observation in your words, "to separate historical figures into good guys and bad guys seems presumptuous to me.  (I agree, Hitler and Stalin are exceptions!)," I partly agree with, but only partly. On another level, I feel compelled, respectfully, but strongly, to disagree with it.

I agree that, theologically, we are all bad guys, totally depraved, and that the thoughts and intentions of our hearts are only evil continually (outside of regeneration and the freedom from the bondage to sin found in the gospel). But this does not mean that we are absolutely depraved, that is to say, that we act out in practice the full extent of the evil thoughts and intentions of the heart. Jesus was unmasking the externally upright rich young ruler's depraved heart when he replied, "Why do you call me good? There is no one good but God alone." In this respect, I agree that there are no good guys in history.

That established, here's where I begin to disagree. There are, however, many men like Stalin and Hitler, who go much further than others in abusing power and oppressing others by more fully acting on the thoughts and intentions of their evil hearts. And there are those who do not, who on a temporal level actually do positive good for other people. It seems to me like an unjust reading of history to have only one ethical category for everyone, or almost everyone.

How does this effect how we read Church history? By the grace of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there actually are good guys! Never perfect, always with flaws and warts, but men who have been transformed and are working out their salvation with fear and trembling, serving, loving, proclaiming truth, taking great personal risks for the honor and Name of Christ throughout history. These are the good guys, if you will, though always with the qualifier that they were made so by the gift of God's mercy, and that, this side of heaven, not one of them is without flaws and failings. The Bible reads like this too. The champions in Scripture always fall short of the glory of God, and some do so miserably.

I would further add that even among unbelieving figures in history, we see men who act honorably within the civil boundaries of God's revealed will, men who work for justice, act in some measure against their own advancement for what is right and good for their people. Moreover, there are a number of unbelieving small guys who have a measure of personal self control and who work hard and do what they can for their families and neighbors. These would be "good guys' in contrast to the monsters who  have lived out more completely their depravity.

Finally, I would say that, just as an over-simplifying of history into good guys and bad guys can fall far short of an equitable examination of the facts of history, so concluding that there are no good guys or bad guys will lead us to sweeping injustice in our assessment of the individual players in history. Any position we take on any subject that requires us to suspend discernment and equitable judgment based on the evidence available to us moves us toward cynicism and futility. A study of history that has concluded before it began that there are no bad guys or good guys puts us in a posture to suspend discernment and, therefore, makes history as a discipline a pretty meaningless pursuit, it would seem to me.

I will give the Psalmist the final word: "...the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight" (Psalm 16:3), which doesn't sound to me like there are no good guys or bad guys in history.  By the eternal saving decree of God, and the extravagant merciful kindness of Jesus, not only are there good guys in history, there are even "excellent ones"! I, for one, want to know everything I can possibly find out about these good guys.


  1. I always feel bad for the princes in the Tower....good thoughts here.

    1. I agree, especially as they were 12 and 9, the ages of my two youngest right now

  2. This is very interesting. Do you think that C.S. Lewis believed this? I think of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and how Aslan showed no mercy to the White Witch. Yet, in The Horse and His Boy, Aslan only shames the main antagonist in hopes of redeeming him. Whenever it came to human “bad guys” in C.S. Lewis’s books, he always seemed to leave room for possible redemption. Do you think this is how we should reflect on our antagonists when creating books or films? When looking at history this way, it makes stories such as Hitler and Stalin’s demise less enjoyable as you see them not as unredeemable villains (such as Satan), but rather as wretched humans who fell into eternity without Christ.

  3. Good point Jeremiah. The best drawn antagonists ought to be redeemable because we were all antagonists before redemption in Christ and regeneration by the Spirit "While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us.". Good point and well put