History with a Purpose

In The Iliad, the shield of Achilles depicts the history of the world as an endless cycle, from the city at war to the city at peace and back again. It isn't going anywhere, because when Nature is the ultimate reality and the gods, like us, are from Nature, linear time is inconceivable: the cycles of Nature (and therefore cyclical time) are the final word. A "war to end all wars" or even a "war to make the world safe for democracy" would have been inconceivable to Homer, because tomorrow will be the same as today, forever. Linear time, time that is going somewhere, can only exist if "in the beginning, God created," for then there is Someone capable of guiding history to a goal. We honor Homer for being consistent with the premises of the paganism he knew.

But in The Aeneid, the shield of Aeneas shows the history of the world as purpose-driven, leading to the Roman Empire as the goal of history. Where does this come from? It is not consistent with Virgil's pagan worldview and the kind of gods he knew. But we honor him for showing the inescapable human aspiration to believe that life has a purpose, and we weep for him because he put his hope in something so woefully inadequate, though it was the best thing he knew. In just another generation or two, the empire he loved would start falling into the corruption Nero foreshadowed, and a better Hope would be revealed, moving out from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the uttermost parts of the world.

Donald T. Williams Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Toccoa Falls College and the author of Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016) and Ninety-Five Theses for a New Reformation: A Road Map for Post-­Evangelical Christianity (Semper Reformanda Publications, 2021).

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