History Was Not Changed


“What happened here 2,000 years ago completely changed history.” These words were spoken in earnest innocence by one of the onlookers at the recent work being done on the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. It is a sentiment that sounds obviously true, but is profoundly untrue. The resurrection of Christ did not change history, it revealed history to be what it is: the unfolding of God’s work to restore all things to union with Himself.

Our modern minds tend to view history as some sort of independent series of events. When we study history, we look for causes. We see great generals and economic forces. We frequently ignore almost everything that has taken place throughout most of time. “History” is a story we tell ourselves (and we tell it less and less these days). Generally, what passes for history in our culture is little more than a short collection of clichés, many of which are simply untrue. However, they are told to justify an opinion of the moment.

Lost from sight are the vast millions (billions) of lives that have been lived and the details of their minute-by-minute dwelling on the earth. Huge swaths of humanity are gathered up in phrases like “the Ming Dynasty,” or “the Middle Ages.” The story we call history has it heroes and villains, while the bulk of humanity serves only as the backup chorus to the drama of the “great men.”

The resurrection of Christ is profoundly obscure. Some modern scholars, driven by ideology and bias, have sought to declare that Jesus never existed because they find virtually no mention of Him in non-Christian literature and records of the period. It is an absurd fiction, hardly worthy of rebuke. But it reveals much about how we think about history. “Surely if Christ existed,” they reason, “it would have gained sufficient notice to have been recorded at the time.” The same people, I assume, think that only what they see on television or read in the newspapers has significance today.

Of course, the Church, the gospels, the whole of early Christian literature refute these absurd notions. But the matter of history remains. The resurrection of Christ relativizes all human history. That single event becomes the only event that matters, and all other events, regardless of how innocuous are obscure, no matter how momentous and of great esteem, only have meaning in light of their relationship to that one event.

Christians claim, rightly, that, in Christ, God has become matter. In the resurrection, we equally confess that matter has become God. We may say that creation came into existence for that single moment in space and time and that that single moment in space and time is the cause for everything in creation that has ever existed or ever will.

In Christ, history has not been changed, it came into existence.

St. Thomas, beholding the resurrected Christ rightly said, “My Lord and my God!”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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33 responses to “History Was Not Changed”

  1. Henry Avatar

    I have always identified with Saint Thomas the Doubter.

  2. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I thought that I really believed in the incarnation of Christ as an evangelical. However, what you write, still years later, sometimes shakes my sensibilities. As very much did St. John of Damascus whom you quoted recently…”I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake….” I recall when I first read that. I was listening recently to an Ancient Faith podcast. They mentioned that if we saw Christ and His mother, the Theotokos, together, that they would bear a resemblance to each other, since Christ carries Mary’s DNA.
    Thank God for His glorious resurrection, for as you say, it reveals history to be what it is, God restoring all things into union with Himself….another doctrine that was woefully understated in my earlier understandings.

  3. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    How truthful Father. How can History be changed when He Who has created had already determined this event? History was not changed, it unfolded. The long waited for event occurred and God’s Self Revelation continued. The idea that History was changed almost makes the Incarnation sound like an after thought.

  4. Byron Avatar

    Beautiful, Father! Many thanks!

  5. Dr. Kuruvilla A. Cherian Avatar
    Dr. Kuruvilla A. Cherian

    Why is and has St. Thomas been referred to as “The Doubter”? Was he the only one who doubted?
    St. (Apostle) Thomas was privileged to be one of the twelve apostles of the Lord. We the Mar Thomite Nazranee Diaspora take legitimate pride in acknowledging his preaching the Gospel in the land of our forefathers on the Malabar Coast in the first century, and that we are his spiritual descendants. Over the centuries, however, it appears that most of western Christendom, not to speak of the secular world, has been less charitable to him – calling him “Doubting Thomas” and branding him as a classic skeptic, etc. This is based on the biblical narrative where he would not believe the Lord was resurrected unless he could personally see Him and touch Him. Some thinkers have however shown some degree of magnanimousness in stating that “Thomas doubted that we may not have doubts”, but this still does not clear the stigma that has been attached to the apostle’s name. Is the “Doubting” epithet for Thomas justified? Was the Thomas incident narrative in the Bible intended just to highlight the apparent disbelief of one man, or is there a deeper message concerning spirituality for the universal Church? Any narrative, to be properly understood, has to be viewed with clear perspectives of the character concerned, the author, the time of writing and the intended audience and their circumstances in mind.

    Ref: Article titled “Apostle Thomas and the Doubting Incident Narrative: Just a Case of One Man’s Doubt or a Guide to Exemplary Spirituality for the Church?” by Dr. Kuruvilla A. Cherian

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nicholas, look again at your words and Father’s the difference between unfolding and coming into existence.

    The Nativity, the Cross, the grave and His glorious third day ressurection are history.

    I say this as one who has studied and found solace in a history that connects me to everyone else; as the flow of life, not of great deeds (which are almost always destructive if not murderous). Man’s attempts at history are always acts of selection and creativity, not quite fiction but not far removed.

    All too often we then become enslaved to a particular narrative. It is how ideologies are born and nurtured and wreak havoc.

    Only in Christ is anything real. It was not unfolded, it was gathered and recreated, not just transformed.

    Life unfolds, history does not. Real events that occur that are significant for our salvation happen once and we are drawn into that.

    Within and beyond time simultaneously. In the world, but not of it.

  7. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Yes, it came into existence but when? In our view it would be 2,000 years ago. In His view, it would be now as He is outside of time. It was revealed to us 2,000 years ago, but in reality, His reality, it was always supposed to occur. It is not a change, it is a revelation, planned in timelessness and executed in the time of the material world. Hence I use the word unfolded, because it has always been and is and always will be. I would ask if something like this is real before its advent in our time stream or only at the moment of execution? If it is real when He plans its entry into time, then it is unfolding in my view, just as revelation has unfolded. If time is centrally important to real existence, then it came into being.
    In my time in the USAF, I spent many years as a War Planner. I wrote out how to react to certain events. When the time came, my plan unfolded in sequences determined in advance. Perhaps my understanding is prejudiced by that, but I see that He planned this event and then caused it to happen.
    I also see history as a narrative of the events of life. Our recording of it is faulty, haphazard and often edited, but history still remains as the record of what happened in life’s stream.
    I think we are engaged in a semantic misunderstanding over my use of “unfolding.”

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nicholas, we probably are.

  9. Dino Avatar

    This demonstrates beautifully how we have been created from the start as 《paschas》. Our logoi, linked to the Divine Logos -our Pascha- have always been a ‘passing’: from matter to divinity, from earth unto heaven and from death unto life.

  10. Deacon James Avatar
    Deacon James

    I am reminded of the Orthodox Lenten Presanctified Service. In the evening darkness the priest turns to face the congregation with the censor and a lit candle and proclaims “The Light of Christ illumines all!”. It is in the midst of the Old Testament readings. The proclamation does indeed refer to the history and wisdom of the Scripture. It also reminds us of the coming fullness of revealing in the Paachal Feast.

    As I sit here in the early morning light by a window, the sunrise and Father’s thoughts transported me to the midst of that liturgy and gave it deeper meaning. My mind leaps to John’s thought “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” What joy this is!

  11. Paula Pepe Avatar
    Paula Pepe

    Dr. Kuruvilla A. Cherian,
    I am interested to hear your take on how we should interpret St. Thomas’s doubting. I did a search of the article you mentioned at the end of your post, but couldn’t find anything.
    Obviously, St. Thomas is not the only one who doubted. Nevertheless, we do not disparage him in his humanness. The major lesson I get is that Christ knew Thomas’s heart, stood with him and showed him. Truthfully, what I remember even more than the doubting is Thomas’s beautiful, touching response…”My Lord and My God”. Matter of fact, I quote that frequently to My Lord!
    Sir, you must know something I don’t, because I do not understand your defensive posture. I think I can speak for many, that we love St. Thomas. St. Peter is another apostle that receives a lot of flack because of his impetuousness. But look at how he was transformed to one of the foremost Apostles! I can certainly relate to St. Peter! When I look at him, I have hope that My Lord and My God will not forsake me either!
    We all see and experience Scripture in many different ways. May it always be to our advantage and blessing that we do so.

  12. Michael Lynch Avatar

    I appreciate how you always challenge us to think about the faith and what we believe.
    What jumps out to me after reading this is how God chose to use people who were ignored by the “official records” of their time to reveal Himself to mankind and bring salvation to us.
    Abraham–just some nomad wandering through the Middle East.
    Moses–I don’t think his name shows up in any of the known records of his time.
    Jesus–a working-class carpenter from a little podunk in Galilee.
    A good reminder that we should not seek or glorify celebrities.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “He called those things that are not to be as if they were…” Romans 4:17

  14. Mark Pendleton Avatar
    Mark Pendleton

    Dear Fr. Stephen
    First, I want to thank you for writing this blog. What you write often encourages me to go on. There are times though that, after finishing I’m inclined to feel like an imposter or stowaway.

    Be that as it may, thank-you.

    My comment will be somewhat off topic although since you mentioned history, it may connect a bit. A few weeks back, you mentioned a book, “The Unintended Reformation” by Brad Gregory. It seemed interesting and a friend bought it. Hoping we would have something to discuss, I ordered it too. I knew I was in over my head when I saw that just the introduction was 24 pages long. I’m somehow muddling through.

    I appreciate the scholarly approach the author takes, his explanation of the various interwoven threads that have brought our western culture and world to where they are. Nevertheless I have some mixed thoughts. Gregory’s analysis and that of others (even yours at times) are like the work of a brilliant medical examiner who with precision has determined what has caused the death of a particular victim. Only trouble is that the victim is still dead. It reminds me of a remark by C.S. Lewis to the effect that “no clever recombination of bad eggs will ever make a good omelet.”.

    I often reprise Fr. Hopko’s seminar on “Sin: Primordial, Generational and Personal” hoping it will someday sink in. But his explanation of generational sin seems in a human and personal way to parallel Gregory’s explanation of the way in which we have arrived at where we are today in a socio-political, cultural sense.

    It was an interesting, startling realization for me that the Orthodox traditions precede the unintended effects of the Reformation. They are drawn from a different “world”. Unfortunately, those of us in the parishes have been steeped (perhaps “marinated” is a better word) in the milieu of the post-Reformation. Talk about a culture war! This one is internal.

    Perhaps one positive value of Gregory’s book is personal: helping to take the thoughts related to this world captive. It also reveals why the traditions may seem so “foreign”, especially to those of us who were once “Evangelicals” (whatever that is really).

    Please forgive the somewhat off topic comment. This is about as close as I get to meaningful interaction most of the time. I know that it has been said that no one is saved alone, but there are times when the road to the Kingdom seems lonely.

  15. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Fr Stephen,
    There is so much here in your words. I present my reflections in hope that if I’m going off course in my understanding that I might receive guidance. I must admit my mind is kind of stuck on/in the concrete. For that reason like Henry’s post, St Thomas’ response and experience echoes my own thick-headedness.

    I admit I have difficulty understanding history, ontologically. The best I understand now at this time (–whatever that might mean), is that time is not linear. That it might not be linear doesn’t automatically mean that it should be some other geometric shape (i.e. circular), either. Based on the shortness of our lives what it is (at least for me) ontologically is hard to understand.

    The ‘beginning’ of creation is hard for me to understand. I’ve read Genesis and the reality of it boggles me. As far as I can understand about our ontological reality, creation isn’t a one time event but keeps happening. (This is where my mind shows itself to stay stubbornly in the concrete, not because I will it so, but rather I wait for Grace to help my understanding if it is the Lord’s will.)

    I saw Christ’s Death and Resurrection in data. This isn’t data that dates back to 2000 years ago. This was newly created (on our human part) stuff. I liken the experience to standing before the icon of St John the Forerunner, holding his head in his hand, and his head also intact on his body. There is a kind of synchronicity presented that cuts to my concrete heart. But again I still have no better understanding of time or of history.

    We describe historical events like beads on a string. As you mention in your article it isn’t trivial to ask whose beads (i.e. whose historical account and told to which audience?)

    This brings me how we interpret the Bible. I have Protestants in my extended family who would treat the Bible as literal history. I have loved ones who think the whole thing is a ‘crock’. I have heard “Bible experts” treat the “historical record” of the Bible as a literary project similar to historians trying to figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s works. These approaches seemed absurd and I couldn’t justify using one approach against another based on my concrete way of thinking. I needed help and in a conversation I had with my spiritual father, early on in my catechism, I asked him how I was to understand what the Bible is. If my memory serves me, I think he said the way to begin is to think of it as Liturgy. This helped me with my concrete (brain in the mud) way of thinking.

    Now with guidance and encouragement from my spiritual father, I read the bible to ‘soften my heart’. And indeed that was what happened to my heart when I read your response to Michael Lynch. And yet when I read the events of the Bible on my own, they still seem “out there”. I don’t know whether that is how I should read or whether I should work to see events “in here”, in me. And if it is the latter, I’m not able to do spontaneously without giving it a lot of time and reflection and labor. I will put in the labor but I also hope and pray for the Lord’s grace.

  16. Robert T Avatar
    Robert T

    Wonderfully stated. There is nothing i could possibly add, and your point about what now passes for historical analysis as nothing more than a short collection of cliches is spot on.

    What I now say doesn’t really relate to this topic, but I feel compelled to point it out. I have a BA (honours) in history, and I studied for my MA in the same until it was necessary for me to withdraw for employment reasons. In any case, my post secondary “education” was entirely secular. The place of the Church history, if I may use that term, was discouraged or at best relegated to the background of our studies. A mere footnote at times.

    This was so very wrong. Despite what I learned and however clever I thought I was in my achievements, I missed the whole point of history, which is of course the Church and Christ. So now I scramble to relearn. To catch up at what I missed out on. To reshape my thinking about what history is . there is much for me to relearn. God willing, I will.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that we live in a culture that is a train wreck – and analysis of the wreck can, at best, only tell us how we got here. Orthodoxy is not a solution to the wreck – its detritus and carnage often show up in our own lives. Orthodoxy is, however, a medicine in which we can begin to heal, in some measure, and continue on the track of union with Christ. The language of competition, comparison, etc., that is part of the train wreck of denominationalism, often infects how we think about Orthodoxy’s present situation. Orthodoxy is not perfect (in its expression), nor is it “better” in many respects. It is simply what it is – the Church founded by Christ that has endured and been faithful to what it received. We are deeply troubled today by many things – however, we struggle with those many things in an Orthodox manner.

    Had there never been a Great Schism, or Reformation, there would be Orthodoxy alone. And there would still be Orthodoxy struggling – because there is no other way of being in this world. Whatever our situation, I want to struggle in an Orthodox manner. Gregory’s work is useful – nothing more.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is difficult to think of healing not being a solution to the train wreck. I realize that as the grace of God heals me and others the train wreck is still going on. One car piling into another and since I am still on the train, I keep getting reinjured and clawing at others in my pain.

    I live by God’s mercy. Not fully alive yet as I haven’t died enough yet.

  19. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    I apologize that my submission was sent before reading your entry. Sometimes I write in increments over time without refreshing and end up sending at a point in the thread that looks unresponsive to the conversation at that point in the thread.

    I wanted to say that your last words touch my heart. And I admit I have a pretty hard heart.

    Before coming into Orthodoxy, I wasn’t a believer of Christ at all. At least certainly I had no Orthodox understanding of Christ. And the experience I had that I now say was Christ, was completely out of context of any church. That experience was hard for me to accept’, even though it happened to me. (i.e. I’m worse that St Thomas or St Paul–I ended up doubting myself and the experience)

    The immediate emotion I had when it happened was like what you express yourself here–loneliness. I had a foreboding thought that if I pursued what I perceived, I might ‘wreck’ my marriage (of almost 30 years) and lose my friends, and my life work would be suspect if I spoke of what I saw. I would have been the last person to “trust in Christ”. But I gathered my courage to trust what I observed as a scientist. I had to, or I would have stopped being ‘who I was’, and yet ironically, I stopped being ‘who I was’ when I was baptized last Pascha. I am grateful that Christ our Lord gave me the grace I needed to bring me into the Church.

    It would be a few more years after that first experience before I had the courage to step into an Orthodox Church. But not long after coming to Liturgy I began to see that however hard the road, this is where I should be. I still marvel that I’m here. I continue to receive flack from my loved ones and have lost some friends. Sometimes I worry that I might lose my marriage, God forbid, I’m the chiefest of sinners and pray for my marriage and my family. My behavior is far from exemplary of Christ. But I have hope in God’s mercy and love.

    Mark you are not alone.

  20. Mark Pendleton Avatar
    Mark Pendleton

    Thanks for your compassionate response. There is a line in a song (‘Lord of the Past’) by Bob Bennett that goes:

    “I picked up all these pieces,
    and I built a strong deception
    and I locked myself inside of it
    for my own protection.
    And I sit alone inside myself
    and curse my company
    for this thing that has kept me alive for so long
    is now killing me.”

    This is how I often feel. It’s a part of who I was. Situations arise that tend to confirm that it is somehow true. I have been born and steeped in a cultural milieu that teaches me to believe that what I feel is what is true. I have drunk the “koolaid” of the culture. Fortunately, by the grace of God, I have also encountered a living Savior. Now, somewhat like a caterpillar in a chrysalis, stuck somewhere in the middle stage of metamorphosis, I am sometimes more in touch with who I was than with who I am to be.

    At those times I remember the words of St. Peter, “To whom else shall we go, who else has the words of life?”

  21. Dcn James Avatar
    Dcn James

    Regarding this discussion of civilization being a train wreck; the Roman civilization was also a train wreck. The Church has always lived amidst the train wreck of whatever civilization She has found herself: Pagan, Muslim, Renaissance, Fascist, Communist, Capitalist, etc. . Does not the Light of Christ still illumine all! We all receive injury. Healing is available for all who come with humble heart. “My Kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36. To understand how to struggle in a more Orthodox manner, that is the question.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee your words are not those of a person with a hard heart. There is a difference between a soft heart and a soft head. I for one appreciate your rigor.

    I have said for years that the Orthodox practice is a 2000 year old scientific experiment. Follow the steps with exactitude and rigor=sainthood. Now you come along and tell me we are more scientific than I realized.

    The thing is, someone with a soft heart would not have really seen what you saw.

    The only chemistry I had was first year in college, but my professor had a doctorate in quantum mechanics so I got a different veiw I think. It definitely fired my imagination.

    But I fell in love with history and Jesus used that to draw me to Him.

    The thing is, once He has you, it takes a lot of effort to get away from Him.

    I will pray for your marriage. We men are not noted for our humility in marriage which is a sad thing because it is where the joy of marriage lies.

    One thing for sure, I love your comments. They never fail to lift my heart. Thank you.

  23. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hello Dr. Charian, we refer to the event as The Belief of Thomas rather than the doubting of Thomas.

  24. Dino Avatar

    Vis-à-vis St Thomas, [in John 11:16] we witness him being the disciple that exceeds all others in ‘martyric’ zeal before the resurrection of Lazarus: “Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellowdisciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him.” This speaks volumes concerning St Thomas’s devotion to the Lord. He did, in fact, complete his earthly soujourn as a Great Martyr many years later.
    His “doubts” in John 20:25 “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Are testament to his single-minded desire, his intense ‘seriousness’ in his devotion towards the Lord. That’s how I see it.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and not only that, Jesus had just warned them against imposters.

  26. Victoria Avatar

    Also regarding Saint Thomas, he really did not ask for more than the other Apostles has already received but showing a great boldness of Faith, he asked that he might actually touch the wounds of Christ.

    “Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.”ω 20When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” John 20:19-20

  27. Agata Avatar

    Thank you all for the wonderful discussion on St. Thomas and his doubt. Doubt is a constant part of my spiritual life. The phrase “I believe, help my unbelief” is also a prayer of my grandfather I remember most from my years of growing up (I often wonder why?)

    I wanted to share with you a short article in a newsletter of the Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga from a few years ago. I think I participated in this retreat with Fr. Irenei (or maybe just listened to its recording), where he very nicely talked about two types of doubt: Christian doubt and worldly doubt. The retreat summary explains Fr. Irenei’s distinction very nicely…


  28. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Thank you Michael for your kind and comforting words, and for your prayers.

  29. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    And thank you Mark for your reflection and the poem and scripture you quoted. These echo a prayer I have for myself and my family.

  30. Byron Avatar

    To understand how to struggle in a more Orthodox manner, that is the question.

    I find that, the more I contemplate this, silence and prayer are good guides.

  31. Steven Avatar

    All too often, words fall short when speaking of the immanent, transcendent and ineffable One but this is good stuff Fr. Stephen. I can only offer my silence…

  32. lina Avatar

    Years ago, someone told me that the word history really means His Story. As I reflect on this article and the comments, this really does seem to be the case. All of history is His Story.

  33. Robin Phillips Avatar
    Robin Phillips

    Are you familiar with N.T. Wright’s work? He suggests there are Scriptural reasons for thinking that Christ’s death and resurrection was the defining point of history and began to change the world. Back when I was a Protestant I summarized Wright’s teaching about this in the following article, but I am wondering if you think this is an unorthodox way of thinking?

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