Niebuhr 10: The End and Meaning of History

Human beings see their lives, and therefore human history, as embodied in a story. As for individuals, this story is a narrative interpretation of their own lives. As to human society, the story is a narrative interpretation of the ideas and institutions that make up that society. Niebuhr’s analysis of the end of history is profoundly narrative in its character. He begins his analysis of eschatology with this poignant observation:

Everything in human life in history moves toward an end. By reason of men’s subjection to nature and finiteness this “end” is a point where that which exist ceases to be. It is finis. By reason of man’s rational freedom, the end has another meaning. It is the purpose and goal of his life and work. It is telos. This double connotation of end as both finis and telos expresses, in a sense, the whole character of human history, and reveals the fundamental problem of human existence. All things in history move toward fulfillment and dissolution, toward the fuller embodiment of their essential character and towards death. [1]

Human beings live with an awareness, conscious and unconscious, of the fleeting nature of their own lives, and the threat age, illness, death, and the like pose to their goals and purposes. Like Huey Long, human beings cry out in their hearts, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much left to do.” [2]

Christianity does not minimize the finiteness and futility of human life. It understands the threat of death before the completion of our life projects. It also accepts the inevitability of death and futility. As creatures made in the image of God, human beings are inevitably self-transcendent, always seeking more from life. As creatures of the earth, human beings are doomed to die, and nothing can prevent this end. [3] None of us leave this life with all of our potential human projects complete. I have a bucket list. That list is never complete. As soon as I make any progress, new things end up on the list, which remains incomplete. On the morning I die, this will still be true.

The problem of human finitude and death is made more difficult by the human propensity to create what Niebuhr calls, “False Eternals,” and what the prophets and theologians might call “False Idols.” [4] Human beings are inclined to place their trust in and worship created realities that themselves are doomed to fall into dissolution. This is particularly true of our personal political and economic ideals. There are things on my bucket list that are of no eternal or other significance.

The Kingdom of God

The prophets Old Testament warned of the danger of placing trust in human institutions and powers, including the earthly kings of Israel. Israel was to make God its king and await with patience his Kingdom, which in the person of the Messiah would be brought to a concrete realization in human history. The Messianic Kingdom was the goal, the end, the telos, of human history. Despite Israel’s messianic hope, idolatry and apostasy were present and led to destruction.

In the New Testament, the messianic kingship of the people of God is identified with Jesus of Nazareth, and the Kingdom of God is identified with his presence and power in human life and human affairs. While a future consummation is expected, the Kingdom of God has already come in the revelation of Christ. The telos, the goal of history, has been revealed and its meaning fulfilled. It is not fully revealed but will be fully revealed at the end of history, its finis. [5]

One implication of the notion of an already present kingdom is that human beings need not fear the end of history or their lives. The end has been revealed and its gracious results experienced in the presence of Christ. “The light of revelation into the meaning of life illuminates the darkness of history’s self-contradictions, its fragmentary realizations of meaning, and its premature and false complications.” [6] The Cross and Resurrection signify the victory of God over the threat of ultimate meaningless and give an assurance of the meaningfulness of human existence.

The New Testament and the Idea of the End

By using the phrase “signify,” Niebuhr alerts us that the Second Coming, the realization of the Kingdom of God at the end of history is a symbol. Thus, he says:

The symbol of the second coming of Christ can neither be taken literally nor dismissed as unimportant. It participates in the general characterization of Biblical symbols’ which deal with the relationship with time and eternity, and seek to point from the standpoint of the conditioned. If the symbol is taken literally the dialectic conception of time and eternity is falsified and the ultimate vindication of God over history is reduced to a point in history. The consequence of this falsification is expressed in the hope of a millennial age. [7]

There is a great deal in this passage that illuminates the eschatology of Niebuhr.

  • He does not believe that the Second Coming is a literal event.
  • He does not believe that a human utopia is possible within history.
  • He believes that any literal interpretation of the Second Coming is dangerous and falsely portrays the human situation.

On the other hand, Niebuhr opposes those who think that the Biblical imagery of the Second Coming is unimportant. Like all imagery, the Second Coming expresses the ability of the human spirit to conceive of and seek a transcendent good beyond the possibility of realization in the historical present or concrete future.[8] This transcendent ability creates a constant flow to human history as human beings seek greater justice than experienced in the present. The imagery of the New Testament enables Christians to live within history without hope but without false expectations.

Three Aspects of Niebuhrian Eschatology

Niebuhr outlines three symbols that are central to Christian thinking about the end of human life and human history. The three symbols are the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and the Resurrection of the Dead. These symbols should not be taken literally but interpreted as windows into important features of the nature of human life and God.

For Niebuhr, the symbol of the Second Coming is important for it upholds the ultimate victory of God, and therefore of justice, over the threat of finitude and failure, and the sufferings of the oppressed. It thus undergirds constructive action. The Second Coming is not to be seen as an event in history, but as a transcendental goal outside of history not to be completed within history. It signifies the final victory of the love and harmony God intends for human existence.  [9]

The Last Judgement functions as a symbol of God’s ultimate victory of good over evil, of justice over injustice, and of the ultimate justice over the historically limited results of human striving for justice. [10] It validates and supports the moral strivings of Christians throughout history.

In his analysis of the Last Judgment, Niebuhr makes an important distinction. Human failures in history result from both sin and finiteness, that is human limitation and finitude. The final judgment is a judgment against sin not finitude. [11] The judgments of God are judgments against evil, not mistakes. It is our deliberate choices for selfishness and self-seeking that are judged. The Last Judgment functions to drive the human spirit into the mercy of God because no human achievement of justice is ever free from the taint of sin. No human work of justice will finally survive the perfect judgment of God. [12]

The final eschatological symbol is the symbol of the Resurrection. The symbol of the resurrection implies that “eternity will fulfill and not annul the richness of the historical process.” [13] By faith, Christians believe and live on the promise that, as the Apostle Paul put it:

… in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).

All the structures of meaning that human reason can build face the chasm of meaninglessness when human beings discover that no humanly constructed edifice of meaning is possible. Only faith in a God of love has an answer to that problem. For Christians, the answer to the ultimate meaningless of life is faith in God revealed in Christ, and from his love, from which neither life nor death can separate us.[14]

The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body embodies faith that God will not only bless our spiritual yearnings and desires but will vindicate our physical existence as well. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul gives significance to the spiritual part of the human person. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body assures believers that there is a meaning to the unity of human physical existence and human history as a whole. [15] The God who loves us will, in the end, vindicate not just our spiritual longings but our physical strivings as well.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead can be interpreted in an overly concrete way. The idea of human history being consummated at the “end of time” carries with it the implication that the “end of time” might be within human history as we understand it. Niebuhr believes that this interpretation is both false and misleading. The End of History is an event outside of history as we know it. At the Parousia, Resurrection, and Last Judgement human history as we experience it has already ended. Whatever these terms mean, they must be interpreted as signs of something that we cannot fully know in material terms.

Niebuhr argues for this interpretation based on the implications of I Corinthians 15. In his discussion of the resurrection, he tries to explain the spiritual meaning of the resurrection. He is clear that the resurrection appearances of Jesus involve a body, but not exactly a body as it was before the crucifixion.

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. I Corinthians 15:42-44).

The Christian doctrines of the Second Coming, the Resurrection, and the End of History is more logical and more humane than the materialistic explanations and more satisfying to the human spirit. [16] The excesses and violence of Communism, Nazism, and all forms of Imperialism testify to the fact that all attempts to create an end of history, within history and on the terms of our physical existence, not only fail, but they create enormous human suffering as well. Every attempt to create an end of history, and a perfect world within the boundaries of human history, ultimately relies upon finite, imperfect, and fallen human persons and institutions. This inevitably involves fanaticism and a resort to violence.

The End and Meaning of History

From the standpoint of the Christian faith, any effort to understand human history must derive from three aspects of life:

  1. The life of individuals who are born, create finite meanings and die.;
  2. The partial fulfillment and realizations of human striving seen in the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures; and
  3. The unfolding process of history revealed in human and social histories. [17]

To make sense of the process of history, it is necessary to create a narrative explanation of current history in light of a perceived process and end of history as a whole. Within history, human beings live and die and human cultures rise and fall. In each case, there is created a meaning, that is to say, a relationship of the individual life in society to human history as a whole. Materialists believe that this end of history is to be seen in material terms and the full functioning of history is conceived as a result of historical forces. This ignores the human spirit and the fact that human cultures are influenced by the choices, made by individuals and societies. [18]

As one might expect given neighbors, Christian realism, he gives a fatalistic analysis of the potential of human civilizations:

Every civilization makes some fatal mistake in the end and perishes. But these mistakes are not under the law of natural necessity. Unlike individual life, the collective and social organisms of history could ideally be perpetually replenished by new life and strength. But this would require that they be perpetually adapted to new historical circumstances. Their final failure to do so is always a fate into which they are tempted by their freedom and is not due to natural necessity. [19]

Civilizations perish for various reasons. Sometimes, they perish because pride and power tempt them to extend themselves beyond physical limits. Sometimes, an elite that was instrumental in organizing the society becomes repressive. Sometimes, through foolishness and error, outmoded strategies and techniques are applied to new situations and problems. Sometimes, leaders flee from an understanding of the realities of history to some mystical, ideal divorced from any reality. [20]

And what I think may be one of Niebuhr’s most pertinent observations to contemporary society, he notes that modern technical civilization may perish because it falsely worships technical progress as a final good for human life. In a technical society, one part, an economic and technical elite, may harness technology as a vehicle to control society as a whole for its purposes, which may turn out to be destructive. [21]


It is impossible in one or an entire series of blogs to do complete justice to the depth and wisdom of Niebuhr’s analysis of the nature and destiny of human beings and the societies they create. While I find myself disagreeing with some of his ideas and conclusions, he is a constant spur to further thought. As I sometimes do, I think I will give the last word to the author:

Thus wisdom about our destiny is dependent upon a humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and our power. Our most reliable understanding is the fruit of “grace” in which fruit completes our ignorance, without pretending to possess its certainties as knowledge; and in which contrition mitigates our pride without destroying our hope.

In the end, Niebuhr’s Christian realism is based upon a recognition that human sin and fallibility—our capacity to be ignorant and self-deluded concerning the most pressing and important matters of life—should drive the human race as a whole and each of us individually to a deep humility and a sense of our fallibility, however great our powers of thought and action.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 287. Hereinafter “NDM.”

[2] These are the reputed last words of the Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, who was assassinated while governor. (downloaded, January 10, 2023).

[3] NDM, at 287.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 288.

[6] Id.

[7] Id, at 289.

[8] Id.

[9] Id, at 290.

[10] Id, at 290-291.

[11] Id.

[12] Id, at 293.

[13] Id, at 295.

[14] Id, at 295.

[15] Id, at 296-297.

[16] Id, at 298.

[17] Id, at 301. I have somewhat reordered and restated in different terms Niebuhr’s insights.  The third aspect which Niebuhr gives, the process of history, reflects an impact of both Hegel and Darwinism, as well as merging process thinkers, on his thought.

[18] Id, at 298. Niebuhr gives a most interesting analysis of both Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. I cannot take time to explore the differences between them, but recommend reading Niebuhr’s analysis and the primary sources.

[19] Id, at 303.

[20] Id, at 303-304.

[21] Id, at 304.