The Crusades. Muslims almost universally see those hundreds of years of warfare with the West as nothing more than Christian religious fanaticism and Christendom’s economic imperialism.
Ironically, that is also a view shared by many in the West, based on a simplistic understanding of history and rooted in much of Western academia’s obligatory and feverish sense of self-hatred.
Although in modern usage the word “Crusades” can have a variety of meanings – and even refer to non-religious endeavors – it is based on the Latin word for “cross.” Originally, then, the word represented these various Christian military campaigns as “wars of the cross.”
The First Crusade was ignited in 1095 by the preaching of Pope Urban II, who stirred to war the Catholic kingdoms in Western Europe against the Muslim world. By that time, much of what had been Christian lands in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor (modern Turkey) had been conquered by Muslims. The Eastern Orthodox half of Christianity, centered in Constantinople, was also threatened with total subjugation.
It was the obligation of all Christians, said Pope Urban II, to rescue their Christian brethren in the East and to wrest control of the Holy Land out of the hands of Muslim infidels.
How far can Christians go in using earthly means to extend the kingdom of God? How should believers treat their enemies? Can there be peace on earth without Christ?
One of the best – and worst – movies about the Crusades was the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven,* from popular director Ridley Scott, who describes himself as an atheist. I attended a press junket for the movie prior to its release and was allowed to screen it as well. I found the film less emotionally gripping than Scott’s Academy Award-winning Gladiator, but it was simultaneously more thought-provoking.
One thing I clearly remember after leaving the theater was that Christians aren’t the only ones who fall into the trap of trying to create heaven on earth. The dream seems universal – for atheists and theists alike.
Kingdom of Heaven was loosely based on actual events that took place in the year 1187, between the Second and Third Crusades. The city of Jerusalem, recaptured by Christian armies in the First Crusade, fell to the great Saracen leader Saladin.
In preliminary clashes with Muslims, it is startling to see the images in Kingdom of Heaven in which Christians are riding into battle with the cross on their tunics and shields, unabashedly killing in the name of Jesus. They do so because they firmly believe that they are doing God’s will.
Historically speaking, simplistic views of the Crusades are just that – they fail to explain the complexities that led to centuries of armed combat between adherents of the world’s two most dominant religions. Islam had conquered some of the most Christian lands on the planet – and would continue to attempt to do so until the late 1600s. Even though some in Europe undoubtedly wanted to get rich in attempting a series of military counterattacks, it seems clear to me that regaining those lands for Christianity was the main motivation.
Thus, the Crusades were political in nature, although clearly motivated by religious fervor. However, such a “war of the cross” as that portrayed in Kingdom of Heaven should strike Christians as a contradiction in terms. A literal war in the name of Jesus – a “Christian war” – is an oxymoron, like “hateful Christian.” Jesus made clear that His kingdom was not of this world, otherwise His followers would draw swords to defend Him – and presumably the kingdom itself (John 18:36).
In those centuries of war, any Christian leaders in Europe who believed they could build the kingdom of heaven here on earth were deluded. The Crusades were basically a failure militarily and politically, even though they had profound economic ramifications for the development of Western Europe. But it was the religious failure that was most apparent.
By stating this, it is not my intention to give any aid and comfort to atheist critics of the Crusades like Ridley Scott. What makes Kingdom of Heaven one of the worst films about this historic period is that it recommends its own version of utopia. Scott might not call himself building the kingdom of heaven on earth, but that’s what he and other atheists consistently do. In a sense, while the creators of this film intend it as a critique of the crusaders, they also fail to learn from the crusaders’ mistakes.
I attended press interviews with the main actors and Ridley Scott. It was clear that they all believed they had a message for Christians and anyone else who would listen – a message that has become like a religious mantra for our secular culture in 2017.
Actor Orlando Bloom, for example, told a press gathering that the film encourages people to simply learn to coexist peacefully. “The kingdom of heaven is not what you might expect,” he said. “It’s not in some afterlife. It’s a place where you can be who you were born to be, where you can be true to yourself. It’s a kingdom of conscience. It’s a kingdom of hope and unity. It’s an ideal of a world we all should strive for, a world of peace.”
What’s stopping that from happening? Kingdom of Heaven blames the worst flaws of men – and our tendency to repeatedly manifest them. Scott complained to the press, “Unfortunately, we don’t seem to learn from history, do we? That’s one of the lessons in the story. That, here we go again, and we don’t seem to actually learn anything from history. You’d think that we would.”
But if Scott didn’t think mankind has learned any lessons from history, what made him think they will learn anything from a movie? The truth is that they won’t, because human nature is irretrievably fallen. There is a corrosive sinfulness in the human heart, as well as a blindness that keeps the heart from seeing this flaw – a flaw that will forever be fatal to all utopian endeavors.
If you ever watch this film, you will see sin continually infecting the characters like a nasty virus. It’s everywhere. This is precisely the point missed by Kingdom of Heaven – and its atheist director. These flaws within the human heart cannot be conquered – by armies, money, or man-centered religion. The fault lies not in the capacity of men to conceive of utopian societies, just in their ability to create and sustain them.
This is not to suggest that Christians who have a biblical view of man’s fallen nature should cling to pessimism, and in the resulting passivity refuse to work for peace, justice and freedom. On the contrary, Christians above all should strive to create a society with such attributes. They must remain active in culture for as long as they have the freedom to do so.
But Christians must take their stand on Scripture at all times, and warn errant humanity that apart from the grace of God that is poured out through Christ, none of these attributes can last for long. Yes, God can bless a nation with freedom, but it is like the blessing of the earth’s fruitfulness. A peach, to be enjoyed, must be plucked from the tree. But it will not last long, cut off from the branch. It will shrivel and rot, spoiled by the power of a universe under the curse of corruption.
There is only one way for human nature to be conquered, and that is through the salvation and lordship of Jesus Christ. Yes, men long for a blessed kingdom, but God in His wisdom has kept it in heaven, that men may know that utopia exists only in the shadow of His presence.
*Christians interested in watching the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven should be forewarned: The film contains a realistic presentation of 12th-century combat and a brief sex scene between two of the main characters.