Is the World Getting Better or Worse?

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“We have fallen upon evil times, and the world has waxed very old and wicked.  Politics are very corrupt.  Children are no longer respectful to their parents.”

Those despairing words weren’t posted for the first time on Facebook last week.  Archeologists found them chiseled onto a stone from ancient Chaldea that dates to 3,800 B.C. 

Virtually every generation has cherished a less-than-hopeful view of the future.  It always seems that things are getting worse.  Today’s kids will never uphold the values of their grandparents. 

The Greek poet Hesiod, who lived seven centuries before Christ, believed there had once been a Golden Age when people lived in harmony with the gods.  Then things began to spiral downward, which led to a less happy Silver Age.  That was followed by the Bronze Age, which was characterized by increasing strife and worry.  Hesiod believed that he himself lived in the Iron Age, when things had gone from bad to worse. 

This idea of a lost Paradise, a former Golden Age of innocence and wonder, seems to run deep in human thinking.  Members of America’s Greatest Generation tend to romanticize the 1930s and 40s, when people worked together to endure the Great Depression and win World War II.  Boomers feel nostalgia for the ice cream trucks of the 1950s and the student protests of the 60s.  Gen Xers cherish a fondness for the simplicity of the movies of John Hughes and the Brat Pack.  Millennials savor the happy days when they first experienced Mario Brothers and Pokemon. 

Yesterday has a lot going for it.  Today and tomorrow, however, seem perfectly horrible.

Consider this week’s headlines.  Another major earthquake has rocked Haiti.  Afghanistan is a nightmare.  Uncontrolled wildfires rage in the West.  Life expectancy in America dropped 1.5 years last year.  The Delta variant of COVID has refilled ICUs from coast to coast.  NASA says a huge asteroid will pass near the earth in April 2029 (on Friday the 13th, no less).  Politicians seem angrier than ever.  And Target has stopped selling baseball trading cards because rival shoppers (adults, of course) have resorted to violence to get their hands on them. 

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world. 

When Ronald Bailey submitted the manuscript for an optimistic book he called The End of Doom, his editor told him, “Ron, we’ll publish this book and we’ll both make some money.  But I want to tell you that if you had brought me a book predicting the end of the world, I could have made you a rich man.”  That’s because human beings have a predisposition to hear stories about “unhappy people in unhappy places,” and TV news programs can’t resist feeding us dramatic narratives of impending chaos. 

So, what’s the truth?  Is the world getting better or worse?

It’s not even close.  The world is overwhelmingly a better place than it was 50 years ago – better than most of us ever thought we would live to see.

The numbers don’t lie.  In 1960, about 50% of the world’s population lived in grinding poverty.  Today that number has fallen to just 9%.  As Johan Norberg points out in his book Progress, this is one of the most hopeful developments in human history.  But almost no one notices.  Two-thirds of Americans and Brits, when recently polled, said that poverty and hunger have probably doubled in their lifetimes, when in fact living conditions have incrementally improved for half a century.   

Travel has never been safer.  Some 40 million planes take off and land every year – and never make the news.  Footage of a crash scene is dramatic, however, and nurtures apprehension.  On a global basis, the education of girls is now almost equal to that of boys.  Infant mortality is steadily decreasing, and 90% of children are inoculated against at least one of the diseases that used to ravage humanity.  Sanitation, literacy, and freedom from violence are all improving. 

What percent of the world’s countries, in the year 1900, gave every adult citizen the chance to vote?  The answer is zero percent.  Today, however, Freedom House identifies 44% of nations as “free,” guaranteeing a wide range of personal liberties that the rich alone used to enjoy. 

There’s a long way to go.  We wish there were no more wars and no more endangered children.  Humanity must face the global challenges of climate change and serious economic inequities.

But as Norberg points out, it’s time to stop acting as if the holes in the Swiss cheese are the world’s most important story.  There’s a great deal more cheese than holes. 

Should this good news matter to followers of Jesus?

Absolutely.  Christians should always be the first to celebrate when hungry people are fed and children have a better chance to grow up in God’s beautiful world.   Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount that one aspect of being “children of your Father in heaven” is to recognize that “he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43).  Loving God means loving the people that God extravagantly loves – no matter who they are or where they live. 

But surely we’re called to go a step farther. 

I’m deeply grateful for the evangelical tradition that nourished my faith.  The current dominant theology of American evangelicals, however, forecasts an imminent Apocalypse.  God is wrapping up history and Jesus will be returning soon – an event that will be preceded by epic global disasters.  Or so this view of things insists.  I have often been in the presence of fellow Christians who get excited when they hear about tsunamis and terror attacks.  If things are getting worse, that must be good news.  The Second Coming is approaching.

But it’s never good news when people are suffering.

And let’s be honest.  Followers of Jesus have been forecasting his imminent return for 20 centuries now.  Biblically, there is no reason to think that God hasn’t determined to continue sending his good gifts of sun and rain (as well as food, education, health, and above all, the Good News of the Gospel) to billions of people for the foreseeable future.

The one thing we know for sure is that today we’re 24 hours closer to the end of history than we were at this time yesterday. 

And in the 24 hours ahead?  The apostle Paul said it best:

“With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort” (I Corinthians 15:58, The Message).