Some Christians are optimists, and they think everything is going great and getting better all the time. Other Christians are pessimists and think that the world is falling apart around us and just going from bad to worse. Is there a right of it?
I try to be a realist, but I know that most people would say the same thing of themselves. I see there are many things that are bad, and some are increasingly bad. But I also see that there are many things that are good, and some are surprisingly good. But most importantly, I think Christianity gives solid ground for hope. Not optimism, but hope.
On the bad side of the ledger, there are many things that Christian pessimists complain about, ranging from cultural alienation from Christianity in the West to resurgence of militant Islam to growing inequities worldwide. Here are a few big ones from my perspective:
- In Europe and North America, most people know basically nothing about Christianity, yet they still presume that they know what Christianity is, and they reject it on the basis of their misconceptions without really understanding the Christianity which I have found.
- Most churches, it seems, are doing a poor job even in educating their children about the truth of Christianity, and many people who have grown up in the churches are leaving them, not out of any principled or considered rejection, but simply because they don’t see the point.
- It is increasingly common for public discourse in Europe and North America to claim that traditional Christian views on a range of subjects are offensive, and that expressing them constitutes harming others.
- Many church leaders in basically all denominations are primarily concerned with maintaining or, if possible, increasing their power through manipulative techniques; many others seek to make Christianity indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, claiming that what matters is the church structure. Godly leadership is hard to find, and not widely celebrated.
- The US government is increasingly willing to maintain American prosperity through killing non-Americans over whom it has no jurisdiction. Drones are a new technology, but essentially they fire missiles or drop bombs, and at no prior period were so many foreigners being killed by US missiles and bombs outside of a state of war as at the present.
- Christian communities in the Middle East (between Egypt and Pakistan) are experiencing very difficult times, as certain Muslim extremists hold them accountable for American imperialism, and their governments are unable or unwilling to protect them.
- Public discourse, at least in the US and perhaps in other places, has been neutered by polarizing talking heads who misrepresent every other viewpoint. Opt-in discussion groups and news media mean that most people in developed countries have very little experience working through any substantive disagreement, or seeing anyone work through any substantive disagreement.
- New technologies are widening the gulf between those who have and those who have not, while at the same time online discussion groups (as wonderful as they can be in many ways!) cannot fully replace flesh and blood communities, leading to increasing social fragmentation and isolation. I think people are less happy now as a result of television, the internet, cell phones, and smart phones, as useful as those devices are for certain tasks.
- Destructive behaviors such as alcoholism and rape are endemic on American university campuses, and even in many high schools, while teachers and administrators are busily saying that such actions are none of their business. Indeed, if people in authority address such topics, they are likely to find themselves disciplined for trespassing on their students’ rights.
There are other things that bother me and seem to be making things worse, but those bullet points are what come to mind.
With that list of things to worry about, is there anything good to be said about the situation today? Or are Christian pessimists simply right, and Christian optimists living in fantasy-land?
There are good things happening in the world as well, some of which are trumpeted by the optimists, while others seem to be largely overlooked. Here are a few that strike me:
- The “good old days” were not, as far as I can tell, all that great. When I read or hear stories from before the 1960s, I am often shocked by the frankly hateful racism and sexism which is tolerated (if not advocated) by them. While Western societies today have certainly not achieved justice, I think that racism and sexism have decreased in many ways. Some of that apparent decrease, of course, is just political correctness, but I think some of it is genuine as well. In some areas of society, indeed, sexual violence may be decreasing rather than increasing, to judge from the degree to which date rape and domestic abuse were taken for granted in certain demographics in a previous generation.
- It seems to me that, despite all its vaunted rejection of Christianity, modern American society is surprisingly taking a more traditionally Christian line on at least one aspect of sexual ethics: the prohibition of adultery. Only fifty years ago, the sexual double-standard led many people to turn a blind eye toward married men keeping mistresses, and concubinage was apparently acceptable. While today a small but loud minority is calling for “open marriages” and “polyamory,” and many people think that anything goes (as long as it’s consensual) before marriage, “cheating on” one’s spouse is more widely despised and censured among twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings than, I think, previously.
- If Christian church attendance is decreasing in Europe and North America, it is increasing in other areas of the world. In particular, Christianity has been growing very quickly in China for a number of years now, and since China is the world’s most populous country and quite possibly its next dominant superpower, having a substantial Christian presence there will preserve the gospel for generations to come.
- Christianity is also very strong in South Korea, which is sending more missionaries worldwide than any country except the US. (Indeed, South Korea is sending more Christian missionaries per capita than the US because the American population is six times that of South Korea!) Korean missionaries are working widely through the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and have an easier time in areas where American Christians cannot get visas to preach the gospel. Some of those Korean missionaries are even coming to the US, breaking stereotypes about how Christianity is a religion for dead white males.
- Increasing numbers of people are realizing the emptiness of secularism. They may not know what to replace it with, and there are many ideas on the table, but for some, Christianity is once again considered a live option.
- Most encouraging is the evidence in continued changed lives. Non-Christians continue to find the grace, forgiveness, and joy that God offers in Jesus Christ and are converting to Christianity, while some nominal Christians discover the wealth of the heritage they didn’t know they had.
So there are good things going on as well as bad. Readers inclined to quantification may notice that I listed more bad points than good, but these points are not all equal and cannot simply be tallied up. The fact is that the world’s a mess, but it’s not a straightforward mess. This is what Christian doctrine should lead us to expect. The world was created good, so some good things should be expected to remain visible in it. Humanity fell and made a mess of everything, so we should expect a lot of harm and a lot of damage, and this is what we see in every age of history. Theologians often emphasize that every aspect of creation has been damaged in the process, and thus even good things like relationships and technology can be turned to bad. But that’s not the end of the story, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, through his Holy Spirit, is redeeming the world. So we should expect him to have had some success, and for some things to be getting better!
And this is why Christianity is neither a religion of pessimism nor a religion of optimism, but is instead a religion of hope. The world is a horrible mess, but there is a Savior. His work is not simply past (although he has been working), nor simply future (although he will finish the task), but is past, present, and future. He promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world (Matthew 28:20). He promised that Hell would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18). He didn’t promise us a rose-garden; instead, he foretold that in this world we would have trouble, but even so he told us to be encouraged, because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). We do not see these realities fully (although we often see far too much of our present troubles, if you ask me!), but as Paul wrote, “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he already sees?” (Romans 8:24). Even without fully seeing the display of God’s sovereignty in our present world, we can trust his character, for he who died on the cross out of love for the world is now he who superintends the world’s redemption. We hope in him, we wait for him, we pray to him, we worship him, and we will one day see him face to face. He will come again and will bring redemption to its completion.