Pessimism sells. Something in us likes to hear about how bad things are and how much worse they will become. We are attracted to the notion that the apocalypse is just around the corner. Books about the coming economic collapse and futuristic movies that portend the destruction of humankind are repackaged time and again. Reports from this or that think tank garner much attention when they foretell doom and gloom. Do you remember, for instance, The Limits of Growth, published in the early 1970s by The Club of Rome? The book predicted the demise of Planet Earth by the end of the millennium due to the population explosion, and the naysaying was so popular that the essay sold over 30 million copies and was translated into 30 languages! Do you remember Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling book The Population Bomb (1968)? Ehrlich gave England a 50/50 chance of surviving until the 21st century. Or how about the 1980 report called Global 2000? This presidential report declared that life on our planet was getting worse in every measurable way.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. Life on Planet Earth improved for almost everyone. It was the curmudgeon H. L. Mencken who said, The human race is in such a dreadful state that no rational person can talk about it without resorting to seditious and obscene language. One has to wonder if Mencken is turning in his proverbial grave. Ponder the good news, dear pessimist, and weep:
• Illiteracy rates worldwide have fallen dramatically since 1970 and are at a historic low of 18 percent.
• A greater percentage of the world’s population lives in free societies than any time in history.
• Around the globe, life expectancy is 50 percent longer today than it was in 1955.
• Incomes are increasing. In the early 1980s, 40 percent of the world’s population lived on less than $1 a day. Currently, adjusted for inflation, that percentage has dropped to 25 percent.
• Even the population bomb seems to have fizzled. Demographers are predicting a stabilization of the world’s population and even a decline by the second half of our century.
Okay, you say, but what about America? Aren’t things getting worse here? Isn’t the sun setting on our parade? Hardly. The good times roll on and on.
• Crime rates have plunged across the board. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, property and violent crime have reached their lowest levels since 1973.
• Teenage drug use has declined 23 percent since the 1990s. The use of LSD, ecstasy, and methamphetamine has declined by almost 50 percent in recent years.
• Our welfare rolls are getting smaller, shrinking 60 percent since 1994. The rates of child poverty among black and Hispanic children have similarly declined.
• The divorce rate is the lowest it has been since 1970, and even the rate of abortion is declining. In 1990 we performed 1.6 million abortions in America; last year we performed fewer than 1.3 million abortions.
And what, you ask, is the Christian response to all this good news? First, as we tiptoe into 2008, let us be people marked by gratitude. God has placed us in what can only be called good times. Hand-wringing in such an era as ours must be a sin. Sure, we can worry about Vladimir Putin, Hamas, Kim Jong-il, and the price of gasoline (which, by the way, when adjusted for inflation costs today about as much as it did in the mid-1930s). We can fret over our national debt, consumer debt, global warming, housing starts, and the current crop of presidential contenders. These are real problems. Is there cause for anxiety? Clearly. But every people, in every age, has reasons for anxiety. Life in a fallen world is fragile. It always has been and will always be so until Christ comes again. But God has been pleased to place us in the best of times. Let us give thanks accordingly.
Second, let us beware. A delayed apocalypse delights me, but good times frighten me. Good times tend to make us lazy. Luxury leads to a sense of entitlement: We have so much, we are so well cared for, and our needs are so thoroughly met that we might be tempted to think we deserve all this. We begin to think of God as a cosmic waiter whose primary job is to fill our cup with ice and tea as we bask in the sunlight of his goodness. When something in life does go awry, we are stunned, even offended, left wondering why God isn’t at this moment making us happy.
Good times also tend to lead us into idolatry. An idol is anything that takes the place of God (a car, a friendship, a job, a marriage, living in Santa Barbara). When one of these things is inflated to the point that it receives attention reserved for God alone, it becomes an idol. When material prosperity, for example, becomes an end in itself, that prosperity is idolatrous. Consider the process. We become accustomed to living with our wealth. Soon enough we take for granted our good jobs, our nice apartments and homes, and our insurance polices that cover everything from a car crash to an appendectomy. Yet we grow unsatisfied. But instead of coming to our senses and
returning to God, we seek to fill our hunger with more—more money, more leisure and travel, more square feet under our roof, more things. Abundance never satisfies; rather, it creates an unquenchable thirst. We need look no further than the credit card industry for verification of this truth. Consumer debt is at an unprecedented high as we enter 2008. In 1980 consumers owed $55 billion, in 1997 we owed $367 billion, and today we owe nearly $1.5 trillion! Surely such debt testifies to our materialistic idolatry. The richest people on the planet, we nevertheless want more than we already have.
Finally, good times tend to lead us into innumerable perversions. G. K. Chesterton noted that it is during the afternoon when the children become bored and begin to torture the cat. Ours is surely an afternoon society. Having become bored with our copious bounty, we fall for absurdities such as cosmetic surgery (from the face lift to the tummy tuck), pet cemeteries (embalm your poodle???), and $250 Nike basketball shoes. Body piercing, facial tattoos, and body branding are surely evidence of a bored society.
But back to our original question: Is the apocalypse just around the corner? Is the sky falling with the advent of radical Islam, global warming, and the scarcity of trans fat? Who knows? But right now we live in good times. On the one hand, thanksgiving. On the other hand, vigilance. It may be that this very night our lives will be demanded of us. Then who will get what we have prepared for ourselves (Luke 19:2)?