I had mixed reactions the first time I heard Harvard professor Steven Pinker say we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. Something inside me wanted it to be true, but at the same time, I had grown up in the evangelical subculture that holds strongly the belief that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
My entire life was built on the premise that the best the world could be was some place in the past, and my goal as a Christian was to collect facts about some bygone era and work hard to revive the lost expression of the faith of my forefathers.
But then I discovered something. The entire narrative of the Bible is the story of an upward slope toward redemption and reconciliation. For me to live a biblical life doesn’t mean I re-create the culture of the Bible. It means I live a life that continues the progressive revelation of God and His reality throughout the universe. Let me paint a quick picture of what I’m talking about:
The Upward Slope
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets perform miracle after miracle as they respond to God: the parting of seas and rivers, water from stones, walking through fire, spending the night with lions. Along comes John the Baptist and Jesus says, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” In saying this, Jesus is addressing John’s level of authority to unveil the Kingdom of heaven on earth. Then Jesus goes on to say, “yet, he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
In this passage, Jesus is talking about the disciples, the first apostles, and you and me. Jesus reinforces the ability for those who are to come after Him to reveal heaven on earth in saying, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these.”
None of this should be surprising. Long before the coming of Jesus, Isaiah prophesied that “there would be no end to the increase of His government.” Even this prophet painted a picture of the increasing presence of God through the saving work of the Messiah.
So why is it that the very ones Jesus commissioned to carry on the work of “thy Kingdom come” are the ones championing the end of it all?
A Neglected Responsibility
There is potentially no greater self-fulfilling prophecy than the belief that “the world is falling apart.” When we believe something, we look for things that confirm our belief. And there’s certainly no shortage of bad news on the 24 hour news channels that stream into our homes, offices and public spaces. We, in turn, take these events and begin building our view of the world on the exceptions rather than the rules.
When I talk to people about the state of the world, I usually begin with one simple question, “when you look at your life and the lives of those you love, do you think the world is an awful place to live?” Sure, we encounter difficult moments, but when we look at something as simple as our own experience in life, we know the world isn’t actually going to hell in a hand basket.
So why does so much of evangelical America live with a defeatist mentality? Two reasons: superiority and laziness.
I’ve spent much of my life walking around calling things broken and thinking I’m better than they are. I was a cynic. But eventually I discovered that a cynic and a prophet have the same ability to see. A cynic sees what’s broken about today while a prophet sees what’s beautiful about tomorrow.
It’s much easier for the Church to stand at a distance and criticize from a place of self-induced superiority than it is for the Church to get on it knees and humbly love and serve the world. It’s easier to “fight a culture war” than it is to be agents of peace. It’s far more comfortable to manipulate people’s behavior through the imposition of legislated morality than it is to engage with people who are different than we are.
But God is committed to His agenda even if those He left here to accomplish it have given up their responsibility.
The World is Getting Better
While some Christians wait for the world to fall apart, there are many working to eliminate sickness, extend life expectancy, and increase the quality of the lives we’re living. Just take a look at a few of the statistics:
Peace: Since 1945, there has been a steep decline in inter-state wars, deadly ethnic riots and military coups in Europe and the Americas. In the 1950s, the average death per conflict per year was over 65,000. Today, there are less than 2,000 deaths per conflict per year.
Health: In the last century, we have seen amazing advances in medicine through the understanding of biology and the way our bodies work. Deadly diseases have been eradicated.
Globally, infant mortality has fallen from 46 per 1000 in 2004 to 34 per 1000 in 2013.
Poverty: In their 2014 Annual Letter, USAID announced their plans to eradicate global poverty by 2030.
These aren’t simply arbitrary statistics, unrelated to God’s agenda for the earth. At the coming of Christ, the angels declared, “Peace on earth. Good will toward men.”
So now what?
The Church has a choice. We can either be the voice believing things will get worse; or we can be the voice believing things are getting better and we can summon our communities to lead them that way. Because even if physical poverty and hunger is eradicated, the spirit of humanity is still looking for spiritual satisfaction. If we see the end of war, we still need inner peace. If human slavery comes to an end, there is still a great need for freedom from the bondage of spiritual oppression.
A world in which humanity is freed from the search for day-to-day physical sustenance is a world ripe for Spiritual Innovation. Because if the world truly is getting better, if the Kingdom is really to come as Christ prayed, the Church better be poised for the future. Not a future of destruction. Rather, a future that sees a continual increase in the revelation of the infinite character and nature of God on the earth.
Cole is the Creative Director and co-pastor of City Beautiful Church in Orlando, FL. His new book, Spiritual Innovation, helps us move from the need for control to a new level of exploration, expectation, discovery, and creativity in our faith and lives. He also creates interactive and reflective art and worship experiences through his company, Uncover The Color. He blogs at colenesmith.com and is on Twitter @ColeNeSmith.