Many Christians have a strange reaction to disasters and violent events. We are saddened by the suffering, of course, but we can also display a kind of smug ‘I told you so’ response – a sigh, a shake of the head, quickly followed by the words, ‘Of course, the Bible tells us to expect these things.’
But is this really what the Bible says? If so, we have a problem, because a closer look at the facts detailing the state of our world suggests that individually we are actually suffering less than previous generations.
Today, we are bombarded with news. Thirty-minute TV news shows have been supplemented by 24- hour channels, and newspapers now compete with hundreds of reputable Internet sites – as well as millions of disreputable sources. Bad news from across the world is widely reported, but this isn’t the case with good news; experience has shown that good news just isn’t as interesting. The few ‘positive’ or ‘encouraging’ news items are saved for a happy end to the news programme. We know much more about bad events than we would have done years ago, so it’s understandable that we might conclude that the world is getting worse. But just how true is this?
THE STATISTICS: AND HOW WE FEEL ABOUT THEM
Crime statistics consistently show fewer reported crimes in almost every category during the last few decades – but we tend to dismiss them. Police figures and public surveys of unreported crimes agree with each other, though these surveys show that individuals feel as though crime is much worse.
And what about wars? Estimated death figures show that an average of 0.4 million people per year were killed in the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48, and 0.5 million per year died in the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–15. In the two World Wars, 4 million and 14.1 million per year were killed. The numbers certainly appear worse because more people are being killed in global wars today. However, this increase in the number of casualties is far less than the increase in population – so the proportion of people killed has actually decreased. For example, the Thirty Years’ War wiped out a third of the German population, whereas 10.7% of the population were killed in World War Two, including civilians. All wars are horrifying, but the likelihood of an individual being killed in one is constantly falling.
Religious persecution, by contrast, has escalated dramatically since ISIS and Boko Haram started their attempts to establish a pure caliphate. They and others worldwide have killed thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of Christians, and (we must always remember) they have killed even more Muslims. Their death-toll is on a par with the worst Roman emperor, Diocletian, in the early fourth century. He attempted to wipe out Christianity, especially in the east of his empire (more or less where ISIS is spreading). According to ancient reports, 17,000 Christians died in a single month and 20,000 died in a single city (Nicomedia, in Turkey). Although these numbers are comparable with the deaths of Christians by ISIS, the number of Christians alive in Diocletian’s day totalled only perhaps a million, compared to the billions today – and so the proportion martyred is far less. An individual Christian was in far more peril in that terrible past.
PLAGUE AND FAMINE
We have recently seen some dreadful famines and plagues. The Ebola outbreak killed 11,282 individuals, and the AIDS epidemic has so far claimed 1.7 million deaths worldwide. But this is nothing compared to the Black Death which killed 60% of Europe’s population in the 14th century, or the diseases brought to the Americas which killed more than 90% of the native population. The most recent serious epidemic was the flu of 1918 which killed about 70 million people – 4% of humanity. There has latterly been nothing that horrific.
Even famines don’t kill like they used to, thanks to world food aid. There are significant decreases in rainfall, especially in the USA and northern Africa, but thankfully nothing that causes famines on the scale of those in the past. Most hunger today is caused by war, not famine – and there are now twice as many people suffering from obesity worldwide as malnutrition.
Jesus said that he would come when the gospel is preached throughout the world
Of course, statistics don’t tell the terrible stories of personal suffering. The fact that an individual is less likely to suffer from persecutions, war, famine and disease does not lessen in any way the horror of these events or our need to respond with help and compassion for those enduring them. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to play false with reality.
THE ONE TRUE SIGN OF THE END
Many Christians will be the last to accept these statistics – not because they are natural pessimists, but because they think that Jesus predicted things would worsen until he comes. Actually, he said the opposite. Jesus described only one sign of his coming and listed several others which he said did not portend the end: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth-pains’ (Matthew 24:6-8).
After listing these and other events that do not necessarily indicate that the end is near, Jesus described the only one that does: ‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come’ (v14).
The reason Jesus warned us about wars, famines and persecutions was that when those terrible things happened, we would know that God was still in control. The ancient and medieval Church suffered much more than we do and took comfort from the fact that Jesus had predicted these things. But Jesus didn’t say they would continually get worse; and he specifically didn’t link them to his coming.
There is still terrible suffering in the world today; but we can’t say whether it will increase or decrease before the End, because Jesus didn’t tell us. However, he did say that he would come when the gospel is preached throughout the world. And what do we see today? Worldwide missions are exploding with growth! This is something we can help promote and point to with a smile – instead of a frown.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge