When I was growing up I was taught dispensational premillennialism, an eschatology (theology of last things) that has as one of its hallmarks an unshakeable pessimism about the imminent future. Basically, things will keep getting worse until Jesus returns and establishes his kingdom. Dispensational pessimism continues to form a broad swathe of North American conservative Christianity. It is captured well in this passage from Billy Grham’s 1984 book Peace with God:
“There is concern about what is going to happen by the year 2000–or if we’ll even reach that landmark year. Because of the tension in the world, the turmoil on almost every continent, some world leaders doubt we will survive beyond the year 2000–we seem to be getting worse and worse every day.” (Bill Graham, Peace with God, Thomas Nelson, 1984, 254).
Which world leaders were suggesting that the world wouldn’t survive beyond the year 2000? (Remember, Pat Robertson doesn’t count as a world leader.)
This dispensational pessimism brings with it an almost perverse excitement with every new natural disaster. To be sure, it is not that Christian conservatives are happy to see people suffering. Rather, the idea is that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud. Could the latest tornado, earthquake or hurricane be a herald of the end? Are interminable wars or a rise in Middle East tension the latest fulfillment of prophecy? Could global warming be the bellwether for Christ’s return?
When I was growing up it certainly seemed that things were always getting worse. Needless to say the fledgling environmental movement spurred on evangelical pessimism with warnings of population bombs, acid rain and environmental armageddon.
In retrospect, Paul Ehrlich’s population bomb has turned out to be more of a wet firecracker. (The current worry is severe depopulation in the developed world. To take one example, Italy is projected to have one third of its population over 65 by 2050!) Acid rain is no longer the threat it once was. And even if our environmental problems continue to loom over us, we are now assured that the end of the world prophets were a bit premature in their assessments. (For further discussion see David Suzuki, Good News for a Change, Greystone, 2003.)
But even if environmental projections did not prove to herald the imminent end of the world, surely social decay does. The social fabric is unravelling further every year with abortion, pornography, prostitution, drug abuse, divorce. Surely here there is irrefutable evidence for the pessimism that the end is near.
Is this really so? Or is it merely a case of selective perception, of counting the bad and ignoring the good?
I suggest we try a little thought experiment to test the perennial pessimism thesis. We begin with the idea of an original position first postulated by John Rawls in his theory of justice.
Think about it like this. Imagine that the following individuals will be born somewhere in North America in the year 1800, 1900 or 2000:
(a) First Nations male
(b) Caucasian female
(c) Afro-American male with autism
(d) Caucasian male
(e) South Asian female with Tourettes
Now rate the social prospects of (a)-(e) on a scale of 1-10, where 1 = dim social prospects, likely to be the victim of severe and systemic discrimination and 10 = excellent social prospects, likely to be treated with fairness and equity. The higher the cumulative score for these social groups, the more equitable the society.
Immediately we calculate all sorts of factors — the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, the repeal of ugly laws (on the books as recently as 1974!), and so on. As a result, we will see that with each century the score gets higher and the society is, on the whole, more equitable.
Of course there is much more one could count to identify an equitable society. But this simple thought experiment suggests that the dispensational pessimism is even less warranted when it comes to social issues than environmental ones.
Unfortunately this is really hard for some Christians to see because they’ve adopted a position where the acknowledgement of overall social betterment is actually a threat to their theological outlook. The rise of equity and justice is a theological threat? This is nothing if not ironic.