No, the world isn't getting worse

August 27th, 2015

The sincere ladies who stopped by my house had Bibles and binders full of literature from their church. They had practiced their pitch and knew their talking points well. After shaking hands, smiling, and talking about the fall-like temperatures, one of them made their opening statement:

“When you look around at all the things going on in the world today, doesn’t it seem like the world is getting worse?”

“No, actually. I don’t think the world is getting worse.”

She looked appalled.

I was as surprised as she was. I had prepared to tell them that I was a United Methodist pastor, and that I didn’t want them to waste their time with a theological discussion that wouldn’t benefit any of us. But something in her sureness that the world was going to hell in a handbasket provoked something inside of me.

I would agree that there are a lot of problems in the world. We may be living in the midst of a great extinction brought about by our profligate use of the world’s resources. Gun violence in our country and extremism in the world present us with visions of humankind’s brutality. Mass incarceration and systemic racism perpetuate inequality. And — oh yeah, I almost forgot — the church seems to be hemorrhaging.

Christians who talk about the end times often seem to be the most pessimistic about the future. Louis Evely wrote that, “The paradox of our time is that those who believe in God do not believe in the salvation of the world, and those who believe in the future of the world do not believe in God.”

But it’s not only religious folks who believe bad news about the end times. One of my atheist friends believes we are on the eve of humankind’s extinction. Human nature is so perverse, he believes, that there is no way we will get off the planet and become a space-faring race before we either blow ourselves up or ruin our planet. In his eschatology, the salvation of the human race, whether from God or from human ingenuity, is a naive hope.

He, the ladies in my driveway and presidential candidates of diverse political views would probably all agree that the world is going downhill. They might agree on nearly everything except God and their preferred policy solutions.

But I believe Christian eschatology is about Good News. We can catch glimpses, and there are signs of hope for the world, if we dare look for them. A recent video that helps us visualize the death toll of World War II also makes the point that violence worldwide has been decreasing over the last several decades. People have a hard time believing that fewer people are being killed because the news is so full of violence all of the time. But if peace broke out all over the world, how long would it be until we knew it?

And although economic inequality, systemic racism and oppression of all kinds are still very much a part of our public life, there is a growing awareness that we cannot wait on a centralized leadership to address these issues. Grassroots movements like #blacklivesmatter have illustrated the ability of everyday people to shift the cultural conversation.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we're marching inevitably toward utopia. I don’t place my faith in human progress. But I do take Jesus seriously when he says, “the Kingdom is among you.”

In his “Theology of Hope,” Jurgen Moltmann writes that both despair and presumption are symptoms of hopelessness, a kind of “sin against hope.” The assertion that the world is steadily declining and that the best future for us is a quick death, the rapture or the destructive wrath of God are all hopeless responses. Hope, Moltmann argues, is the distinctive quality of Christian eschatology that connects the problems of the present with an openness to Christ’s future in the resurrection. We live in “the world of possibilities,” which is on rails neither to heaven nor hell in a handbasket. Instead, Christ creates a “new horizon” which calls Christians forward into active engagement. Followers of Christ have a future-oriented yet in-the-moment attitude toward life.

The future does not depend on our “building” the kingdom of God. Our activity of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly of God is a response to the coming justice of God. Seeing the reign of God approaching on the horizon, we move to do what we can to “humanize” our present world.

So, when missionaries at my door, or preachers in the pulpit or presidential candidates speak fondly of the past and talk about the world getting worse, I think about what Moltmann calls the “Exodus Church.” Our God is active in history with an unfinished world. God invites us to be part of God’s salvation project.

So, no, I don’t think the world is getting worse. I think the Kingdom is breaking in.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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