This is No Time to Despair or Give Up

There are lots of conservative Christians who believe that world conditions are inextricably tied to the near end of the world. For centuries, prophetic speculators have assured their readers that the signs of the end were in place. Francis X. Gumerlock’s book The Day and the Hour: Christianity’s Perennial Fascination with Predicting the End of the World (2000) is a complete history of this trend. Yes, things are bad, but they’ve been bad before.

What we are seeing is the end of a humanistic worldview that cannot sustain itself. God has placed before us a great opportunity. Will we meet the challenge? Charles H. Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century Baptist preacher, made these comments on Psalm 86:9 found in his magisterial work The Treasury of David:

“David was not a believer in the theory that the world will grow worse and worse, and that the dispensations will wind up with general darkness, and idolatry. Earth’s sun is to go down amid tenfold night if some of our prophetic brethren are to be believed. Not so do we expect, but we look for a day when the dwellers in all lands shall learn righteousness, shall trust in the Saviour, shall worship thee alone, O God, and shall glorify thy name. The modern notion has greatly damped the zeal of the church for missions, and the sooner it is shown to be unscriptural the better for the cause of God. It neither consorts with prophecy, honours God, nor inspires the church with ardour. Far hence be it driven. (Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Containing the Book of Psalms; A Collection of Illustrative Extracts from the Whole Range of Literature; A Series of Homiletical Hints Upon Almost Every Verse; and Lists of Writers Upon Each Psalm, 7 vols. [New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., (1869), 1881], 4:102.)

Remember, you can’t beat something with nothing, and you certainly can’t beat something if you give up on the future.

Here’s some historical perspective that might help with all this talk about prophetic inevitability. Many people thought the same thing in the 15th century. Read the opening paragraph to the Prologue of Samuel Eliot Morison’s biography on Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942):

At the end of the year 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science, and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune [devoid of significance] and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through the study of the pagan past. Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom. . . . The Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had overrun most of Greece, Albania and Serbia; presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna.1

Plug in the year 2011 where 1492 appears in Morison’s quotation, and his description reads like today’s headlines. The world changed in a day when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and in a quarter century when Martin Luther posted a parchment on a chapel door in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany. A revival and reformation ensued, the New World was opened, and Western Civilization advanced.

Jacques Barzun, author of numerous books that trace the history of ideas and culture — his Dawn to Decadence is one of his best (2000) — offers an assessment similar to that of Morison’s of how the future is discounted by the perception that the present is bankrupt, near collapse, and hopelessly lost:

“Sooner or later, the sophisticated person who reads or hears that Western civilization is in decline reminds himself that to the living ‘the times’ always seem bad. In most eras voices cry out against the visible decadence; for every generation — and especially for the aging — the world is going to the dogs. In 1493 — note the date — a learned German named [Hartmann] Schedel [1440–1514] compiled and published with comments the Nuremberg Chronicle. It announced that the sixth of the seven ages was drawing to a close and it supplied several blank pages at the end of the book to record anything of importance that might occur in what was left of history. What was left, hiding around the corner, was the opening up of the New World and a few side effects of that inconsequential event. A glance at history, by showing that life continues and new energies may arise, is bound to inspire skepticism about the recurrent belief in decline.”2

Don’t be dismayed. Never give up. Never surrender. Let’s put our big-big pants on and fight against the night, for tomorrow is the dawn.

  1. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1942), 3. []
  2. Jacques Barzun, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” The Culture We Deserve (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 161. []