There are 12 lines in the Apostle’s Creed. I know this because I memorized the Apostle’s Creed and also because I just looked it up on Wikipedia. On that Wikipedia page are 12 numbers next to 12 lines, one for each apostle, or tribe of Israel, or Day of Christmas. Actually it is one for each thing we believe as Christians.
However, the list of things we “believe” far outnumbers 12. For example, Christians also believe God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by killing firstborn sons. I am kind of glad I don’t confess that in the creeds though. We also believe Jesus walked on water and taught us to love our neighbor, neither of which are confessed. Most of us also believe that Scripture has some authority over what we believe but the creeds don’t mention that.
But there is another belief confessed among current Christians that might be a contender for line number 13. It currently is not in any creed or statement of faith, but its popularity and potency make it unavoidable. And to contradict this belief is to be regarded as a heretic of the worst type and maybe even. . .a liberal.
If codified by an ecumenical council, this 13th line should read, alongside the 12th line, “and the life everlasting and that the world will get worse until then.”
Most Christians confess this 13th line in conversations I have with them. They say things like, “Things are bad but I guess the Bible says they have to get that way.”
Sometimes they hide their pessimism behind a veil of optimism, “Man this is such a great time to be alive! Things are so bad Jesus is going to come back tomorrow! I am so happy and I hope I don’t die today.” People have actually said that to me, like 10 of them.
And I disagree with them.
I do not do so lightly, nor am I a “pie in the sky” optimist that refuses to see the great evils and challenges among us. However, if I were born two centuries ago and time traveled to today I would conclude that we were living in a utopia, not a dystopia or even a post-apocalypse.
I would do this because most of the raw data available to us reveals that our age is a golden one. In fact, a few have even compared it to the Pax Romana or the Renaissance.
However the average person isn’t listening. Instead they are waiting for an apocalypse that is not happening nor guaranteed to happen. And I fear our cynicism might be a self fulfilling prophecy, one where the world gets worse simply because we all act as if it is getting worse.
Therefore, the real threat is our perceptions because us humans have a nasty habit of making perception reality. In order to help us disarm this threat, it is important to look at how our cynicism came about over the last century.
The 19th century ended on high notes of “pie in the sky” optimism, even among conservative Christians. It was to be a century of progress and peace and revival. The Holiness Movement (also known as the 2nd Great Revival) was in full swing, though about to die down. New technologies had increased understanding among nations and tons of treaties had been signed between those nations to guarantee a lasting (and eternal) peace.
On the domestic front, the economy was running strong, prohibition was actually a thing and people filled churches on Sunday mornings with their entire families.
Then it all shattered. The assassination of one diplomat brought Europe into a very nasty war, and all because of those super logical and “effective” treaties. After the war, the roaring 20s brought alcohol back, along with promiscuity and a host of other sins. Then the entire world economy crashed overnight.
Then Hitler emerged as a ray of hope, using clever economic logic to bring Germany back to life. Then Hitler declared war on the world and tried to annihilate the Jewish people. The war ended when a group of highly intelligent scientists used the scientific method and new advances in the understanding of atoms to annihilate 100,000 people in a half second.
So about the time the Allied troops were liberating concentration camps and dropping A bombs, western optimism had died a cold, hard death. The logic that was supposed to save us and the God of perfect logic who was supposed to keep us safe had failed us miserably.
At around the same time a new eschatology was taking over Christianity, particularly the conservative Evangelicals. This theory of the end times is now labeled “premillenial dispensationalism” and holds that the world must get worse and worse by divine decree. It goes one step farther and argues that things have to get really bad before Jesus will come again. At best this meant Christians should shrugg off the world’s evils. Worse, some Christians find themselves rejoicing in the world’s evils because they are signs of our impending salvation and “their” impending doom. Even worse, some Christians believe they need to actively make the world a worse place so that we can force Jesus’ hand.
This eschatology brings with it the idea of a rapture which claims that after the elect forces Jesus’ hand by actively destroying everything, God will rescue them so they wouldn’t experience the consequences of their sin.
Meanwhile, in the secular world, the Cold War was brewing and The US and USSR built enough A-bombs to destroy the world 20 times over. Very creative artists, used this reality to create a new genre of post-apocalyptic literature. All of these novels, movies, paintings and TV shows envisioned the world being destroyed in a hundred different ways. They proved to be good entertainment and even healthy warnings about what could be if we did not get our act together.
Then we did get our act together, which is remarkable, but today, though the cold war has ended without nuclear annihilation, post-apocalyptic literature is more popular than ever before. For examples you can look at the Terminator series, World War Z, Contagion, The Walking Dead, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and a number of other examples.
In turn, Christians have been quick to co-opt this genre and even help advance it with books and movies like the “Left Behind” series that preach the apocalyptic, premillenial dispensationlist view that we must make things bad before Jesus can come rescue us.
All of this fuels the assumption that things are getting worse and that one day very soon the whole world will quite literally “go to hell” over the course of a week or a day or even a moment. The average person fully expects the robots or the viruses or the zombies or the nuclear bombs or Jesus himself to rise up and destroy us all sometime in the next year.
But while we turn on the television and go to the movie theaters and visit book stories to study our impending doom, in reality the exact opposite is happening. Violence is on the decrease. Wars are no longer fought between first world nations with millions dying as the result. They are fought against small but violent factions in deserts with a few thousand, sometimes just a few dozen casualties.
At home the mechanisms that sustain us, while being far from perfect, actually do an okay job at keeping us safe, not only from human threats but from things like viruses and tornadoes and earthquakes and even bad economies. Two hundred years ago, to have Ebola in the US would mean to not have a US. Last year it was contained quickly, though I, like most people, am disturbed that it even got here.
Furthermore our politicians continue to discuss ways to help the least and most vulnerable. They disagree about how to do that and they use impolite tactics to do so. Yet the fact they are discussing it and refuse to stop discussing it is quite unique from a historical perspective. Let us not forget that in the not so recent past a King’s job was not to provide for the citizens but to get the citizens to provide for him.
But perhaps the best thing fueling this golden age is that the average human is more aware of the global problems now than ever before. A century ago I probably could have told you that someone was hungry somewhere. Now I can go online and show you pictures of them and give you their names. And I can spend 3 minutes donating money to build that person a well or to donate them a donkey or other livestock. People are doing this in incredible amounts. In fact the citizenry of the USA is the most generous people ever and we are closely followed by the citizens of a hundred other countries. We do not give so much because we are better than others were. Generosity has always been commonplace. But we are generous because our technology, and our government, has made giving easy.
So I don’t buy the cynicism and I am not going to add it to my creed. Instead, I believe in the Holy, Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
And that fills me with hope. Happy New Year.