In part 1, we considered the signs that the gospel of Luke gives for the end times. Pestilence, famine, earthquake? Despite what excitable television personalities would like to believe, these are not increasing, and modern technology is doing a lot more than Christianity ever did in addressing them.
There’s one more in Luke’s list that we should consider: war.
Steven Pinker: is war decreasing?
There are always lots of conflicts in the world. Are they increasing?
Steven Pinker looks at history and draws an optimistic conclusion in his TED video “The Surprising Decline in Violence” (2007). He says, “Today, we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”
He argues that violence has dropped over time and that this can be seen on a fractal scale. That is, violence has consistently dropped whether you look over the long term (millennia), medium term (centuries), or short term (decades).
- Millennia. Hunter-gatherer societies of thousands of years ago were thought to have lived in primordial harmony. But if we compare modern hunter-gatherers with industrial society, we find that deaths from warfare is far higher in those societies than in Europe and the U.S. for the twentieth century, including both world wars.
- Centuries. Centuries ago in Europe, crimes that today get you a fine might have been punished with mutilation or branding. Crimes that today get you a prison term might have been punished with torture and death. Slavery was common. Manuel Eisner studied homicide rates in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present and concluded that they have dropped by two orders of magnitude.
- Decades. Since 1945, we have seen a steep decline in wars, ethnic riots, and coups in Europe and the Americas. Yes, U.S. homicides did double during the seventies and eighties, but they’re now back down to 1950s rates.
I confess that I’m not as optimistic. I can’t argue with these facts, but there are other facts (50 million people dead from World War II) that argue that we humans still need a lot of therapy. The best way that I see to illustrate our progress is to note that the average Joe in America today lives a far more comfortable and secure life than kings from the Middle Ages.
How do we get it so wrong?
Given these facts, most of which are well known, why are we susceptible to the Chicken Littles of the world? Why do we think things are getting worse when they’re clearly getting better? Pinker answers:
- Modern news-gathering organizations give us a much more complete view of world problems than we’ve ever had. Every hideous death and every local skirmish are made available for our consumption.
- Bad news is more memorable, is more easily recalled, and more powerfully colors our views of the state of things.
- Good-works organizations don’t raise money by telling us how great things are.
- We in the West feel guilty because of the bad stuff we’ve done—the treatment of native peoples, colonization, Dresden and Hiroshima, etc.—so we downplay the good we do.
- Our standards are outpacing our behavior. It’s easy to identify problems and raise our standards bar so that past actions are no longer acceptable, but actually changing the behavior is tougher. This is a glass half full/half empty problem: we may lament that death-row inmates have been wrongly convicted while capital punishment is still legal, but we ignore the fact that people used to be tortured to death for merely insulting the king.
This touches a bit on the subject of my book, Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change (2006). We focus on the latest technology and its impact on our lives, when this is minor compared to the social upheaval that the Industrial Revolution caused. We have temporal myopia: that which is happening in front of us we see clearly, but we think little of the past.
Rules of the game
Christian pundits know the emotional buttons to push to keep the fire stoked and themselves relevant. Even when they’re plainly and laughably wrong, some are able to stay relevant.
The apocalyptic book 88 Reasons the World Will End in 1988 sold 4.5 million copies. Oops—didn’t happen. Did that spectacularly bad prediction poison the well for future end-times prophets? Not at all. It’s a topic that can always be made fresh for a new generation.
That’s surprising, because the Bible itself cautions against charlatans. “We who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). The Old Testament punishment for a false prophet was severe, with no mention of second chances. God said:
A prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded … is to be put to death. You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. (Deut. 18:20–22)
No, death isn’t the option. And consequences for ridiculous fear mongering apparently aren’t an option either. When close to half of Americans anticipate the second coming, these TV personalities will still be able to push Christians’ buttons.
Folks, the end time prophesies are literally exploding before our eyes.
That tells me the rapture of the church is even closer than we dared believe. …
I’m so convinced that we are in the final days of this age.
— Hal Lindsey (2011)
The decade of the 1980s
could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.
— Hal Lindsay (1980)
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