Hell-in-a-Handbasket? Why Things Aren’t Getting Worse

Hell-in-a-Handbasket? Why Things Aren’t Getting Worse December 13, 2011

“Don’t you think our culture so depraved and rushing toward total moral decay?  Wasn’t it better off when we were growing up in a God-fearing society?”

My answer, whenever I’m asked this by a student or church member is always “No, things are not getting worse. This world is no more Fallen now than it’s ever been in the past.”

Usually the “our-culture-is-heading-headlong-into-hell-in-a-handbasket” (alliteration is fun!) line of argument is made by those who long for “the good ol’ days”…you know, usually sometime around the 1930s-50s…

Source: JM Smith

…when there was ALSO a Great Depression, World Wars, Nuclear proliferation…and let’s not forget about good ol’ Jim Crowe segregation!

Source: JM Smith

No, today’s culture is not any worse now that it’s ever been. At least, I’m not convinced that it is. When I read the Hebrew Bible, I see cultures who have state-run fertility goddess worship orgies (Corinth) and child sacrifice (Canaan). In the New Testament, I see state sponsored-and required-polytheism (Pergamum) and Imperial slavery (Rome).

Christians in the US, particularly where I reside in the Bible belt, who feel that we’re so much worse off now than in the past need to ask ourselves two questions:

1. How many more believers are there in the world today advancing the Kingdom of God?

2. When’s the last time you were required by the local government to take part in a pagan feast and/or ritual sex in honor of the local gods and goddesses?

It seems to me that good and evil, sin and righteousness, justice and oppression have always been part of this Fallen world and have been equally prevalent in every age. It also seems that in every age, there are those who long for “the good ol’ days.” Need proof? Listen to this critique of current youth culture:

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they depend on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wild and impatient of restraint!”

The person being quoted??

Hesiod (Greek poet who lived 800 years before Jesus’ birth!)

I suspect people will always feel this way–that culture is spiraling out of control, things are worse now than ever before, and young people are growing up in a moral abyss–until Jesus returns and “put the world to rights once and for all” (as N.T. Wright puts it) .

In the meantime, I believe we must continue to live somewhere between the Religious Fundamentalists’ gloom-and-doom outlook and the Religious Liberals’ naive optimism regarding the human spirit’s ability.

Lord, help us stay balanced lives; for your truth is almost always in the middle of the extremes.

So, what do you think?  Is our world worse than ever or do we need to see our circumstances in light of the trials of the past?  What other thoughts do you have on this matter?


James-Michael Smith, or JM as his friends call him, received his M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and served for 5 years as Discipleship Pastor at Good Shepherd UMC in Charlotte, NC. He now teaches Biblical seminars via DVD/CD curricula that he has released through his online teaching ministry The Disciple Dojo and speaks on an itinerant basis. He loves drawing/painting (BFA, Univ. of GA), martial arts, philosophy of religion, Biblical Hebrew, and the intersection between theology and culture…as well as anything pertaining to the Simpsons, MMA, or Ron Burgundy!  Follow on Facebook and Twitter!

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  • I completely agree with you.  My mum questions my respect for the Bible’s authority when I tell her that things aren’t getting worse.  I now can use this article to back up my argument!

  • As a woman, I am EXTREMELY glad I didn’t grow up during the “good old days.” 

    Yes, I have hope for this world. I see awful things (famines, war, consumerism), but there is also progress and technology that aids that progress. I am proud of my generation and have high hopes for us. 

  • Cfsmith

    Two things:    1) It is an error to compare us to the ancient Greeks to show that our civilization is not in decline.   Greek civilization decayed and collapsed–Hesiod saw part of the problem in his own day, as we see the same thing in ours.   This is what civilizations do–they run a cycle and eventually collapse–due to moral decay, economic stagnation, etc. etc. etc.  Greek Civilization collapsed, and ours will too.  It is not wrong to lament the collapse of a civilization.         2) To find the worst aspects of the 30s-50s and use that to say civilization is not declining is also an error. Of course there were bad things going on back then, as you mentioned above.  There were other bad things too.   And, of course it is an error for people today to idealize the past, treat it as a golden age, when it wasn’t. Such error must be corrected. But it is an over-correction to say that western civilization is not in decline.  It was declining then. It still is. When did the decline begin?  Here is where it gets complicated because civilizations do not decline in a straight fashion, nor do they decline at the same rate in every area (morals, economics, religion, manners, family, government, etc.).   Civilizations move through up and down cycles, and the various aspects of them move through up and down cycles.  The decline of Western Civilization began in the arts as early as the 1820s.  Religious delcine set in, in some places as far back as the 1870s. Economic decline really began in the 1990s.  Moral decline began before World War I.  (On the moral question–the one you raised above–we have moved in cycles for centuries, but the general direction for about 100 years has been downward. There have been moral victories–civil rights being the most outstanding of them.   There have been recent advances in some areas of public morality led by the younger generation, too.  However, these have been smaller cycles within an overall larger cycle of decline.   We won on civil rights in the 20th Century–but we lost on the family as a foundation for society. The social cost of the latter (in terms of quality of life and opportunity for all) is as great or greater than the social gain (in terms of quality of life and opportunity for all) that was won in the civil rights victories of the 1950s-60s.        Moral decline accelerated in the 1960s, but it was like a rolling stone gathering speed–the decline was much older and even so, had had “ups and downs” through the previous century.                                  Discerning civilizational decline is a messy business.   We are right not to listen to those who long for the “good ol’ days” when those days are idealized.  We are wrong to assume that “all goes on as before” as if there has been no decline.   Western Civilization will collapse–sooner rather than later, I suspect.  To deny it is foolish.  To spend too much time lamenting it is a waste of energy.  The task of the churches in this day is to do what we’ve always done–seek to glorify Jesus Christ and build His church in the midst of a dark world.   We’ve been through one major “dark ages” in the past–the church survived. It will again.   In fact, with the spread of Christianity worldwide, the church is better situated to survive the collapse of the west today than it was 1600 or so years ago.

    • Cfsmith, good points. I have to disagree, however, with your overarching idea. I don’t think the author is saying that culture and government and peoples do not rise and fall– yes, they come and go and the Western culture and world may be on the decline.  

      I think the author is saying specifically that morally there is no real decline. Shifts, yes, but not a decline. You wrote that morality right now is  in”an overall larger cycle of decline.” But we need proof of that, evidence that can back up this statement. Just because we ‘feel’ like morality declined in the ’60s does not mean that it really did. How do we know? There are too many aspects of morality to know. Unless one narrowly defines morality as pertaining to only a few topics (which Christians often do…usually sexual morality and divorce being among the highest indicators for them). We often ramble on about sex and the decline of the family. I agree that the individualism of the West as created an idea of family that is too loose (resulting in rising rates of divorce)–but what about other aspects of family that have gotten better?: sexual abuse against children (usually from a family member) is more likely reported and stopped, women are more likely to report physical abuse, etc…– you have to look at the whole picture–not the narrowly define “morality” that most Christians talk about.

      And of course this is not to mention foreign policy, the federal budget, and corporate behavior (for just a few examples) are all moral issues. Largely ignored by Christians because Christians in the USA usually buy into the Western cultural idea that morality is “individual.” Which is a big lie.

      Further, what does morality have to do with anything? The comparison with Ancient Greece is appropriate. Because, most Christians bring up moral decline with the point that the world is getting worse and worse (usually followed up by a monologue about how close Christ’s return is)–this *is* bad theology as the author points out. Is God’s wrath going to come because divorce rates have shot up? Is God sending his angels to destroy because gay people are speaking out for legal rights? Absolutely not. That’s bad theology. As Christians, it is our responsibility to grow closer and closer to Christ and help our brothers and sisters do the same. The world is fallen and corrupt and always will be. We can try, with God’s Grace, to work against the effect of the fall in the world. But, the fall is like a cold virus. The immorality is the symptoms (runny nose, aching body), not the virus. If we just shout and scream against the immorality, we are only treating the symptoms, and it will have no ultimate effect. Christ’s death, Resurrection and Ascension have given the world the cure. The cure kills the virus–it doesn’t concern itself with the symptoms.

      • Kevin

        God and the prophets seemed to know when the Israelite’s morality was in decline Erik. There are factors in discovering these things.

      • KingsofZion

        Some good info.  I also like the cold virus analogy.

  • Anonymous

    Ecclesiastes 7:10 – Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

    One time I used that in a sermon, and someone came up to me later and said, “But things REALLY WERE better back then.” … sigh.

  • Comment:  “Things aren’t like they were in the good ol’ days.”

    Response:  “No, they never were.”

  • Mostly I do agree with you, and it’s good to be reminded. And even if the end of the Western civilisation as we know it would be there it wouldn’t be such a big deal historically, nations shall rise and nations shall fall…

    I think ecologically things have never been worse though, and getting even worse. More species are dissapearing than ever, and in some places we’re irreveribly turning forrest in unhabitable deserts… So in that aspect, I’m affraid the times are worse than they ever were since maybe the latest mass extinction at the end of the Cretacious time when we lost the dino’s… And it’s not just the last few years, things are escalating that started fastening with the European colonisation of the rest of the planet.

    So I’d agree that ‘culture is spiraling out of control’ and dezvouring the earth. But that’s another thing that what most people mean when they say the things are getting worse I guess…

  • It’s seemed odd to me for quite a while how conservative evangelicals keep talking about things getting worse. Things in the West are so much better now on so many levels than they ever have been in human history that it seems impossible wish for the good old days.

    Then again, we must never forget the rotten core that sits at the center of the fallen imperial power. Jesus is Lord, not wealth or “progress.”

    • Cfsmith

      We all know that technology is more advanced than ever before.   We’ve made progress on some other fronts as well.  However, even technology will not continue to advance if the education base is not  there–maintaining  airplanes, computers, etc. requires people educated enough to do the work.  It also requires a tax base–that is, people working and making money enough to pay taxes to support the electrical grid, airports, etc.     If a large number of people are not working–due to lack of education to do the jobs, due to drug use, various forms of disabilities etc.–then the tax base will not be there to pay for all of these things.   “Aw, c’mon! That is a bit far-fetched isn’t it?      (That’s what they said when the first city sewer line drained into Lake Erie–“C’mon now, it will all dissipate into the water and be gone.  It’s not like this will kill the whole Lake!” 🙂 So also with this.)

  • JM – Great article!  However, one can not dismiss what is going on currently either.  What I mean is, one cannot dismiss the change in the cultural climate.  I am not saying with the others, “we are worse off now, than back in the good ol’ days”.  I am merely saying that with the advent of postmodernism/deconstructionism circa 1968 came a cultural tide that has grown since.  When you look at it in the context of history, then it doesn’t seem that bad.  When you look at it in the context current history, lines are being crossed now that would not have been 30 or 40 years ago.

    • JM

      I don’t think it’s a case of better/worse, Arran. I think it’s just different. Postmodernism is bad…but I’ll take it over Colonialism, Apartheid or Native American genocide. Yeah, there’s more sex and violence on TV nowadays, and moral relativism undermines any serious attempt at ethics. But at the same time, I can’t buy slaves anymore; so that’s gotta weigh heavy in any consideration of where we stand as a culture.

      Thanks for commenting brother! Have a fantastic Christmas!

      • KingsofZion

        We did use so called “manifest destiny” as an excuse to take this land. In justifying that, we were wrong. To assume that God couldn’t use our wrong to judge a group of people is also putting Him in a box.

    • KingsofZion

      I was thinking that also.  About the context of 30-40 years ago.  In this country, there were so many who seemed to really see and value what we had here. And, how unusual it was. In the same way that “wolves” immediately came in and began to destroy the Church after it was founded, there have always been people here in America bringing darkness. Such is the way of things.  America has always been a reflection for me of the Church. Our struggles and what not.

      When I think of some of the stuff that went on years ago and still does overtly in other parts of the world, it does seem that America is a “cut above” in many respects. What’s kind of scary is how some of the activities of idol worship of the past and in other countries (child sacrifice, human slavery (sexual and other), any typically overt activity of an extreme sinful nature) has changed faces. It’s almost as if since we were supposed to be a Christian nation, we couldn’t readily admit or do some of the stuff others did without caring. 

      Now many things (child sacrifice to the god of money and convenience, human trafficking in record numbers, some of the stuff considered especially heinous) are done covertly without acknowledging that just because it doesn’t look as brutal doesn’t mean it isn’t especially in God’s eyes.

      I’ve also been baffled by Ancient Israel’s record tendency to decline in a typically short period of time to actually having prostitutes in the temple…..in the temple. Like, how is that missed or justified? And, those were God’s own people! Realizing the extent of the rationalization that goes on makes me sort of hyper-vigilant with regards to the positive correlation between unchecked sin/pride and denial of one’s true condition.

      I suppose it’s God who says what’s next for us and the world.  His judgement is always spot on. 


  • Anonymous

    The good old days are a myth. There have been good and bad times over the eons of human existence but I haven’t seen a degradation (mostly the opposite) in humanity where I live. This may be the classic First world problem. My life is so gloriously good compared to my ancestors that I can’t possibly see the forest for the trees. Every inconvenience is a terrible attack on my values or something.
    Not that I don’t see a possibility for improvement because I do but perhaps the problems are more subtle and are the internal problems of human failing which hasn’t, as the author said, any different today than any time in history.

  • “The good old days weren’t always good/and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.”  (Billy Joel)

    Good post JM!  I get a kick out of the claims of morality in the Bible Belt in the 50s, as I remember the stories of some of my good friends who grew up in those days…the ways they found to drink at parties, score in the back seat, etc. definitely predated the “free love” of the 60s!

    The pendulum between conservative and libertine, liberation and oppression, have been going on for ages.  CFSmith refers to “Western Civilization” as being in decline…I would ask, just when do you perceive to be the pinnacle of Western Civilization from which the decline began?  The Reformation, when dissidents were being burned at the stake?  The Renaissance, that father of the Enlightenment, from which most of our secular anti-religious ideals descend?

  • koikoi657

    I have to sadly say this as a history major, the most prideful thing we as humankind, if not precisely the modern persons. That history repeats itself, its means and technology changes. If we impose our modern despoilment of the past, as backward and degenerate…we will be just as guilty as those who created the Dark Ages.

    We think that the culture back then is wrong and unfair, is not ours unfair and wrong, if we hold the mirror to our faces? The only time that we will rise above history is we come first to individual realization of our parts in the grand re-enactment. It will be the difference between being a histor (Greek for “knower”) and a histrio (Latin for “actor”) If you don’t want to re-enacted you must first know the past. And trying to bury or mythologize the past is as criminal as genocide, for it is cultural and historical genocide.

    That is what I see.