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Are things getting better or worse?

A Liberian refugee crosses barbed-wire-protected boarder to Sierra Leone
A Liberian refugee crosses barbed-wire-protected boarder to Sierra Leone
Photo by Natalie Behring

“There are Lies, Damned lies, and Statistics.”

Mark Twain attributed that remark to Benjamin Disraeli, but there is no record of Disraeli’s ever having said it. Perhaps it was one of Mark Twain’s ‘lies.’ A commenter on my previous column, however, has made great use of statistics.

Mr. Statistician purports to prove that, since fewer people are dying in warfare – measured as a percentage of the world population – the world must be getting better.

Let’s assume for a moment the statistic is true; let’s assume the folks who record such things are accurate and unbiased; let’s assume that they are NOT, for example, defining ‘war’ in some sneaky way that excludes the upheaval in Central African Republic, the religious animus in Palestine/Israel, the recent ethnic cleansing in South Sudan… Does this particular factoid really mean that we are not seeing the fulfillment of Jesus’ warning about the Last Days?

What exactly did Jesus say? And, more importantly, what did he not say? His warning about the end was recorded at Matthew 24 and Luke 21.

“’When you hear of wars and disturbances, don't be terrified, for these things must happen first, but the end won't come immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There shall be both great earthquakes in different places, and famines and pestilences.’”

In that one statement he gave four signs of the times: War, great earthquakes, famine, and pestilence. Matthew’s gospel adds a fifth: “This Good News of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world for a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Mt 24:14)

Did Jesus say that earthquakes would increase? No. Only that “great earthquakes” would occur, and that they would happen in ‘different places,’ ‘divers places,’ ‘various and sundry places,’ depending on what version you read.

Same with famines; same with pestilences, ‘plagues,’ ‘epidemics.’ Jesus did not say that they would increase, only that they would be happening ‘in one place after another.’

What about war? Jesus did seem to be indicating that war would increase. He first says ‘Don’t be terrified by the wars and disturbances.’ But then he says, ‘Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.’ To most reasonable people that seems to warn of an increase – from skirmishes and battles to major, kingdom-engulfing wars.

Empires have used their armies to expand their territories since history began. Genesis 10:11 tells of Nimrod making himself the first potentate. His capital was Babylon, but he “went forth out from there into Assyria” – likely a military attack. Down through time there have been other such empire-builders, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Shaka Zulu to Napoleon.

From 1803 to 1815 much of the world was engulfed in what came to be called the “Napoleonic Wars.” Fighting stretched from Egypt to Russia, and naval battles even further. Farmers were conscripted, and food shortages resulted. Military camps were filthy, and pestilence was rife. There were even ‘great earthquakes…’ one on the island of Crete in 1810, one that made the Mississippi river run backward in Missouri in 1811 and one at San Juan Capistrano, California in 1812. Many people who knew their Bible – and there were a lot more of them then than there are today – concluded that they were living in the last days. Clearly, they were not. The war ended, farmers went back to growing food, battlefields grew abundant crops from all the blood spilled, and the cholera and typhoid of the camps faded away.

What had those Bible readers back then missed?

The Napoleonic wars, while horrible, were fought in the same way as wars had been fought for centuries. 50 years later, during the Civil War, folks from Washington D.C. loaded up their buggies with picnic baskets and rode out to watch the battle of Manassas – much as their grandparents may have done at Vitoria, Spain. London Times correspondent William Howard Russell reported, “On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles, with a few of the fairer, if not gentler sex .... The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood —‘That is splendid, Oh my! Is not that first rate? I guess we will be in Richmond tomorrow.’”

In the end, the Civil War cost about 620,000 lives – definitely a tragedy. (To keep the statistician happy, that’s 2% of America’s population of the day.) Only 53 years later, World War I began. It was responsible for anywhere from 16 million to 37 million deaths, depending on which statistics you choose to believe. That was slightly below 2% of the world population of that time, so it must have been an improvement, right?

Would you have had a picnic near a WWI battlefield? Let me help you pack your basket, Mr. Statistician.

However, Jesus did not say that a war, even a bad war, would be the sign of the last days.

He did not say that a famine, even a food shortage such as we have now that sends a billion people to bed hungry each night, would be the sign of the last days.

He did not say that an earthquake or a bunch of earthquakes, such as those that killed 86,000 in Pakistan in 2005, 69,000 in china in 2008, or 316,000 in Haiti in 2010 – even though they were horrific; even though earthquakes from the 20th century onward have killed, collectively, more people than are known to have died in all previous earthquakes in recorded history – Jesus did not tell us that an increase in earthquakes would mark the last days.

He did not say that a pestilence – such as the Spanish flu, that broke out after WWI and killed more people than the war did – or HIV/AIDS, cancer, heart disease, the recent up-tick in ebola cases in Africa – or for that matter, some new swine flu or bird flu epidemic such as we are almost yearly getting warnings about – was the sign.

So. What did he say?

Luke 21:29-31 records Jesus advice regarding the signs: “Look at the fig tree and all the other trees. As soon as they bud, you know, as you look at them, without being told, that summer is near. And so may you, as soon as you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near.”

He told us to be on the watch for all these things happening at the same time.

150 years ago, Charles Spurgeon was the Billy Graham of his day. He acknowledged that the signs weren’t complete yet: “If famines, pestilences, and earthquakes are only "the beginning of sorrows," what may we not expect the end to be? This prophecy ought both to warn the disciples of Christ what they may expect, and wean them from the world where all these and greater sorrows are to be experienced.”

Earlier we mentioned one other part of the sign: The preaching of “the Good News of the Kingdom.”

John Wesley, a theologian who lived in the 1700s, said about this preaching to the whole world: “This is not done yet.” And Spurgeon said: “There is to be a fuller proclamation of it ‘for a witness unto all nations’ before the great consummation of all things.”

Why did they say that? Well, in the 275 years after the King James Bible came out, it was translated into only 34 languages. A handful of adventurous missionaries boarded sailing ships to spread their version of Christianity to several far-flung places. However, in most cases, “their version” wasn’t “the Good News of the Kingdom.” Far more often their message was, ‘Join our church, get baptized and we will give you rice.’

For example, The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was founded in 1701 - just two years before John Wesley was born. Contrary to its name, the SPG’s mission was not propagating the gospel - the Good News. It was “pastoral care, social action and supporting training programs” – and, of course, fund-raising. Even if they had lived up to their name, Wesley could not very well have said, ‘The Good News is being preached worldwide’ could he?

But look at the spread of the Good News since WWI. With the help of cars, trains, planes, telephones, computers, and the internet the only hindrance to spreading the Good News is those missionaries themselves, who waste their opportunities to preach it and instead focus on ‘social action.’

One parting shot: Mr. Statistician claimed that "the suggestion made by JWs that since 1914 we’re living in the last days is simply nuts…Things are getting better and better."

If he’s correct about that, all these folks must have been Jehovah’s Witnesses:

  • Arnold Toynbee: “All the convulsions of the last half century stem back to 1914.”
  • Allan Greenspan: “I cannot erase the thought of those pre-World War I years, when the future of mankind appeared unencumbered and without limit. Today our outlook is starkly different.”
  • Bertrand Russell: “Ever since 1914, everybody conscious of trends in the world has been deeply troubled by what has seemed like a fated and predetermined march toward ever greater disaster. Many serious people have come to feel that nothing can be done to avert the plunge towards ruin.”
  • Winston Churchill: “In 1900 a sense of moving hopefully forward to brighter, broader and easier days was predominant. Little did we guess that what has been called the Century of the Common Man would witness as its outstanding feature more common men killing each other with greater facility than any other five centuries together in the history of the world.”
  • Konrad Adenauer: “Security and quiet have disappeared from the lives of men since 1914.”
  • Dr. Walker Percy: “The whole world really blew up about World War I and we still don’t know why. Before then, men thought that utopia was in sight. There was peace and prosperity. Then everything blew up. We’ve been in a state of suspended animation ever since.”

Actually, Mr. Statistician sounds more like Danish historian and politician Peter Munch:

“All evidence is against the probability of a war between the great European powers. The ‘danger of war’ will also disappear in the future, as it has done time after time since 1871.”

He said that in 1913.

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