Pessimism is surging.
George Orwell’s dystopian tale, 1984, is the bestselling book at Amazon. (I think Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian vision that better captures the dangers of our current moment, but alas, it’s only #71.)
Meanwhile, some of the wealthiest people in the world are building bunkers and prepping for doomsday scenarios. The New Yorker covers these efforts in great detail. Apparently, New Zealand is the place to ride out the cultural apocalypse.
Christians aren’t immune to the waves of pessimism in our country.
Recently, I was talking with an older Christian who was both encouraged and distressed by some of what he was seeing take place politically in the initial days of the Trump administration. He was appalled at the celebration of abortion and the vulgar words and signs at the Women’s March that took place just after the Inauguration.
“The gap is so wide,” he said, referring to conservative Christians and so much of society. “I guess I just feel hopeless for our country these days. I’m becoming a pessimistic old man.”
My response? “You’ve got to snap out of that.”
It’s one thing to be weary of earth and self and sin, to be sad at some of the developments in our time. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus said. Christian tears are real, and necessary, for those who feel the weight of the world’s evil.
But it’s another thing to allow that pessimistic posture to become your default. An overly pessimistic view of the world leads to a defensive posture. A defensive posture leads to defensive decision-making. We start making decisions based on maintenance rather than mission. Holding on to what we have holds us back from moving forward in faith in the power of the gospel.
The gospel blows up pessimism. If you truly believe the Word of God has authority—that it will accomplish God’s purpose and will not return empty, if you truly believe that God has a church and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, then you fortify yourself for spiritual battle, not for surviving a spiritual siege.
In This Is Our Time, I call the pessimistic approach “a decline narrative.” It’s the idea that the world is getting worse, no matter what we may do. We see decline narratives in society on both the right and the left. Yuval Levin shows how liberals believe we have fallen from the heights of the 1960s, whereas conservatives feel like we have fallen from the heights of the 1950s or the 1980s.
In the church, we are tempted to scour the annals of church history looking for the pinnacle of better times, from which we have fallen and now must reclaim. Perhaps it’s the early church, the Golden Age of the ecumenical creeds, the Reformation and Puritan era, or the revivals of North America. Whatever point in time we pick, we contrast ourselves to our ancestors and feel as if we’ve fallen from those heights. The world, and too often the church, is getting worse, we say.
But all of this is a myth. And I don’t say this because I think things are getting inevitably better, as if we are on an upward journey of consistent improvement. We don’t treat the disease of decline with the medicine of “progress,” and the solution for “pessimism” is not “optimism.”
What we need are gospel bearings. That is, we need the gospel to help us keep our footing when the world starts “wobbling” (in the words of G. K. Chesterton). We are not sliding down a hill into an abyss; neither are we climbing up a ladder into the heavens. The world is what it has always been—the place where principalities and powers array themselves against the Living God and where King Jesus promises to return and reign.
It’s a battlefield, where the most hopeless situation of all time, the killing of our King, has been transformed into the most hopeful moment of eternity, the sight of new creation spilling out of the darkest tomb.
If the cross, Rome’s twisted symbol of domination can become the source of hope and light, then how can we possibly believe in the myth of unalterable decline? If God can transform the cross into a symbol of hope, then can He not take the difficulties of our present moment and bring about everlasting fruit for future generations?
Gospel bearings mean that we won’t fall for a fabled myth of progress (an evolutionary journey toward a humanist utopia), but neither will we fall for the myth of decline, as if the world is only now discovering new depths of evil and injustice. A study of the Roman Empire or some of the church abuses of different eras of our history should disabuse us of the notion that we have arrived at a new stage of depravity.
That’s why we must work to lift our heads up from our current moment, to listen to the words of the psalmist, hear the laments of the prophets, recall the stories of our ancestors, visit our church fathers, read and learn from our missionary mothers, and realize that spiritual struggle is the norm, not the exception.
The world is shaking, yes, but it’s not shaking because of terrible evil, but the greatest good. The gospel of a crucified and risen king continues to transform hearts and lives, as the shockwave from the resurrection ripples out across the world, 2,000 later. As missionary Lesslie Newbigin once said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist; Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!”