Westminster Seminary California
On the myth of moral progress and decline

I used to spend Friday mornings with an elderly widower in my congregation. He was a friendly individual and we used to talk about a number of things: history, theology, politics, life, and personal experiences. He was a man who had numerous and interesting stories, such as dropping a bomb on a whale (but that’s a story for another time). One of the things that he used to tell me was, “When I was a child things were better. This world has become very evil and our country is headed no where, fast.” The more that I have pondered such sentiments, I have come to the conclusion that, as genuinely held as they are, there’s another way to look at things.

I think that the world generally remains as sinful as it always has been, though I do not deny that the tide of morality (and immorality) can ebb and flow, wax and wane. There can be periods of peace and serenity, but there can also be periods of intense evil and unrest. We might look back upon history and think that things were better, there was a greater sense of corporate morality and people had respect for authority. I think we tend to look at the recent past through the lens of television rather than history. We look at the recent past through the lens of TV shows, like, “Leave It to Beaver” instead of history books that record, in all its glory and gore, the best and worst of the past.

Another element that contributes, I believe, to our sense that the wheels are falling off the bus is the information age. It used to be that people did not know about disasters, great crimes, or acts of violence because they simply lived in ignorant bliss. Now, as soon as something happens, a child abduction, a police chase, a storm, a shooting, we instantly know about it as information from all over the world pours in to various news websites. Have any of these evil things ever stopped occurring? Or do we have knowledge of what people in earlier generations were ignorant. In other words, these things have always occurred, but the difference is, now we know about them because of the rapid dissemination of information. I think, therefore, that sin has always been present and has never left us—there is no true moral progress, which means that there is no moral decline. The world has, always, and will be plagued with violence, evil, tragedy, and the like until the return of Christ.

In other words, our hope does not lie in recapturing the idyllic past, as we often look back upon the past with rose-colored glasses. Our hope, on the other hand, does not lie in somehow building a perfect utopian future—that we can eradicate societies’ ills. Rather, our hope lies in the “better country, that is, a heavenly one,” Zion, which God has prepared for his people (Heb. 11.16). We are, as Peter says, “strangers and aliens” in this world (1 Pet. 2.11). Our citizenship is ultimately in heaven, not here on earth (Phil. 3.20). This means that we should not be surprised when the world convulses in fits of evil—it simply shows its need for redemption. We should, however, be grateful for respites of peace. Whether in times of plenty or in want, we should always cling to the gospel of Christ, the hope of redemption, and live all of life to the glory of God and rejoice that one day, all evil, sin, and death will be eliminated by our resurrected and reigning Messiah.