I have often said, in sermons and in conversation, that the world is not getting better, but is actually getting worse. This sometimes meets with pushback from people who see the accomplishments of recent decades as evidence of our great progress. They have a good point, and here is why.
They remind me that we are living longer, and that the latest surgical procedures and medical advances are keeping people alive who otherwise would have died. We have access to knowledge and education like never before. We can FaceTime with friends across the globe. We can go online and check out medical issues that, in times past, might have taken weeks or even years to diagnose. Compare that to people in Rome in the first century, who were exposed to horrible conditions and disease. Ancient Babylon was even worse. Certain advances in medicine and technology have changed our lives for the better.
I totally agree with all of the above, and I could add a lot more to the list.
But at this point, I want to make myself very, very clear. The examples we’ve mentioned, which could be magnified many times over, are what I will call the apples. Apples are the good things, the discoveries and inventions that have bettered our world.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have what we can refer to as the oranges—these would be the addictions, insomnia, diseases, suicide, depression, bankruptcy, divorce, child abuse, sexual abuse, eating disorders, binge drinking, hate, gluttony, and a host of other maladies that are on an exponential rise and plague the world. Many, many people are drowning in troubles that we never anticipated in our pursuit of progress. And there is no sign that those troubles are slowing down.
So in contrast to apples, the oranges are those hurtful, evil things in the world that continue on, despite our growth in areas of technology, medicine and education.
Much confusion comes when we mix the apples and the oranges. So the question remains: Is the world getting better or worse? The answer depends on how you weigh the data. It may seem like there are more apples than oranges, or that at least the apples and the oranges cancel each other out. But let’s zoom in and take a closer look at the issue by turning to the Scriptures, our only source of authority. We will look at two passages that, I believe, need no special interpretation. Read carefully what Jesus says in the following text:
What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. (Mark 7:20-23)
Note that Jesus is not singling out some wicked individual. He is talking about you and me. He is revealing that all people have the disease of sin in their hearts, and He gives no indication that this malady will improve with time and progress.
Let’s take a look at another verse. This is from the apostle Paul.
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
What I want us to see here is that all of these evil bents have been with humanity since Adam and Eve sinned. Yet Paul is quite clear that they will only increase over time, growing worse and worse until the time the Lord returns. We could go through each issue at length, but I have selected just three.
Lovers of themselves: People have always been narcissistic and focused on themselves. But today we have a magazine called Self, we take selfies, read self-help books, we practice self-love and self-care to improve our self-esteem. Paul could not have imagined our technological advances, but he knew that people would always be looking to take advantage of any advancement that promotes “Me.”
Lovers of money: Man has always had an affair with money, but the ability to gain it, leverage it, lend it, borrow it, and invest it is well beyond what anyone thought possible in the first century. Yet an affair with money is still an illegitimate affair. Love of money has led to divorce, excess, neglect of the family, and a myriad of other problems—many of which can be found in Jesus’ list in Mark 7:20-23.
Disobedient to parents: This is not a new problem either, of course, but the epidemic of rebellion seems far greater than before. I have been able to see it in my own lifetime. The biggest problems in the public school system in the late 50s and early 60s were pulling girls’ hair, running in the halls, and smoking out back. These are not the problems of today. An avalanche of depression, sexting, teen pregnancy, drugs and other R-rated issues now fill the principal’s inbox on a daily basis. And in television, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and The Andy Griffith Show used to have one thing in common: a father who led the home with integrity and was respected by his children. But today technology has made it possible for children to watch endless hours of shows that paint the parents as buffoons and the children as the real authorities in charge. Video games, movies, books and other avenues that promote this skewed dynamic have captured the hearts and minds of our youth.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the list that Paul gives us is that he never should have made such a prophetic statement. Anyone living at the time would have known that man is intelligent and will one day conquer all these problems. With all of our advancements in knowledge, education, technology, and medicine, such a dire prediction of the last days is absurd. All of our apples should reduce the friction Paul predicted would happen. But Paul was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write what he wrote, and he makes it clear that the oranges remain. So who is right; those who have predicted utopia? Or Paul, who predicted perilous times?
If you’re talking only about the apples, then all is well! But if you consider the oranges, the prospects look pretty bleak. Living longer, being safer, having air conditioning, and getting laser surgery to give you 20/20 vision are not the real issues at hand. The real issue is the human heart. It has always been “evil from its youth” (Genesis 8:21), but now it has more opportunity, largely through technology, to pursue or express that evil for longer periods of time. Paul may have never known about computers, but his list of sins in 2 Timothy 3 was his way of predicting that evil would go viral.
So I hope this is clear. I thank God for the good gifts he has given mankind that have helped us navigate the deep waters of physical pain and make life more tolerable. If Heaven were gained by good works, then the man who invented novocaine would be the first to enter. I’m grateful for the technology that allows me to communicate with people around the world. I’m amazed at the unprecedented access to knowledge we have in these current days. These are good apples for which I am grateful. However, the bad oranges that plague the whole world are produced daily by hearts that have not been redeemed, and sometimes, even by hearts that have. This is why we, as believers, are not to get attached to this world. Because of sin, this world is in darkness and decay. Pile on as many apples as you want – those rotten oranges remain. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to produce as many apples as we can? By no means! We as believers are here to bring light to show the way out of the darkness and to be salt to impede the decay. But let’s be clear about where our hope lies. No amount of education, medicine, or technological advancement can cure the wickedness of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). As great as those advancements are, they only deal with the symptoms of our plight, not the root cause. If Jesus is correct, the real issue is that evil rises up from within. We see the external effects of evil, but evil is not primarily an external issue. Evil is a heart issue. And while apples may fill the belly, they can never redeem the heart.
The point of all of this is not to doom-and-gloom you into depression. It’s to help us see that the bad news is really bad, so that we can remember that the Good News is really good. The world is getting worse, and no amount of medical, intellectual, or technological advancement can stem the tide. If evil comes from inside a person, as Jesus claims, then we are the problem. And as I have said many times, when the problem tries to solve the problem—well, that’s a problem. The world is helplessly broken and cannot fix itself.
But ultimately, we are not called to put our confidence in the apples, nor to despair over the oranges, but rather to rest in the finished work of Christ. In Him, we can have hope and joy no matter what is happening in the world around us. For those who believe in Him, the One who is “making everything new” (Revelation 21:5), the world will be better someday, and for all eternity.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:1-10)