Why So Pessimistic?

by Berry Friesen (April 6, 2015)

During a recent group discussion, someone asked: “Why are we Christians so pessimistic?  Shouldn’t we of all people be filled with hope?”

The questioner wasn’t one of those Christians who expect Earth to be destroyed at God’s command.  Instead, he is a Christian grounded in the understanding that God loves the world and means to save it (John 3:16-17).

So his questions are very important.  This post will not do them justice, but it is a start.

First, the case for pessimism. 

1. Jesus insisted that the salvation of which he spoke was historical.  His first followers were not idealists, pointing to some other state of being yet to come; they claimed Jesus had changed the direction in which history was unfolding on Earth.  Their expectations are a matter of record; we read about them in the Bible.

2. Countless preachers have schooled us to accept the view that while Jesus’ first followers expected Jesus to return bodily to Earth during their lifetimes to complete what he had started, in fact this did not happen.  Thus, the way the world works today is no different from when Jesus lived and died; little has really changed.

3. The world’s current trajectory is unsustainable and headed for disaster. 

Due to cultural and economic decline, the USA is losing its position of world leadership.  Nevertheless, it maintains control through the use of violence and supremacy in surveillance, military capacity and media propaganda.  The moral cynicism beneath US policies is much worse than we had imagined, giving us every reason to expect the violence to only increase in the years ahead.  

To avoid catastrophic warming and climate change, we must leave nearly all of remaining carbon-based fuels in the ground.  Yet we remain highly dependent on fossil fuels and eager to develop reserves.  Our economic system seems incapable of making the adjustments required if we want to avoid the ecological threat.

Meanwhile, the world’s financial elite have turned away from communal understandings of justice and security.  Instead, they use their immense wealth to subvert political institutions for private purposes.

Next, the case for hope.                                                      

1.  YHWH, the god of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, opposes empires.  YHWH brings them down, reducing them to nothing.  From Genesis to Revelation, the witness of the Bible is that YHWH will not permit evil to become entrenched. Thus, we can be sure the current US-led empire and its assumptions, all of which seem so impervious to change, will collapse before dooming Earth.   Radical change is coming, probably not in my lifetime, but perhaps in yours and certainly within the lifetimes of coming generations.

2.  The prophetic vision of a sustainable, just and decentralized society—illuminated and enlarged by Jesus’ witness of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil—is the light of the world.  One way we know this to be true is the frequency with which it is honored in the speech of political leaders who believe the opposite.  Barack Obama (for example) is so effective because he is so well-versed in the prophetic vision and pays it homage so eloquently.  Yet even his cynical use of that vision cannot quench its power. 

At the center of our faith is the belief that YHWH has made Jesus the standard by which all the world is measured.  When we pay attention to public rhetoric, we can hear that this is so.

3.  If YHWH opposes the existing imperial system, and if history has borne out the Christian claim that the witness of Jesus is a light that will never be extinguished, then we can be confident that new opportunities for a good society rooted in Jesus and the prophetic tradition lie ahead.  Again, these opportunities may not fully flower in my lifetime or even yours, but we expect this to happen within the lifetimes of coming generations. 

It is for that day we live and work today.