This is a question commonly asked by Christians when they contemplate the world around them. It certainly looks as if the Christian church is a less powerful force in the West than it was a few generations ago; let alone centuries ago. Shouldn’t we be trying to wrest back control of the culture and restore the respect that churches once had? Some Christians even think that using any means that present themselves, including political, are justified if only we can restore what has been lost. But what has happened to bring about this weakening of the Christian faith, and consequently, the weakening of the fabric of western societies? Those thoughts are surely behind the way modern Christians understand the question posed in Ecclesiastes 7:10.
Gloom about the post-Christian character of our world
There are certainly reasons to lament the passing of Christian influence. There is widespread ignorance of the central events of the gospel. This Easter, there was almost no mention of Christ, his death or resurrection in public discussion – in the media or elsewhere. The only references I heard were limited to the “sacred music” component of concert radio over the weekend. Most English lecturers will tell you that when teaching literature from previous centuries they have to explain the meaning of every passing biblical allusion. It is a sad fact that few people know even the most basic things about the Bible.
There has also been a steady downgrading of morality in our culture; normalized by entertainment and now officially recognized in legislation. Sexual sin is treated as an increasingly normal “preference”, and no one, it seems, dare question the right of others to live in whatever way they wish. Indeed, recent public statements of a few prominent Christians have quickly been labelled “hate speech”, a social misdeed to which legal sanctions are increasingly applied. Whether they spoke as wisely as serpents in the current context is open for discussion; but not a few of us are wondering how soon it will be before the Bible itself is condemned as “hate speech”.
The groundwork for this was laid by postmodern acceptance that any/all behavior is “OK for me” and that no one else dare challenge it. The only indecency is to condemn another’s preference. But, as Don Carson has so rightly pointed out, true tolerance, in its honourable western tradition, means fighting for the right of another to say what they think, even if you personally hate what they think and say1.
As we have all noticed, there is increasing hostility toward us Christians as we try to defend our convictions about the wrongness of certain behaviour. Interestingly, other groups which hold similarly strict views, eg Muslims, are tolerated because they are seen as a cultural minority whose quirks should be respected in western societies.
As more and more commentators are noticing, from Prince Charles downwards, Christians are the religious group facing the most persecution around the world right now. It is perhaps too embarrassing for the liberal western media to admit: for a long time they have called for protecting the rights of everybody – except Christians. Probably this has a lot to do with the previously dominant position of Christians in our culture – people generally do not sympathise with the suffering of dominant groups. In the West, most have not yet gotten used to seeing Christians as victims.
How were the former days better than these?
On the face of it, the former days were indeed better. There are some obvious facts: in the western world, the Christian church was generally respected, and at least the general outline of Christianity was held to be true. There was considerably more church-going than there is now, and on a typical Sunday, you would see families going to church rather than heading to the shops, the beach, or absorbing the offerings of Netflix.
The behaviour of society was more in line with biblical standards. It was no trouble to argue that something was wrong because it was harmful to yourself, your family, or to society – or even because God condemned it in the Bible. And because of this, if people wanted to indulge in immoral behavior, they would generally try and hide it from public view. For these reasons, western societies had much lower rates of divorce, family breakdown, and the dislocations and misery which ensue for generations. It is not hard to see that the culture was much healthier and happier as a result. From this quick assessment, it seems unmistakably true that the former days were better than these.
Why is it unwise to ask this?
And yet, the preacher in Ecclesiastes does not pose the question in this way. He raises it by way of quotation as something that is unwise to ask. But – if trends suggest that things were better in the old days, why are Christians unwise to ask this question?
First, it actually flies in the face of historical reality. Ask historians, who ought to know. They are often initially drawn to their profession through strong personal interest in a particular time period or culture or place – or sometimes through the romantic pull of the past, which offers a gentler, quieter simpler world order – and nostalgic glimpses of a nicer place to inhabit.
Almost all will tell you, though, that when they begin to dig more deeply, investigation of the surviving source material disabuses them of any sense that the past was “better than now”. The common sins of humanity were simply expressed in a different way – or perhaps different sins were more frequent than those observable in the present day.
You may think of the United States as a Christian nation. It surely has been blessed by the influence of fine Christians in its history. Nevertheless, when I was studying the founding fathers during the presidency of Ronald Reagan – a time when many Christians were attempting to reclaim their past as a nation founded on Christian principles, what did I find? That many of the revered founding fathers were deists whose political principles owed more to radical Enlightenment skepticism than they did to biblical truth.
Every age exhibits opposition to Christ in some form or other. Some examples from recent centuries: brutality, neglect of children, exploitation of workers, political corruption, denial of biblical truth in the form of attacks on the authenticity of texts and their authorship etc, common, though hidden, sexual sins. During the earlier part of the twentieth century frequent wars gave rise to outrageous cruelty and mass murder. On the diplomatic front smaller nations were betrayed when it was expedient (Czechoslovakia in 1938; eastern European nations in the aftermath of World War Two). In the eighteenth century slavery was a terrible blight on several western countries – and on one could go. History simply explodes the narrative that “those days were better than these”.
The Christianity which was dominant was often counterfeit. This so often becomes the case when Christianity enjoys the position of dominant religion. Not all that calls itself Christian is Christianity, as we should all know well. Liberalism is not Christianity, since it denies the authority and authenticity of God’s Word. Sects which claim to believe part of the truth, but not the whole truth, are not Christianity. Nor is any faith which adds something to biblical truth or removes something from it. When gazing nostalgically at more religious ages of the West, we should be careful to discern not just the words spoken and written, but what was meant by them, and the fruits that they produced in the populace. Not all were true and good.
The question is also folly because Jesus told us to expect hostility. A position of honour is in fact a rare situation for Jesus’s followers in this world. Ask any Christian in China, or India, or the former Soviet world. You will hear more stories of suffering than of respect. Even if you look carefully at the experience of genuine, Bible-believing evangelical Christians in the West you will also find a more sobering reality. The Wesleys and George Whitefield, William Wilberforce and J.C. Ryle all endured considerable opposition in the “Christian” England of their day. Jesus warned his disciples: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but you are not of the world … A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18-20). The apostle John later wrote: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” (1 John 3:13) Jesus did not promise us a comfortable place in this world. Indeed, if we find ourselves experiencing this, we should perhaps be asking: are we being sufficiently faithful with the message of the gospel entrusted to us?
In view of the warnings in the New Testament epistles about what to expect in the “last days”, the question about better days also seems naive. The writers of these epistles warned Jesus’ followers about false teaching (which would undermine negligent churches), of treachery from within and of hostility from outside the church. To expect comfort, ease and honour in this world is dangerously complacent and possibly even arrogant, given these warnings.
It is not wisdom to indulge in romantic dreams about a better past, or to wish we could have lived back then. Not only do we probably harbor inaccurate ideas of what it was like, but we’re probably also guilty of discontent. God has chosen the years of our births and deaths; and the culture in which we would live. There is work here for us to do, among those who share this time and culture with us. As Paul said to the Athenians of his day: “he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:26-7). Who better to help people find God than those of us who grew up in the same culture and understand their thinking? If we don’t help them find God, who will?
It is always useful to remember the job description Jesus gave us in the closing words of Matthew’s gospel:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In view of that last promise, were there ever better days than now?2
1 See Don Carson’s book, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2012)
2 In case you’re still doubtful about my conclusions, you might like to read Derek Kidner’s commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:10. See Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes (The Bible Speaks Today Series, Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham, 1976), p. 67
Dr Sally Davey is a member of the Reformed Church of Dovedale.
Image credit: “The Yalta Conference, February 1945: Three leaders consigning millions to another 45 years of Soviet domination”.