Best year ever? Yes! And also...no

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has gotten a lot of attention recently for declaring that “This Has Been the Best Year Ever.” And there is much to celebrate.

Extreme poverty has declined since 1981 from 42% to 10%. “As recently as 1950,” Kristof writes, “27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.”

Kristof also marvels at the increase of literacy around the world and concludes, “When I was born in 1959, a majority of the world’s population had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. By the time I die, illiteracy and extreme poverty may be almost eliminated — and it’s difficult to imagine a greater triumph for humanity on our watch.”

Well, one wonders about other not-so-triumphant trends. Freedom House’s most recent report says that “a total of 68 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties during 2018, with only 50 registering gains.” And when some of those countries are China, India, and the United States, the whole world has cause to worry.

Christians have additional reasons for concern.

According to OpenDoors, a service organization focused on persecuted Christians worldwide, “Five years ago, only North Korea was in the ‘extreme’ category for its level of persecution of Christians. In the 2019 World Watch List, as in 2018, 11 countries score enough to fit that category”—with most of those being in the Muslim-majority world, but with North Korea and India also scoring among them.

Even here at home, religious health-care professionals, lawyers, public servants, and organizations are under provincial and federal pressure to compromise their consciences. Significant shadows loom over the spread and practice of the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center states that “there are about 2.3 billion Christians in the world and 1.8 billion Muslims. That gap is expected to narrow by 2060, when Pew Research Center projects there will be 3 billion Christians and nearly 3 billion Muslims. That’s because Muslims, on average, are younger and have more children than do Christians.” Only these two religions, Pew says, are likely to increase faster than the roughly 32% rate of growth in the global population, with all other world religions declining in proportion (such as Hinduism) or in real numbers (such as Buddhism).

Perhaps surprisingly, given the massive attention to religious “nones” here in North America, “the religiously unaffiliated population is projected to shrink as a percentage of the global population…. As a share of all people in the world, religious ‘nones’ are projected to decline from 16% of the total population in 2015 to 13% in 2060. While the unaffiliated are expected to continue to increase as a share of population in much of Europe and North America, people with no religion will decline as a share of the population in Asia, where 75% of the world’s religious ‘nones’ live.”

Whether Christianity will have more success among a greater global population of Muslims than among religions “nones,” outside India and Southeast Asia where Hinduism and Buddhism predominate, will be the great religious question of the next generation. And the historic penchant of Muslim-majority countries and authoritarian Chinese rulers to persecute Christians casts a great pall over any evangelistic optimism.

From a Christian point of view, therefore, the world is definitely getting better. Let’s celebrate with Nicholas Kristof and hope those trends continue in an even happier new year.

But the world is just as definitely getting worse. So let’s also brace ourselves in prayer for the resistance the world continues to put up to the only thing, and the only One, that can truly and finally save it.

With respect, Mr. Kristof, that will be the greatest triumph for humanity ever.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).