By Dr. Stephen Chavura
Bushfires in Australia and the US, a global plague let loose from China, massive economic hardship from virus lockdowns, deadly riots across the US and parts of Europe in the name of anti-racism, Islamic terrorism in France, and the most divided America in living memory.
2020 is already considered by this generation as its annus horribilis.
And yet a larger historical perspective might offer some perspective.
The first plague of Justinian AD541-549 probably killed around 1/5 of people residing in Rome and over the next two hundred years killed an estimated 25-100 million people. The Black Death (1347-1351) killed around 1/3 of Europeans. Of course, history up until the nineteenth century was also characterised by mass starvation and early death because of primitive – by today’s standards – agricultural techniques, lack technology to transport food, and no modern medicine.
And then we have the twentieth century, with its estimated 22 million soldier and civilian deaths from World War I, between 17-100 million Spanish flu deaths (1918-1920), the deprivation of the Great Depression, then the 70-85 million deaths in WWII (3% of the world’s population), not to mention the tens of millions of deaths carried out by totalitarian regimes, especially in Germany, Russia, and China.
Many people, and perhaps you are one of them, can’t wait for the end of 2020. But why are we so certain that 2021 will be any better, or couldn’t be worse? It’s not as if there was some curse placed on the number 2020 that made this year uniquely bad. Perhaps 2020 only feels so bad because we have just experienced a generation or two that were unusually good?
As we approach the end of 2020 Christmas decorations begin to appear, a spark of joy in a dark and doleful year. We commemorate the birth of Jesus who came to tell the world not only that it is broken – as if we didn’t know that – but that we can’t fix it. But this isn’t the same as saying it can’t be fixed. There is hope.
The hope that Jesus offered was far greater than the mere hope for peace while we live on this earth, as wonderful as that is. Jesus offered eternal peace, or better, eternal happiness. Even a new heaven and a new earth. Peace on earth until one dies is good. Eternal happiness is infinitely better.
In John’s Gospel Jesus is described as ‘sent’ by the father around 40 times. Perhaps we need to remember John 3:16-17 as not merely a succinct evangelistic message but as a statement of the full meaning of Christmas:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
That the world needs saving should be apparent by now in 2020.
In Romans 8:2 the Apostle Paul describes the current state of the world in vivid terms: “the whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Again, note that built into Paul’s metaphor of the state of the world is the gift to come, stated in various ways as “our adoption as sons” and the “redemption of our bodies”.
Now some might ask why God couldn’t just make things peaceful and happy right now in this world. But if God stopped all conflict and suffering right now we would start it again tomorrow. God would have to either destroy us all to end suffering or make us all holy like Him.
There will never be perfect peace on earth until the Lord returns. And yet the fact is that although the Gospel hasn’t fixed this world in the here and now, historians will testify that Christianity has made the world better for everyone with its teaching on the dignity of all human beings as bearing God’s image. This is the thesis of the book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, by unbelieving historian Tom Holland.
The book of Revelation (21:1) speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth”. This world cannot be redeemed and made whole until those who live in it are redeemed and whole. Concerning those who make Jesus their Lord, Revelation 21-3-4 says “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
And that’s the good news about Christmas. When we celebrate Christmas we celebrate God the Father sending his willing Son to us to do what was necessary for us to be redeemed and realise the proper goal of human life: to glorify and enjoy God forever. And forever is a lot longer than 2020.
Dr. Stephen Chavura is an historian and Fellow with TruthXchange.