Eschatological Problems III: Is Moral Progress Possible?

Eschatological Problems III: Is Moral Progress Possible? John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00


There are few questions in the realm of human thought more arresting than the question of the direction of human experience. Are we making any progress, particularly in the moral sphere? Is there a teleological significance in history? What is the direction in which we are going? In Christian theology as well as in non-Christian philosophy, these agelong questions reappear like persistent moonbeams through a cloud-spattered sky. Sometimes the question is stated more directly, if more tritely, “Is the world getting better?” Is it our duty to introduce a new moral order?” “Are we building a new world socially?” Many of these questions produce varying answers, due in part to difference of opinion in basic beliefs, partly from a failure to ascertain the real issues of the question. The present article is an attempt to outline the major considerations involved in the question of the possibility of moral progress-outline, because manifestly a full treatment would involve many times the space devoted to it here.

I. The Issue.

The importance of the question is apparent even without a careful study. Dr. James H. Snowden, an ardent exponent of the idea that the world is getting better, in discussing the question wrote this analysis: “It is one of the great dividing ridges and shaping forces of human thought and experience. It is the watershed between two opposite views of the world, pessimism and optimism: the one holding that the world, though mixed with some good, is yet essentially evil and will grow worse and worse; and the other holding that the world, though infused with some evil, is yet fundamentally good and will grow better and better; the one destroying the value of life and killing interest in it, and the other making life worth while and giving us courage and cheer in living it. It is still more profoundly the line of cleavage between two types of religion: impersonal pantheism and personal theism; between two systems of philosophy: materialistic monism and idealistic personalism; and between two hemispheres of the globe: the pessimistic Orient and the optimistic Occident. Such a radical distinction must enter deeply and vitally into our daily living and necessarily lowers or lifts our ideals and hopes, weakens or strengthens our wills, and colors with dark or bright hues our whole world and tinges all our temperaments and moods.”1

The foregoing quotation is an illustration of the viewpoint that the only possible Christian approach to the subject is that the world is improving. Dr. Snowden leaves us two alternatives: pessimism or optimism, materialism or personalism, pantheism or personal theism. If the question were as simply solved as this, no further discussion would be necessary. However, there are many who, while fully expecting the ultimate triumph of right and the establishment of God’s righteousness upon the earth and fully believing in the deity and sovereignty of God, nevertheless doubt whether the theory of moral progress is sustained by either history or revelation. They substitute instead a dual line of development of both good and evil, both continuing on their own course without either triumphing over the other, being brought to their conclusion by the personal return of Christ and His manifested power in destruction of evil and in establishment of permanent righteousness.

The issue before us is not, then, whether we should accept a Christian or a non-Christian viewpoint. It is rather whether there are reasons justifying the hope of an increasing melioration in the world’s moral conditions, a moral progress in which the world becomes eventually good. The issue is not whether there is progress in extent of knowledge of the natural world, better treatment of disease, better working conditions, more beneficial governments. All of these could be brought in without a change in moral conditions, and even if they should effect a partial change in moral conditions, would not assure its permanence. The writer seriously doubts if statistics as such prove a great deal in the issue before us. The great bulk of the world is not subject to many vital statistics. Arguments based on improvement in America or in any one section of the world are obviously not characteristic of the whole. Even in sections of the world subjected to intense analysis, it may be questioned whether morality lends itself to accurate statistical computation. Two writers upholding opposite sides of the question could without doubt find many arguments in support of their views from the same group of statistics.

II. Determining Factors.

The basic weakness in any set of statistics is that they can only tell us what has been true in the past, and in the field of moral history there is considerable room for argument also on the meaning of the past in ascertaining whether there has been moral progress. The evanescent optimism which characterized some preaching before the first world war was disheartened by the events of 1914 and after, and the second world war has left little ground for conclusion that moral progress has been established. Almost every barbarism of history has been repeated in recent history. The theory that man is naturally good is not sustained by the facts which are open to all.

There is only one authoritative approach to the problem, and this is to ascertain what the Scriptures reveal on this important subject. If the Scriptures can speak with authority on such subjects as heaven and salvation, they can also speak with authority on the question of moral progress. The Scriptures record in their expanse a history of the world up through the apostolic age, and they provide abundant prophecy of future events. From the Christian viewpoint, only the Scriptures speak with complete authority, and their revelation whether history or prophecy is the determining factor in settling the question of moral progress.

III. The Constitution of the Natural Man.

One of the pivotal points of Biblical doctrine is its anthropology. Herein is revealed the essential moral problem which faces man. Here too is found the need of salvation and its nature and extent. Systems of theology can be classified on their anthropology. If on the one hand, man is naturally good and has within him the latent forces which can be cultivated to produce a noble character, that is one concept. If man has fallen from his original perfect creation and is spiritually dead and morally enslaved by sin and blinded by Satan, that is another.

The testimony of the Scriptures is clear that men are sinners by imputation, by nature, and by choice. According to Romans 3:23, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” According to Romans 5:12, “As by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned....” The one sin of Adam has plunged the whole race into sin without exception. “As by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” The sin of Adam brought judgment to the race even as the one act of obedience of Christ in dying upon the cross brought justification for those who believe ih Christ.

The nature of man is hopelessly sinful apart from Christ. Jeremiah testifies, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9). Without doubt the inaccuracy of psychology in accounting for human experience and behavior is traced to a failure to recognize the innate wickedness of the human heart. It is significant that even non-Christian psychologists are now reexamining their premises and admitting the possibility that men are naturally wicked. The revelation of Scripture needs no such revision. The pronouncement is without equivocation: “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5).

The sinful nature of man is fully demonstrated by the course of history and by the Scriptural estimation of his acts. The universal indictment is, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10). Upon every hand, then, there is testimony in the Scriptures that the natural constitution of man is sinful. Man sins because he is a sinner by nature. His only hope is a change of that nature by the power of God’s salvation. Whatever outward moral progress may be induced by education and environment, there is no possibility of inner change except by an undertaking of God for him. In spite of righteousness on a human plane characterized by works good in themselves, man remains utterly devoid of the righteousness which is the gift of God through Christ (Rom 5:17). There can be no real moral progress in the natural man.

IV. The Predicted Course of Gentile History.

The Bible presents a program for world history to which all events are related. One of the great lines of truth presented in the Bible is the course and end of Gentile nations as given to the prophet Daniel and further elucidated by the prophets and Christ Himself. Daniel presents the fact that the course of Gentile history will be characterized by four successive empires, which have spread their history over the pages of time. These four empires are the Babylonian, Media-Persian, Grecian, and Roman empires, an interpretation followed quite generally by Biblical scholars. In fact, so evident is the interpretation that those who resist the idea that Scripture can predict are driven to give a late date to Daniel. The four empires are presented in part by symbol, in part by direct statement and interpretation of the symbols. In Daniel 2, the four empires are seen together as one great image, with a head of gold representing the Babylonian empire, shoulders and chest of silver representing the Media-Persian empire, the lower body of brass, representing the Grecian empire, and the legs of iron and clay representing the Roman empire. Daniel lived to see the fall of the first empire and the introduction of the second. The first three empires are positively identified in Daniel itself (Dan 2:38; 5:28; 8:20, 21). The last is identified by its evident characteristics and division into two major divisions.

Throughout the revelation of the course of Gentile nations, a number of important features are evident.2 There is an evident deterioration in the glory of each kingdom. This is portrayed by the decrease in value of the metals representing the empires in the image of Daniel 2, gold being succeeded by silver, silver being succeeded by brass, brass being succeeded by iron, and iron in its last stages being mixed with clay. The second kingdom is specifically declared to be inferior (Dan 2:39). The symbols representing the four empires in Daniel 7 have the same trend of deterioration. Babylon in all its glory is never surpassed by succeeding empires.

Other features of Gentile history and prophecy are definitely destructive to the theory of moral progress. There is a major strain of obligatory worship throughout the prophesied course of Gentile history. Nebuchadnezzar sets up his golden image to which all must bow. Darius casts Daniel in the lion’s den for praying to his God. Alexander the Great though not enforcing unity of worship nevertheless deified himself. Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria within the bounds of the Grecian empire period, instituted the most abominable persecution of Israel. Rome while tolerant in some respects was the persecutor of Christians and Jews alike. All of this is having its fulfillment to some extent today, and the New Testament as well as the Old bears witness to the awful climax this trend of centralized worship will reach in the persecution under the predicted time of tribulation yet to come. catastrophic judgment will overtake the Gentile world cutting short its path of sin. The description given of the final downfall of the Gentile system as portrayed in the great image of Daniel 2 is only too clear. The “stone cut out without hands” strikes the image suddenly in the feet-the final stage of Gentile history-and all the image collapses at once and becomes like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors, carried away by the wind. The idea sometimes advanced of a general improvement of conditions through the influence of the Gospel is foreign to the account in Daniel 2.

The conclusions reached from a study of Daniel are confirmed by additional revelation given in Revelation 19:11-21. The kings of the earth and their armies who stand against the Lord are utterly destroyed by the return of Christ. Instead of returning to a converted world, Christ returns in judgment to put down sin. The prophecy of Enoch, incorporated in the inspired Word of God, makes this very evident: “Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14, 15). Men may, if they wish, expound fine-spun theories of moral progress, but if they do so, they do so in contradiction to the express statements of the Word of God.

V. The Predicted Course of Christendom.

There are many passages which bear on the general subject of the course of this age. Of these two passages are of major importance, Matthew 13:1-52 and Revelation 2:1-3:22. In the first of these passages, under the theme of the course of the kingdom of heaven in its mystery form, seven figures are used to portray the course of the age. There is general agreement among expositors that Matthew 13 is a description of the course of Christendom. Without attempting a detailed exegesis, several facts are outstanding. The sower sowing the seed obviously does not have universal results in fruitfulness-only the seed which falls on good ground, and that free of thorns, bears fruit. The wheat while growing up and coming to final harvest is intermingled with the tares representing profession without reality. Both go on in their development to the end of the age. The parable of the mustard seed portrays a rapid expansion which has characterized Christendom, but it is an unsubstantial growth and the birds (representing evil) lodge in the branches. If leaven is to be interpreted with its normal significance of evil, the parable of the leaven in the meal pictures the permeation of the whole by worldliness, bad doctrine, and hypocrisy. The common interpretation that the leaven represents the Gospel of salvation spreading throughout the world ignores the fact that leaven in the Old Testament invariably represents evil, and that Christ Himself in all other passages uses it in the same evil sense (Matt 16:6-12; Mark 8:15). The mystery of the treasure hid in the field and of the merchantman buying pearls represents Christ in His redemption-selling all He had to buy the treasure. The common interpretation that these mysteries picture a Christian obtaining salvation by surrender of all he has does violence to the Scriptural teaching that an unsaved man has nothing with which to buy salvation, and salvation is not for sale in any event, being the gift of God through the price paid by Christ. The closing mystery, the drag-net of fishes, again portrays the dual lines of good and evil continuing to the end until judgment. The predicted course of the age is clearly then a line of dual development. The wheat never converts the tares; the good fish never change the character of the bad fish. There is no moral progress in the world as a whole.

The messages to the seven churches of Asia confirm the same doctrine. If these historical churches were also representative of the course of church history, a glance at the development of moral issues throughout the period shows at once that the last stage of the church is one of apostasy and decay which only the judgment of God can cure. There is certainly no hope here of a gradual change. The church does not begin in a corrupt stage and develop into a godly church, but rather in its growth and extension there is a corresponding deterioration.

VI. The Denial of Moral Progress Is Not Pessimism.

The Scriptures insofar as they deal with the world as a whole or with Christendom as such do not picture any moral progress in their development. This conclusion has not been accepted by some Christian thinkers, however, who have challenged the whole concept that the Scriptures do not prophesy or record moral progress. The chief advocates of the idea of moral progress have come from two sources.

Among older writers, those who held the postmillennial viewpoint of the return of Christ have supported the idea that the forces of Christendom would continue to increase until conditions approximating a reign of peace and righteousness would be reached, continuing for one thousand years, when Christ would come to claim the trophies of the victory of the Gospel. Postmillennialism, which had its origin in the teachings of Daniel Whitby (1638-1725), a unitarian and a controversial writer, suffered body blows by the course of world history which climaxed in the great wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Few theological leaders still embrace the old form of postmillennialism.

A new form of optimism has arisen, however, having its roots in the theory of organic evolution. Under this theory, the human race is developing and constantly rising to new heights, and moral progress becomes a phase of the onward march of human development. Accordingly, there are many voices raised in refutation of the so-called “pessimism” of premillennialists and some amillennialists who are more willing to face the hard facts of history and prophecy.

A typical reaction of evolutionary optimism is found in the opinion of Shirley Jackson Case: “At the present time this pessimistic view of the world is especially pernicious. In principle it strikes at the very heart of all democratic ideals. According to its fundamental teaching, God is regarded as an almighty potentate who has foreordained to failure all the efforts of men to establish improved forms of government. For one who holds consistently to this opinion it is nonsense to talk of human responsibility for the betterment of society. This type of teaching, which is being vigorously inculcated in many circles, readily plays into the hands of all enemies of social and political reform. By persuading men that the rapid deterioration and early destruction of the present world are determined upon by divine decree, the enemy of reform has a mighty instrument for strangling the citizen’s sense of civic duty.”3

George Ricker Berry goes so far as to accuse the literal method of interpretation (upon which premillennialism and its theory of moral progress is based) as attributing to Christ and to God the blasphemy of immorality: “The things attributed to God and Christ often seem immoral...this is principally a result of the insistence on the infallibility of the Old Testament, which logically requires a justification of immoral acts there attributed to God.”4

The question at issue is not a simple one nor is it a trivial one. Is the idea of moral progress essential to human responsibility? Is it essential to Christian hope?

The questions are dissolved by determining God’s purpose and God’s program for the Christian. If the task of the church is primarily social, the application of justice and brotherly love and inculcating of Christian standards of morality in the whole structure of society, then, indeed, the idea of moral progress is essential, and unless we achieve it not only man but God fails to achieve His purpose. The very structure of Biblical prophecy concerning the course of Gentile nations, the course of Christendom and the Pauline revelation of the church as the body of Christ, make it clear that God’s purpose is primarily individual, the formation of a new group taken out of the world as a whole and transformed by an inner regeneration. The Gospel appeal is delivered to individuals rather than nations, and social results are indirect rather than direct.

The denial of moral progress of the world as a whole is pessimistic only if it is proved that it is an unwarranted induction unsustained by the data of history and prophecy. An insurance mortality table is not pessimistic-it deals with the hard laws of average length of life, which are nevertheless true though they portend suffering and death. To predict that the world will continue in its wicked course is not pessimism but realism, and does not relieve the Christian of his duty to proclaim the truths of the Scripture nor of his responsibility in the larger sense to his fellow men. It is merely facing a hard fact to which history and prophecy give combined testimony.

VII. Regeneration the Only Basis for Moral Progress.

In denying the principle of moral progress for the world as a whole, however, it is well to observe that there is an area where there can be genuine moral progress. It is clear from the Word of God that individuals who believe in Christ in sincerity are given new spiritual life, are transformed by this regeneration, are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, are given the perfect righteousness of justification, and are baptized into the body of Christ, the true church, in which position they are assured eternal security and ultimate sanctification. Within the bounds of the true Church, composed of genuine believers, there is possible a genuine moral progress. This has two aspects. There is a growth in maturity in which the new life in Christ is manifested in the life and consciousness of the individual, and there is an immediate state of spiritual communion and adjustment with God possible at all times for the believer in Christ when completely yielded to the will of God and trusting in utter dependence upon Him. This latter state is described in the Scripture as being filled with the Spirit-enjoying the fullness of communion and blessing.

Not only is moral progress possible for the Christian, but his ultimate perfection is assured, based as it is upon the work of Christ. Accordingly, the ultimate church is described as being a “glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). Moral progress for the Christian is a wonderful reality, a gradual unfolding of the mighty power of God to cleanse from sin and give the victory. Far from being a pessimistic approach to the reality of sin, it far exceeds the evanescent optimism which characterizes the unfounded hopes of those looking for moral progress in the world. The world that is unsaved is spiritually dead, and the state of death admits no progress. The world that is unsaved is under the wrath of God, positionally “in trespasses and sin,” from which there is no escape except through a work of salvation by grace. The whole attempt to find moral progress in the world as a whole is to ignore the distinction in God’s dealings with those who trust Him and those who do not, ignore the necessity of regeneration for moral improvement, ignore individual responsibility before God by substituting a social consciousness. The Scriptural view of moral progress is at once in keeping with history, with prophecy, with the nature of man, and with the purposes of God.

VIII. What Is Our Hope?

The intelligent Bible student who implicitly believes the content of revelation afforded in the Scriptures is faced with some hard facts. The realities of heaven and hell, the revelation of the wickedness of the human heart, the hopeless condition of men apart from Christ, the power of Satan, the inability of men in spiritual things all combine to furnish a mental setting involving many difficulties. While the responsibility to witness to the saving grace of Christ is clear enough, the Christian is warned that the age will progress in evil rather than righteousness, “that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Tim 4:1); that “in the last days perilous times shall come” in which men will go continually deeper into sin (2 Tim 3:1); that “evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13). The gospel is “hid to them that are lost” (2 Cor 4:3), Satan himself blinding their eyes and hindering their faith. For the Christian, there is warning that “your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). In spite of faithful preaching of the word, “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim 4:3, 4). In the light of such teachings of the Scriptures, what is the Christian’s hope?

The Christian can hope for moral progress in his own heart. The provision of God is ample for this and is built upon a proper foundation of new life and a new nature. The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit ministers to him, and he is taught the truths of the Scriptures undiscernible to the natural mind. The reality of fellowship with God, of communion in prayer, of association with God in doing the work of God, of intercession and sacrifice all have their important place. The Christian can hope for deliverance from sin, can enjoy assurance of salvation, can rest in eternal security of his salvation, can manifest the fruit of the Spirit in his inner as well as his outer life, and can bear witness to the Gospel with assurance of its power to save. For the Christian, all things work together for good, and the providence of God fully accounts for his environment and experiences. For the Christian there is the blessed hope of the return of Christ which is declared in the Scriptures to be at all times imminent. There is the prospect of complete transformation and conformity to the perfection of Christ, of eternal fellowship in heaven, of rewards for service, of reunion with the saints, of unending joy and satisfaction in the perfection of the grace, wisdom, power, and presence of God. For the Christian there is a real hope, based on the certain revelation of the Word of God, fully in keeping with God’s purposes and character, and undeterred by the changing scenes of human history. This is the hope of the Christian, and in comparison with this, the mirage of moral progress in the world as a whole disappears as darkness before the dawn.

Dallas, Texas

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“The youth that crosses our path is full of buoyant hope. Life in its long vistas is to him the garden of Eden. He exults even in animal existence. It is delightful to see his bounding movements, to hear his joyous shouts. They are perfectly befitting his period of life, and they attest the goodness of his bountiful Creator.... And yet if we follow this ardent youth through the day till the shadows of night close around him, do we find that his thoughts and feelings spontaneously revert to his Creator? Does he sometimes hasten to the place of retirement and prayer? Does he sometimes gladly leave the society of his companions that he may converse with his invisible Friend? Is this last duty of the day the most grateful? Does his heart sometimes seem like a flame of fire ascending to its original source? Nothing like this appears. The animal and the intellectual absorb the whole of his thoughts. His moral nature is a waste.

“Now here is the point where the Word of God comes in. It does not repress the animal instincts. It does not discourage the highest efforts of the intellect, but it rectifies the moral disorder. It rearranges the scattered pillars of the moral edifice. It brings the entire soul into harmony with itself. In short it establishes the character on an enduring basis. It begins with a foresight of the end. It builds a structure which the storms shall not overturn.

“The maxims current in society, those finer sentiments possessed by a few elevated natures, together with all the formal rules of the moralist, and even the sublime teachings of nature, fail on this point. They do not touch the source of the difficulty. They do not mold aright the primary elements of the character. This is the prerogative of God’s Truth.”-Bibliotheca Sacra, February, 1846.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Is the World Grong Better?, pp. 1,2.

2 For a fuller account of this subject by the writer, cf. report of the 1943 New York Congress on Prophecy, The Sure Word of Prophecy, pp. 187-199.

3 The Millennial Hope, pp. v, vi.

4 Premillennialism and Old Testament Prediction, p. 26.