Science Ch.24 - The World Is Improving – Statistically

Statisticians say the world is getting better in most ways, but doesn’t the Bible predict the opposite? Jesus said that when disasters happen, the end is “not yet,” and Paul expected Jesus’ return when everyone says, “Peace, peace.”

When Christians hear about disasters and violent events, they often act strangely: with sadness at the suffering accompanied by a kind of smug “I told you so” look, saying: “Well, the Bible predicted this would happen.” But is this really what the Bible says? If so, we have a problem, because the facts suggest that collectively we are actually suffering less than in previous generations.

       We are bombarded with news. Thirty-minute TV news shows have been supplemented by twenty-four-hour channels, and newspapers now compete with hundreds of reputable internet sites – as well as millions of disreputable sources. Bad news from across the world is widely reported, while good news is rarely reported, because experience has shown that good news just isn’t as interesting. The few “positive” or “encouraging” news items are saved for a happy end to the news program. Today we know much more about disasters, wars, and crimes than we would have done years ago, so it’s understandable that we might conclude that the world is getting worse. But how true is this?

5-minute summary

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Crime and war

Let’s look at crime statistics. They consistently show that fewer reported crimes have occurred in almost every category since the 1990s.1 However, these figures appear misleading because the news is still full of crime stories. In the UK these numbers are collected in two ways: by counting crimes reported to the police (recorded crimes), and by asking thirty-five thousand households each year whether they have suffered any crime (the crime survey). The crime survey confirms the UK has followed the US’s downward trend in personal experience of crime, but there has been an increase in recorded crimes. It appears that people are now more likely to report a theft or a fight outside a pub that, in the past, wouldn’t have involved the police.2 As a result, surveys of how people feel about crime indicate the perception that crimes are steadily increasing.

       And what about wars? Estimated death figures show that an average of 260,000 people per year were killed in the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48, and 300,000 per year died in the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-15.3 In the two World Wars, 3.7 million and 14.1 million respectively were killed per year.4 The numbers certainly appear to be getting dramatically worse. However, when we take into account population increases over those periods, we find that the proportion of people killed did not increase so dramatically: the wars killed 0.056 percent, 0.03 percent, 0.18 percent, and 0.3 percent of the world population, respectively.5 These figures still show an increase, but the earlier wars involved a much smaller area of the world. If we compare wars in the same specific area, we see that the fatalities actually fall with time, despite the increasing power of weaponry. For example, the Thirty Years’ War wiped out a third of the German population, whereas 6.4 percent of the population were killed in World War II, including civilians.6 Since World War II there hasn’t been a single year without devastating wars, including thirteen with more than a million casualties, and yet the total number of people killed per year keeps falling dramatically.7

       All this warfare is horrifying, but the likelihood of an individual being killed in one is constantly falling. We now realize that every life matters, and we no longer regard the lives of soldiers, let alone civilians, as expendable. So our perception of human suffering due to war continues to increase.

Persecution and famine

Religious persecution, by contrast, escalated dramatically since 2011 because of attempts by organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram to establish Islamic rule. They and others worldwide have killed tens of thousands of Christians and a much larger number of different types of Muslims. Their death toll is on a par with the Roman emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century when he attempted to wipe out Christianity. According to ancient reports, seventeen thousand Christians died in a single month and twenty thousand died in a single city (Nicomedia, in Turkey). Although these numbers are comparable with the murders of Christians by ISIS, the number of Christians alive in Diocletian’s day totaled perhaps only a million compared with the two billion today – so the proportion martyred today is comparatively tiny. An individual Christian was in far more peril in that terrible past than they are today.

       This rise in the level of people killed by terrorism can be exaggerated in our perception by constant media reports. Steven Pinker, who should be credited for pointing out our modern misconceptions about increasing violence, has shown that this recent increase in terrorism is minor blip.8 Oxfam conducted a sobering comparison of annual fatalities from different causes. They use an average baseline of 13,000 deaths from terrorism; instead, let’s take a baseline from the worst year ever: 44,000 deaths in 2014. Compared to this, an average person is 27 times more likely to die in a traffic accident, 64 times more likely to die as a result of obesity, and 136 times more likely to die from smoking.9 These common causes of death don’t make exciting news stories, so the number of reports about terrorist deaths gives us a wrong perception about their number.

       Plagues and famines have also filled our news recently with terrifying details. Ebola has killed about 11.5 thousand individuals,10 the AIDS epidemic has so far claimed 36 million deaths worldwide, and Covid-19 may end up killing 0.5 percent of the world’s population.11 But proportionally this is far less than the Black Death, which killed 60 percent of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century,12 or the diseases brought to the Americas, which killed more than 90 percent of the native population. The worst recent pandemic was the flu of 1918, which killed about 70 million people – 4 percent of humanity.13 There has been nothing that horrific recently.

       Even famines don’t kill like they used to, thanks to world food aid. There have been significant decreases in rainfall, especially in the US and northern Africa, so the causes of famine are still with us, but now we cope better with them. Of course, there are exceptions caused by war or in areas permanently altered by climate change, but thankfully even these don’t cause famines on the scale of those in the past. There is still terrible suffering due to food shortages in some areas, but there are now four times as many people who are overweight than underweight.14

       Of course, statistics don’t tell the terrible stories of individual suffering. That an individual is less likely to suffer from persecutions, war, famine, and disease does not lessen in any way the horror of these events or our need to respond with help and compassion for those enduring them. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to play false with reality.

The end is not yet

But didn’t Jesus predict that things must get worse and worse until he comes? Actually, Jesus described only one sign that indicated his coming was imminent, and listed several others that he said did not portend the end: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Matt 24:6-8, italics added).

       Among all the signs that Jesus listed, only one indicated that the end is near: “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14). In other words, don’t be worried when these other things happen – they will certainly come about, but they do not indicate that this is the end. Paul agreed; he expected Jesus to come after a period of quiet, when everyone will be saying “Peace, peace” (1 Thess 5:3).

       Predicting the end of the world has been the pastime of many Bible interpreters since the time of Jesus. There was a great increase of interest near the year 1000, and then again when the fire of London occurred in such a seemingly significant year – 1666! Perhaps one day there will be a terrible war in the Middle East that is interrupted by Jesus’ coming, or perhaps the world will get gradually better until we welcome his coming – the Bible isn’t clear, and I don’t see much point in trying to guess beforehand because that isn’t the purpose of Bible prophecy.

       The reason Jesus warned us about wars, famines, and persecutions was so that when those terrible things happened we would know that God hadn’t lost control. The ancient and medieval church suffered much more than we do from the actions of both non-Christians and (tragically) from different types of Christians. It took comfort from the fact that Jesus had predicted these things. But Jesus didn’t say they would continually get worse, and he specifically didn’t link them to his coming. Yes, there is still terrible suffering in the world today, but we can’t be sure whether it will increase or decrease before the end, because Jesus didn’t tell us.

Test yourself

Statistics that have been collected with scientific rigor are often ignored even by educated thinkers and influential leaders. Hans Rosling was a medical statistician who regularly surveyed his audiences before he spoke. At the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, he asked world leaders about their perceptions of the world they helped govern before presenting them with the facts. Here is part of his survey for you to try yourself:
• In the last twenty years, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has:
(a) almost doubled, (b) remained more or less the same, (c) almost halved.
• How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?
(a) more than doubled, (b) remained about the same, (c) decreased to less than half.
• How many of the world’s one-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?
(a) 20 percent, (b) 50 percent, (c) 80 percent. After reading this chapter you probably guessed that all three answers are (c). If you got it wrong, you can comfort yourself with this: the one thousand world leaders at Davos did worse than they would have if they picked answers at random.15 Statistics like these don’t just educate us about the world we live in; they also tell us a lot about ourselves.

       Our reaction to bad news is what causes our faulty perception. Our nature is to worry and to expect the worst because we remember bad things more clearly and longer than good things. In some ways this is a healthy response – like pain is – because it helps to make us aware of danger and thereby prevents us from getting hurt. But, like pain, it can also ruin our lives. Our natural levels of optimism or pessimism also color our reaction. After all, optimists think we are living in the best of all possible worlds, while pessimists fear this is so.

       Paul had a remedy for this tension: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil 4:8). Our grandparents’ generation concluded from this that we should count our blessings and give thanks. In the secular world this was encapsulated as “the power of positive thinking.” New studies in happiness conclude much the same: that the happiest people are those who are mindful of the good things in life and specifically the good things that happen to them.16 So the route to contentment recommended by Paul and our grandparents really works – whether or not the world is getting worse.


• Constant news reports give the impression the world is becoming more dangerous on average.
• Statistics show that an individual is becoming less likely to be harmed by natural or man-made disasters.
• Jesus predicted disasters but didn’t say things would be worse at the end.
• Proposal: The world is gradually improving as the gospel spreads to the whole world. Jesus said he would return when this goal was accomplished.

1^ See US figures at Nathan James, “Recent Violent Crime Trends in the United States,” Congressional Research Service, June 20, 2018 (, and UK figures in “UK Crime Trends Not So Clear Cut,” Knoema, October 30, 2017 (
2^ See Rachel Schraer, “Crime Figures: Is Violence Rising?,” BBC News, January 24, 2019, (
3^ See Wikipedia, “Thirty Years’ War” (, “Napoleonic Wars” (
4^ Based on World War I deaths of sixteen million over 4.3 years, and World War II deaths of seventy million over 5.4 years – though more people died from nonmilitary actions. See Wikipedia, “World War I casualties” ( and “World War II casualties” (
5^ Based on world populations of 0.5 billion in 1600, 1 billion in 1800, 2 billion in 1927, and 2.5 billion in 1945. See Wikipedia, “World Population” (
6^ Based on 4.5 million dead and a postwar population of 65.3 million. For various totals see Wikipedia, “German Casualties in World War II” (
7^ See Piero Scaruffi, “Wars and Casualties of the 20th and 21st Centuries” (
8^ See Stephen Pinker, “Has the Decline of Violence Reversed since The Better Angels of Our Nature Was Written?” (
9^ See “What If We Allocated Aid $ Based on How Much Damage Something Does, and Whether We Know How to Fix It?,” Oxfam Blogs, March 7, 2013 (
10^ See Wikipedia, “West African Ebola Virus Epidemic” (
11^ I write this in spring 2020 during the middle of the outbreak, when total deaths have reached 200,000, so the actual outcome may measure how pessimistic or optimistic I am.
12^ See Ole Benedictow, “The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever,” History Today 55, no. 3 (March 2005) (
13^ See “Outbreak: 10 of the Worst Pandemics in History,” MPH Online (
14^ See “Double Burden of Malnutrition,” World Health Organization (
15^ See Hans Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018). A fuller test is at and a good review at
16^ See James Clear, “The Science of Positive Thinking: How Positive Thoughts Build Your Skills, Boost Your Health, and Improve Your Work” HuffPost Life blog, July 10, 2013 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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