Betterment by Human Progress

NOTES: This is the eighth of a series of articles on common contemporary viewpoints which m-e contrary to orthodox Christianity.

Optimistic belief in the power of human progress to produce moral and spiritual betterment is perhaps a typically American attitude. The tremendous development of technology in America, together with the high standard of living that has come from exploiting a vast new continent, has tended to give Americans generally an almost boundless belief in the possibilities of progress. Another factor in this state of mind has doubtless been the wide-spread acceptance of the philosophy of evolution, which implies constant and limitless improvement in the human race. On the whole, Europeans are less optimistic about the possibilities of human progress, and more realistic about the facts of human perversity.



Life is not necessarily made better just by being made more complicated or more convenient. Modern bathrooms, automobiles, radius, telephones and electric refrigerators do not necessarily imply that a country is any better morally and spiritually than other lands which lack these conveniences. Schooling for every child and magazines and newspapers for every family do not mean that we love God and our neighbor more than the illiterate aborigines of the upper Amazon valley. In short, progress in civilization does not necessarily imply any positive advance of the Kingdom of God.

Civilization and Common Grace

Progress in civilization is possible because God’s common grace (grace apart from salvation, given to all men in common) restrains the destructive tendencies of sin to some extent, so that human life can continue to exist on this planet and the primal divine mandate to subdue the earth and have dominion over the creatures (Genesis 1:28) can be carried out. Sin produces confusion and death. Unless restrained by the common grace of God, the sin which resulted from the fall would have put an immediate end to human history and rendered the development of civilization and the fulfillment of the mandate of Genesis 1:28 impossible. It was God’s purpose to send his Son, in the fulness of time as the Redeemer of his elect. For this purpose to be realized, it was necessary that human history continue for thousands of years, and that sin be sufficiently restrained to render the progress of civilization possible. If it were not for the restraining hand of God, the wickedness of the depraved heart of fallen man would cause human society utterly to destroy itself. This would mean the immediate arrival of the Judgment Day, which of course would prevent the realization of God’s purpose of redemption if it should come before the appointed time. Therefore, for the elect’s sake, God has through the ages checked the disruptive and destructive power of human sin by his common grace.

At certain times this common grace has been largely withdrawn, and humanity has hovered on the brink of self-destruction. Such was the case in the period just before the Flood. At that time the children of God were a very small minority of the human race, and as the influences of God’s common grace were largely withdrawn, the result was that “the earth also was corrupt before God; and the earth was filled with violence…for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:11, 12). The outcome was divine judgment on human wickedness, in the form of the Flood which destroyed all the ungodly. There have been other epochs in human history when it seemed that the restraining hand of God was largely withdrawn and human sin was being allowed to proceed toward its suicidal conclusion. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, with the resultant ten great plagues on the land of Egypt, was an instance of this. The rise of the wicked totalitarian regimes of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Shintoist Japan affords a more recent example of what happens when the common grace of God is partly withdrawn. The rise of militant, atheistic communism in Russia and its spread through nation after nation affords an even more ominous example at the present day. There is some reason for saying that humanity is in imminent danger of self-destruction today.

The present perilous world situation is the product of the wickedness of the corrupt heart of fallen humanity. While worldly people, who do not know the God of the Bible, tremble with astonishment at the gloomy world outlook, and their hearts fail them for fear of the things that are coming on the earth (Luke 21:26), the Christian who knows his Bible will not be at all surprised at the international situation and the destruction of human rights and liberty which has occurred through a large part of the world. The Bible-believing Christian will realize that the present deplorable situation is exactly what might be expected of sinful humanity, and what would have taken place long ago except for the restraining power of the common grace of God. The Bible-believing Christian also knows that God reigns and will not permit the total destruction of human civilization before the time appointed for the Judgment Day.

Common and Special Grace Confused

It is a great and grievous error to mistake the products of common grace for those of saving grace, to confuse civilization with Christianity, to suppose that ordinary human decency is the same thing as salvation, to regard human progress as a token of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It has often been alleged that progress in science and invention is a product of Christianity, and that the reason why certain countries have advanced far beyond other countries in science and invention is because of the general profession of the Christian religion among their people. This notion is however quite without foundation, and confuses the products of common grace with those of special or saving grace. In the book of Genesis where the early history of the human race is recorded we learn that it was the ungodly descendants of Cain, not the godly descendants of Seth, that discovered and invented the most (Genesis 4:16–24). The children of Seth were remarkable for one thing only: they knew and worshipped God (Genesis 4:25, 26); not a single invention or scientific discovery is credited to any of them. The ungodly descendants of Cain, on the other hand, are credited with the following inventions and discoveries: dwelling in tents; domesticating cattle; musical instruments; use of metals. How did Cain’s wicked descendants achieve such great progress in civilization? Not by their religion, for they did not know and love God, but by the common grace of God which made possible the development and use of their natural human capacities. They were wicked men, but ingenious and industrious.

Those who claim that science and invention are products of Christianity forget that our modern science rests on the foundations laid by the ancient Greeks whose religion was a degraded form of heathenism. In mathematics, in medicine, in mechanics, in psychology, in logic, in philosophy, it was the heathen Greeks who laid the foundations on which the imposing edifice of modern science, technology and engineering rests. The Greeks, of course, took over and built on what had been done by the heathen Egyptians and Babylonians before them.

When Greek science had run its course, it was taken up in the Middle Ages by the Mohammedan Arabs, who built more of the superstructure on the foundations laid by the Greeks. The people of Israel, the covenant people of God, through the entire Old Testament period made no contributions, so far as we know, to scientific progress. The very alphabet in which their books were written was derived from the heathen Phoenicians. Through the Middle Ages, a period of roughly a thousand years, it was the Mohammedan countries, not those where Christianity was dominant, that carried on scientific studies and furthered scientific progress. It was not until about five hundred years ago that the leadership in science and invention passed to those nations in which Christianity was the prevailing religion. And today scientific research is so completely divorced from belief in the Christian Faith that it is sheer folly to hold that the former is the product of the latter. Science plows its own furrow today, regardless of what Christian people believe.

The Stream and Its Source

A stream can rise no higher than its source; that which proceeds from the corrupt, unregenerate life-stream of sinful humanity may be significant of progress in civilization, but it cannot be a token of the coming of God’s Kingdom. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). The Kingdom of God depends upon a special, new life principle which has been planted in the hearts of a part of the human race, and which is called regeneration or the new birth. Apart from regeneration, all human progress is mere civilization, not Christianity, and betokens no real moral or spiritual improvement.

There may be apparent improvement, of course, and there may be superficial improvement. Under the influence of God’s common grace, a man may leave off being a drunkard and become a university professor. Unless he also becomes a born-again Christian, his improvement is only superficial, for his heart has not been changed. He is still a wicked man in God’s sight. Strictly speaking, the improvement that takes place in such a case is only apparent. The change that has taken place is not from sin to righteousness, but from one form of sin to another form of sin—from a crude and disgusting form of sin to a cultured and refined form of sin. Actually, a university professor who knows not the living God may do more to interfere with the Kingdom of God than a drunkard in the gutter. The form of sin changes constantly, but its essence remains the same. As long as the heart is not renewed by the new birth, the issues of a person’s life cannot be anything but sin. The sin may be more or less restrained by God’s common grace, but sin it is still. A non-Christian university professor who undertakes to explain psychology or history without taking the living God into account is a thoroughly wicked man, even though he may be kind to his family, pay his taxes and contribute to the Red Cross.

A Fallacy Millions Live By

The notion of betterment by human progress is indeed a popular fallacy, and, we may add, a popular religious fallacy, since it has been adopted as an element of religious faith and hope by millions of people. There are multitudes who pin their faith for the future of humanity on mere human progress. This misplaced popular faith in human progress assumes several characteristic forms, some of ‘which we shall mention briefly. Underlying them all is a general belief in evolution, the idea that the human race is necessarily and automatically improving and will inevitably continue to improve. This evolutionary philosophy is of course contrary to the Bible, yet many Christian people have been more or less unconsciously influenced by it.

Betterment Through Education

A common form of faith in human progress regards education as the hope of humanity. Get the masses educated and we will have a better world, is the idea. This was more prevalent half a century ago than it is today. Two devastating world wars in a single generation, both of which originated among the most highly educated nations of the world, have done something to modify this hope for betterment by education. Also, many highly educated men are serving prison terms for crimes which they committed. Education itself does not produce real betterment; it all depends on the character of the persons educated, which determines what they will do with their education.

Faith in Democracy

Another common form is faith in democracy. Of course every true American will believe in democracy as the best form of government for our country. But democracy itself does not guarantee betterment. Democracy is a purely formal conception; it simply means the rule of the majority of the people. If the majority of the people want to indulge their sinful lusts, democracy makes it possible for them to do so. A few years ago democracy defeated constitutional prohibition in Kansas and opened the door for the liquor traffic to enter the state. Like education, democracy is only a tool, and whether it is used for good or evil depends upon the character of the people who use it. There is something childishly naive in the way Americans prescribe democracy as the remedy for the ills of Germany, Japan and other countries, as if rule by the majority of the people would somehow guarantee betterment. Put a hundred ungodly men on an island and tell them to elect officials and make laws by democratic processes: there is no reason to suppose that they will come any nearer to the Kingdom of God by democracy than if they were ruled by a king.

Economic Security

Then there is the whole gamut of economic movements to which people pin their hope for a better world. These include not only Marxian socialism and communism, but such movements as unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, health insurance, socialized medicine, the establishment of co-operatives, labor unions, the forty-hour week, reform of the tariff laws, and so forth. Some economic movements, such as communism, are inherently evil; others are morally indifferent and therefore legitimate. But the point is that as long as economic movements proceed from no higher source than the life-stream of unregenerate humanity aided by God’s common grace, they are only phases of human civilization, not tokens of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is still true that that which is born of the flesh is flesh. Real progress of the Kingdom of God will no doubt improve people’s economic conditions, but improving people’s economic conditions does not necessarily betoken real progress of the Kingdom of God. Where faith is placed in economic movements rather than in God, no real moral and spiritual betterment will take place, but only the kaleidoscopic changes of human civilization.

Faith in Understanding

Finally, we may consider what may be called faith in “understanding:” the notion that social, economic, national and international problems could be solved if people could only get together and come to an “understanding” by learning to appreciate each other’s viewpoints and attitudes. Back of this naive faith in the power of “understanding” is the delusion that humanity is naturally good and noble. At bottom this is a denial of the Scriptural doctrine of total depravity. Those who pin their faith to “understanding” fail to realize that the unregenerate human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, that people are naturally sinful and selfish, and that there are those who frankly prefer darkness to light (John 3:19). The dispute between the Japanese Government and the Christian Churches of Korea and Manchuria was not a “misunderstanding;” it was the clash of steel on granite, the conflict of two absolutely contradictory, irreconcilable philosophies of life. The conflict between Christianity and Communism is not a “misunderstanding;” the more perfectly these two movements understand each other, the more they will realize that they cannot dwell together in harmony. Recently a prominent “missionary statesman” was quoted as saying that Churches and missionaries in China should be pro-Christian, not anti-communist. To speak thus is sheer folly, as if a man were to say we should be in favor of righteousness but not opposed to wickedness.

Diplomacy and international negotiation on a merely human basis may produce many changes and much superficial betterment; they cannot give rise to genuine moral and spiritual improvement. Yet in the 1920’s multitudes of Christian people regarded the League of Nations with what amounted almost to religious faith, and in the 1940’s multitudes of Christian people have regarded the United Nations as virtually the last hope of humanity. This is the basic delusion of betterment by human progress.

The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up the teaching of God’s Word on human depravity by saying that the human race, by the fall of our first parents, “became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body,” and adding: “From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions” (VI. 2, 4). If we take God’s Word seriously we will be careful to distinguish between civilization and Christianity, and will realize that mere human progress does not mean genuine betterment.