Is the world more wicked now than it once was? I think I may just about have set off a riot in Sunday School when I suggested that it is not. CS Lewis once said something to the effect that the theological questions that we struggle with the most will turn out, once we have a better perspective, to make as much sense as asking “What color is a mile?” or “What does yellow smell like?” That is, they are questions that can’t be answered because they are based on irrational premises. I believe that inquiring into relative wickedness across time is one of these. In fact, the Preacher counsels against such questions: “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10)
There are several things that disturb me when people begin complaining that current times are so much worse than the good old days. I’m not so bothered by the idea that the current times have an abundance of evil; that is obvious. What bothers me is the premise that the times past did not have an abundance of evil, or were somehow less evil that the current times. Emerson said, “Behind us, as we go, all things assume pleasing forms, as clouds do afar off. Not only things familiar and stale, but even the tragic and terrible, are comely, as they take their place in the pictures of memory. The river-bank, the weed at the water-side, the old house, the foolish person, – however neglected in the passing, – have a grace in the past. ” There are several reasons for this. One is that our memories of things past fade, and those things that do stand out in our memories tend to be the good things. Another is that troubles (or evils) never look as big once they have been conquered as they do during the battle; it is always the unsolved problem that looms largest. Yet another reason is that there are many things that we now consider evil that once were never talked about, or were not considered evil at all. Take for example various forms of child abuse. There are actions that we now consider abusive that were once commonplace, and others that were never talked about that we now take proactive measures to prevent. Because these actions were either common or hidden they don’t stand out in our collective memory. Now that we are better at recognizing these evils of course we will see them more— it is not the “quantity” of evil that has changed but our capacity to recognize it.
The next disturbing aspect to inquiries about increasing amounts of evil is the assumption that evil is measurable. How do you measure evil, and (for another day) how do you even define evil? Do we measure evil by the number of sins committed, or the “size” of the sins; some combination of both, or some other way altogether? How much foul language equals a murder? How much fornication equals a lynching? How many insincere compliments equal an unjust war? I think that inquiries into relative evil are unanswerable and ultimately pointless. It is the evil that is before us that must concern us not how it compares to times past.
The third problem is that comparing evil across time focuses us on others, but not in a good way. There are, of course, ways in we which should be focused on others, but attempting to gauge others’ righteousness with our memory or dreams of the past isn’t one of them. Engaging in pointing out the evil of others and comparing it to some standard (either the past or some other standard) is pointing out the sawdust in someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own (Matthew 7:3-5). It is our own sins that we need to be worried about, not those of others, past or present, and it is our own separation from God that should be our concern, and not how the Gross National Righteousness Index stacks up to historical trends.
Lastly, the question is ultimately pointless. How the evil of today compares to that of yesteryear is totally and absolutely irrelevant to my salvation, or anyone else’s. One of the great doctrines of Mormon theology is what it teaches concerning the Justice of God. The 2nd Article of Faith teaches us that each individual is responsible for their own transgressions. As moral agents, each of us is responsible for our own actions and how we respond to the actions of those around us. We are taught that individuals who did not have a legitimate opportunity to accept the gospel in this life will be found acceptable before God, if they would have received the gospel while in life (D&C 137:7) The same principle needs to hold true in reverse: we cannot be permitted into the Kingdom of God if the only thing that kept us from sin was luck of circumstance. In other words, if we would have sinned given the opportunity, but were never given the opportunity, we are damned, just as if the only thing that prevented us from increasing in righteousness was being born in a time and place where the gospel was unavailable. To have righteousness judged on any principle other than our own actions, governed by whatever light we currently possess, is to make salvation dependant on luck, or worse: on the actions of others. If the world is more wicked today than it was 50 years ago I will be judged by how I relate to the world as it currently exists. To say that the state of the righteousness in the rest of the world impacts our chances (either negatively or positively) for salvation is to accuse God of allowing the actions of others to determine our salvation. If we assume that the forces of evil are stronger today, that they slow our progress to God more now than they did in the past, then smaller gains become more significant. Like the widow offering her last mite, it is more important that we do our best, whatever the circumstance we find ourselves in, than what our best is; the Lord will then make up whatever remaining distance is required. We each have our own unique strength and our own unique weakness. We are each presented with a unique set of problems; our judgment will be based only on how we respond to our problems with the tools we have. If other tools were available to people of other times that allowed them to respond differently to their problems they will be judged on how they used their tools—we will be judged on how we use our tools. If the circumstances that we face today are different from the past then we will be held to account for how we respond to our circumstances and not compared to people in the past living with different circumstances. People of times past hold no special advantage over people of today when it comes to righteousness. The complaint that “these times are more wicked” is a complaint that God is unjust and that we have been placed at a disadvantage because of the behavior of others. It walks hand in hand with the false belief that God will hold us guilty by association, or that we can somehow be “contaminated” by associating with those whose beliefs and actions are different from our own. In short, it expresses a fear that we will be punished for the sins of others.
The world is constantly changing—in one generation the danger may be ignorance; in another, apathy; in another, fanaticism. I would choose no other day to live than ours. Given the choice between public acceptance of gay marriage and lynchings, I’ll take gay marriage. If I have the choice between a world full of hate and rejection of others and one that is so loving and accepting that we end up accepting and loving some things that we should not, I’ll take an excess of love. If the choice is between government-, culture-, or society-mandated righteousness and freedom I’ll choose freedom even when freedom means that some people will be wicked.
We need to spend our time trying to understand how to navigate the world, not complaining about how it isn’t the way we wish it was.