It seems a silly question to ask, given that global population has exploded in the past 200 years, from 1 billion people in 1800 to 7 billion today. In fact, at the time of Christ’s birth, the world was populated by just 300 million. A millennium later, there were only 310 million people on the entire planet (about the population of the United States today). It took humanity 800 more years to hit the billion mark. In 1974, we hit 4 billion; in 1987, 5 billion; and in 1999, 6 billion.
At first glance, it seems that humanity has lived up to one of the Lord’s first commandments. In the very first chapter of the very first book in the Bible, the Lord declares, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). He even offered a model of what being fruitful looks like by making the earth “teem with living creatures.”
But the global population boom of the past 200 years is rapidly subsiding. While population doubled in the half-century between 1927 and 1977, the United Nations reports that our numbers are expected to grow by just 47 percent between 2000 and 2050, dropping from an annual growth rate of 1.22 percent to only 0.33 percent by 2050. The population projections in large swaths of the earth are frightening. Some nations are literally dying.
Why is this happening, and what does it mean for Christ’s kingdom?
Nations Becoming Empty
In 2010, the U.S. birthrate dropped below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman to a rate of 2.08. Birthrates are even lower in Europe: 1.6 children per woman in Western Europe and just 1.26 children per woman in Eastern Europe.
It’s not just the economy, stupid. It’s the demographics….
Shortly after the 2012 election an Associated Press story pointed to a number of demographic realities that conservative Christians — especially those in a predominantly white denomination — might contemplate. For example:
• Nonwhites made up 28 percent of the electorate this year, compared with 20 percent in 2000.
• White men made up 34 percent of the electorate this year, down from 46 percent in 1972.
• In the past year, minority babies outnumbered white newborns for the first time in U.S. history.
• Since 2000, the Hispanic and Asian populations have grown by more than 40 percent.
• Currently, Hispanics are the largest minority group and make up 17 percent of the U.S. population.
• Minorities now make up more than 36 percent of the population.
• Hispanics will make up roughly 30 percent of the U.S. by midcentury.
At barely 1.3 children per woman, Russia’s population picture is dire. By 2050, Russia will be populated by fewer than 100 million people, down from 145 million today. The transcontinental empire built by the czars is simply withering away. “We are facing the risk of turning into an empty space,” Russian President Vladimir Putin says of his country.
The population picture is so bad in Russia that the government is promoting procreation. Putin, according to London’s Daily Mail newspaper, has offered monthly cash incentives, free schooling, and subsidized housing to women who have more than two children. At an annual conference of mostly college-aged Russians, Putin’s political party encouraged people to marry and get pregnant — at the conference. Some 35 couples tied the knot during mass-wedding ceremonies at one recent conference, the paper reported.
Russia isn’t the only European country scrambling to address rapid depopulation. As researchers at the RAND Corporation report, to increase fertility rates, France has “instituted generous child-care subsidies,” and “families have been rewarded for having at least three children.” Likewise, Sweden mandates flexible work schedules, subsidized child care, and “extensive parental leave” programs.
Surprisingly, China, the earth’s most populous country, faces an increasingly bleak future on the fertility front. China’s fertility rate is 1.6 and falling, as its one-child policy devastates China’s long-term demographics. By 2050, China will be losing some 20 million people every five years, public-policy writer Jonathan Last reports. The number of senior citizens in China is growing by 3.7 percent annually, a staggering figure according to demographers, while an imbalance between males and females portends serious social, cultural, and even geopolitical problems. There are 119 Chinese boys born for every 100 Chinese girls. A society bereft of female influence and driven largely by male impulses is the stuff of nightmares.
All told, according to a New York Times analysis, “Nearly half the world’s population lives in countries with birthrates below the replacement level.” India, with 2.62 children born per woman, is the rare outlier.
No Children, No Safety Net
In the 1960s and 1970s, the worry among social scientists was that we were producing too many people for the earth’s natural resources and our political systems’ social-safety nets to sustain. Today, we are headed for a future where there are too few people.
But why? Why are people seemingly everywhere having fewer children?
Economists and demographers point to wealth and income as the main drivers. Humans tend to have more children when economic wealth is low and infant mortality is high. Several factors contribute to this. In poorer societies, there is often a lack of resources to prevent or plan pregnancy. In poorer societies, the very fact that infants are less likely to survive, due to inadequate resources, encourages the biological drive to have more children. And in poorer societies, where government provides little in the way of a social-safety net, children serve as a kind of social security, the idea being that children will one day care for their parents.
But with greater income and wealth, the picture changes dramatically. “Among the poorest societies, wealth brings incredible drops in infant mortality as well as the opportunity for family planning,” explains Justin Heet, a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, a public policy think tank. “Among the richest societies, greater wealth brings state subsidization of retirement and medical care for older generations. The evidence for that is what happened to birth rates in the developed world after World War II, when the developed world widely changed the social compact to provide this type of support: Birth rates plummeted to a degree not explicable by associated improvements in healthcare quality and access.”
As an economy modernizes and industrializes, Heet explains, “Having a child goes from a source of income — think of a farm-based economy or craft economy at an early stage of industrial development, where children contribute to the family by working — to a dramatically higher source of expense.”
No Children, No Pain or Sacrifice
In other words, just as a kind of selfishness might motivate families in poor, preindustrial societies to have large numbers of children, a kind of selfishness might motivate couples in wealthy societies like ours to have fewer children. Good parenting, after all, presupposes some amount of sacrifice, selflessness, and even pain.
Moms know early on that pain and parenting go hand in hand. As Jesus observed in John 16:21, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”
It seems our modern, materialistic world increasingly doesn’t want to deal with the pain and sacrifice that childbearing brings — or perhaps doesn’t believe the delayed and deferred joy of having children is worth the pain and sacrifice. This is very different from Scripture’s view of children. “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth,” Psalm 127 cheers. “Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” The Lord is telling us that children are worth the pain and sacrifice, that they are a blessing, and that they are to be sent out — launched, to borrow the psalmist’s imagery — in order to bless the world.
“Yes, children are temporarily a money pit,” social commentator and author Marvin Olasky writes, before adding that “children are also an economic blessing to society as they grow and become creators.”
Too many people fail to recognize this truth, choosing instead to view children only as a drain or burden. The words of a Dickens story come to mind. It was Ebenezer Scrooge who callously wished some people were dead in order to “decrease the surplus population.” We have, in effect, followed Scrooge’s population-control plan, and the costs are only now coming into focus.
For instance, the abortion toll in America since the 1973 Roe decision is 50 million, about 1.3 million per year. In countries such as Russia and China, the toll is far higher, both annually and overall. Each year, The New York Times reports, a staggering 42 million around the world are aborted. There’s no way to calculate what this man-made epidemic has cost us or what abortion’s many victims might have discovered, invented, built, or cured. But Psalm 139 suggests that from His perch outside the box of time, the Lord has kept a tally of all that might have been. “Your eyes saw my unformed body,” the psalmist writes. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book,” all the dreams unfulfilled, all the poems unwritten, all the sermons unspoken, all the proofs and formulas untested, all the vaccines and breakthroughs unknown, all the lives unlived. Were we exposed in the hereafter to this endless record of what might have been, we would be staggered and stricken by grief.
Still, for Americans, this much is certain: The bulk of abortion’s victims would be in their 20s and 30s today, starting families, building careers, enjoying the prime of life, and bolstering the social-safety net. In other words, they would not be “surplus population” or a burden on society, but rather contributors and “creators,” as Olasky puts it. America would number not 314 million, but more than 364 million, perhaps far more. And some 30 million of these citizens would be in the workforce. With 30 million more people contributing to the safety net system, few would be worrying about Social Security and Medicare lunging toward insolvency.
As fertility rates decline — whether due to abortion, pregnancy prevention, or people choosing to forgo parenthood altogether — countries get older fast. RAND reports that 30 percent of Europe’s population will be older than 65 by 2050 — double what it was in 2000. In the United States, there were once 16 workers to support every Social Security pensioner. Today, there are about three. By 2050, the ratio will shrink to 2-to-1. Japan will soon be a land of octogenarians. China is headed toward a future where most are old and male. And yet policymakers search in vain for ways to address the looming safety-net shortfalls, realizing too late that one of the simplest solutions — procreation — takes a generation or more to have an impact.
So, just as there are benefits — for families and nations — to being fruitful and multiplying, there are consequences to choosing another path. “I have set before you life and death,” the Lord explains in Deuteronomy. “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” As we forget or ignore this truth, we will necessarily miss out on the rewards and benefits — individually, societally, demographically — of procreation. After all, the advances humanity has made in science, medicine, technology, and agriculture — advances that have yielded longer life spans and healthier people and better living standards — were made possible because people chose life. People chose to have children, and those children grew up to use their God-given talents to make the world He created better. If more people means more ideas, more answers, more solutions, more cures, then it stands to reason that fewer people means fewer ideas, fewer answers, fewer solutions, fewer cures.
Fortunately, Christianity is a Far-Flung Faith
So, how do these shifting demographic tides impact the kingdom? Could they overwhelm Christianity’s global numbers? After all, it was from Europe that Christianity spread around the world, Christianity enjoyed some of its most dynamic and lasting growth in the Americas, and North America has long been an engine of evangelization. Yet Europe is withering away, and the United States is growing at an ever-slower rate.
The Family and Society
In a recent column, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted that the world is moving in the same basic direction, “from societies oriented around the two-parent family to cafeteria societies with many options.” And yet, Brooks says, people are better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft, and country.
The surest way people bind themselves is through the family. “As a practical matter, the traditional family is an effective way to induce people to care about others, become active in their communities, and devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind.”
From The New York Times, “The Age of Possibility” by David Brooks. Nov. 15, 2012
There are two important truths to keep in mind as we watch the ebb and flow of these tides. The first has to do with hard data from the here-and-now. Christianity is a global faith. For most, if not all, other religions with large populations, the vast majority of their adherents are clustered in and around specific geographic areas. Not so with Christianity. As a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life puts it, Christianity is “so far-flung that … no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.” This is a direct function of Christians faithfully following the Great Commission and taking the Good News “into all the world.”
With the rise of radicalized Islam in recent decades, Islam’s population growth may alarm some. But it pays to recall that a) the vast majority of Muslims do not subscribe to the violent versions of their faith and b) predominantly Muslim nations are also experiencing declines in population growth. In fact, fertility rates have declined 60 percent across major Arab countries and 70 percent in Iran, as The New York Times reports. Pew adds that the projected growth rate of the world’s Muslim population is 1.5 percent between now and 2030, down from 2.2 percent between 1990 and 2010.
That brings us to the other truth to keep in mind, an eternal one.
Our faith — our God — is not tied to any region or race. The global acceptance of the gospel reminds us that God keeps His promises. “The remnant of Jacob will be in the midst of many peoples,” as Micah assures us. And today, the remnant is sprinkled around the world, in the hidden house churches of China; the overflowing megachurches of Lagos and Houston, Sydney and Rio, Jakarta and Seoul; the half-empty cathedrals of Europe; the makeshift chapels of Kenya and India; in Jerusalem and Damascus; in the whispered prayers of the persecuted.
So does it really matter if Christianity’s growth sectors have shifted south and east? “God does not show favoritism,” as Peter declared in Acts 10:34-35, “but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” In Christ, as Paul powerfully put it in Colossians 3:11, “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” — no Arab or Asian or American.
Still, this is no time to declare that we have completed the Lord’s work. Some 65 percent of the world does not know Christ. That means we have work to do. Until He returns, we should keep following the Great Commission, keep sharing the Good News, and keep observing His commandments, including the charge to be fruitful.
In his book “Sacred Marriage,” Gary Thomas quotes from a 13th-century Jewish text, which concludes that husband and wife are invited to “become partners with God in the act of creation.” Those couples who have not been blessed in this way can still partner with God in His creation mission by supporting people and organizations that choose life, by devoting their time, talents, and treasure to nieces and nephews, by embracing and welcoming little ones the way Jesus did, and by caring about the world future generations will inherit.
Alan Dowd, a writer and researcher in Fishers, Ind., is the author of more than 700 articles.