byFaith | Winter 2012
By Alan Dowd
Are humans going extinct? It
seems a silly question to ask, given that global population has quite literally
exploded in the past 200 years, from 1 billion people in 1800 to 7 billion
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
At first glance, it seems 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.”
He even offered a model of what being fruitful looks like by making the earth
“teem with living creatures.”
global population boom of the past 200 years is rapidly subsiding. While
population doubled in size in the half-century between 1927 and 1977, the
UN 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 downright scary. Some nations are literally dying.
Why is this happening, and
what does it mean for Christ’s kingdom?
trying to answer those weighty questions, a little background may help.
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.
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, for
instance, 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
encourages people to marry and get pregnant—at the conference. Some 35 couples
tied the knot during mass-wedding ceremonies at one recent conference.
Russia isn’t the only European
country scrambling to address rapid depopulation. As researchers at RAND
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 most
populous country on earth, faces an increasingly bleak future on the fertility
front. China’s fertility rate is 1.6 and falling, as the 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 baby boys born for every 100 Chinese baby girls. A
society bereft of female influence and driven largely by male impulses is the
stuff of nightmares.
But nowhere is the population
implosion more dramatic than in Japan, which has entered a “prolonged period of
depopulation,” according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the National Bureau of Asian
Research. Indeed, the demographic transformation now underway in Japan is shocking:
- In 2006, deaths outnumbered births in Japan. “Nothing like this
had been recorded since 1945,” writes Eberstadt.
- Japan’s population is rapidly shrinking, from 127 million today to
106 million in 2040.
- “By most projections, there will be three senior citizens in 2040
for every child under 15—an almost exact inversion of the ratio that
existed as recently as 1975,” Eberstadt notes.
- By 2040, there will be one 100-year-old in Japan for every
according to a New York Timesanalysis, “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.
Without a Net
interesting that 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?
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
greater income and wealth are added to the mix, the picture changes
dramatically. “Among the poorest societies, wealth brings incredibledrops 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 statesubsidization of retirement and medical care for older
generations. The evidence for that is what happened tobirth rates in the developed world after World War II,
when the developedworld widely changed
the social compact to provide this type ofsupport:
birth rates plummeted to a degree not explicable byassociated improvements in healthcare quality and
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.”
In other words, just as a kind of selfishness might motivate families in poor,
pre-industrial 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, “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.
are temporarily a money pit,” as the noted historian of faith and culture
Marvin Olasky writes, before adding that “children are also an economic
blessing to society as they grow and become creators.”
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.
instance, the abortion toll in America
since the 1973 Roe decision is 50
million—about 1.2 million per year. In countries like Russia and China, the toll
is far higher—both annually and overall. Each year, a staggering 42 million
around the world are aborted. There’s
no way to calculate or quantify 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. Doubtless, since heaven is a place of joy, the Lord will
mercifully keep this to Himself.
Still, for Americans, this
much is certain: The bulk of Roe’s
victims would be in their twenties and thirties 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 313 million, but more than 363 million—perhaps far more, given
that many of Roe’s victims would have
children of their own by now. And some 30 million of these citizens would be in
the workforce. With 30 million more people contributing to the safety-net
system, no one would be worrying about Social Security and Medicare lunging
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 two
to one. Japan will soon be a land of octogenarians. China is headed toward a
future where everyone is 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
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.
Ebb and Flow
Of course, for Christ
followers, the public-policy dimension of these shifts in global demographics
is not as important as the eternal. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” as Paul reminds
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
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.
is a global faith. For most, if not all, of the 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.”
So, even as
growth rates slow in the United States, even as Europe grays and fades away,
Christianity is booming in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The Pew study
notes that of the 10 countries with the largest Christian populations, five are
found in these regions. The result: Christianity is neither withering away nor
falling behind, but is actually more than holding its own amid today’s
demographic tides. An annual study of worldwide religion-population trends reports
that Christians accounted for 22 percent of world population in 1800, 32
percent in 2000 and a projected 34 percent by 2025. Here’s how other major
faith groups compare:
- Muslims 10 percent in 1800, 19 percent in 2000,
23 percent in 2025;
- Hindus 12 percent in 1800, 13 percent in 2000, 13
percent in 2025;
- Buddhists 7 percent in 1800, 6.8 percent in 2000,
6.8 percent in 2025; and
- Non-Christians 77 percent in 1800, 67 percent in
2000, 65 percent in 2025.
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.
us to the other truth to keep in mind, an eternal one.
God—is not tied to any region or race or religion. 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
mega-churches 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, “but
accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”In Christ, as Paul powerfully put it, “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
rest on our spiritual laurels and declare that we have completed the Lord’s
work. After all, the numbers tell us that 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
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, like my wife and me, 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.
It’s interesting that the
Lord reveals Himself to us as both “Our Father” and the “Son of Man.” One
message to take from this paradoxical pairing is that generations are
intimately connected, even dependent on each other. One way or another, the
world will relearn this timeless truth.
 Will Stewart and Suzannah Hills, “Vladimir Putin
ridiculed after demanding Russians have more sex to halt declining population,”
Daily Mail, February 13, 2012.
 Edward Lucas, “Sex for the motherland: Russian youths
encouraged to procreate at camp,” Daily Mail, July 29, 2007.
 RAND, Population Implosion? Rand Research Brief, 2005.
 Jonathan Last, “America’s One-Child Policy,” The
September 27, 2010.
 David Brooks, “The Fertility Implosion,” New York
Times, March 12, 2012
 Nicholas Eberstadt, “Japan Shrinks,” Wilson Quarterly,
 Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Legal or Not, Abortion Rates
Compare,” New York Times, October 12, 2007.
 RAND, Population Implosion? Rand Research Brief, 2005.
 Philippians 3:20.
 Mark 16.
Theological Seminary, Status of Global Mission 2012, 1800-2025.
 As cited in Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage, p.206.