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 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 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.”

But the 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.[1]

Why is this happening, and what does it mean for Christ’s kingdom?


Before 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]The number of senior citizens in China is growing by 3.7 percent annually[7]—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 Japanese newborn.[8]

All told, 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

It’s 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?

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 when 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 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.”

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.

“Yes, children 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.”

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 1.2 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.[9] 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 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.[10] 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 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.

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 us.[11]

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.

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, 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.”[12]

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.[13]

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 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.”[14]In Christ, as Paul powerfully put it, “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free”[15]—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 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.”[16]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.




[3] Will Stewart and Suzannah Hills, “Vladimir Putin ridiculed after demanding Russians have more sex to halt declining population,” Daily Mail, February 13, 2012.

[4] Edward Lucas, “Sex for the motherland: Russian youths encouraged to procreate at camp,” Daily Mail, July 29, 2007.

[5] RAND, Population Implosion? Rand Research Brief, 2005.

[6] Jonathan Last, “America’s One-Child Policy,” The Weekly Standard,

September 27, 2010.

[7] David Brooks, “The Fertility Implosion,” New York Times, March 12, 2012

[8] Nicholas Eberstadt, “Japan Shrinks,” Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2012.

[9] Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Legal or Not, Abortion Rates Compare,” New York Times, October 12, 2007.

[10] RAND, Population Implosion? Rand Research Brief, 2005.

[11] Philippians 3:20.

[12] Mark 16.

[13]Gordon-Cromwell Theological Seminary, Status of Global Mission 2012, 1800-2025.

[14]Acts 10.

[15]Colossians 3.

[16] As cited in Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage, p.206.