The short answer, though hard to answer concretely, is no. Yes, we are living longer than 100 years ago. Birth mortality in developed countries is near zero. Living standards have increased.
But are we really any better off? And if so, has Christianity contributed?
The Enlightenment is a curious moment in history. A moment that said human society could be improved. A moment that believed in progress, human potential, and reason. In contrast, as a rebuff, as if to say in the centuries leading up to the 18th century, it also said society was not improved by Christianity.
This, too, is not true.
But perhaps instead of asking “Has Christianity improved society?” we should say, “Can Christianity improve society?” The answer is yes.
But here’s the thing: Christ made no promise he would improve human society (“the poor will always be among us”). His was not a physical, political, or even social campaign. His was a spiritual, moral, religious campaign.
One of the heart, the spirit.
He came to reconcile man to God by redeeming him from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for mankind, conquering sin, evil, death, and establishing his kingdom — one that is on earth, the one that is now (“the kingdom of God is near,” that is, salvation) — but more importantly the kingdom in heaven, in the future, the not yet of the promise.
A by-product of this campaign, however, is the transformed lives of men, women, and children on earth, who often challenge and change society for the better. What John Hick called “a hazardous adventure in individual freedom.”
It could be as simple as a father surrendering his life and putting his faith in Christ, who ends up ending generations of alcoholism and abuse, so that a family embraces the light of Jesus and seeks to serve him rather than hide and destroy in the dark.
Or it could be monumental like fighting to end slavery or abortion or establishing a hospice or a school or taking the gospel to the unconverted, the unreached, the hard to reach. The Red Cross, one of the largest, oldest, and most visible organizations that exists to relieve the suffering caused by war, bears its Christian origins in its name.
Furthermore, every generation of Christians has an outstanding mandate from God to multiply, be fruitful, and to subdue the earth. This mandate, given to Adam and Eve, extends to us, so that we must have dominion over the earth: build schools, hospitals, businesses, support the arts, the government.
And so on.
What is clear is that while we are on the earth man’s heart is always dark, always wicked — their throats an open grave, mouths full of curses, minds bent on destruction — and none fear, let alone, seek God. Man is eager to do what it is right in his own eyes — and eager to approve of those who do such things that deserve death — so that the regenerative work of Christ is necessary at all times.
This explains why, no matter how hard we work to “subdue the earth,” no matter how hard we fight evil, and even achieve an era of peace, evil will always regroup and surge once again so that in an era when slavery is universally condemned human trafficking persists, exploitation of the weak goes unchecked, and fornication blossoms among the unwed.
Hick once again:
Because this is a pilgrimage within the life of each individual, rather than a racial evolution, the progressive fulfillment of God’s purpose does not entail any corresponding progressive improvement in the moral state of the world. Evil and the Love of God
That which was evil becomes good. And wickedness ever grows. As does gossip, slander, disobedience, murder, selfishness, envy, strife, malice, arrogance.
Man is an exquisite and fertile inventor of evil.
Thus, as Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” His point: do not neglect the poor, the broken, the sick, and forgotten (remember his prior mention of the judgment of goals and sheep in the same sermon). Remember, seeing a large crowd of hungry people Jesus “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
But, more importantly, do not neglect the higher priority: worship of him.
There is a time for meeting the needs of orphans and widows. But don’t get distracted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or desperate by the abundance of needs or the lack of improvement in our society.
We must also take the time to adore our crucified Lord, and remember, the Lord who will ultimately, in the future, eliminate every disease, right every injustice, resurrect the dead, and restore the groaning earth to it’s healthy, abundant origins.
In other words, Jesus will conquer evil once and for all. Not in our lifetime. But with his return. In the meantime, we must be light in a dark place. Even if this place grows darker, even if evil increases for a spell or wickedness endures for centuries.
Do not lose hope, because Christ has conquered all, and Christ will conquer all.