Is the twentieth century facing the possibility of final doom? Are we now face to face with a last chance for the survival of civilization? Discussing these questions in the film series “God and Man in the Twentieth Century,” produced by Educational Communication Association, are: Albert Hedrich, assistant director of research, Page Communications, and former chief of the Communications Research Branch of Goddard Space Flight Center; Frank E. Gaebelein, headmaster emeritus of The Stony Brook School and former chairman of the board of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools; and Richard Millett, assistant professor of history at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, Illinois. The panel is moderated by the editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

Henry: Gentlemen, is there any reason for optimism over modern history, or ought we to leap at once to prophecies of doom?

Millett: History shows us that mankind is remarkably resilient—that though individual civilizations may fall or change radically, civilization as a whole has always been able to continue and move forward.

Hedrich: I think that if man were able to control and understand himself to the extent that he has been able to control his environment, there would be hope from that viewpoint. There doesn’t seem at this point to be much evidence of that coming about, however.

Gaebelein: The only reason, and the real reason, for optimism lies in God. Man is a sinner needing rescue.

Millett: History seems to confirm at least a good part of that. We know that civilization after civilization has fallen, has passed away, because of its inability to solve the same basic problems that have plagued each generation—men’s inability to live at peace with their fellow men, their inability to find satisfaction, their constant search for power. These problems are rising again in our generation, and perhaps today the consequences are more far-reaching. The potential for civilization to harm itself radically is probably greater now than ever before. But the basic problems are the same.

Henry: Didn’t Toynbee say that some twenty-one great civilizations of the past have all ended in ruin and decay?

Hedrich: Those civilizations in the past, though, were relatively restricted in geographical area. The situation with which we’re faced now is somewhat different. In view of the advances in communications made in the last few years, anything that happens in one part of the world is now going to affect the rest of it. More specifically, anything that happens to the Christian testimony, to the Christian Church, for instance, in the United States or in the Western hemisphere, is going to have an impact over the entire world. We have to take an overall world view of anything that happens; this is something unique about the situation now as compared to past civilizations.

Article continues below

Gaebelein: You spoke of a world view, Mr. Hedrich. Christianity has a very definite world view, and it seems difficult for modern man to grasp the significance of this world view. Some years ago Bertrand Russell published an article on the future of mankind in which he said that unless something unforeseeable happens before the turn of the century, one of three things will happen: the cessation of all human life, possibly of all life on the planet; the catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe; or the unification of the world under a single government. But notice that Bertrand Russell spoke of the unforeseeable. What to him and to the modern mind is unforeseeable is made very clear in the Christian world view.

Hedrich: Yes, I agree. However, one thing that is somewhat alarming to me—and your mention of Bertrand Russell brings it to mind—is that a few rather outspoken scientists have spoken outside their field. I’m not saying necessarily that Bertrand Russell spoke outside his field, nor am I saying that sociological and religious problems are necessarily outside the field of the scientist. But I am afraid, that the general public, because of some remarks made by well-known scientists, has come to the point where it is too willing to entrust everything to the scientist. Not long ago on a trip around the country I saw something that I thought no longer existed: a technocrat headquarters. This was an organization formed in the early 1930s; one of its aims was to turn over the running of the country economically—all the sociological problems, everything—to the scientist and the engineer. The technocrats felt that we were at the point where this could be done. I disagree. I don’t believe that the scientist is either equipped or willing to do this sort of thing. And I don’t think he welcomes that kind of responsibility. I’m not wise enough to say what underlies this apparent willingness of the people to give the scientist such responsibility, but I think that it could be catastrophic if he were given it.

Gaebelein: But man has an innate desire for the answers. We ought to remember that in the Bible there are the only sure answers for the three great basic problems: The problem of origins—where did it all come from? This is answered in the Bible at the very beginning: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The problem of identity—what is man? The Bible clearly tells us that man is a creature made in the image of God, that through rebellion this image has been marred, but that it may be restored through Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” And the problem of destiny—where is man going? The Bible clearly talks about the end. This is one of the great Christian doctrines, the doctrine of the last things. In his great chapter on the resurrection Paul says, “Then cometh the end, when he [referring to Jesus Christ] shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father.”

Article continues below

Joppa, 850B.C.

Wanted—Reservations on cargo ship for Tarshish or other far-west destination. One way only. Ask for “Mr. J.” at the pier.

Chicago, 1957A.D.

Wanted—Minister, age 40, desires new pastorate in warm climate and congenial surroundings (preferably west). Progressive congregation preferred. Box 492.

—LEROY KOOPMAN, Morrison, Illinois

Henry: Dr. Millett, from a historian’s standpoint, how would you assess the present trend of history in relation to the prospects for Christianity in the immediate future?

Millett: One trend that has been quite definite in recent years has been an increasing divorce between Christian thought—that is, traditional Christian positions—and our modern society. I remember that Dr. Carl Bridenbaugh, in his presidential address to the American Historical Association a few years past, said that the present generation of young people will perhaps be the last one to know anything significant about theology—and they don’t know very much. He described them as a group that seem to think of God as a quaint idea that came in with the Eisenhower administration.

Henry: Are you suggesting that the Church is doomed and that we’re now moving into an era in history when for the generations to come the Christian religion will have no objective significance, no validity?

Millett: No, I’m not suggesting that at all. It may have less impact upon society as a whole, but the essential reality of Christianity, of course, has always been with individuals. Christianity isn’t dependent upon the support of any human institution. It’s founded upon a historical fact, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and its success depends upon this, not upon any institutional support.

Article continues below

Hedrich: I agree. But I don’t believe that mankind, the general public, agrees with this. Men are continually searching for some way to circumvent Christianity, to circumvent Christ, to circumvent the cross. And now, in the past few decades, they have reached a point where they’re almost attempting to deify the scientists. If you look back through history at the various civilizations that have fallen, man’s attempts to bring himself up have always faced the same problems, and men have made the same mistakes over and over again. If you look at the progress of science, I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that we’re now further ahead, that there has been a continual increase in scientific knowledge over the ages. And I think that people are at the point now where they’ve starting to hope that maybe this is the answer. It’s another way of circumventing the cross, of circumventing Christ. But I think they’re leaning on a broken stick when they lean on the scientist for this.

Henry: A generation ago one of the ruling tenets in American life, and in the Western world, was the inevitability of progress. Science, by the laboratory method of experiment, was going to bring in an earthly millennium. Now, do you sense today alongside the despair over history an opposite exaggerated confidence over the ability of the scientist? Do you detect a new emphasis on the inevitability of progress in a nuclear age and in the age of space investigation and communications research? Is the inevitability of progress sneaking in by the back door as a leading modern theme? What are the scientists saying about it?

Hedrich: Well, Dr. Henry, I think this is probably evidenced pretty well by a remark made not too long ago by Dr. Edward Teller in a lecture at the George Washington University. He said that the person or the society that is unwilling to change to meet the new conditions with which it is faced is going to perish. He approached the problem from the viewpoint of our nuclear age. Should we, for instance, stop all scientific progress because man is going to destroy himself if he continues down the present road? And Dr. Teller made what seemed to be a very good case for stopping all scientific progress! Then he turned around and said, “Now, isn’t that ridiculous!” Of course no one is going to suggest that we stop our scientific progress, he said, but we all have to be willing to change and accommodate ourselves to this progress. The scientist has to be willing to change, to apply his knowledge for the good of mankind. But there is no real plan for doing it. I very much got the impression that he as a scientist didn’t know how to do it, that no one had really suggested a good way to do it.

Article continues below

Henry: You feel that if there is going to be happiness and hope in our generation, it is not going to come out of the scientific laboratory.

Hedrich: I don’t believe that the scientist has been successful in making people happy.

Henry: Do you think that twentieth-century man could be equally happy or even more happy in the absence of television and the airplane and automobiles?

Hedrich: I don’t think that television, radio, the automobile, and the airplane have anything to do with his happiness. They just give him some more things to explore to try to find happiness. But he is being unsuccessful in finding it.

Gaebelein: I think, Mr. Hedrich, in relation to this matter of happiness, we ought to go deeper than things. The hopeless man is the unhappy man. And man seems somehow to have lost hope. I remember a book written by Dr. David Starr Jordan, who was the first president of Leland Stanford University. It’s called The Call of the Twentieth Century, and it was written about the turn of the century. In it Dr. Jordan, a great scientist and educator, said that the twentieth century would be the era when all reforms would be realized—the time of perfect peace and righteousness, social justice, and all that kind of thing. Now, as a prophet he couldn’t have been more wrong. The biblical world view we referred to earlier is ultimately a hopeful world view. It’s very realistic. Of course, the old idea of progress has collapsed under the impact of two world wars and what has followed. But the biblical world view looks into the future and tells us that after a time of judgment there will actually be a brave, new world under Jesus Christ. This may seem utopian, but because it is related to him it is a very real thing. St. Paul, in talking about this great future event of the coming of Christ, says, “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again [referring to the very centrality of the Christian faith], even so them also who sleep in Jesus [the Christian dead] will God bring with him.” You see, a man may be related to the very great Christian hope here and now through his relation to Jesus Christ and the centrality of faith in him.

Henry: So that from the Christian point of view—and I suppose I ought to address the historian here—there is to be a climax of history. It will not be in the nature of one world or the perfection of the whole of society, however, but rather a windup of all things in relation to Jesus Christ. Now, I’m wondering whether the Christian is related to hope, in view of Christ as the King and Lord of history, exclusively in terms of His judgment of the historical order at the end of things, or whether somehow this bears upon his relation to the present order of things. How does the Christian hope bear on history in our own times?

Article continues below

Millett: I think it has a very important bearing. For instance, the current uncertainty in the world about the future coupled with the Christian’s certainty that in an ultimate sense the course of human history is in God’s hands gives us a tremendous opening for reaching people in this day and age. I think also that for the Christian today one thing to bear in mind is that our faith, our Christian experience, does not depend upon any particular civilization, and that no matter what happens to this civilization, Christianity will continue.

Hedrich: Dr. Millett, could you give us an example?

Television stations currently scheduling the panel series “God and Man in the Twentieth Century” are Fresno, Calif., KFRE-30, Thurs., 6:30 A.M.; Pueblo, Colo., KOAA-5, Sun., 9 A.M.; Atlanta, Ga., WSB-2, Thurs., 6:30 A.M.; Meridian, Miss., WTOK-11, Sun., 6:30 A.M.; Syracuse, N. Y., WHEN-5, Sun., 9 A.M.; Akron, Ohio, WAKR-49, Sun., 10:30 A.M.; Athens, Ohio, CATV, Sat., 4 P.M.; Columbus, Ohio, WOSU-34, Mon., 9:30 P.M.; Sioux Falls, S. D., KSOO-13, Sun., 10 A.M.; Austin-San Antonio, Tex., KLRN-9, Mon., 7:30 A.M.; Port Arthur, Tex., KJAC-4, Sun., 10:30 A.M.; Fort Worth, Tex., KFWT, Sun. 6 P.M.

Millett: One that comes readily to mind would be the time of the fall of Rome. Many Christians had identified Rome with the Christian Church. They felt that if Rome fell it would mean either that the world would come to an end very shortly or that Christianity was somehow wrong. St. Augustine wrote a book to disprove this, a very famous book called The City of God, in which he pointed out that though the city of man may undergo violent transformation, the world as we know it, the city of God—God’s eternal working out of his purposes in human life—continues forever.

Henry: When we speak of the relation of the Christian hope to man in modern society, it seems important to emphasize that there is a relation between the Incarnation and God’s plan for human history. That is, the historical Jesus mirrors what God had in mind in the creation of man in the beginning, and actually holds before us what the image of God in the lives of the people of God will be in eternity, so that there is this strand that runs through the whole—though the Christian hope is, of course, broader than this.

Article continues below

Millett: Yes, I think that again this experience with Jesus Christ offers us the only chance to avoid simply repeating the mistakes of past generations, facing the same problems, and experiencing the same inability to solve them.

Gaebelein: But, Dr. Millett, coming back to this unforeseeable happening (to use Bertrand Russell’s words), should we not remember that this is an actual reality? Somewhere in his writings John Donne asks the question, What if this present were the world’s last night? In the biblical revelation it is clearly stated that one day the curtain will come down on human history. There will be the end. And our Lord tells us we should watch and be ready for this event.

Hedrich: If I can interrupt here for just a moment: there are quite a few people who say today that we are perilously close to that point, in view of man’s present ability—or apparent ability—to destroy himself. I personally don’t become particularly alarmed over this. I think man has the ability to destroy himself. But I think that the final say in this is going to be God’s. He has it in his hand. What means he will use to bring the end about, what it will be in detail, I wouldn’t presume to say. However, I am not worried about man’s destroying himself without God’s permission, so to speak. It is in God’s hands.

Gaebelein: It certainly is, Mr. Hedrich.

Henry: Do Bible students, Dr. Gaebelein, as they search the ancient prophecies, find any sure signs of the nearness of the “end-time”—to use the biblical wording?

Gaebelein: The New Testament is very specific about certain signs of the end. We might mention some that seem evident today: Growing unbelief throughout the world, and in the Church; multiplication of wars; national calamities; and, very significant indeed, the happenings in Israel—the restoration of the Jews to their own land, and the State of Israel. This is one of the prime prophetic signs. Now, the Bible student sees this time as significant in that the signs are converging. They have been present before, with the exception of the one concerning Israel.

Hedrich: Dr. Gaebelein, I’d like to ask you about one point; possibly we haven’t defined it well enough. What is this “end” that we’re talking about, and what is the relation of the Christian to this “end”?

Article continues below

Gaebelein: Well, “the end” according to the Bible is a series of events. Judgment is comprehended in this. The Apostles’ Creed says that Christ is coming again to judge the quick and the dead. The answer to the petition of the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come” will be realized at “the end.” “The end” will comprehend a new heaven and a new earth—a brave, new world, to use Aldous Huxley’s term. Now, the Christian’s relation to all this is his relation to Jesus Christ, who is the center of it all.

Hedrich: This then is the hope that we offer, when we talk about the ability of man to weather this “end,” to come through it, and about all the things he has tried that have failed, and the things that he is going to try in the future. What we’re saying, as I understand it, is that the only hope is the hope of Jesus Christ.

Millett: Correct. It would have to be, from the perspective of history, because history offers no other hope. It offers no hope that some civilization will really be able to overcome all its own problems through the efforts of men themselves.

Henry: Suppose you had an opportunity to influence the American commitment in this present critical time. What one word of counsel would you give?

Hedrich: You’ve given us an extremely difficult task. I would say this, though: Let us be sure that we do not put our hope for the future on anything that has come out of man outside God—and this includes all our scientific advances. Let’s put our hope on Christ.

Millett: Keep in mind that our God is the God of history; that no matter how upsetting current events may appear, he is ultimately in control of the course of human events.

Gaebelein: We must remember that God has a plan not only for history but for every single human life. The great option before man is his personal relation with Jesus Christ, who is himself the center of history.

Henry: You men have reminded me of the indebtedness we have to the Bible for this very conception of history—the idea that the universal sequence of events has not only a beginning but a midpoint and an endpoint, a plot, if you will—in fact, a dual plot, bearing on the destiny of the world and the destiny of the people of God.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.