During the 400 years between the Testaments there arose independently of the biblical revelation that golden age of Greek intellectual achievement from Pericles to Aristotle. Nobody dreamed that its outcome would be one of the darkest periods in Western history, when even the intellectual elite in the Roman empire would glorify suicide as man’s highest option. Writing of The Early Days of Christianity, F. W. Farrar commented that the marked characteristic of the upper classes was “despairing sadness” and that “even for those who had every advantage of rank and wealth, nothing was possible but a life of crushing sorrow ended by a death of complete despair.”

The modern West, which enthroned the myth of scientific utopianism and eclipsed the scriptural view of reality, is likewise now slowly slipping into an age of despair. The totalitarian dislocation of masses of mankind, the deliberate scientific destruction of multitudes of people whether at Auschwitz or Hiroshima, the technological depersonalization of external reality, the cultural uncertainties and social instabilities of the modern world, the prevalent ethical confusion and spiritual doubt, and the flight from rational and conceptual modes of comprehending man and his plight have conspired to magnify a sense of man’s brief and ultimately meaningless existence in an indifferent cosmos. Whether correlated with Roman Stoicism or modern secular contingency, the motif “whatever will be, will be” holds little hope for man in quest of personal meaning and enduring worth.

The ancients used the term melancholia to describe the gnawing fear of losing one’s grip on reality that haunted man amid encroaching despair. This was no mere matter of Monday-morning blues, or an occasional period down in the dumps; rather, it was the onset of total and unremitting despair that drained the emotions and immobilized the will.

Despite its affluence, the American scene shows unmistakable signs of mounting melancholy. The modern American has many advantages that ancient Greeks lacked—a much higher standard of living, medical science to confront sickness, alleviate pain, and delay death. Yet a dismal and mournful mood is settling over widening reaches of American society.

Two sets of statistics tell an unhappy story. One concerns mental depression. Four to eight million Americans are said to be suffering from this affliction. Multitudes of these victims lose interest in normal sex relations and all else; they give themselves over increasingly to the wish for death. Medical science has resorted to talk-therapy, anti-depressant drugs, and even shock treatment (usually as a last resort), but relief is often only temporary.

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Modem science has found no sure cure because it is confused about the cause or causes. Some analysts too readily reduce the problem to one of brain chemistry; others concentrate on adverse childhood conditions, or on the stress of modern living. But the main problem of the mentally depressed is their sense of the pointlessness of life.

With the contemplation of suicide as an escape, we are faced by a second statistical barometer. The number of suicides has been climbing in the United States from a rate of 10.6 per 100,000 population in 1960 to 11.1 in more recent years. The total number for 1969 is 22,364 suicides, despite the progress in combatting poverty, pain, and disease. Hungary and Czechoslovakia have the world’s highest suicide rate, but the United States stands fifteenth highest in the world, with a worse showing than France, Japan, and Taiwan. Specially noteworthy is the fact that the younger and affluent—not, as might be thought, mainly those in adverse economic circumstances—are prominently involved. Suicidal death rates have decreased in the older age brackets but have increased notably in the 15–24, 25–34, and 35–44 year spans.

The avoidance of suicide is increasingly seen as a mere matter of primitive superstition, religious bias, or personal preference. The notion expressed by Montesquieu in The Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire gains currency, that every man should depart from this world stage by his own script. This reflects not simply his options of burial, cremation, or leaving his body for medical research, but that of self-destruction as well. If pain and fear of suffering were once major motivations for suicide, a cheap view of life seems now to be more decisive, especially the loss of confidence that life makes sense and is worth living.

The ancient Hebrews publically read the Book of Ecclesiastes on the happiest of days, the Feast of Tabernacles. They knew its final message to be not the futility and vanity of life but God as the maker and judge of life and desirably its polestar even from youth. But the secular modern mood relativizes the whole of reality and exempts nothing from change and decay. As a penalty, it is haunted, as was H. G. Wells, by the notion that the order of nature has no “greater bias in favor of man than it had in favor of the ichthyosaur or the pterodactyl” (The Fate of Man, 1939). Only a few years later, in Man at the End of His Tether (1945), Wells wrote of “a jaded world devoid of recuperative power.… Ordinary man is at the end of his tether.” This latter sentiment, of course, also has the sound of a New Testament verdict, but it is unenlightened by the realities of redemptive revelation and hope. The Bible maintains the dignity and meaning of man’s life on the basis of divine creation and redemption, and a divinely assured destiny. The Christian revelation assigns every human thought and act high importance, and its evangelical vitalities reflect the pervasive happiness and abiding joy of a spiritually renewed life.

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Neither scientific empiricism nor secular philosophy can vindicate fixed norms and a final meaning and worth for human life. Apart from the biblical basis of a divinely ordained universe and a moral afterlife, modern thought has been unable to contend persuasively for the enduring significance and meaning of man’s daily existence. If death means personal annihilation and the cosmic spheres are indifferent to individual concerns, all man’s notions about the objective value of his being and acts, whether singly or collectively, are of the nature of myth.

If modern man truly wants a cognitive basis for faith in God and in the dignity of man, he has nowhere to turn but intelligible divine revelation—in short, to the scriptural Word of God. The alternative is nothing short of Bertrand Russell’s verdict in A Free Man’s Worship: “All the labor of the ages, … all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” And that is a thinly veiled invitation to universal despair and racial suicide.

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