Window on the World is our weekly opportunity to look at our world from the biblical point of view, and one of the most amazing things about the world today is how many people there are in it. During the last century the world’s population has tripled. According to the best estimates, some time in October we passed the six billion mark.
It is rare to find people who think that this is very good news. One headline lamented, “Century’s growth leaves Earth crowded—and noisy.” Many people—perhaps most—view the world’s burgeoning population with alarm. Ted Turner says that “what we have on this earth today is a plague of people.” Others speak of “overpopulation.” They worry that our body count is about to exceed our food supply. This is the old argument of Thomas Malthus, who argued that “the power of population is… greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”
Worries about exceeding our planet’s so-called “carrying capacity” have led some to advocate population control, or “population-containment,” as the United States Agency for International Development calls it. Population control has long been practiced on mainland China, where single-child families are required by law. The sad result is not hard to guess: some 20 million Chinese girls are aborted or abandoned every year. Now the idea of limiting family size is coming to America. In a recent book called Maybe One, Bill McKibben urges Americans to make single-child families “the cultural norm.”
Fears about overpopulation are largely unjustified. To begin with, six billion sounds like more than it actually is. It is really only six thousand million. In other words, the total population of the world is only about four thousand times greater than the population of Philadelphia. Surely there is room on our planet for four thousand Philadelphias! Furthermore, the rate of growth has started to slow. So perhaps there are not too many people after all. Certainly there is enough space for everyone. Consider the following comparison: “If every one of the 6 billion of us resided in Texas, there would be room enough for every family of four to have a house and one-eighth of an acre of land—the rest of the globe would be vacant.”
There is even enough food for everyone (although maybe not in Texas). Global per capita food production has never been higher. During the last fifty years, as the population has doubled, food prices have been cut in half, and there has been a dramatic decline in famine. People still go hungry, of course, but not due to overpopulation. The leading causes of hunger are all related in one way or another to sin. It is the sin of selfishness that keeps people from sharing their food, the sin of greed that cuts off relief supplies before they reach the starving, and the sin of violence that causes wars that ultimately lead to famine.
Actually, the fact that there are now more than six billion of us is good news. It means that more children are surviving their infancy. It means that more adults are living longer. But most important of all, it means that we are fulfilling the first command God gave to the human race. In fact, it is nearly the only command we have come anywhere close to obeying: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’ ” (Gen. 1:28a). We have been fruitful, we have increased in number, and now we are filling the earth.
The reason God gave us this mandate is because people are the most wonderful creatures he made. Out of all the things God created, human beings are the only ones he made in his own image (Gen. 1:27). People often assume that the best place to see God’s handiwork is somewhere out in the country. It is true that God has revealed his grandeur in the high and open spaces. But people are the pinnacle of creation, and the best place to see people is in and around the city—on the busy street corners and down the crowded subways. Every person we meet is another reason to praise the Creator.
The fear of overpopulation is partly an assault on human dignity, an attack on the intrinsic worth of human beings. Soon Christians may be the only people who remember that filling the earth is one of our God-given responsibilities, and that children—even lots of children—are a gift from the Lord. Incidentally, this is not an argument against all forms of birth control (although in light of God’s sovereignty, I doubt whether “control” is quite the word we ought to use). Christians are opposed to any form of abortifacient, but many Protestants permit some other methods for limiting conception, provided that couples do not disobey God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. One of the primary purposes of Christian marriage is to produce godly offspring (see Mal. 2:15), if God wills, and I am simply saying that it is a very good thing to bring more children into the world.
There is one final reason why six billion is good news. The more people there are, the more opportunities God has to show his saving grace. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there are more people alive right now than in the rest of human history combined. This means that the combined population of heaven and hell will double during the next century. On the one hand, this helps us sense the urgency of our Great Commission. On the other hand, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the unsaved billions. Whenever we feel like the task is too large, we should remember that God has promised his gospel to all nations, and that ordinarily his gospel advances one friend at a time, until billions are saved.
[Facts and quotations come from Stephen Moore, “Body Count,” National Review, 10/25/99].
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