|The Antediluvian Age (4936? to 3280? B.C.)|
|The Age of Dispersion (3280? to 587 B.C.)|
|The Age of Empires (587 B.C. to 1453 A.D.)|
|The Western Age (1453 A.D. to Present)|
|On the Threshold of the Millennial Age|
I heard once that the typical author hopes the greatest book of his career is the one he happens to be working on now. Well, of all the history papers I have written, I think this one will be the most important. Hopefully I can put all my lessons from history in a nutshell here. One thing that helps is that it is easier to see "the big picture" if you can spot the overall trends. For example, it is more important to know that in the nineteenth century, US citizens were moving west, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast of North America, bringing modern civilization with them, than it is to know where the battle of the Little Big Horn took place, when it happened, and who was in it. Sure, names and dates are still important if you're studying history, but for this essay I'll be talking mainly about trends, using generalities more than details. That way I hope to compress what I learned in nearly forty years into a few minutes.
How does history work? Does history follow any sort of formula, and if it does, is it possible to predict the future from it? Many theories have been developed over the years, in an effort to explain why human events have taken the courses we see. But history is not an exact science, so these theories are not perfect; none seems to have ever had the support of a majority of historians. I'm not surprised, because I don't think any study involving people can be called "an exact science," in the sense that geology, mathematics, etc. are exact sciences. The theories put forth on how history works include the following:
I can hear the reader now saying, "That's fine, but what do you believe?" Before I answer that question, let me say that my view of history has changed over the years, and could change again. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, I favored the cyclic view, seeing how many great nations rose, enjoyed a "golden age," grew old and died out. But even then I knew that while history may appear to repeat itself, it never does so exactly. Nowadays I prefer what Mark Twain said on the subject: "History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme a lot."
Chinese history can be cited as an example of a history that once looked cyclic, but it doesn't look very cyclic now. Just a generation ago China was a great candidate; every dynasty rose under a great leader, only to fall when his unworthy heirs lost the "Mandate of Heaven," and while there were times of disunity and civil war, most recently in the period between 1911 and 1949, China always seemed to come back together again. Whether we were talking about the Han, Ming or Mao dynasties, the only change seemed to be different names in each cycle. Archaeology, however, is now telling us a more complicated story. Before 200 B.C., there were many cultures, many ethnic groups in the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys; you could say there were many "Chinas." There was the Hemudu culture near the mouth of the Yangtze, the Sanxingdui and Jinsha cultures in Sichuan, the Yangshao, Longshan and Erlitou cultures on the north China plain, and so on. It now appears that what we call "China" today is mainly the culture of the state of Qin, imposed on the rest of the country so thoroughly that the other cultures and their histories were obliterated. And some of the ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, especially the Thais and the Vietnamese, would be Chinese today if they hadn't moved out of China.
Nowadays I would say that my view of history is mainly a combination of #1 and #2 above, the Divine Will and the Linear Ages views. For me all history is generated by a conflict between God and Satan, good vs. evil, and whenever a new round in the struggle begins, usually because one side changes its tactics, another age begins on earth as well. Sometimes the Devil may appear to win a round, as when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, but when the game is over, God will have the winning score. Maybe I've picked up an idea or two from Zoroastrianism, because their theology is the same; according to Zoroastrians, evil may look like it's in the lead for a while, but ultimately Ahura Mazda will triumph over their devil, Ahriman.
As for the "ages," I would venture to say that so far there have been four ages in the history of the earth and man, and a fifth age is to come:
And here are the tactics of the heavenly combatants, in the order of their use, from the Creation to the present:
|Age||God's tactics||Satan's tactics|
|Antediluvian Age||1. A chosen place (Eden)
2. A chosen nation (the Children of Seth)
3. A chosen person (Noah)
|1. Corrupt all of God's creation|
|Age of Dispersion||1. Chosen individuals (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David)|
2. A chosen nation (Israel)
2. Universal idolatry
|Age of Empires||1. Israel sent into the Diaspora
|1. New doctrines, philosophy|
|Western Age||1. Reformation of Christianity
2. Restoration of Israel
2. Secular ideologies (fascism, communism)
3. Restoration of Babel
For those who believe there is something mystical about the number seven, you can add the endless times before the creation of humanity (the pre-Adamic age?) and that of the New Heaven & New Earth after the Millennium, so the five ages will become seven.
I put question marks after these dates because the farther back in time you go, the less reliable is the chronology. Before Greek historical records begin, around 600 B.C., most of the dates we set have a good chance of being incorrect, by decades or even centuries. They're likely to change, too; for at least a decade I pegged the time from Adam to Noah at 5508-3852 B.C., compared with the 4936-3280 I'm using now.
Of the four ages so far, we know the least about this one, because it was the farthest (in time) from us, and because so few records (mainly the first chapters of Genesis) of it have survived. In fact, if you're an evolutionist, you probably don't believe this part of history existed. See Chapters 8-10 of The Genesis Chronicles to read what I've been able to reconstruct so far about this age. This was a time when the world was unspoiled, and a time when the human race was young and full of beans. I say that because man's first age ended cataclysmically. Whereas violent events in later ages, like the fall of Rome, affected just part of the world, the flood that destroyed "the world that then was" affected everything and everybody.
Toward the end, the Antediluvian Age may also have been a time of war, if my latest speculations are correct. The critical verse here is Matthew 24:22, where Jesus says, "And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened." He was talking about the end times, but in another verse He tells His disciples that the end times will be like the days of Noah. This means if the Flood hadn't come along when it did, the human race might very well have destroyed itself. Since the 1940s, people have been worried that we might do that with nuclear weapons, and warn of nuclear war ending life and civilization as we know it. Well, in Chapter 9 of The Genesis Chronicles I talk about some unusual artifacts which were probably made with advanced technology during the Antediluvian age. Was Methuselah building missiles, in a Cold War-style arms race, while his grandson Noah was building the Ark? If so, could it be that one reason why we're afraid of nuclear war is because we collectively have a suppressed memory in our subconsciousness, which says it has happened before?
I call it that because mankind was scattered thinly across the world for most of this time. At the beginning of the age, there were just eight survivors on Noah's Ark; at the end, our best estimate gives a world population of 88 million. For a century or so, civilization was confined to the Middle East, in a relatively well-watered area we call the "Fertile Crescent"; after the Tower of Babel incident, civilization appeared in other areas (usually other river valleys), but it still only covered a small fraction of the world's surface. In Chapter 12 of The Genesis Chronicles I explain why civilization was successful in some areas but not in others. However, most people ended up in areas "beyond the pale," where a civilized lifestyle wasn't practical, so in this age the typical human community was a barbarian tribe.
According to the Genesis account, God intervened in three ways at the beginning of this age to limit the evil that had ruined the Antediluvian world:
See Chapters 10 and 11 of The Genesis Chronicles for a more detailed explanation of why I believe this happened, and how it might have been done. The story of the human race since that time can be seen as the story of our efforts to regain what our ancestors lost, in the Flood and at Babel.
Because of Babel, a key factor in the Age of Dispersion was the lack of interaction between human communities, both barbarian and civilized. It now appears that while the river valley civilizations in Egypt, Iraq and India were aware of each other's existence from a very early age (3000 B.C.?), they didn't care much about these potential rivals; the rulers of each still called themselves kings of the known world. Some trade existed as well, probably starting as soon as two post-Babel communities discovered each other; however, this was exceptional, compared with the amount of commerce we see in later eras. An essential raw material like wood might be transported hundreds of miles if a community didn't have it, but in most cases transportation was unreliable and expensive, so trade goods were often confined to rare luxuries like purple-dyed clothing, incense or jewelry. Items made at home were preferred over imports, even if the imports were of better quality.
The first political unit above the tribe was the city-state, one town or city with some farmland surrounding it. Because communication was as irregular as trade, each city-state was encouraged to have its own religion, its own government, its own language or dialects, etc. The empires that arose during this time tended to look like city-state associations, and broke up into city-states when there was no longer a strong ruler to hold them together.
As noted above, most people in this age would have fit our description of "barbarians," because of their simple lifestyle. Although there are several advantages the civilized community has over the barbarian tribe, man for man, the barbarian is a better fighter, so as soon as the barbarians found out that the cities had something in them worth taking, they became a threat that could not be ignored. Throughout this period there was a danger that the barbarians would destroy civilization completely, and in some cases (e.g. the Gutians, Amorites, Hurrians and Kassites in Mesopotamia, the Hyksos in Egypt, the Aryans in India, the Dorians in Greece, the Cimmerians and Scythians around the Black Sea) they did succeed in taking over, at least until they were civilized by their new subjects. Not until after this period would the superior technology and organization of civilized armies begin to tip the balance in favor of civilization. In Italy, for example, the Romans usually won their battles against the Celts, but in earlier years, when it was the Celts against pre-Roman Italians like the Etruscans, you were better off betting on the Celts to win.
Click here for my PowerPoint presentation on the spread of civilization, in 1,000-year steps (225 KB).
In the middle of this period, God begins to act again, first through individuals (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses), and then by creating the nation of Israel from their descendants. Later on, however, it seems that this project failed, because the Babylonians take Jerusalem in 587 B.C., and God's chosen people join everyone else in the "Diaspora." I end the Age of Dispersion with that event because of something remarkable that happened at the same time. Nearly every civilization in the sixth century B.C. produced great philosophical and religious leaders, who still have followers today:
What is the reason for this? Why did so many nations, even when isolated (i.e., China), conduct spiritual experimentation? Perhaps a universal spirit motivated people all around the world during this time, because of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. This had to be a low point for belief in the One True God. It must have appeared to an outside observer that the Lord of Israel was no different from any other nation's gods; Babylonians would have thought they won because Marduk defeated Yahweh in Heaven. Therefore, unbelief was turned loose. From this we can conclude that both sides changed their strategies. Henceforth God would work with other people, in addition to Israelites, while Satan would inspire men everywhere, with bold new pagan efforts.
This is the period most history books divide into the classical and medieval eras. Sometimes the medieval era is subdivided, into the Dark Ages (400-1000 A.D.), High Middle Ages (1000-1300), and Late Middle Ages (1300-1453, also seen as the beginning of the Renaissance).
I know, Age of Empires probably isn't the most accurate name to use in place of those other names. There were a few empire-builders before 587 B.C. (Nimrod, Sargon I, Hammurabi, the New Kingdom pharaohs and the Assyrians), and after 1453 A.D. we have the empires of the European nations (Spanish, Portuguese, French, British, German, Dutch and Russian). Still, throughout this period we see a concerted effort by one government after another, to conquer as much of the known world as possible, especially in the West, where Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Turks followed in rapid succession. The general attitude seems to be that the chief ruler saw himself as the ultimate predator, with the rest of the world as his prey. We can see a similar story in the Far East, with China pulling ahead of its neighbors, under a series of highly successful dynasties (the Qin, Han, Tang, Song and Ming). I guess I will call this period the Age of Empires for the same reason that historians use the term "Wars of the Roses" for England's fifteenth-century civil war; nobody can think of a better name.
Civilization spread much faster in this period than it had previously, especially when the empires of the day sought to conquer barbarian-ruled areas (e.g., the Romans in Britain and Gaul, China in Korea, Vietnam and the nearest parts of Central Asia). It also spread backwards, into barbarian homelands, when barbarians conquered civilized areas (e.g., Germany after the fall of Rome), because they needed to learn the ways of their new subjects in order to govern them effectively). Even so, there was an awful lot of ground to cover, and not all barbarians were willing to give up the old way of living. By the end of this age, no more than half of the Eurasian landmass could be called civilized, and aside from the northern part of Africa, little more than footholds existed for civilization on other continents.
The main barbarian stronghold at this time was Central Asia; that area, with its mountains, steppes, deserts and extreme temperatures, was so inhospitable that most civilized folks didn't want to live there, or even pass through it if they had a choice. Thus, the world balance of power involved four major centers of civilization on the Eurasian landmass, kept apart by the barbarians in the middle:
Of those four, European civilization was definitely the new kid on the block. Except for the Minoan and Mycenaean kingdoms, and monuments like Stonehenge, Europe's achievements before 587 B.C. weren't very impressive. You would have been justified in seeing European civilization as merely an appendage to the Middle Eastern civilization. That began to change in the last centuries of the Age of Dispersion, when the Greeks and Phoenicians sent ships out to explore the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and colonize any spot they found that looked promising. This led to thriving Greek and Phoenician city-states and trading networks, the Carthaginian Empire in North Africa and Spain, and eventually the rise of Rome after civilization reached Italy. Because of those successful ventures, the commercial center of the known world shifted from the Middle East to the Mediterranean basin at the beginning of this age. Eventually demographics shifted westward, too; whereas in the previous age nearly all major cities (15,000 people or more) west of India were in the Middle East, by 400 B.C. Babylon was the only city with more than 30,000 that wasn't on or near the Mediterranean.
The first European civilizations are definitely of interest to us, especially the Greeks. Whereas older civilizations like the Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians often look strange to us, the Greeks were the first people who thought and acted much like we do. They also differed from their predecessors in their willingness to question the assumptions everyone else had accepted. When they invented philosophy, for example, they gradually removed the fear of God from most men in the West. It started with Homer's portrayal of the gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey as looking like oversized people, and acting like oversized people. By the middle of the fifth century B.C., Protagoras put man above the gods by saying, "Man is the measure of all things." Finally, Socrates questioned whether the gods even existed: "Of the gods we know nothing."
When the Romans replaced the Greeks as the rulers of the West, they adopted Greek culture wholesale, with few changes made to it. They were better managers and administrators, though. Thanks to them, the famous Roman roads went all over the Empire, making transportation simple--and safe, once bandits were cleared from the roads and pirates were cleared from the sea. They also spread Greek and Latin everywhere they went, so a traveler or merchant could go to any province of the Empire and do all right, as long as he spoke those languages.
By unifying and pacifying all lands around the Mediterranean basin, and by letting philosophy discredit the old-time paganism, the Romans unwittingly paved the way for the adoption of a superior doctrine, namely Christianity. The fourth century A.D. saw Christianity convert the Roman Empire. It won over most Romans because its teachings were simpler than pagan mythologies; its ethical and social message was more progressive and better suited for troubled times; it offered hope to the ordinary person, which paganism could not do. Finally its organization, patterned after the Roman state, spread the good news both efficiently and militantly. By contrast, paganism was a collection of idols and superstitions that changed from one province to the next; its myths were inconsistent and above the local level it had no organization at all.
Because most of Europe was a Christian society by the end of the Age of Empires, I am declaring God the winner of this round. However, God's people could have done better, for all was not well after Christ conquered Caesar. To start with, the Church forgot its Hebraic roots, and the fact that the founders of Christianity were Jewish; this made for bad Jewish-Christian relations for most of the centuries that followed. And as soon as the pagan persecutors of the Church disappeared, corruption became a problem from within. You could say that in the time of Constantine, the devil stopped persecuting the Church, walked down the aisle and joined it! In the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire the Church became a branch of the government, its clergy forced to follow the dictates of the emperor. In western Europe the Church was either divided by heresies, or led by extremely worldly popes, who were more interested in gaining power over kings than in helping people find salvation.
In the competition between Christianity and paganism, the pagans usually lost, so when another religion came along that could effectively challenge Christianity, it was also a form of monotheism. This was Islam, which claimed to follow the same god as the Christians and Jews, but rejected the claim that Jesus was the Messiah, which they saw as one of the many errors and superstitions accumulated over time. In other words, Islam "held to a form of godliness, but denied its power" (2 Timothy 3:5). Islam's appeal came from the fact that it was easy to understand, and it did an excellent job of motivating warriors, with promises of rewards both in this life and the next. Christianity was taken by surprise when Islam appeared; Moslems took away most of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, before the Christian nations could get together and organize a counterattack (the Crusades). Against non-Christians, Islam did even better; it all but eliminated Zoroastrianism, and stopped the expansion of Buddhism, which had followers as far west as Iran in those days. In Black Africa, Islam outperformed Christianity by converting the Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, and the east coast as far south as Mozambique; by contrast, Christians only succeeded in converting Ethiopia.
World population during the Age of Empires is estimated to have grown from 88 million to just over 400 million, an increase of 350 percent. This is considerably less than the increases of the other ages. Indeed, for most of the first millennium A.D., there wasn't much growth at all, and between the second and seventh centuries A.D., the population of the Roman and Chinese empires actually shrank. Disease epidemics, a factor unappreciated by historians until recently, are seen as the reason for this stagnation. Smallpox or measles is blamed for the initial decline, and another bad epidemic, most likely bubonic plague, struck the West in the sixth century. We also now believe that a natural disaster, like a major volcanic eruption, caused a worldwide drop in temperatures in the sixth century (the so-called "535 A.D. catastrophe theory"), resulting in an environment where the plague spread more easily. Conditions grew milder after 800, allowing Europe to climb out of the Dark Ages, but then another cold spell after 1300 (the "Little Ice Age") was quickly followed by another devastating plague, the Black Death, in Europe and the nearest parts of Africa and Asia. No civilization was in danger of being destroyed because of these climate changes and epidemics, but you have to admit that while they were going on, it must have been an awful time to live.
Unlike the other ages, the Age of Empires was confined to Asia, Europe and Africa. Other continents skipped it, going directly from the Age of Dispersion to the Western Age. Because the New World had a smaller population to start with, and suffered from a lack of useful animals, progress was much slower there. By 1500 A.D., only Mesoamerica and the part of South America around Peru had what we would call a fully developed civilization. But at best, Native Americans were at a bronze age level of technology: they had copper and precious metals but no iron, picture writing but no alphabet, polytheism and mythology but no monotheism or philosophy. And while there was some trade between the various American tribes, there wasn't enough to have us believe that the most advanced tribes, the Aztecs and the Incas, knew of each other's existence. From a social and technological standpoint, the Americas in 1500 A.D. looked like the Middle East in 2500 B.C.; the New World was still in the middle of the Age of Dispersion, when the Age of Empires ended in the Old World. In Australia, the Aborigines couldn't even achieve that much; lacking even the simplest elements of civilization before the Europeans arrived, they were stuck in the first stage of the "dispersion," when people were spread out over a wide area but not yet trying to build a community above the nomadic, tribal level.
The Central Asian barbarians enjoyed their last hurrah in the thirteenth century A.D., when Genghis Khan united the tribes of Mongolia to form the toughest fighting force of his day. From the steppes the Mongols now marched forth to attack the rest of Eurasia, and for most of the century they were considered unbeatable. By the time expansion stopped in the 1280s, the grandsons of Genghis ruled China, Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and just about all of the lands that would one day make up the Soviet Union. After that, however, the Mongol Empire broke up into sub-empires, and those Mongols who did not return to Eurasia's heartland were assimilated among their subjects. The most ruthless of Genghis Khan's successors, Timur (1369-1405, also called Tamerlane), conquered Central Asia and the Middle East, only to have his empire wither away after his death, leading to a power vacuum and a new age.
Two important trends involving civilization mark this age, and give it the name used here:
For the first time in more than a thousand years, there was no significant barbarian power between Eurasia's four centers of civilization. This allowed civilization to expand vigorously, so that today there is hardly any place left that can be called "uncivilized." And now that barriers to commerce and communication between the civilizations disappeared, competition would increase, until one ended up ruling the others.
If you had been an observer of the situation in the second half of the fifteenth century, you probably would have expected the Middle Eastern (read: Islamic) civilization to win. Once an area became Moslem, it stayed that way; in 800 years of conquests, only Spain and the Mediterranean islands had been lost to the infidel again. The Middle East now had fewer people than the other civilizations, because its birthrate had been lower in the previous age, but Islam continued to expand by making new converts, from West Africa to Southeast Asia. On top of that, the Ottoman Empire, the most efficient state Islam ever produced, had just taken Constantinople, and was now making its way into Europe; in the first years of the sixteenth century, two more powerful Islamic dynasties, the Safavids in Iran and the Moguls in India, would join the Ottomans.
What the hypothetical observer would not have noticed were the activities that now put Europe ahead of everyone else. The classical world of Greece and Rome had produced beautiful masterpieces, and literature that is still widely read in today's colleges, but the ancients were not interested in machinery; they did not see a need for labor-saving devices because they had enough animals and slaves to provide whatever muscle power they needed. Medieval Europe was just the opposite; it gave us tedious literature, and crude, two-dimensional paintings, but medieval man invented machines to make his work easier. The most important of those inventions were the wheeled plow, an improved sailing ship, the watermill and windmill, the clock, the gun, and Johann Gutenberg's printing press. See Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9 and Chapter 10 of my European history papers for the details on those inventions. By the end of the Middle Ages, they had made Europeans richer, more technologically advanced and more flexible than people in other parts of the world. With the Renaissance, the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was rediscovered, and that created a new culture that was willing to dabble in both great art and improved tools, allowing Western civilization to prevail against older, more impressive rivals.
Whereas non-Western nations measured their strength in the men and resources they could bring to bear, the secret to Western strength was technology and knowledge. Western commanders emphasized fighting with quality, because they usually could not afford to fight with quantity. Today we are so used to winning with an elite force that we think the European conquests are overrated. In the New World, Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztecs with 600 men, and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas with a mere 200; when we hear that, we write off the European success to the fact that the Spaniards had guns, and move on to another subject. The truth of the matter is more complicated, though. The best firearm at this date was the arquebus, a crude musket that was lit by a match, and less accurate than any bow. Moreover, arquebuses were single-shot weapons, which took so long to reload that most battles must have turned into hand-to-hand engagements before a musketeer could fire a second shot. Cortez only had sixteen musketeers, while Pizarro probably had no more than a dozen, so sixteen would have been about the maximum number of shots fired per battle, of which perhaps only eight hit anybody--hardly a critical factor in a struggle involving thousands.
A better case can be made for some other things the conquistadors had:
But the most important Western advantage tends to get overlooked; in war the European played for keeps. To non-Western warriors, war is a matter of honor; how you act in battle is more important than winning. The ancient American fought not for land but to get captives to torture/sacrifice; he became known as a great warrior by running up to the enemy line and coming back with a prisoner. Sometimes less than that was done; tribes like the Sioux found it honorable enough just to touch an armed enemy in the heat of battle. There were even cases where tribes restricted themselves to using wooden weapons, so they would capture their enemies, not kill them. By contrast, Europeans fought to destroy their enemies, and to break them as a cohesive force as soon as possible. This meant there was not only a technological gap between the Old and New World, but a management gap as well. Maybe superior weapons made a Western victory possible, but it was a superior skill at exploiting all advantages that let the Europeans win often enough to create overseas empires for themselves.
Because of this concept of total war, the bloodiest battles in history, the meat grinders which consumed men as fast as they could arrive, always involved one Western army against another Western army. Brave as they were, no Zulu or samurai would have stayed at Alesia, Gettysburg, Verdun or Stalingrad to see how it turned out.
The western hemisphere was not the only place where white commanders with a handful of men slapped down ancient empires. It also happened in Africa and Asia, but there the technological gap was not as great; Africans, for example, still had a chance of winning until the machine gun was invented. In India, Britain's first major opponent, the state of Bengal, also had guns, and more of them (fifty-three cannon vs. twelve for the British); furthermore, the Bengalis had French advisors to teach them how to use their cannon. Even so, in 1757 Britain's Robert Clive beat an Indian army numbering 68,000, with only 3,000 men on his side. Like the Israelis in the twentieth century, he did it by agonizing over every decision for two reasons: (1) there was no room for error, no second chance if he lost, and (2) because he knew that fate favored the leader who did a better job of making decisions.
Another good example of the difference between Western and non-Western strategies was displayed when Europe became strong enough to challenge Moslem opponents on their home ground. According to Winston Churchill, a veteran of the battle of Omdurman, Britain won because the British always considered the logistics of what they were doing. While Moslem leaders like the Mahdi of the Sudan preached endless sermons about the virtue of killing infidels, the British laid down railroad tracks, set up supply lines, and made sure they had enough ammunition and provisions. Churchill called this difference "prophecy vs. prudence." Do you remember the scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," where Indiana Jones shot the master swordsman? More than one East-West conflict had the same result; fanatical warriors were beaten by technical competence.
Western-built defenses and navies had a similar advantage. Modern Western fortresses could withstand attacks that would have destroyed non-Western buildings, and sea power meant that Great Britain could attack the Zulus in their South African home, but the British did not have to worry about Zulus crossing the ocean to attack Great Britain. With the invention of aircraft, the West gained an additional advantage in air superiority.
By then the Industrial Revolution had also taken place, and that made the West unstoppable. In a capitalist economy, whoever has money has power as well. The newly built factories made their owners filthy rich; and the governments that collected taxes from those factory owners had the money and supplies to recruit and arm however many soldiers were needed. That largely eliminated the West's disadvantage in numbers, because now the West, and not its opponents, could afford to fight unprofitable wars. In the century between Napoleon and World War I, power went to the five countries that built modern industries: Britain, France, the United States, Germany and Japan. Major powers which did not industrialize, like Spain, fell to the rank of lesser powers.
All of the above statements explain how Europe conquered most of the world and united all cultures into a single super-Western culture. In the process of conquering the barbarians, Europeans almost wiped out three other races--the Siberians, American Indians, and Australian Aborigines--and took their lands for themselves. Where other civilizations existed, they were humiliated if not totally subjugated. North and South America, India and most of Southeast Asia were conquered outright. At first dreaded diseases protected the Africans, but in the nineteenth century European medicine overcame even this obstacle. Four nations in the Far East (China, Korea, Japan and Siam) tried the "Hermit Kingdom" approach and locked out all foreigners, but the introduction of Western silver and Western guns revolutionized their societies; eventually all of them had to open up again, and learn the customs and ideas of the West to avoid being conquered by it. As for the Islamic world, it fought back, only to find it was no longer capable of winning; by the early 1920s, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and parts of the Arabian peninsula were the only Moslem-populated territories that were not under Western domination.
What the Greeks aspired to do under Alexander and his followers was finally realized; the whole world was now in a position to receive ideas that had originated with the Greeks. Only after non-Western nations learned to fight with Western weapons and tactics (e.g., the Japanese against the Russians in 1905) did Western domination of the world come to an end. By then, Western ideas had permanently transformed them, especially regarding politics. When non-Western peoples managed to regain their independence, most of them chose Western-style presidents, prime ministers and dictators, not the kind of monarchs they had previously. Today virtually every nation on earth has a government that claims to get its ultimate authority from the people (Islamic theocracies like Iran are about the only exception).
Medieval society may have been ugly and brutal, but in its limited way it tried to be Christian. The kings, knights and clergymen of the Middle Ages generally claimed to be Christians, tried to live within boundaries set by the Church, and used Church teachings to justify their actions. With the Renaissance it became possible for one to live an un-Christian life and still be respectable, because Renaissance men got most of their ideas from pre-Christian Greece and Rome. Those ideas included Greek philosophy, so the process of freeing mankind from the fear of God, which had been halted in the late Roman Empire, was resumed.
Despite this, most people continued to think and act with a medieval mindset for a while; for them, religion was as important as ever. A lot of the wars in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries involved Christians vs. Moslems, Protestants vs. Catholics, or everybody vs. Jews. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) was the worst example; it left Germany so devastated that it took two hundred years to recover, and it made Europeans sick of the idea of killing in the name of God.
The period from 1648 to 1800 is sometimes called "the Enlightenment," or the "Age of Reason," because that is when philosophers thought they had finally succeeded in liberating man from the superstitions of the past. They felt that left to his own devices, man is generally good. Consequently, every generation in the West since the mid-seventeenth century has feared God less than those before it.
Because considerable progress was made in many areas during the nineteenth century, many felt that the twentieth century would see the creation of a true Utopia, a perfect world. Instead, World War I came along, and men began to wonder. Nobody lives in a spiritual vacuum; take away the idea that God matters, and godless ideologies will move in to take its place. Somebody once said that "a person who believes in nothing will fall for anything." That seems to be the reason why fascism and communism became so popular in post-Christian Europe; those who believed in them no longer felt they were accountable to any authority except manmade ones. Thus, whatever dreams Western man still had of creating a better future were laid to rest beside Hitler's gas ovens in World War II, in the Gulag of the Soviet Union, or in the killing fields of communist Southeast Asia. Most recently, the discrediting of secular ideologies like communism has allowed an older enemy of the West, Islam, to make a comeback. We will probably find out very soon if the twenty-first century will have the world dominated by secular humanism, or by Islam--unless the Lord comes first.
"An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted."--Arthur Miller
Finally, we should note that according to the prophet Daniel, the end times will see knowledge increase (Daniel 12:2). Boy, he couldn't have found a better way to describe the current age! Years ago, I heard that Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch philosopher, was the last man who ever lived who could have known everything. That is to say, he could have known every piece of knowledge available to somebody in his time and place (Rotterdam, Netherlands, 1500 A.D.). The Renaissance was not finished, the Reformation was about to begin, Europeans were in the first stage of exploring the rest of the world, and modern science was just getting started. Since then, knowledge has literally exploded. You may have heard the statistic that the amount of available information doubles every few years; I doubt if anyone today can even hold one percent of it in his head. That's why when I was a teacher, I devoted at least two days of classes every semester to showing the tricks I learned for finding stuff on the Internet. In 1955 a wise educator said, "An intelligent person is not someone who knows everything, but who knows where to find it!" If it was true then, imagine how much more true it is now.
"In the past, you had to memorize knowledge because there was a cost to finding it. Now, what can't you find in 30 seconds or less? We live an open-book-test life that requires a completely different skill set."--Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and founder of Broadcast.com & HDNet.
Today mankind is using this knowledge to overcome the limits imposed at the time of Noah's Flood and Babel. The problem of not enough people has been licked; if the world community isn't yet as big as it was in Noah's day, we will reach it in our lifetime. Our lifespan is going up again; for most of recorded history the average life expectancy has been 34-38; in the twentieth century alone it went up from 47 to somewhere between 75 and 80. As we develop new vitamin supplements and eradicate more diseases, we can expect our life expectancy to continue to rise; all that's left is for some doctor to come up with a cure for aging. Finally, we are overcoming the language barriers; improved communication and transportation are turning the world community into what we sometimes call "the global village." When communication and transportation were slow, the number of languages around the world increased, as groups of people became isolated from other groups; since 1800, however, the number of languages in use has been decreasing. This has encouraged efforts to build international organizations like the United Nations, which many see as the forerunner of a future world government. Once we have surmounted the barriers of population, a short lifespan and political disunity, there is nothing that will prevent man from establishing a second Babel civilization. When that happens, it will be time for God to intervene again, this time with the coming of the Messiah.
Because the current age hasn't ended yet, it would be presumptuous to say much about what the next age is going to be like. Indeed, the fact that the Bible says so little about it (mainly in Revelation 20, Ezekiel 40-48, and Isaiah 65) suggests that it is intended to be mostly a surprise for us. What it does tell us is that for a thousand years God will run things His way, without opposition; Satan will be bound and cast out of the way until the end of the period, just before the final judgment. Presumably we will also see the earth return to the Eden-like conditions it had right after the Creation. And both technology and longevity are likely to increase tremendously, now that mankind will no longer use knowledge or time for evil purposes. Finally, I expect the Millennial Age to be a crowded time, because population grows geometrically. You saw the figures earlier: eight survivors of Noah's Flood, to 88 million at the end of the Age of Dispersion, to 400 million at the end of the Age of Empires, to more than 6 billion today. I will venture to say that of all the people who are ever going to live, most of them will be born in the Millennium.
One of the most famous sentences in literature is the opening line from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The same can be said about the time we live in. In rising standards of living it has been the best of times; today's appliances, transportation, medicine, and education give the ordinary person a more productive, more comfortable lifestyle than even the god-kings of ancient times enjoyed. We can travel anywhere in the world in no more than a day and a half; we can communicate instantly with others almost anywhere; our homes keep a mild indoor climate any month of the year; our supermarkets provide us with food whenever we want it, regardless of the season; our TVs, radios, iPods and stereos provide us with entertainment 24/7, without the need to hire musicians and jesters; our healthcare is far better than what was available to our ancestors. However, modern technology has also made it possible to commit atrocities and oppression on a worldwide scale; when it came to killing people, the twentieth-century champions of fascism and communism made past tyrants--even Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun--look like beginners. For that reason, when I tried thinking up a name to describe the twentieth century, the best I could come up with was "the Extreme Century." And the trends which made the twentieth century are still with us. Because communications, transportation, and our pace of life run faster than ever, and our population is still growing, I wouldn't be surprised if the future is even more "extreme."
In 1992, a writer named Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man. In it he predicted that because the Cold War is over, history as we know it has ended, and nothing interesting will happen after this, since civilized people no longer use war to resolve their differences. He made that claim too hastily; Yugoslavia went to pieces as that book was being published, giving us some more history of the old-fashioned kind. Therefore, the story of God and man is by no means over. To those who view life as a bad roller coaster ride, and say "Stop this world and let me off now!" my answer is that you should stay. The most exciting part of the ride is probably still ahead.
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