Optimism vs. Pessimism

How do you view the future? Do you look ahead with hopefulness and confidence? If so, you are an optimist; if not, you are a pessimist. 47% percent of Americans are either very or somewhat optimistic, while 53% of us are generally, somewhat, or very pessimistic; this is all in relation to the perceived direction of the U.S. moving forward. One thing that I find interesting is that there is no significant difference if you break it down by either generation or educational level. However, if you break it down by race, there are significant differences. 64% of Black Americans feel at least somewhat optimistic about the future; for Asian Americans, it’s 59%; for Hispanics, 55%; and for White Americans, only 41%. All of these figures are according to Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Looking a little deeper: those who are optimistic focus on the long arc of history, while those who are pessimistic focus more on recent events. Much more could be said about these racial differences, but let’s move on.

Looking at the future on a more individual level, Heather Lonczak, Ph.D., wrote an interesting article last year; you can access it here: https://positivepsychology.com/pessimism-vs-optimism/ She quotes a fairly recent 18-year study (Chipperfield et al., 2019) of elderly Canadians which assessed their health expectations and health outcomes. The result? “The researchers found that having realistically pessimistic (versus unrealistically optimistic) health expectations was related to both reduced depressive symptoms and risk of death. Similarly, unrealistic optimism (versus realistic optimism) when health is deteriorating was associated with a 313% higher death rate.” These findings introduce a third way of looking at things: realism, which is seeing a situation for what it actually is and dealing with it accordingly. Notice in this quote that both realistic optimism and realistic pessimism resulted in less depression and lower risk of death than unrealistic optimism. One might expect that optimism would always result in better health, but that’s not the case. To emphasize this, Lonczak gives the example of Stephanie, a 32-year-old who initially follows doctor’s orders and feels better. However, because she is unrealistically optimistic (“I feel fine!”), Stephanie fails to maintain her lifestyle changes and is soon in the ER. (An aside: I roll my eyes whenever I hear people say, “Everything will be all right.”)

Here is a humorous way of comparing pessimism, optimism, and realism, also from Lonczak’s article:

“A pessimist sees a dark tunnel.
An optimist sees light at the end of the tunnel.
A realist sees a freight train.
A train driver sees three idiots standing on the tracks.”

So far, I have mentioned looking at the future from an American national perspective and an individual perspective. It’s also possible to think about it from a global perspective, of course. More importantly, however, let’s look at it from a Biblical perspective. Does the Bible give us reason to look to the future with hopefulness and confidence?

In 1989, Charles Colson wrote a book called Against the Night. He wrote about the demise of Western culture (in the home, in the classroom, in politics, and in the church) as the “new dark ages.” I suppose the average American or other “westerner” would call him a “pessimist” or at least a realist, but 33 years later, his words ring truer than ever. I suppose that means I’m a pessimist as well, but only in terms of the future of the world as a whole. I believe that the Bible is very clear that the world will become ever more sinful before our Lord’s return. Read 2 Timothy 3:1-4, for example: “But mark this: there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, [and] lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” What a sobering list of sins!

Now read Revelation 21:3-4, where the apostle John reports what God says when the new heaven and new earth are revealed: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'”

We have good reason to be “pessimistic” about the direction this world is going, but oh, my: we have so much more reason to be “optimistic,” to put it mildly, when we get to the end of the Book! Speaking of: Near the end of his book called “Here Are Your Gods” (a rather remarkable book about idolatry, from the Old Testament to the present day), Christopher Wright writes this: “Biblical Christian hope was never mere optimism. Optimism imagines that things will get better–eventually. Christian hope knows that things may well get much worse (indeed Jesus said that they would), but God is still sovereign, and God is good, and God is just. Christian hope knows that the future belongs to the kingdom of God. Christian hope knows that the judge of all the earth will do right. Evil will not have the last word. God will ultimately judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous.” Notice that Wright uses the word “hope” four times. Yes, this is the kind of hope that we have as believers! Notice also his reference to God’s being sovereign: I wrote a post the day after the presidential election two years ago about God’s sovereignty; I think it applies equally well to next week’s important mid-term elections. Click here if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/11/04/god-is-in-control/

When all is said and done, I am incredibly optimistic–not regarding the future of this world, but because of the next one and the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If that does not describe you, I pray that today will be the day when you put your faith in Him.

18 thoughts on “Optimism vs. Pessimism

  1. Interesting post. Loved the humor; “A train driver sees three idiots standing on the tracks.” I laughed and laughed. But your answer to this question, “Does the Bible give us reason to look to the future with hopefulness and confidence?” I do not agree with. I am incredibly optimistic–regarding the future of this world! (the future of the USA, well, not so much.)! Why you may ask. Scripture promises us victory, in time and history! Again, you state: “We have good reason to be “pessimistic” about the direction this world is going.” And again, I do not agree with that statement. I believe: The Scripture promises us victory, in time and history! I could give the reasons why now, but it would just be a repeat of what I have already stated in a book I have written.

    I back my statement with Scripture (in great depth) in my newly published book “Israel, Rapture, Tribulation: How to Sort Biblical Fact from Theological Fiction.” Among the many important issues, I deal with are these:

    It is a deceptive and spurious doctrine that teaches we will be raptured off the earth prior to a great tribulation.

    The Seventieth Week of Daniel is not a future event, as it has already occurred.

    The kingdom of God is a present reality.

    The Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 has been fulfilled.

    The pessimistic outlook Dispensationalists have for the future is not based on Scripture. Christ’s Church will overcome the world.

    Any so-called “signs of the times” after AD 70 do not, and will never again have anything to do with a second coming of Jesus.

    We are not living in the last days or end times, for the last days took place over nineteen hundred years ago.

    The Great Tribulation was a past historical event.

    The Jews are not God’s people so long as they reject Jesus. When they are converted and become Christians, they then become part of the Church, the Bride of Christ.

    If you would like to read it or do a review, I would be happy to provide a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brother Michael, I grew up in the amillennial tradition, which several of your points are in agreement with; Hank Hanegraaff, for example, is essentially an amillennialist. A couple years after I became a Christian as a young adult, I learned about premillennial eschatology. Frankly, I do not know which set of interpretations is correct. In terms of the direction that the world is moving: The parts of the world that I am most familiar with are North America, western Europe, and China. Around the time Charles Colson wrote Against the Night, he also wrote about western Europe being post-Christian; Canada and the U.S. are speeding in that direction. On the other hand, China’s persecuted church is standing strong in the face of a dictator, and I have read about a great movement toward Christ in the Muslim world which started in the mid-to-late 1960s. So yes, there are definitely things to be encouraged about, if not so much in the Western world.

      Regardless of which broad eschatology is correct, I am not optimistic about the future of this world. Maybe if I lived in another part of the world (which I actually did for five years), I would be moreso. One thing I should add is that I thought most theologians agreed that the “last days” referred to the time between Pentecost and Christ’s return, which is also what I believe based on Scripture. On the other hand, there are many theologians that I’m not familiar with.

      If you’d like to e-mail me your manuscript, I’ll take a look at it.

      Like

      1. Hello brother Keith,

        You state: “Frankly, I do not know which set of interpretations is correct.” I understand. When I was researching this, I came across the four-vol. set “The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers” by LeRoy Edwin Froom (about 3,900 pages of text). A friend gave me the whole set, and I began to read it. Talk about different interpretations. There is a whole bunch in there.

        Lee Duigon said he was going to do a review of my book. I don’t know when he may finish.

        I address all those concerns and questions, and much more in my book.

        I attached the file. If there is a problem with it, please let me know.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I have noticed over the years that within the broad eschatological frameworks of amillennialism and premillennialism, there are many interpretations, to put it mildly; 3900 pages is a reflection of that!

          By the way, I don’t see an attachment; you can e-mail it to me if you like.

          Like

      2. Keith, I was under the impression that the great majority of evangelical Christians especially in the U.S. are premillennial in their theology since about the time of D.L. Moody in the late 19th Century. I do not believe that I have personally met an evangelical pastor who believes in amillennialism or postmillennialism.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Anthony, for the first 26 years of my life, I was part of the Christian Reformed Church denomination, which is amillennial in its eschatology. I was in my early 20s when I started reading and hearing about premillennialism, which now seems to dominate the American theological landscape. As I wrote in my comment to Michael, I don’t know which set of interpretations is correct. I have heard this joke more than once: “I’m a panmillennialist; it’ll all pan out in the end.”

          Liked by 1 person

      3. Hi Keith, just from my reading of Scripture, especially Revelation, I believe that premillennialism is correct although I am not a strong believer in pre-tribulation rapture (Revelation seems to indicate there would be martyrs during the Tribulation) or dispensationalism , I don’t think I understand this doctrine well enough to have an informed opinion. The Bible clearly teaches that the world would become worse and there would be a falling away from the faith before Christ’s return.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Anthony, There are three broad interpretations of eschatology: premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism. I don’t know which one is correct (although I doubt the “optimistic” third one very much), so I keep an open mind. As my boyhood buddy (now a retired pastor) would say, it’s not a salvation issue. Regardless, I agree that the Bible clearly teaches that the world will become worse before Christ’s return; hence, my “pessimism” about the direction Western societies, especially, are going.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Keith, I suppose someone without faith would be pessimistic about the current national and international situation, the tensions between the U.S. and both Russia and China, the high rate of inflation, the moral decadence especially in western societies, the extreme polarization of the two major parties and the rise in political violence in the U.S. etc. However, born again Christians should be hopeful rather than either optimistic or pessimistic since God is ultimately in control of history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anthony, all of those things you mention illustrate why I am not optimistic about the U.S. and the rest of the west moving forward, particularly moral decadence (see Romans 1). Another main reason that I am not optimistic is because of the sharp increase in violent crime since the death of George Floyd in 2020. The randomness of so much of it is particularly striking, and it is fueled by foolish policies, including the elimination of cash bail in some locales. Notice the hypocrisy, however, of this policy not being followed in the case of Paul Pelosi’s attacker. Finally, and most importantly, the number of Christians in the U.S. is only about 7.5%, which helps explain why the American church seems so anemic. In some countries in western Europe, that percentage is even lower; Spain, at less than 1%, comes to mind.

      Regarding what you wrote about people of faith: reread the quote from Christopher Wright near the end of my post, especially this sentence: “Christian hope knows that things may well get much worse (indeed Jesus said that they would), but God is still sovereign, and God is good, and God is just.” This sentence expresses perfectly my “pessimism” about the direction our world is going, but my “optimism” because the Lord is in control; He will ultimately “judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous” when He establishes the new heaven and the new earth. Words like “optimism” and “pessimism” fail to adequately express the Christian hope, which is certain, unlike its secular version.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Keith, as a believer, I tend to imagine the worst-case scenario and then remind myself that even if that happens, God is bigger than all of it. Then, when the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen, which it usually doesn’t, I can rejoice that whatever happened is better than it could have been…
    I’ve also got to the point where I’ve seen a lot of seemingly horrendous situations that God worked out for good in some weird, fascinating way. So, when I’m upset about some turn of events, I try to remind myself, “God’s up to something. This is gonna be really interesting!”
    P.S. I’ve read something similar to the train analogy. “The optimist sees the glass half full, the pessimist sees the glass half empty, i want to know who’s been drinking my beer?!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ann, I think the U.S. is deteriorating, and as Charles Colson wrote more than 30 years ago, I think it’s irreversible on a national level. However, most definitely, I see the Lord working, especially in the lives of individuals. Locally, nationally, and globally, I continue to be eager to watch what the Lord is doing, whether it’s in what most people consider a “favorable” way or an “unfavorable” one.

      Thanks for the beer analogy; yes, that’s very similar to the train analogy!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: