The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe came and went in May with relatively little fanfare.
Perhaps the milestone passed quietly because fewer people personally remember the largest armed conflict in human history. The last U.S. president to serve in the military during World War II, George H.W. Bush, now 90, left office more than 20 years ago. Barack Obama wasn’t born until 16 years after the war ended. Of the 16 million veterans who helped win the war — and lift America out of the Great Depression and into global leadership — fewer than 1 million are still alive. They are dying at a rate of nearly 500 per day.
But we all live with the consequences of World War II, whether we realize it or not. It forged the modern world in fire and blood along with its horrific predecessor, World War I. The “Great War” of 1914-18 destroyed old orders and empires, set the stage for revolutions and economic upheaval and led to far greater devastation two decades later. Before World War II ended in 1945, more than 60 million people had died, an average of 27,000 per day. Many of them were civilians caught up in the fighting — or deliberately massacred.
“Within the vast compass of the struggle, some individuals scaled summits of courage and nobility, while others plumbed depths of evil, in a fashion that compels the awe of posterity,” writes World War II historian Max Hastings. “Among citizens of modern democracies to whom serious hardship and collective peril are unknown, the tribulations that hundreds of millions endured between 1939 and 1945 are almost beyond comprehension.”
For all its suffering, however, World War II unleashed economic energies that would lift entire nations from poverty to prosperity in the postwar era. It ushered in a new age of technological and scientific progress. It hastened the end of European colonialism. It sparked a Cold War with Soviet communism that the West ultimately would win, spreading political freedom far and wide.
And it opened vast areas of the globe — especially in Asia — to the Christian Gospel. Western missionaries streamed into ravaged countries after the war, bringing help and hope. The disciples they made helped turn Christianity into a truly global movement. Its expansion has continued in the generations since, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to new areas of Africa and Asia, to the post-communist world, to previously unreached peoples.
Postwar chaos eventually gave way to order and development in many parts of the world. But it’s become increasingly clear that the era of relative global stability that followed the war — albeit guaranteed for long periods by the weapons of superpowers — has come to an end.
“To put it simply, a vast swath of the Eurasian landmass (understood to be Europe and Asia together) is in political, military and economic disarray,” says George Friedman, chairman of the Stratfor global intelligence analysis agency. “Europe and China are struggling with the consequences of the 2008 [global economic] crisis, which left not only economic but institutional challenges. Russia is undergoing a geopolitical crisis in Ukraine and an economic problem at home. The Arab world, from the Levant to Iran, from the Turkish border through the Arabian Peninsula, is embroiled in politically destabilizing warfare. The Western Hemisphere is relatively stable, as is the Asian Archipelago. But Eurasia is destabilizing in multiple dimensions.”
In Friedman’s view, forces have re-emerged that the old postwar order cannot control.
“After every systemic war, there is an illusion that the victorious coalition will continue to be cohesive and govern as effectively as it fought,” he noted. “After World War I, the Allies (absent the United States) created the League of Nations. After World War II, it was the United Nations. After the Cold War ended, it was assumed that the United Nations, NATO, IMF, World Bank and other multinational institutions could manage the global system. In each case, the victorious powers sought to use wartime alliance structures to manage the postwar world. In each case, they failed, because the thing that bound them together — the enemy — no longer existed. Therefore, the institutions became powerless and the illusion of unity dissolved. This is what has happened here.”
The only thing that seems certain is uncertainty. Will Europe collapse as an economic and social entity? Will the Middle East descend into all-out regional war? Will a new Cold War break out between East and West?
History has shown that such times are risky for the church, but productive for God’s mission. Risky, because Christians will face increasing persecution as societies crumble, and increasing danger as they take the Gospel worldwide. Productive, because people seek truth when everything else they have relied upon falls away.
The chaotic period during and after World War II, when the world Christian movement truly went global, is a case in point.