The Bible says that the sins of one generation will affect their children down to the third and forth generations - so, something like 60-120 years. I find that this time interval is the approximate lifetime for a national or cultural evil that infects a whole society (which is what the Bible is addressing in the passage mentioned above). Put another way: this is characteristically how long it takes for a fundamentally wrong form of society or government to fail.
The late Soviet Union is a good instance of this rule. The "evil empire" lasted from 1922 to 1991 - only 69 years. As the fall of communism is within living memory, you may remember how surprising and sudden this event was. For many of us, it seemed that the bifurcation of the world into communist or capitalist countries was a permanent feature of history. After all, how could a country just... stop? But a flawed system cannot last forever, and the Soviet Union collapsed within a human lifetime.
Maoist China underwent much the same story. Communists in China came to power in 1949, and while they are still in power, their policy has changed dramatically since their first days under Mao in embracing capitalistic reforms. While they still have a ways to go, the rule in question seems to bear out: a flawed national system typically only lasts several generations. It may collapse or change, but it cannot endure.
Along the same lines of thinking, how long do you think North Korea will last? I don't think anyone needs convincing that the government there is evil. I've heard it described as "the worst country in the world" and "more 1984 than 1984". It's been that way since at least the end of the Korean War - 62 years ago as of 2015. Such evil cannot endure. I therefore have hope, based on the idea of the lifetime of evil, that I will live to see North Korea fundamentally change.
It's not hard to see how this could happen. North Korea is so isolated and backwards that eventually, it must implode under the weight of the technological differential between it and the outside world. I mean, if it gets to the point where we have cheap fusion-powered laser-mounted microdrones, then a teenager, as a prank, might start tattooing American flags on the face of whichever spawn of Kim Il Sung sits atop their throne. Or South Korea could just bombard all their starving citizens with food packages that include a satellite-internet connected smartphone. That regime cannot withstand this kind of pressure.
So, the idea of the lifetime of evil has made a prediction, one that I think is likely to come to pass. Though it may still be decades away, policy makers in South Korea or the United States should be thinking about how to control and handle this coming change in North Korea.
Another way to validate the concept of lifetime of evil is to look at the lifetime of atheistic countries. All three of the examples cited above (Soviet Union, Maoist China, and North Korea) were officially atheistic, and right now it looks like North Korea may become the most successful atheistic country of the three, based on longevity. In general, atheistic states do not last. Throughout the entire history of the world, I have not heard of a single state that put its emphasis on atheism lasting more than a hundred years. From the anti-Christian movements in the French Revolution to the Khmer Rouge, none have stood the test of time. If atheism is true and good for human prosperity, where is the enlightened atheistic civilization that outproduces and outlives the other civilizations of the world? Where is the powerful atheistic technocracy that will conquer the world with its mighty army of nanobot terminators? It's not like atheism is a new or a complicated idea: there were atheists in the ancient world, so it's had plenty of time to rise and prosper if it's really the true path to prosperity. But the only places where atheists seem to be doing well nowadays is in the historically Christian nations of the West.
Are there other ways to validate the idea that evil has a finite lifetime, typically lasting several generation for a society-wide wickedness? I think so. One can hardly talk about a society-wide historical evil without talking about race-based chattel slavery. I do not intend to cover the whole sordid history of slavery in the Americas in this one post, but here are some important dates, from Wikipedia:
1492: Columbus lands in the Americas.So, what are we to make of these dates? If we simply take the difference between the introduction of slavery into the Americas to the date of total emancipation, That comes to more than 300 years, and it seems to blow a hole in my theory of the lifetime of evil being 60-120 years. But remember, that time frame is for a comprehensive, society-wide evil, like the governments of Soviet Union or North Korea. Slavery leaked into America relatively slowly, and it seems to have not become a full-blown societal evil until the late 1600. Furthermore, early protest against it started as soon as became a major problem, and it was completely abolished in the Northern United States decades earlier than in the South. It was, on the whole, a complex phenomenon, with difficult dates to pin down for a whole geographical area. So, if we take the somewhat arbitrary date of 1690 as the threshold of "full-blown societal evil", we get about 110 years of slavery in the North, and 175 years for the whole of the U.S. - within the allowed time frame for a lifetime of evil, given the heinous and complicated nature of the slavery problem. Remember the analogy with a half-life: the 60-120 years is not an absolute time interval. It is rather a characteristic time frame.
1526: The first enslaved Africans came to what is now the United States, to a Spanish settlement.
1619: The first Africans are brought to English North America, to Virginia.
Throughout the 1500's and 1600's, slavery took on different forms - It was not all race-based chattel slavery, and many slaves were treated as indentured servants. It's also important to keep in mind the relatively smaller population of Europeans and Africans in these earlier days. Wikipedia says "evidence suggests that racial attitudes were much more flexible in 17th century Virginia than they would subsequently become".
1690: A census records 950 Africans in Virginia. Again, it's not yet a full-blown society wide problem, although by the late 1600's it was rapidly becoming so, with the loss of previously held rights and a dramatic increase in the importation of slaves.
1705: The basic legal framework for slavery is established in Virginia.
1710: The African population of Virginia increases to 23,100.
1776: American Independence. Around this time, many, but not all, colonies had banned or restricted slavery to differing degrees.
1787: Slavery is encoded into the U.S. Constitution.
1808: International importation of slaves into the U.S. is banned. All of the northern states pass anti-slavery laws by this time.
1865: End of the Civil War. Slavery is abolished throughout the U.S.
Why 60-120 years? Why three to four generations? That, as I said before, is mechanistically determined. And for a cultural, societal evil, the mechanism here is none other than the transmission of morals to the next generation. We know that parents play a huge role in how their children will turn out. We know that our experiences in our youth shape the rest of our lives. Is it any surprise that this is the key mechanism in determining the lifetime from an evil act to its full consequences, or that it would take about three generations for a new morality to be completely inculcated?
This process can perhaps most clearly be seen through an example about sexual morality. Sexuality, more so than our other activities, directly affects the next generation. For example, let's say that one generation somehow makes the mistake of thinking that vaginal sex is very wrong. It's considered "dirty" or "unnatural" compared to other forms of sex. Let's furthermore assume that this group of people persist in their mistake until something dramatic forces them to change or collapse. The first generation to make this mistake is presumably already sexually mature, and some of them already have children - the second generation. They then pass this twisted idea about sex on to the second generation. But do you expect to see any negative effects of the mistake at this point? Not really - the second generation already exists, but they're still just growing up, and won't become mature and sexually active for some time. The first real signs of trouble will come when this second generation starts trying to form serious relationships and having children of their own. The psychological hang-ups and the mechanical difficulties associated with their misconceptions will now directly affect their ability to produce kids - the third generation. And for any third generation children they manage to produce through their guilt and shame, this confusion about sexuality will be all they have known. They will grow up thinking that this mistaken viewpoint is normal, and that their second generation parent's difficulties were also normal. From here, it's a toss-up whether society collapses from population implosion, or whether they'll last long enough to have a fourth generation. Fifth and further generations are increasingly unlikely.
What are we to make of all this? In particular, what can we take away from the idea that the lifetime of evil is typically three or four generations? First, we can take comfort in the idea that evil will not endure forever. We can also remember this time frame, and measure out our responses accordingly. For example, if you believe that slavery was right after all, then you have virtually no hope - It's been abolished for 150 years with no sign that we'll ever go back to that model. You should give up. On the other hand, if you believe that gay marriage is wrong - well, we'll see. How will the debate look in 30, 60, or 120 years? Because that's the time period over which these things characteristically change. And lastly, if you do see the world making a terrible mistake, it tells you what you can expect in the future. If you're young and lucky, you may outlive the mistake, like a young Russian in 1922 possibly living 69 more years and outliving the Soviet Union. Even if you don't see something as dramatic as the collapse of communism, you may see enough to know that it will happen. But more practically, you should train up the next generation in the way they should go, in the discipline and instruction of the LORD. There is a very good chance that your children will live to see the mistake for what it is, and the world will need good men and women when it tries to recover.
You may next want to read:
The lifetime of evil (part 1) (Previous post of this series)
History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 1)
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
Another post, from the table of contents