By Anne Morse-Huércanos
I’m a demographer, which means I study population and demographics. I learn a lot in a sterile manner; I learn from charts, tables, graphs, and numbers. Yet these numbers and statistics can tell intense stories, and one of these stories that disturbed me recently was the story of historical mortality.
For most of human history, life expectancy has been low—around 30 years. This hasn’t been because everyone actually died around the age of 30, but because so many people died at early ages. Life expectancy is an average, and averages are dragged down by very low numbers—numbers like one or five. Low life expectancy means “a lot of children died.” Indeed, most demographers would feel comfortable estimating that—for most of human history— around one-third of humans died before their fifth birthday.
Such rates of high mortality are astonishing to the modern person, and the conditions that caused them are equally astonishing. Despite romanticized images of the past, such high mortality was the companion of a daily life that—day in and day out—was dirty and hard. Diseases ran rampant from poor sanitation and were made lethal by chronic malnourishment. Babies and children died from cholera, influenza, smallpox, malaria, or the measles. A significant portion of all humans died before their fifth birthday from the painful and dirty deaths of respiratory or diarrheal diseases.
As a demographer, I know that such high mortality was met with high fertility. Populations needed high fertility to ensure at least two children survived to adulthood. Yet, in human terms, this meant that few children made it to adulthood without experiencing the death of at least one sibling. Children who survived to become parents themselves would likely experience the death of at least one of their children. Even today, in the high mortality-high fertility country of Niger, almost 80% of all women in their 50’s have experienced the death of a child.
As a person born in a developed country in the twentieth century, this reality unnerved me. It made me question the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God. This consistent and widespread suffering was not from something that came about from misused free will. These were not deaths from anger, greed, or pride. These were deaths from what is analogous to a natural disaster, and they happened to the most innocent.
This kept me awake a few nights ago. I laid in bed thinking about how many women throughout the millennia had helplessly cradled their coughing or fevered infants throughout long nights, knowing their child was dying. I drifted off, thinking of the exhausted mothers who had perhaps also drifted off, only to awaken to a cold body. “How could God allow it?” I wondered, and I felt righteous in my anger on behalf of these mothers.
The next morning, I awoke as usual, and took the bus to the population center where I work. On the bus, I read the daily scripture readings on my phone. That particular morning, the passage was from the book of Maccabees. In this passage, a mother speaks to her youngest son who she knows is about to die a painful death. This unnamed mother leans in close to her child and says:
Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months…I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them;
then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things;
and in the same way the human race came into existence.
Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with them.
This mother did not have an answer to the suffering of her children, but she still believed in God, and she faithfully returned her child to Him. I then thought of all the faithful parents throughout the ages.
I cannot escape the reality that—if child mortality was so high for most of human history—it was also high for most of Christian history. G.K. Chesterton states that tradition is the “democracy of the dead” and herein the example of the dead have much to teach us.
For the first eighteen or nineteen centuries of Christianity, the majority of Christian parents have buried children, and then had enough faith to baptize the next child they bore. I am aware that many people who practiced Christianity did not actually believe and that baptizing their children was simply the social norm where they lived. This retort seems unsatisfactory, however, since it begs the question: How—in a period of so much pervasive suffering—did a religion that taught the existence of an all-powerful and all good God ever gain enough believers to dictate social norms? In a time when the death of children was commonplace, what made people reject the existence of capricious pagan gods in favor of an all-good God?
I do not claim to have an answer for Theodicy (nor do I trust anyone who claims to have an easy answer), yet it is important to consider the witness of these Christians. As contemporary persons continue to grapple with the existence of suffering, we should not lose perspective. We should think about the Christians who have gone before us, and, in an age where disease ravaged their families, dubbed their God “the divine physician.” We should consider all the mothers who have stroked the hair of their dying toddlers and then buried them in Christian cemeteries. This is an immensely powerful witness and one that we can easily forget in societies of health and cleanliness. Without expecting easy answers, I ask the faithful dead to intercede for us, and to give us understanding and faith.
Anne Morse-Huércanos has a PhD in Demography and Sociology, and her research focuses on fertility and population projections. She spends most of her non-work time either in a Muay Thai gym or with her wonderful husband. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Anne_red_head