Embrace Pessimism
February 20, 2024

Optimism is “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”1 On the other hand, pessimism is “an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome.” We can see that optimism and pessimism are not two symmetrical opposites. In each case, you prepare differently for the future. When you anticipate the best possible outcome, you can stay easy. When you expect the worst possible outcome, you brace for the impact. When the Black Swan jumps out of a box, an optimist suffers much more than a pessimist. Nassim Taleb has much to say about that, e.g., the following: “Optimism, it is said, is predictive of success. It can also be predictive of failure. Optimistic people take more risks as they are overconfident about the odds. Those who win show up among the rich and famous. Others fail and disappear from the analysis.”2

Assuming the best possible outcome is groundless and unjustified. As personal experience and the wisdom the old folks tell us, the future is never as we imagine it to be in our best dreams. We should instead expect unexpected things to happen as we move through time. Thank God, these are not always the worst possible things, but the problem is that we cannot predict that. So, some redundancy is always good, and redundancy means making provisions for unexpected calamities instead of hoping for the best. Keep a sack of potatoes in your basement, just in case.

Peter was an optimist when he said: No such a thing will come upon you, Lord! In response, Jesus rebuked: “You are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man” (Mat 16:23; ESV). So far, Peter had witnessed the great deeds of Jesus, and based on that experience, he imagined the future—all of it. And the future was bright. Maybe he did not read the books of Job and Ecclesiastes carefully enough, or perhaps he forgot the stories of Jacob and Joseph. Maybe he thought that with the coming of Jesus, these books and stories served only as gloomy reminders of bad old days. Nevertheless, there was no place for the Cross in the future anticipated by Peter. This is why he denied any connection to Christ when what Jesus had foretold actually happened. His optimism made him vulnerable, weak, and cowardly. His guard was lowered. Thank God that he changed and later wrote about sharing the sufferings of Christ, which not only do not exclude joy and glory but are intrinsically connected with them – sharing Christ’s sufferings leads to sharing His glory. This theme often occurs in Acts and the apostles’ writings: “We must suffer a lot to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). If we must, then we will.

Of course, there is future glory and joy; the Kingdom of God is coming and already among us. And sometimes, when God walks among us, we can see glimpses of the radiant future. But we still have a long way to go. The task of glorifying Earth, discipling the nations, and growing in maturity takes time and is not finished yet. The fullness of the Kingdom is not just around the corner. The primeval saints knew something about it. And they knew that life under the Sun is like vapor. Some generations can enjoy periods of peace and prosperity, while others have to endure attacks of Philistine looters attracted by the success of previous generations in cultivating the land. And there are also wars, sickness, and death.

This is why we need to hope against hope. And hope against hope is the only true Christian hope. It is the hope of Abraham. It is the hope of Elves from The Lord of the Rings who fought “the long defeat” and endured “many fruitless victories.” This is why the Bible strongly connects hope with endurance and steadfastness. Hope is not just a longing for a better future or a wish for all the best. As James B. Jordan observes in From Bread to Wine, “Hope comes in the midst of life as we go through trials. Our initial trust is matured through experiences to become love as we learn the ways in which our seemingly hidden God is really with us all along.” This hope enables us to arrive at the future without losing faith in the face of all kinds of troubles and trials we go through on the way to the Kingdom.

However, the problem with optimism is not limited to anticipating the best possible outcome and the disappointment and withdrawal that inevitably result from it. There is an even more dangerous kind of optimism that G. K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man calls “mechanical optimism,” and Roger Scruton in The Uses of Pessimism calls “wicked or unscrupulous optimism.” Basically, it is a mixture of naivete (we know) and hybris (we can) with the messianic complex (we should) added. The result is even more human suffering, which it seeks to replace with happiness. It is both ironic and tragic.

Mechanical optimism attempts to shepherd the wind because it is based on a mechanistic description of the world and the human psyche blended with overestimating one’s strength and abilities. It is represented by the friends of Job, who believed that they understood the ways of God, even though they could not even start to comprehend the mysteries of the creation. It is expressed in wooden behaviorism, which treats people like they are Pavlov’s dogs. It shapes the mindset of generals who think that the game of chess can teach them how to win a war. It is embraced by social engineers who believe that they can melt down the social fabric and create a new, better society that would function like a clock.

This kind of optimism rejects the collective wisdom that arises from the experience of many generations, and it denies the wisdom hidden in the Bible. It is utopian, as it condemns and rejects reality for the sake of an idea. The rejection comes from a disappointment with the reality as it is, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, from a dream about a world as we think it ought to be. If I assume that I know what the world ought to be, and if I assume that I know how to fix it, then I will try fixing it and anticipate the best possible result. What could go wrong? Everything.

First, it never works. The history of the Soviet Union clearly proves this, as well as the next point. Actions based on a childish understanding of the world mixed with wishful thinking are doomed for epic failure. This is why Ecclesiastes warns against simple boys becoming kings. Second, as Scruton notices, “utopian ideas can only be imposed by terror.” When reality, including the human psyche, does not want to fit the optimist’s ideas, he puts it on his little Procrustes’ bed. A man trying to play God “wants to impose and legislate their fantasies onto the world. When other people resist his totalitarian designs, the sinner resorts to violence to get his way. The sinner wants absolute dominion (sovereignty) over everything. To the extent God crosses his plans, he is frustrated.”3 No wonder Scruton claims that no other -ism has committed more atrocities than optimism.

Another element of mechanistic optimism is the belief in historical necessity, which claims that progress is natural and inevitable. The only things that can slow it down are some social groups attached to tradition. They become the ones whom the optimistic progressivists blame for the delay in the arrival of the radiant future and also for the shortage of tobacco. They promised a paradise but delivered the Gulag. And, for sure, it cannot be their fault. This is why mechanistic optimists know only one kind of sacrifice: the scapegoat.

For the above reasons and the reasons that James B. Jordan presented in An Antidote for Yuppie Postmillennialism, I would suggest that we tint our postmillennial hope with a dose of pessimism, not in the sense that we expect to see Ragnarök at the end of history but in the sense that we do not want to be like the fool who made predictions based on the most recent successful harvest and built one new big barn expecting all the best from the future. First, the fullness of the Kingdom is not around the corner, and no escalator could get us there. Second, there is a chance that we are not as smart as we think we are, so fixes we would like to apply to broken reality might bring more damage than good. Third, even though we would rather be the kind of heroes of the faith who conquer kingdoms, God might have us be sawn in two instead. We need pessimism because we need humility and patience as we face reality and the future.

We need the humility of Job, who, while suffering, admired the rule of God over “the waters and their inhabitants” and concluded that “these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him!” (Job 26:14; ESV). This humility recognizes the limits of human knowledge and actions. Yet, it never doubts God’s goodness and wisdom. We also need the enduring patience of Abraham by which we inherit the promises of God (Heb. 6:12). Even if it takes 400 years or more. Patience endures because, by faith, it holds fast to the promises of God, but at the same time, it does not assume that bad things cannot happen to good people. And so, it does not wither away when troubles come. And they will come.

Bogumil Jarmulak is pastor of Evangelical Reformed Church (CREC) in Poznan, Poland. His PhD is from Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw, Poland.


  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary ↩︎
  2. Nassim Taleb, Fooled by Randomness ↩︎
  3. James B. Jordan, An Antidote for Yuppie Postmillennialism ↩︎
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