Demographics, the Bible, and the Future
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SWEDEN
THE human family has grown from 1.65 billion at the beginning of the 20th century to a staggering 6 billion by the century’s end. Will earth’s population continue growing at this astounding rate? Will this millennium witness a population explosion? The experts who grapple with such complex questions are called demographers; their field of study is demography.
Webster’s Dictionary defines demography as “the statistical study of human populations [especially] with reference to size and density, distribution, and vital statistics.” Experts study three factors that have a decided impact on population—fertility (the number of children born); mortality (the number of people who die); and migration (the number who move from one land to another).
Historical demography is the study of the growth and fluctuation of populations of the past. Historical demographers learn as much as they can about ancient civilizations by scrutinizing written material, ruins, skeletons, and other artifacts. Historical demography is part guesswork and part science. The Atlas of World Population History admits: “The hypotheses of the historical demographer are not, in the current state of the art, testable and consequently the idea of their being reliable in the statistician’s sense is out of the question.” Still, demographic assumptions are of interest to Bible students. Indeed, they are often in harmony with Bible accounts.
Population Growth After the Deluge
The Bible says that only eight humans survived the Deluge of Noah’s day. Some demographers speculate that by about 1,400 years later, the earth’s population may have reached 50 million. Is an increase from 8 persons to about 50 million in 1,400 years out of the question?
First of all, the estimate of 50 million is just that—an estimate. However, it is interesting to note what is stated in the Bible at Genesis 9:1: “God went on to bless Noah and his sons and to say to them: ‘Be fruitful and become many and fill the earth.’” Then, in chapters 10 and 11, we read of 70 families that descended from Noah’s sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Reading on, we come to the genealogy of men from Shem to Abraham, who ‘became fathers to sons and daughters.’ This may have been a time of high fertility, consistent with God’s command to “fill the earth.”
What about the mortality rate? The same chapters of Genesis describe man’s extremely long life span during the first several hundred years after the Deluge.* When a high birthrate is coupled with a low mortality rate, the result is rapid population growth.
The Israelites’ Sojourn in Egypt
Some researchers view with skepticism the Bible’s account of the rapid population growth that took place among the Israelites when they were living in the land of Egypt. The Bible states that aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons, “all the souls of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy.” (Genesis 46:26, 27) Yet, when the Israelites left Egypt 215 years later, there were an astounding “six hundred thousand able-bodied men on foot, besides little ones.” (Exodus 12:37) When we count the women and the little ones, there may have been as many as three million Israelites in all! Is such an increase possible?
To answer that question, note carefully what the Bible says about the growth of the Israelite population in Egypt: “The sons of Israel became fruitful and began to swarm; and they kept on multiplying and growing mightier at a very extraordinary rate, so that the land got to be filled with them.” The Israelites’ growth at that time was exceptional.—Exodus 1:7.
Interestingly, similar growth has been seen in modern-day nations, such as Kenya during the 1980’s. What made the Israelites’ growth exceptional, however, was that the increase was sustained over a long period of time.
The Bible itself provides another reason for Israel’s rapid growth. There was no food shortage while the Israelites were in Egypt. Obviously, when famine strikes, many people are cut off in their prime. As a result, fewer children are produced during that period. However, the Bible indicates that the Israelites had plenty of food to eat. When Joseph’s family came to Egypt, Pharaoh told Joseph: “Have your father and your brothers dwell in the very best of the land. Let them dwell in the land of Goshen.” (Genesis 47:6) Even after the Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians, they apparently had enough food. Indeed, after their deliverance from bondage, the Israelites reminisced about the bread, fish, cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, garlic, and pots of meat that they ate while in slavery.—Exodus 16:3; Numbers 11:5.
During the First Century C.E.
Demography can also shed light on our understanding of the Christian Greek Scriptures. For example, when we read Jesus’ command to his followers to “make disciples of people of all the nations,” we might wonder, ‘How extensive was that preaching assignment?’ (Matthew 28:19) How many people lived in the Roman Empire in the first century? Some estimate that the population was between 50 and 60 million. If that was so, those early Christian evangelizers had their work cut out for them!
Reading on in the Christian Greek Scriptures, we learn that the apostle Peter visited distant Babylon to preach the good news there. (1 Peter 5:13) Why Babylon? A comment in The New Encyclopædia Britannica is enlightening: “The chief centres of Jewish population outside Palestine were in Syria, Asia Minor, Babylonia, and Egypt, each of which is estimated to have had at least 1,000,000 Jews.” Since Peter was assigned to preach particularly to the Jews, it was reasonable for him to travel to an enclave of Judaism—Babylon. (Galatians 2:9) And given the Jewish population there, it is not likely that he ran out of territory!
What Does the Future Hold?
As we have seen, demographers are interested in certain details of man’s past. What do they say about the future? Important questions are looming. Will there be a population explosion during this millennium? No one knows for sure. Noting that birthrates are declining in a number of countries, some researchers forecast a leveling off of the world population.
However, not all experts agree. The publication Population Today states: “Today, there are two distinct ‘worlds’ of population growth: those countries with fertility rates at or below two children per couple and those with higher fertility rates. The ‘two-children-or-fewer world’ includes Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few rapidly industrializing countries . . . By contrast, the ‘rapid growth world’ comprises most of the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where fertility is greater than two children per couple. In these countries, which are home to more than one-half of the world’s population, women average four children each.”
So while population growth has leveled off in some countries, it has increased or remained about the same in others. Population Today sums up future prospects: “For most developing countries, rapid population growth is not over. The real, not the imagined, end of the ‘population explosion’ worldwide will be determined by how quickly and how much countries invest in programs to reduce infant mortality, educate women, and provide family planning.”
Will earth greatly surpass its present six billion inhabitants? Time will tell. But we do know that God’s purpose is that the earth be filled—not overpopulated. (Genesis 1:28) And we have every reason to be confident that under God’s Kingdom, this will occur.—Isaiah 55:10, 11.
Later, the human life span decreased to 70 or 80 years, as indicated by Moses about the year 1500 B.C.E.—Psalm 90:10.
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The survivors of the Deluge started off a world population that has now surpassed six billion
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In 215 years, a small number of Israelites in Egypt increased to as many as three million