It would be hard to conclude that the world is safer than it has been, that there has actually been a decline in the number of wars, genocides and human rights abuses over the past decade - yet two prestigious research organisations, 3,000 miles apart, have independently come to that conclusion.
GOD IS WORKING his purpose out as year succeeds to year. God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near. Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.'
We used to belt out that hymn in our school chapel. It had a good tune. I don't think we gave much thought to its sentiment, let alone its theology.
But it is sometimes hard, as we get inundated by harrowing images on TV, even for people of faith, to feel that God is really working out a purpose.
What a year 2005 was. 'Acts of God', as the insurance companies call natural disasters, were devastating and almost unceasing. From tsunami destruction in Indonesia to earthquakes in Kashmir to hurricanes in New Orleans, the human toll was appalling. And during the same year acts of man, and possibly some women, petrified nations, whether in London or Amman or Delhi.
Yet in the midst of terror and turmoil we witnessed acts of compassion and bravery and even intimations that shared suffering may help bridge historic divisions. 'Terror acts and natural disasters are an opportunity to find mutually beneficial ways to improve the human predicament,' writes Mansoor Ijaz, who co-authored the blueprint for a ceasefire between Indian security forces and Muslim militants in Kashmir in 2000. 'India and Pakistan's tragedies can prove beyond doubt that human-to-human contact across borders can heal history's gaping wounds.'
From reading the papers and watching television news it would be hard to conclude that the world is safer than it has been, that there has actually been a decline in the number of wars, genocides and human rights abuses over the past decade. Yet two prestigious research organisations, 3,000 miles apart, have independently come to that conclusion in reports published last year.
According to the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland both the number of armed conflicts worldwide and the overall extent and destructiveness of combat have more than halved in the last 15 years. In fact, the chance of dying as a result of war has over the last decade 'become the lowest in human history'.
This is attributed to the end of the Cold War, more investment in peacekeeping, the decline in global military spending and the spread of multi-party elections, with some 80 countries embracing democracy in the past 20 years.
A three-year study directed by Andrew Mack, head of the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia, came to similar conclusions.
While working at the UN during the 1990s, Mack noticed a lack of reliable data to show whether wars, mass slaughters of civilians or human rights abuses were increasing or decreasing worldwide. 'The global media gave front-page coverage to new wars,' he says, 'but mostly ignored the large number of existing conflicts that quietly ended.'
Although high-casualty terrorist attacks have increased dramatically, Mack maintains that these are not as great a threat in terms of lives lost as armed conflicts, which have declined by 40 per cent since the Cold War ended. The average number of battle deaths per conflict has also declined dramatically, from 37,000 in 1950 to 600 in 2002. (These figures do not include 'indirect deaths' such as those caused by disease or landmines.) The study identified 25 civil conflicts in 2004, the lowest number since 1976. The report refers to an 'explosion of efforts' in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.
It is true as we enter 2006 that we face new dangers, from suicide bombers to infected birds. We should not minimise the threat. But overheated descriptions of events and predictions of disaster do not always help us rise to the challenges. God is using brave and generous men and women to work out his purposes. We have reasons for hope as we enter the new year.
Michael Henderson is the author of 'Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate', Grosvenor Books, 2002, ISBN 1-85239-031-X www.michaelhenderson.org.uk