Whatever happened to the human race?

John Ling John was born and initially schooled in Cambridge, but most of his secondary education was at Reading School. From 1966 to 1976, he studied at Leeds, Pennsylvania State and Nottingham Universities.
01 September, 2004 6 min read

This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Whatever happened to the human race? It is a remarkable book.  In a list of ‘books that changed me’, this unquestionably ranks in my top five. I have just re-read it with unexpected profit.

Whatever happened

was more than just a book by a theologian (Schaeffer) and a doctor (Koop). It was an ambitious project that included not only the book but also a series of five films and a study guide.

The book was first published in USA in 1979, with a British version the following year. The project was launched in the UK in 1980, with a tour of major cities by Schaeffer and Koop.

Later that year we in Aberystwyth were among the first in the UK to show the films publicly — at the university, over three consecutive Friday evenings.


Cinematographically, they were not great films. While they were a vast improvement technically on Schaeffer’s earlier film series How should we then live?, gaffes and bloomers remained.

There were the rather twee shots of Schaeffer in a car junkyard, representing the ugliness of materialistic thinking, and all-too-healthy-looking ‘slaves’ trudging up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to depict the atrocities of slavery.

Yet one haunting image did hit the spot — everyone remembers the hundreds of plastic dolls washed up on the shores of the Dead Sea, portraying the horrors of mass abortion.

As literature, the book was never destined to be a classic. It was full of Schaeffer’s jerky style, with Koop’s medical addenda rather obviously interleaved. Indeed, neither man was a great ‘presenter’, either in print or in public.

They made a genuinely ‘odd couple’. Schaeffer was the non-establishment theologian, dressed in mountain gear and with a goatee beard (he had founded a study centre in Switzerland). He was vilified and ignored by some, while others regarded him as the greatest Christian thinker of the twentieth century.

On the other hand, the dapper Koop, with his neat bow tie, was straight from the American establishment — a paediatrician of international renown who was later to become the Surgeon General of the United States under President Reagan. What an unlikely pair!

Total package

So what was so impressive about Whatever happened?Why is it regarded as a landmark in evangelical endeavour? The answer is threefold.

First, it identified a dreadful problem (rampant abortion, covert infanticide and threatening euthanasia). Second, it explained the origin of these problems (the advance of secular humanism coupled with a decline of biblical Christianity). And third, it outlined the solution (Christians must believe that the Bible is true and live and act on its teachings).

In other words, it was a total package — entirely believable for the brain and fully satisfying for the heart. And that was Schaeffer’s great gift. He would take you back into history, often to Genesis, to show the development of an argument, and then take you forward to show the logical consequences of that argument.

He could do it for almost any subject — whether existentialism, or the resurrection, or genetic engineering. Once he had systematically shown you the entirety of the problem, you felt obligated to respond.

Committed to truth

So forget the garb, the squeaky voice and the unpolished prose. His rigorously-argued and (usually) convincing content prevailed. He was a man committed to true truth. Like no other Christian leader in the twentieth century, Schaeffer had grasped the zeitgeist [mood] and he equipped ordinary Christians to engage with the big issues, as well as with unbelieving men and women.

The opening three chapters of Whatever happened deal with abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Twenty-five years ago, this exposé came as a bombshell to many evangelical Christians — we had no idea what was going on in our local hospitals and clinics.

The sheer logic of Schaeffer and Koop’s argument was appalling — that once a society has accepted abortion of the unborn (as we had in 1967), then it would soon be infanticide for the newborn, and finally euthanasia for the elderly. Twenty-five years on, who can gainsay their prophetic analysis?

Social action

Furthermore, Whatever happened had both credenda and agenda — belief and action. Schaeffer and Koop would never be satisfied with merely tut-tutting and sitting on our hands. They wanted us up and doing.

‘Let those of us who share a high view of people use wisely these days when we have influence and the freedom to strike a great blow for the humanity, dignity, and sanctity of individuals’ (p.90).

Their chapter 6 was entitled ‘Our personal response and social action’ and it galvanised Evangelicals throughout the UK like never before. As a result, many of us got involved with pro-life organisations.

I co-founded ‘Evangelicals for LIFE’, to encourage believers to participate in the educational, political and caring work of LIFE — which was generally regarded suspiciously as an admirable, but largely Roman Catholic, organisation.

Soon Evangelicals were becoming local LIFE group treasurers, speakers, carers, chairmen, and so on. Throughout the 1980s we blossomed, and LIFE’s approach and expertise became the paradigm for many newly-formed Christian pro-life groups.


This, above all, was the impact of Whatever happened.It got Evangelicals informed and then responding in practical ways. And that legacy is still alive today — look at the proliferation of pro-life publications, pregnancy crisis centres, political lobbying, and so on since 1979.

OK, it is still patchy, still insufficient — but without Whatever happened it would be significantly less.

Re-reading the book twenty-five years on, I was struck not by the rehearsal of the bioethical issues — they have dominated and changed the course of my life since 1979 — but by the refreshingly gripping chapters 4 and 5 — ‘The basis for human dignity’ and ‘Truth and history’.

I had forgotten these chapters, in which modern philosophy and secular humanism are given a ‘right old kicking’. Schaeffer and Koop demonstrate just how irrational and bankrupt they are, and how they inevitably produce the ghastly dehumanisation that surrounds us today.

Twenty-five years on we have to admit that their thesis was spot on — we do still treat man as nothing more than a machine. We do view ourselves as mere accidents of the universe.

True truth

One of their sweeping, but entirely accurate, assertions is: ‘Suddenly we find ourselves in a more consistent but uglier world — more consistent because people are taking their low view of man to its natural conclusion, and uglier because humanity is drastically dehumanised’ (p.9).

After their devastating critique of secular humanism comes the cavalry — the absolutes of historic, biblical Christianity. What a puny, limping thing secular humanism is alongside the robustness of true truth.

‘Where all humanistic systems of thought are unable to give an adequate explanation of things, the Bible as God’s statement is adequate’ (p.124), and (this is sweet!), ‘God gives the pages, and thus God gives the answers’ (p.125).

Here is evangelism — engaging with modern men and women to show them the paucity of their worldview, and then the genius of Christianity.

Bioethical issues

The other rousing chapter, entitled ‘Truth and history’, asserts the historicity of the Bible — that Christianity is rooted in history. If you think Schaeffer was always entangled with abstruse philosophy, then read this chapter.

It starts with Abraham (the historicity of Adam and Eve having been established in the previous chapter) and ends with Thomas’ declaration, ‘My Lord and my God!’ In between is an exegesis summed up by the words, ‘all truth finally rests upon the fact that the infinite-personal God exists’ (p.135).

Whatever happened was a great Christian book. It still is. And a revised US version is currently available as a paperback from Crossway Books [ISBN 0-89107-291-8].

No other Christian book, published before or after, has attempted, and succeeded so completely, in developing a fundamental biblical approach to bioethical issues. My own meagre contribution, Responding to the culture of death, draws heavily on the Schaeffer and Koop approach, and I gladly acknowledge my indebtedness.

Wake up call

Whatever happened to the human race?

was also a wake-up call to unaware and lethargic Christians. Who would dare say, a generation on, that we do not still need its message? Human life is still cheap, and becoming cheaper — created in the image of God and destroyed at our convenience.

Let Schaeffer and Koop have the last word. ‘We challenge you to be a person in this impersonal age … put the people in your life first … come to your senses … you and those around you are people, made in the image of the personal God’ (p.89).

‘The only thing that can stem this tide [of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia] is the certainty of the absolute uniqueness and value of people. And the only thing which gives us this is the knowledge that people are made in the image of God’ (p.148).

‘In the end we must realise that the tide of humanism, with its loss of humanness, is not merely a cultural ill but a spiritual ill that Christ alone can cure’ (p.157).

John was born and initially schooled in Cambridge, but most of his secondary education was at Reading School. From 1966 to 1976, he studied at Leeds, Pennsylvania State and Nottingham Universities.
Articles View All

Join the discussion

Read community guidelines
New: the ET podcast!