What Was the Worst Year in History?

The Crucifixion, when men killed God, was the worst thing humanity has ever done.

El Greco, “Christ on the Cross,” 1577-1579
El Greco, “Christ on the Cross,” 1577-1579 (photo: Public Domain)

The year 2020 came to an end in the midst of great expectations for a better year in 2021 after we witnessed a global pandemic and riots that have changed the face of society. 

But was 2020 the worst year in history? Judging by the way our society has treated it on social media, that would seem to be the case.

But 1349 was the middle of a deadlier pandemic, the black plague, that claimed a far higher percentage of human lives than the current virus. Perhaps 1349 was the worst year in human history.

Another contender was the year 536 when a mysterious fog engulfed Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia, leaving a large part of the world’s population without light. Temperatures dropped and it snowed in the summer. Crops failed and people all over the world starved.

Or perhaps we are looking at this from the wrong perspective. By “worst” we seem to mean the worst things that happened to people. Plagues, death, starvation are certainly evils; there can be no denying that these are all terrible events.

Wisdom teaches us, though, that the worst things are not those that happen to us, but those things we do. It is worse for a person to commit evil than to endure it; it is worse to steal than to be robbed, worse to murder than to be murdered, worse to deceive than to be deceived. In fact, when bad times come around, the opportunity is created for virtue and nobility to shine forth. What happens to us only creates the circumstances for what we do. True good and evil have to do with who and what we are, not our surroundings or what happens to us.

With this in mind, the worst year in human history would not be the year of the worst pandemic or cataclysmic climate event, all of which can only happen to the human race. Instead, the year of the worst human actions would be a better candidate for claiming the dubious title “Worst Year Ever.” 

Brutality, murder, betrayal, moral failings and the whole host of vices have all been around as far as there is a record of human affairs. It is difficult to know where to begin, but begin we must. 

Perhaps the worst year in history was one of those during World War II, when more men killed each other than any other year. Even in our “enlightened” era, we have found efficient and scientific means of taking one another’s lives. Men set out to war against other men, and our race made a bloodbath of many lands around the globe. Perhaps the worst year in history was some time during the bloodiest war humanity has witnessed.

Even war, however, engages nation against nation and grown men enter into battle knowing that it may cost them their lives. The intentional taking of another’s life becomes all the more horrible as the relationship between the aggressors becomes closer and closer. The closest bond of all is that between mother and child.

Perhaps the worst year in history is the year when, in a “civilized” country, more mothers intentionally took the lives of the babies growing in their own wombs. Abortion is far more unnatural than war, the act of ending the life of an unborn baby while it is still in the womb is worse than killing in war. 

Judging by these standards, 1980 might be chosen as the worst year in history, where the “civilized” country of the United States of America witnessed almost 30 abortions for every 1,000 women. This was certainly a bad year, when mothers chose to end the lives of their own children in the place designed to do nothing but nurture, grow and protect: their own womb.

I don’t think there is anything else that can compare with that except, perhaps, for the killing of something or someone even closer than a baby in the womb — the killing of God who is at the very center and source of the human person. Fulton Sheen, in his Life of Christ, writes, “The worst thing that evil can do is not bomb cities and to kill children and to wage wars; the worst thing that evil can do is to kill Goodness.”

The worst year in history? The year of the greatest atrocity committed by human hands? The year Goodness himself, sinless and perfect, loving all and hating none, forgiving and praying for his persecutors, was tortured in the most exquisite way dreamed up by the Romans until he died. The Crucifixion was the worst thing humanity has done, when men killed God.

But even under the cloud of that dismal thought, there is hope. Sheen continues: “Having been defeated in that, [evil] could never be victorious again.”

The worst thing we have ever done was made by God to be the means of our redemption. Jesus not only overcame the Cross, but turned it into his weapon for the joy and salvation of mankind, the race of beings that rejected and killed him. 

If even this act can be redeemed, then what is there to fear? Nothing can be worse than the Crucifixion, but even that has been turned to good, which is why we call it Good Friday. The most dissonant note ever sounded has become the beginning of the most beautiful melody. Utter confidence in God is all that remains for us, no matter the circumstances, no matter what we’ve done in the past, no matter what happens to us, no matter what year it is.