Imagine. “Imagine there’s no heaven ...” sang John Lennon. “... and no religion too.” The implication is that the world would be a better place without religion. Wrong. Christianity has changed the world in dramatic and positive ways.
Without Christianity, we probably would never have heard of John Lennon, particularly if he were an impoverished travelling minstrel unknown outside his own locale, which would have been likely. Without Christianity you’re dropped back into a world without a broad spread of individual freedoms, hospitals, organised charities or scientific advances (for Lennon, no electric guitars, sound systems, radio or television).
To limit Christianity’s impact to some kind of mystic and/or personal religious experience is to misread the past 2000 years of human history. The life and teachings of Jesus revolutionised thinking about God, but they also revolutionised thinking about our world.
A recent reminder of the impact of Christianity comes in the book titled How Christianity Changed the World.1 In it, Alvin Schmidt lists 15 changes Christianity brought to our world. Following are but four.
For the first 1200 years of Christianity, scientific progress was limited by the general acceptance of Greek thought (from Aristotle) in two ways. Aristotle taught that knowledge came through a deductive process of the mind, not through experimentation, and he supported a pantheistic world view—with gods in and controlling nature and the universe.
Christianity, and Judaism, taught that there was one God, a rational being. Couldn’t humans, made in the image of God, employ a rational process to investigate the world in which they lived?
This led Robert Grosseteste, a Franciscan bishop and first chancellor of Oxford University in the 13th century, to propose an inductive, experimental method for scientific investigation. This wasn’t readily accepted because, while Christians were mouthing that God was Creator and separate from creation, most still saw Him involved in virtually a pantheistic way in nature.
Almost 300 years later, when Francis Bacon began recording results of his experiments, scientific methodology began to be more widely accepted. Bacon was a devout Christian who devoted time to theology and wrote on the Psalms and prayer.
During this period, major Western scientists explained their motivation in religious terms. It was only later, during the 18th century, that science began to work without the presupposition of God.
At the time of Jesus, women had few rights. The average Athenian woman had the social status of a slave. Roman women had more freedom, but none of the rights of male citizens. Hebrew women weren’t allowed to speak in public or to participate fully in the synagogue or temple services.
While neither Jesus nor the apostles promoted a women’s movement, the message they presented had revolutionary effects on their lives. The early Christians gave women life in the church, and they in turn became ardent evangelists for the cause. Chrysostom (4th century) wrote, “The women of those days [early church] were more spirited than men.”
This lasted for about 200 years, until former practices began to infiltrate the church, but there were still some lasting and significant changes. Half a century after the legalisation of Christianity in the Roman Empire (313 AD), Emperor Valentinian I repealed the 1000-year-old law patria potestas that had given husbands and fathers the power of life and death over their wife and family.
Christian women also married later than their Roman counterparts (who could be brides as young as 11 and 12) and were given freedom to choose their husband. In time these freedoms gained wide appeal and now form a part of our Western culture.
The abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 sounded the death knell for slavery in the Western world. The leader of this abolitionist movement, William Wilberforce—also the leader of a group of active Christian parliamentarians—gave thanks to God for this victory. In Africa, the Christian missionary and explorer David Livingstone worked tirelessly to end the human trade by all nations.
What is less well known is that, for the British, slavery had a revival in the 17th century after being outlawed by a London church council in 1102.
Early Christians had no doubts about slavery. After all, the apostle Paul declared there was no Jew or Greek, slave or free when a person is in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Christians interacted with slaves as they did with those who were free. They met at the same Communion table.
This was at a time when some 75 per cent of the Athenian population and more than half the Roman population were slaves. Romans held slaves in contempt. For the Greeks, Aristotle described a slave as a “living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.”
In many instances, the early Christians freed slaves, sometimes in the presence of a bishop. How many isn’t known, but there are mentions of individuals freeing up to 8000, an action that was not always legal and sometimes risked death. Chrysostom preached that when Jesus came He annulled slavery.
Unfortunately, Christianity did not always remain firm to this conviction. Individuals like Wilberforce began the modern movement against the evil of slavery.
Human compassion, especially for the sick and dying, was rare among Greco-Romans of the first century. “The old Roman world was a world without charity,” notes historian Philip Schaff. There was little that resembled a hospital, and certainly not for the general populace.
Enter Christians motivated by the teachings of Jesus to care for the sick and with the promise of life after death—heaven, if you like. Dionysius, a bishop of the third century, describes an Alexandrian plague where “pagans” cast the sick aside on public roads, half-dead, and then leaving them unburied when they died. In contrast, he tells of Christians visiting the sick, treating them and even dying “most joyfully” in this service.
This was dangerous work, but not always from the threat of disease. Benignus of Dijon (2nd century) was executed because he dared to nurse back to health crippled and deformed children, and babies he had saved from death after failed abortions and exposure (left outside to die).
The frequent persecution of Christians during their first three centuries limited the help they could give to the sick. Within a few years of Christianity’s official acceptance in the Roman Empire, though, church leaders at the Council of Nicea (325 AD) directed that cities with a cathedral should establish a hospice.
The first true hospital was built in Caesarea of Cappadocia (Asia Minor) in 369 AD. Arab Muslims built the first hospitals outside of Christianity 400 years later.
First: wouldn’t these kinds of things have developed through inquiring and thoughtful minds discovering new concepts and implementing humane policies? Perhaps, but they hadn’t. Christianity provided the philosophy and motivating force in which they flourished.
Second: hasn’t Christianity also had a negative impact? Unfortunately, and too often, it has. You don’t need me to list incidents past or present. Each of them illustrates what happens when followers of the Christ have not followed the Christ in attitude or action—or both. That’s tragic. This, however, doesn’t deny the overwhelming good Christianity has brought.
“Imagine there’s no heaven... . And no religion too,” wails Lennon. If he’d had his wish and Christianity had never arisen, our world would be a dark place.
1. Alvin J Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 2004.