A World without Christianity
In 2007, God Is Not Great, a bestselling book by the late Christopher Hitchens, denounced Christianity as being violent, hateful, and inimical to human flourishing.
Today, similar claims are reiterated by those who condemn Christianity as the religion of the oppressor class. Christians are instructed to “check their privilege” and “do the work” to repudiate Christianity’s toxic legacy. But what would the world really be like without Christianity?
1. The world would be crueler.
In pagan culture, compassion to the needy was regarded as foolish. At a time when many in the Greco-Roman world suffered misery and brutality, the early Christian communities offered care. Orphans were given refuge and education. Widows obtained aid. The destitute were given food and firewood. By the fourth century, after Constantine became emperor, the church became the first organized institution of public welfare. The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) ordered that a hospital should be built in every town where there was a Christian cathedral.
Is Christianity Good for the World? shows that through history and across the globe, true followers of Christ have challenged injustice and abuse, and provided care for the needy—living out their conviction that every person is created in God’s image.
The Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (r. 361–363), who hated Christianity, believed that the Christians’ sacrificial kindness towards strangers was a major factor in the rapid spread of their beliefs.
In later times, Christians pioneered the establishment of hospitals, orphanages, leprosariums, and hospices for the dying.
The Evangelical Awakenings of the eighteenth century affected whole nations. Evangelical Christians were responsible for a remarkable range of social advances, including prison reform, care of the mentally ill, factory reform, rescuing women and children from sexual abuse, and provision of education. On a local level, mercy ministries and voluntary charitable societies flourished.
The Christian missionary movement of the nineteenth century also affected healthcare and philanthropy globally. Missionaries opened the first hospitals and clinics and pioneered medical education. Their endeavors resulted in longer life expectancies and lower infant mortality rates.
Half the Sky: How to Change the World (2010) documents female oppression worldwide. The authors are not Christian, but they testify that in the poorest and most remote areas of the world, where help is most desperately needed, you find missionary doctors and church-sponsored volunteers. Aid workers and diplomats come and go. By contrast, many missionaries stay for life.
Jesus Christ promises: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). For Christians, death is not the end. We look forward to resurrection, and a glorious eternity of enjoying God and community with all his people. We can afford to risk our lives in service of others.
2. The world would be more unjust.
God the Creator places a conscience (Rom. 2:15) on the heart of every person made in his image, and his moral law applies to ruler and ruled alike. All will give account to him (Rom. 13:1–4). These biblical truths have been the foundation for the “rule of law” and our regard for human dignity and freedom. They’ve inspired resistance to tyranny. They form the only sure defense against the overweening, totalitarian claims of an all-powerful state. Throughout history and throughout the world today you find Christians who have been willing to challenge abuse and work for reform.
Missionaries promoted literacy, which in turn was the catalyst for the development of mass printing, newspapers, voluntary associations, and social reform. Individual freedom and rights are most prevalent where Christianity has had the greatest impact.
3. The world would be less free.
If we live in the West, we often take freedom for granted. But the idea that every human is of equal dignity and should be afforded liberty has not been obvious to most cultures. Greco-Roman society had no concept that every human life has intrinsic value and dignity. The Roman Empire was made up of around seventy million people—ten million were slaves. And most societies through history have been built on slavery1. Christianity is the only major religion to mount a comprehensive attack on the institution of slavery.
The conviction that every human is made in God’s image stood in stark contradiction to the culture of the ancient world. The apostolic witness that “in Christ we are all one, whether slave or free” (Gal. 3:28) was revolutionary. For free people and slaves to share the Lord’s Supper as fellow church members was scandalous. No other associations or pagan cults allowed slaves and free to participate on an equal footing.
Chrysostom (c. 347–407), who served as archbishop of Constantinople, told the wealthy to buy slaves, teach them a trade, and then set them free, telling them that when Christ came, he annulled slavery. Gregory of Nyssa (335–395) wrote the first comprehensive critique of slavery, attacking it for its violation of the free nature of human beings made in God’s image.
The conviction that every human is made in God’s image stood in stark contradiction to the culture of the ancient world.
It took time to root out slavery in the Western world. But Christian teaching and practice paved the way for arguing that as slaves were part of the body of Christ, they should be freed. By the eleventh century slavery in Christendom had, effectively, ended.
The transatlantic slave trade brought back the horror on a more terrible scale. But ultimately it was Christian campaigners who worked tirelessly for its abolition, supported by vast numbers of evangelical Christians at a grassroots level. The British abolished the slave trade in 1807, and slavery itself in 1833. The cost to the British Empire of seeking to eradicate slavery on a global scale was immense2. That campaign was conducted for profoundly Christian reasons.
Today, tragically, there are more slaves in the world than ever before. An estimated 27.6 million are victims of sex trafficking and forced labor3. Today, Christians lead the way in opposing slavery and human trafficking worldwide. The International Justice Mission is one Christian network fighting abuse, but there are many others.
The areas of the world where slavery is still condoned by the state or by tradition are areas opposed to Christianity. For example, slavery still exists in some Islamic countries in the Sahara region of Africa4. Nearly two million Uighurs are incarcerated by the Chinese Communist party and subject to slave labor5. And the ongoing abuses associated with the caste system in India are reckoned by some to be one of the greatest human rights violations in history6.
4. The world would be less educated and much poorer.
From the inception of Christianity, education was a priority7. Christians believe that all human beings, made in God’s image, should learn of God’s works and ways. All should be able to read God’s word in their own languages. All should develop skills to serve others for God’s glory.
The earliest universities were Christian foundations. The scientific method is rooted in the Christian conviction that God created the universe according to rational laws, and endowed humans with the reason and intellect to study and explore.
Christians pioneered female education in many nations. When you look at the markers of female oppression—whether child-marriage, prostitution, sex trafficking, domestic violence, genital cutting, or so-called honor killing—all are more likely when girls are denied education.
Living standards are raised when people apply their God-given reason to innovate, work, and solve problems. Education is essential, as knowledge must be passed from one generation to the next to build on the achievements of the past.
Across the centuries and across the world, followers of Christ have devoted themselves to their neighbors’ good. Their various endeavors—in healthcare, philanthropy, education, and everyday work—have been driven by the biblical conviction that humans, created in God’s image, should all have opportunity to flourish. Such endeavors have contributed to the massive decrease in global poverty the world has seen over the past couple of centuries.
5. The world would have no lasting hope.
Christians grieve at the evil and suffering in the world, but we are confident that Jesus is Lord. He came into the world to “destroy the works of the devil”(1 John 3:8). That includes all brokenness of lives, all injustice in communities, all guilt, and all pain. His kingdom is extending through all nations. One day the world will be renewed, and his reign of perfect justice will prevail.
Right now, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. We all go against our God-given conscience. But Jesus Christ offers forgiveness and eternal life to all: “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
We don’t need to be intimidated by the hostility to the Christian message displayed by so many.
Certainly, evils have been done in the name of Christ by nominal or institutional ‘Christianity.’ And God’s common grace (grace to all people) means that Christians don’t have a monopoly of virtue.
But the historical record shows that without the finished work of Christ and the self-giving service of his people, the world would be crueler, less just, less free, poorer, and utterly bereft of hope beyond the grave. The gospel really is good news!
Sharon James is the author of Is Christianity Good for the World?.
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