Who would dare to fail to acknowledge the way Christianity has affected and completely infiltrated society as we know it? Western civilisation fleeing back to paganism in so many different ways is showing that vividly today. From the ancient Gallic belief of the sky falling upon our heads replicated in the climate ideology to the Greek, Roman, and Norse gods portrayed in non-binary modern cinematic drama, and with everything else in-between, it is clear that the culture of fear and death comes out against the glorious background of faith and life.
Tom Holland pictures the contrast well: The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.
“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.
“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity like the Person of Christ was.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.” (1)
To consider further this most positive and enabling view of the gospel and what it has done and is still doing, let us consider a number of key areas where we cannot fail to note how Christianity has changed our world for the better.(2)
1 – The concept of freedom
If there is one theme that constantly pops up in hashtags it would have to be a variant of “freedom” – from Britney Spears, to obscure ethnic groups in the back blocks of totalitarian regimes, there is someone somewhere who feels the need for someone to be freed. But where did this idea come from? It’s from the biblical concept of mankind made in the image of God. And what would freedom look like if there were no Christianity? Actually, it wouldn’t look like anything we know today because it simply wouldn’t have arisen.
Take the example of slavery. Much as the black slave trade from Africa to the Americas has been viewed as the most reprehensible, it is far from what has been practised up to this present day in the Islamic world and in countries where other religions (particularly Marxism) dominates. In fact, who was it that fought life-long battles against the slave trade, child labour, animal abuse, and so on, but evangelical Christians who took their Bibles very seriously? William Wilberforce is but one among many who fought against one such abuse (i.e. slavery).
2 – The right of liberty
Liberty is one of three examples of inalienable rights mentioned in the United States Declaration of Independence. The Declaration says this has been given to all humans by their Creator, and which governments are created to protect. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights echoes this, however, without an acknowledged biblical foundation, rendering it ideologically weak on account of the diversity of UN membership. The State does not have the right to demand everything from you. You were not made in the image of Caesar but in the image of the one who made Caesar. While God calls us to obey civil authorities this obedience isn’t unlimited. Jesus says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, thereby placing the divine above us all. Since we have been made in God’s image, we are rational creatures, given the capacity to worship love and relate. No other theology can give us such a liberating ideology!
Nowadays there are many perpetuating the charge that Christianity believes in and practices forced conversions. This was even used erroneously to justify recently passed New Zealand legislation regarding transgenderism. But genuine Christianity does not believe in such an abuse. Joshua, for example, challenged his people to make the right decision in serving God (Joshua 24:15), while realising that they could choose otherwise, though to their eventual detriment. Jesus spoke of the narrow and wide gates (Matthew 7:13). The freedom to change is a fundamental human right. This is a right being now taken away by an ever-increasing number of western governments.
3 – The appeal to justice
We have no idea what it is like to live in a place where there is no effective justice. We are richly blessed not to have been where ‘might is right’ and decisions are made on the basis of the bribe being paid. We have a ‘rule of law’. It is that ‘rule of law’ which has a firmly biblical basis. Historically this can be traced back to the Magna Carta, but even before that kings were ruling according to Scripture, notably the moral law as laid down in the Decalogue. Indeed, the Magna Carta came about because King John departed from the ways of his forebears and so ruled with unjustified cruelty and injustice. It was a newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, strongly versed in Deuteronomy, who with others drew up the Magna Carta. That is an amazing document which, when you read it, lays out the basis for the freedoms we enjoy today.
Where else but in a society with a Christian framework is everyone equal under the law – no matter who or what they are? And where else is anyone able to appeal to the law for justice? It is one important reason why refugees eagerly seek countries with a Christian legacy more than anywhere else.
4 – The love of life
Outside of the gospel there is no true love of life. Indeed, outside of the gospel there are lives deemed not worthy to be lived. Whether that life belongs to the lowest Indian caste, the captured enemy or Christian thrown to the lions in Roman times, or an unborn human child, every society cut off from or outside of Judaeo-Christian ethic of life has no genuine love for life. You only need to reflect here upon the charitable work Christian mission has done as it spreads across the world. There are hospitals, orphanages for those children abandoned and the poor, schools for enabling boys and girls to get ahead in life, and so on. Which other religion extends care to this extent? And how about the predominant religion in our nation – secular humanism? Hasn’t the theory of evolution removed any logical belief in the unique value of human life, opening the way to abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia? Out of this can only come survival of the fittest and Iceland is but one example of this. With the rise of prenatal screening tests across Europe and the United States, the number of babies born with Down Syndrome has significantly decreased, and this island state caps them all. Since prenatal screening tests were introduced in Iceland in the early 2000s, the vast majority of women – close to 100 percent – who received a positive test for Down syndrome terminated their pregnancy.
5 – The equality of sexes
While domestic violence figures in New Zealand are deeply concerning, the situation as yet here is nothing like it was for women in the Roman Empire before the Christian sexual ethic took hold. We know the way Jesus treated women around him was radical to the social norms – women then were treated as mere chattels. So how liberating was the Christian faith as it spread throughout the known world!
More closely to our time, we see the institution of Christian Schools for girls on the mission field, the campaign against widow burning in India, against foot-binding in China, and the protection of girls from female genital mutilation, known also as female circumcision in Muslim countries. There have been the numerous Christian missions to help prostitutes, whether through providing them safe-houses or working to legislate against it.
It is to be noted that where women are held back in this world, they are the places seeing a resurgence in honour killings, genital mutilation, the prohibition of education for girls, and child marriage.
And what does this say about western society where womanhood itself is being redefined to the degree that biological women are being threatened in the very places where they have made so many gains of late? It’s a strange paradox when the strident feminists of our day are found on the same side as conservative Christians in that they both stand for a true recognition of the female sex.
6 – The heart to give
Countless Christians show love for God by showing love for their neighbour. This reflects the biblical message of mercy for the needy. Christ himself vividly showed this and taught it. The Christian West has a long and rich history of relieving suffering and need unmatched by any other civilisation. The Gospel in its outworking could not be more different from the hierarchicalism of Hinduism, the fatalism of Islam, and the ancient Greek view of compassion being a weakness. While Christians give not looking to get back, the world invariably expects a return on anything given (even if that is a type of altruism).
This Christian response to poverty and suffering is grounded in the belief of human dignity. Again we come back to how God created mankind. The Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363), while having an intense hatred for Christians, declared, ‘Galileans, to our disgrace, support not only their poor but ours.’ He couldn’t help but acknowledge that such love was a major factor for the spread of the gospel.
Consistently throughout its history Christianity has helped the poor and sick. Lay people and clergy have dedicated themselves to demonstrating Christ’s love, whether through special orders or charities. Genuine biblical revival heightened this. The Great Awakening led to a multiplicity of social reforms – in prisons, education, orphanages, factory reform, care of the mentally ill, rescuing women and children from sexual abuse, and the abolition of the slave trade.
They say charity begins at home. But what if there is no home? We see this with all the brokenness of our modern community. It is a brokenness that to a large degree is perpetuated by the welfare state. What once had its basis in Christian compassion has become a law unto itself. I will never forget the interview I saw on television, conducted with a separated mother being supported by government welfare back in the early 1990’s. When she was asked by the reporter what would she have done without that support, she said, “I suppose I would have had to stay with my husband.”
7 – The concern for health
Amongst the outstanding advances that Christianity has brought throughout the world is that of medical care. While Greek, Roman, Indian, and Islamic civilisations all came up with great doctors and specialists, they did not create a culture of care. Right from the time of the Roman Empire, Christians were funding hospitals for those particularly unwell. From those afflicted with the plague, to leprosy, to the injured and ill-treated, the Christians and the Church were there. Before there had been only recuperative facilities for Roman soldiers – now they were there for all.
This continued on throughout the early church, the medieval age, and through the time of the Reformation and The Great Awakening and after. John Wesley, like many ministers, was trained in medicine so that he could be a help to those who had no doctor. In 1746 he opened a dispensary and the next year he published a lay medical guide. A key medical book just before his time very much put the care of fellow human beings as being something we have to give an account to God for, something we do using our talents for God’s glory, something done for someone made in God’s image, and something one could be afflicted with himself.
There are many examples of how modern government health systems, modern nursing and care for those with learning disabilities and the terminally ill, were all begun by those with a distinctly Christian commitment. All around the world medical clinics, blood banks, mental health programmes, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation, have been founded by Christian missions.
8 – The opportunity before all
It is as we learn of God and his creation that we see increasingly what we are and how we can be. Being human and so able to reason we can be nurtured and developed. Obviously, we see this with our young physically. But it applies to us all – spiritually also. Since God created this world with order and he sustains it with order we, as those created in his image, can discover the laws of nature, and then act on nature constructively and intelligently.
It is no wonder The Great Commission is an educational mandate. When Christ commanded his Church to make disciples of all nations, he said they were to do that by teaching them. So right from the beginning of the early New Testament Church converts were carefully instructed in doctrine, usually over a period of some two to three years, before they were baptised and became members. This teaching soon involved mathematics and medicine as well. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) believed that our rational nature by faith can learn from all learning – including that of known pagan philosophers. He wrote a comprehensive text book of all the various branches of learning that became a textbook for European universities through the Middle Ages. The idea that Christianity suppressed scientific endeavour and so brought upon Europe the ‘Dark Ages’ is quite false. The opposite was true – by A.D. 1200 European technology was ahead of anything else in the world
While there had been education provided by the Church before the Reformation it was that biblical revival which drove a more universal educational movement for all to enable the personal reading of God’s Word. This thirst for learning continued on with many, not only extending the education available to children, but also encouraging adult education in addition to everyday work. During the industrial age evangelicals provided Sunday Schools and other such schools which led to very high literacy rates amongst the working classes.
As Protestant missions went throughout the world, they produced written forms of spoken languages so that God’s Word did go out (this has resulted in more than 90% of the world’s languages having a grammar and dictionary because the Western missionary movement provided it). And with this came printing presses, newspapers, and textbooks, along naturally with the Bible. Schools were set up wherever they went.
9 – The worth of work
One day in 1671, whilst involved in rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral, after the great fire of London in 1666, Christopher Wren observed three bricklayers on a scaffold, one crouched, one half-standing and one standing tall, working very hard and fast. To the first bricklayer, Christopher Wren asked the question, “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” Then he went along and asked the same of the second bricklayer. He responded, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.” But the third brick layer, the most productive of the three and the future leader of the group, when asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with a gleam in his eye, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral to The Almighty.”
As those made in God’s image we are not only created, we are also creative. We were made for work, and it’s in work that we use and so honour the gifts God has given us. We are bringing him the glory. This perspective has always set the believer apart from the world. They look to what they can get away with; they look to attaining a position which means less work; and they look to that earlier retirement. But we have been saved to serve. In the ancient world this showed itself as Christians did not look to have slaves or others do their work for them but were fully immersed in it themselves. In Scripture the creation account, the fourth commandment, and the psalms are all full of what we are to do for God. Our Lord himself was a carpenter, and the apostle Paul supported himself by his trade of tent-making. Throughout history Christians were motivated to bring dignity to everyday occupations. The monasteries, the Reformation, the Great Awakening, all brought positive attitudes to the workplace and better conditions. We respect what God has given to others and given to us in this earth’s natural resources. Whether employers or employees we look to the Lord. So the benefits brought to a society by a biblical Christianity bless all in that community (cf. Jeremiah 29:4-7).
Cornell University biologist William Provine declared in a public debate that if you’re a consistent Darwinian – so you believe in evolution – you realise there’s no life after death, there’s no ultimate foundation for ethics, there’s no underlying meaning for our existence, and there is no free will. Life would simply be empty.
Instead of that bleak unbelief, we have had our hearts and minds brought to faith in God. Through the work of his Word and Spirit we have come to see him through Jesus Christ. We have received the forgiveness of our sin through his death on the cross.
So, we have not only been assured of a blessed eternity but also right here-and-now our lives are filled with meaning and hope. We know the Holy Spirit is in us now. The words of Jesus in John 8:12 are for us very much true. As he said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Take these nine aspects and use them in your daily interaction with those around you – those you live with, those you work with, those you study with, and those you worship and fellowship with. Look up New Zealand’s history and see how much of what this nation is focussed on and depends upon was founded in the Judaeo-Christian ethos. Would our nation be what it is today without this history? You may raise your concerns here and express deep unhappiness about where we have been as a country. Those professing Christ have not always been faithful followers. But haven’t we gone those wrong ways exactly because we left the ways of our founder? Our Lord is horrified at the way his principles have become twisted and perverted. Indeed, reflect on what happens when the Lord’s words are taken seriously and obeyed. Such a lifestyle would be a tonic for the swamp our world has become today.
Over and above all these things, however, let us never forget in whose hands all things are. Our Lord Jesus Christ is carrying out his Father’s plan, and so he is bringing us through this world to the next. His victory over sin, and death, and the devil on the cursed cross of Calvary has accomplished this.
1 – Tom Holland: Why I was wrong about Christianity, Article in New Statesman, 2016
2 – These categories you will find in a number of books written about this subject. The nine I use here I acknowledge Sharon James as the key source (see her book, How Christianity Transformed The World, Christian Focus Publications, 2021)
Hill, Jonathan, What Has Christianity Ever Done For Us? IVP, 2005.Holland, Tom, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Little, Brown, 2019.James, Sharon, How Christianity Transformed The World, Christian Focus Publications, 2021
Schmidt, Alvin, Under the Influence. Zondervan, 2001 (reissued as How Christianity Changed the World. Zondervan, 2004.)
Mr Sjirk Bajema is the minister in the Oamaru Reformed Church.