What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights III (What If—20)

If the message of Jesus was the key to the abolition of slavery, why did it take nearly 2000 years to achieve that goal? I would argue that the teaching and practice of Jesus on the treatment of others was truly revolutionary. But the early church was powerless in human terms. Many Christians were in hiding and they had little influence on the laws and actions of the Empire. When the Roman Empire turned toward Christianity in the early fourth century, it could have not only abolished the branding of slaves, but abolished the institution of slavery itself, along with abortion, the gladiatorial games, infanticide and crucifixion. But whenever the church is melded with the state, politics and economics enter into the calculation and doing the right thing can be very difficult. Slavery was so embedded into the social order that many feared its abolition would destroy the economy and the whole social order.

But the foundations upon which slavery was built had been shaken. A powerful theological voice arose in central Asia Minor (Cappadocia), Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-395). In AD 379 Gregory articulated a power argument for the abolitions of slavery as an institution. He condemned institutional slavery on three biblical grounds. 1) Since God owns everything, owning slaves robs God. That is a very serious charge. 2) Every human being is made in the image of God. When you mistreat another human being, you are mistreating God. 3) Every human being was given dominion over the earth at creation. So when you buy a slave, there is a sense that you are buying the whole world, and the richest person on earth cannot afford to do that. While the third argument may seem a stretch to us today, the first two eviscerate the whole argument for slavery for anyone who accepts the inspiration of Scripture.

So in the big picture of Christian history, something crucial had changed with the coming of Jesus. In the Greco-Roman world slavery was the norm and was to be accepted as such. But in the early church, slavery was now seen as evil, contrary to both God and Scripture. But given the realities in the world most felt that this evil must be tolerated until Jesus comes and wipes the institution of slavery away. This set the context for people like Pastorius and the Quakers in colonial America. They felt the call of God to eradicate slavery NOW. The teachings of Jesus propelled them not to wait for the Second Coming but to follow Jesus in the present and carry out the principles he taught and lived.

But if the anti-slavery movement arose in Seventeenth Century America, why did it take nearly 200 years to finally abolish the institution? It has to do with deep political divisions within the territory from the first. New England was settled by conservative Christians from the lower classes in England. Virginia and the South were settled more by the upper classes, who were used to letting other people do the work. Slavery began in Virginia as a form of indentured servitude, new settlers working for a time to pay off debts. But the Deep South instituted a harsher form of slavery imported from the British territory of Barbados.

When the thirteen American colonies won their independence from Great Britain, they were deeply divided over the issue of slavery. There would have been no union between the states if the northern states tried to abolish slavery, as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania would have been happy for the new nation to do. So a series of political compromises left the slave system in place, even though roughly half the country was against it. It seems, however, that the Civil War became inevitable when the union was created without truly settling the issue. So while America was the place where abolition of slavery was conceived in modern times, it was slower than England to actually carry it out.

ADDENDUM ON THOMAS JEFFERSON
A note on the fascinating role of Thomas Jefferson on all this. Abolition might never have happened in America or England were it not for his powerful words “all men are created equal”, which inspired many. Yet he was a slaveholder all his life. He freed some of his slaves while he was still alive and all of them in his will. Why was he so slow to act to act on his convictions? He believed that sudden freedom would be harmful to them. They needed life skills in order to survive. So he hesitated, at the expense of his own legacy. But his convictions were not a sham. On one occasion he said: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us (the slavemasters) in such a contest.@ He advocated no slavery in any new territory (this motion lost in Congress by one vote—the country was so evenly divided). When the Northwest Territory (today’s Midwestern states from Ohio through Wisconsin and Michigan) was established in the 1780s, he successfully supported establishing it slave free. So Jefferson’s words inspired freedom for the slaves, but his actions feel short of his ideals. I can relate to that myself.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights II (What If—19)

In the United States, the anti-slavery movement picked up steam around the time slavery was abolished in the British Empire. A major galvanizing development was John Rankin’s book Letter on American Slavery, published in 1826. It was a series of letters he wrote to his slave-holding brother Thomas. Rankin was very clear on his motivation: “If you really want to follow Jesus, you need to free your slaves.” These letters convinced Thomas to free his slaves and join the anti-slavery movement. The book also inspired William Lloyd Garrison to begin publishing his magazine The Liberator. The masthead of the magazine included the language of Scripture: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27), and “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor” (based on Luke 4:18). The illustration connected with the latter quote is a black man kneeling before Jesus and the cross and a white man cowering in fear. Both are equal at the foot of the cross. Rankin’s book also inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose later book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had a major anti-slavery influence on the American public in the years leading up to the Civil War.

In 1833, the same year in which the slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded, under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison. 75% of the founders were Christian ministers. A short time later Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802-1837) was murdered by a pro-slavery mob. Trained as a pastor, he moved to the slave state of Missouri and started an anti-slavery newspaper. Repeatedly attacked for his views he moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, which was a free state. Nevertheless, he continued to be attacked by pro-slavery mobs until at the age of 35 he was killed by a gunshot while defending his printing press. What motivated Lovejoy to take so many risks in order to advance the abolition of slavery? He confessed: “I am impelled to the course I have taken because I fear God.”

Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and became a key figure in the establishment of the so-called “Underground Railroad” which rescued many slaves from the grip of the American South in the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861-1865). She too was motivated by the teachings of Jesus. This is witnessed by her own prayer for her slave master: “O dear Lord, change dat man’s heart, and make him a Christian”. For her, Christianity was about following Jesus, not just attending church.

Like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) escaped from slavery in Maryland to become a leader of the abolitionist movement in the North. A key element in his anti-slavery work was his conversion to Christianity. Because of his conversion he said, “I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever.” When one looks deeply into the abolitionist movement, every significant abolitionist, black or white, was a committed Christian. Prominent in more recent times was Martin Luther King (1929B1968). Like the others we have mentioned, he was motivated to do what he did by Jesus and Scripture. In one of his famous sermons he uttered: “Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”

I would argue that if Jesus had never been born, open slavery would likely be condoned and practiced today. After all, slavery has been the norm for the human race throughout history. It took a massive effort in England and the United States, motivated by Jesus, to turn that norm around and make slavery a despised institution. But that leaves the question unanswered, Why the more than thousand-year delay between the time of Jesus and the arrival of Daniel Pastorius? Why did it take so long for Christians to demand the abolition of the institution? To be continued . . .

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights (What If—18)

Regarding the issue of slavery and civil rights, there is a popular narrative in the secular Western context. That narrative notes that the Bible writers didn’t condemn slavery and at times even seem to support it. As a result, it is argued, slavery in recent times was perpetrated primarily in United States of America, with aid from England. These were both Protestant countries, with societies based on the Bible and driven by the conviction that the white race was superior to all others and was mandated by God to subdue inferior races. The most radical conclusion of such narratives is that Christianity is the enemy of genuine equality and freedom for all. Where there is a grain of truth in this narrative, there is much evidence that is left out and results in a one-sided and skewed narrative. Let’s take a more extensive look at the evidence.

The first fact that is often overlooked in the popular narrative is that slavery is not a recent invention of European powers. In fact, about seventy percent of the population of the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day was slaves. And these slaves had absolutely no societal rights. When Jesus was born, in fact, slavery was a global norm. Historians estimate that 40% of the world population at that time was slaves. Ancient artifacts and documents reveal ancient evidence for slavery among the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the Irish, Africans, Arabs, and also in southern and eastern Asia. There is also evidence that slavery was common in North America long before 1619. It was practiced by the Aztecs and by most native American tribes. One exception to this picture might be the Incas, which used a corvee approach. That means that people could be conscripted into forced labor or military service for set periods of time, rather than for life. Slavery has been a worldwide reality for millennia.

Then Jesus came. He re-affirmed significant teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as that all human beings were created in the image of God and, therefore, endowed with value and dignity. In Isaiah 42:1, speaking of the future Messiah, Yahweh says, “My servant . . . will bring justice to the nations.@ Isaiah further clarifies regarding the Messiah: The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Jesus applied this text to Himself in Luke 4:18: “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and . . . those who are oppressed.” Jesus’ mission was on behalf of the marginalized, enslaved and oppressed. But He and His followers went even further. Jesus stated: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matt 22:39. Paul understood every human being to be a soul for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11). And while no Bible writer called for the abolition of slavery as an institution, Paul instructed Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother rather than as property. While the teachings of Jesus on this topic did not have such an immediate impact upon society as on other matters, in time it made all the difference.

While Christian institutions were complicit with slavery institutions for more than 1000 years, the abolition of slavery was purely a Christian phenomenon, motivated by Jesus and Scripture. The anti-slavery movement started in the United States of America. Daniel Pastorius, a German-born lawyer well-verse in Christian Pietism, founded Germantown in 1683 as a place where German Mennonites and Quakers could settle and be free to practice their faith. In 1688 he helped draft the Quaker petition against the institution of slavery. It was the first petition against slavery in the Thirteen Colonies. From America the anti-slavery movement spread to England, where in 1783 the Quakers drafted a petition against slavery in all the British territories.

Then, in 1786, Thomas Clarkson, a commitment Anglican Christian wrote an award-winning essay (An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African) while a student at Cambridge University. The essay laid out in graphic terms the intense suffering caused by the slave trade. The essay gained wide circulation in Great Britain and helped lead to the founding of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which expanded the movement beyond the Quakers and other non-conformists in the country. Clarkson’s work awakened people to what was really going on with the slave trade. Clarkson was unequivocal, if you are a Christian, you must commit to ending the institution of slavery.

Clarkson has an enormous influence on William Wilberforce, who also studied at Cambridge University. Wilberforce, as a member of Parliament and a friend of the future Prime Minister (William Pitt) was able to bring this issue powerfully to the attention of the governmental authorities of Great Britain. Wilberforce didn’t much care about the slavery issue until he became a Christian. He then read the New Testament through with care and wrote the book Real Christianity, advocating the complete abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Through his efforts, British involvement in the slave trade was ended in 1807 and the holding of slaves was fully abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Because of the vast influence of the British Empire at the time, Christian nations succeeded in ending slavery also in Africa and the muslim nations in 1890 through the Brussels Conference Act. The abolition of slavery in the United States of America is worth a blog of its own.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Value of Human Life III (What If– 17)

Moving beyond the early Christian emperors into the Middle Ages other important changes in terms of the value of human life can be detected. Homes to take care of the aged, for example, seem to be a Christian innovation. There is no evidence for such institutions in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ day. Monogamy also seems to have been largely a Christian innovation. Taking inspiration from the early chapters of Acts, the early Christians created common funds to help the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. In sum, there were four major innovations within Christianity that grew directly out of Jesus’ teachings. 1) Giving was expected of all Christians, regardless of wealth or rank. 2) The common motivation for such giving was love for Christ and following His example. 3) The recipients of Christian giving were not those who could “pay back” in some way, but were those who needed it the most. 4) Christian giving was never limited to church members, it was shared freely with all. If Jesus had never been born, the world would not be as generous a place as it is.

Does that Christian emphasis on the value and dignity of all human beings continue today? It would seem so. World Vision, ADRA, and the Salvation Army are three of many Christian institutions that give freely, motivated by Christ and by the value of human life. Child labor laws were outlawed first in western countries, that happened because of the Christian Lord Shaftesbury, not Karl Marx. Outside the Christian West there are more than 150 million child laborers, even today. Even Santa Claus is a Christian myth. His story is based on the gift of Christ and the gifts of the magi. Had there been no Jesus, there would have been no Christmas.

It is in the Christian parts of the world, where the influence of Jesus is the greatest, that the value of human life is most strongly affirmed. Contrast that with the secular West, where people go to great lengths to save turtle eggs, but are pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia when it some to human life. In the secular West, suicide is becoming more and more common. Outside the West, where Christian influence is the least, infanticide is still practiced, along with widow burning (the practice known as suttee). One can still find cruel practices like female circumcision and even cannibalism. Child sacrifice was common among the Aztecs and the Maya before the Europeans came.

As the influence of Jesus declines, true charity is also in decline and liberalitas is making a comeback. True charity (Latin caritas) mean to give freely to those who cannot give back. One takes out of what one has earned and saved and gives freely for the benefit of another. Liberalitas, on the other hand, gives with the expectation of return. For example, while government safety nets play an important role in the lives of many people, they are not an example of true charity. First of all, they are not voluntary. The resources distributed are not gained voluntarily, they are taken from others by means of taxation. Those in charge of this largess are rarely altruistic, they hope that those receiving these resources will vote for them in the next election. And the (often) unintended result is dependent classes in society, which generation after generation have difficult fending for themselves, thus losing out on the dignity of labor and the satisfaction of caring for the needs of one’s own. So the corporate generosity of the secular West is not motivated by the spirit of Jesus. It is motivated by liberalitas. And it often does more harm than good in the long run.

If Jesus had never been born, most humans in the world today would have little value. There would be little true charity. And women’s lives would be particularly hard. But when human beings grasp the teachings of Jesus and realize that they are made in the image of God, the worth and dignity of every person is exponentially enhanced. What kind of value would you like to have?

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Value of Human Life II (What If– 16)

I apologize for a long gap between postings in this series on What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? It has been a very challenging couple of months and I am writing these from scratch as we go along. Hopefully from now one I will be able to post a new segment each week until the series is complete.

What impact did Jesus’ teaching and example have on the church? A whole lot, right from the beginning. When reading the New Testament, it is surprising how many women were in leadership from the first. Paul mentions a co-worker named Apphia in the second verse of Philemon. Nympha was the head of one of the churches in Colossia (Col 4:15). Priscilla is not only part of an evangelistic/teaching team (Priscilla and Aquila), she is usually mentioned first before her husband, which in Greek would suggest she was the leader or primary teacher. Phoebe, a deacon (the normal term for that church office, she is not called a “deaconess”), is the one delegated by Paul to deliver and explain his epic letter to the Romans (Rom 16:1). The same letter makes mention of Junia, a female name, who was “renowned among the apostles” (Rom 16:7), so a major figure in the church, whether or not Paul is saying she is an apostle herself (somewhat ambiguous in the Greek—episȇmoi en tois apostolois). Lydia became the leader of the house church in Philippi (Acts 16:40). Euodia and Syntyche are described as “fellow strugglers” (Greek: sunȇblȇsan) with Paul in the preaching of the gospel. One does not have to read far into the attitudes and practices of the Greco-Roman world to realize that this is a dramatic shift at the time.

But the impact of Jesus’ teachings and practice was not limited to the treatment of women. Early Christians would collect and adopt exposed infants, raising them in their own homes. During the time of persecution from the Empire (100 to early 300s AD) this was the only way they could show the value that God places on each person, including unwanted babies. But when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, many of the teachings of Jesus became institutionalized by the Christian emperors.

Emperor Constantine the Great (co-ruler from 306-324 AD, sole ruler from 324-337) began to favor Christianity in 312-313. When He was in a position to do so, he followed the implications of Jesus’ teaching by outlawing the branding of slaves and crucifixion. He also encouraged the establishment of orphanages to help care for abandoned children. Constantine’s son Constantius (337-361 AD) ordered the segregation male and female prisoners, ending a practice subject to great abuse of women. Valentinian (364-375), at last, abolished infanticide as an acceptable practice in the Empire. That decree would later on be re-affirmed by Justinian the Great (527-565). While abortion was never practiced by the early church and was condemned by the church fathers Athenagoras (circa 133-190) and Tertullian (circa 155-220), it was not abolished by the Christian emperors until the time of Justinian.

In spite of the influence of Jesus in many aspects of the Empire, another practice that the Christian emperors did not give up for a long time was the cruel sports in the arena, where people fought to the death for the entertainment of the crowds. Then on January 1, 404 AD, the gladiatorial games came screeching to a halt. A Christian monk named Telemachus was visiting Rome and got swept into the Colosseum by the crowd for a gladiatorial spectacle in the presence of the Emperor Honorius (395-423). When he realized the gladiators were fighting to the death, the small man ran out into the arena and attempted to separate the gladiators and convince them to stop fighting. The crowd began to hiss at this interference, so one of the gladiators ran him through with a sword. The audience gazed at the scene in horror and began to leave the arena. This turn in popular sentiment enabled Honorius to abolish the games from that day forward. But it was a single man, inspired by Jesus, who played the key role in ending these cruel spectacles. Would that have happened if Jesus had not been born?

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Value of Human Life (What If– 15)

In the Greco-Roman World life was cheap, expendable. This was especially true if you were a woman, a child, a foreigner, or simply poor. People often sacrificed their own children in order to placate the gods. If a baby was not wanted (this was especially true if the baby was a girl), it was often killed or simply laid on the street to be picked up by a stranger or simply die of exposure. Abortion was widespread, even though major figures like Hippocrates and Galen opposed it. One of the meanings of pharmakeia (the Greek word at the root of the English “pharmacy”) is sorcery or abortion. What the two actions have in common is the use of drugs or potions to create an effect (sorcery) or to induce an abortion.

Another evidence that life was cheap in the Greco-Roman world is that 70% of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. Slaves had no rights or social standing. They could be killed with impunity on the whim of their masters. Female slaves could be offered as sexual favors to guests. The institution of slavery treated human beings as less than human. So did the cruel sports that the Romans enjoyed, which included killing other humans for sport and entertainment (gladiators).

The Greco-Roman world also had little respect for women. Women had few rights and no social value. Even when they were free citizens, they were only slightly above slaves on the social pecking order. They were generally not permitted to speak in public. They could be used as sex slaves unless they were protected by a father, a husband, or another male relative. The widespread practice of polygamy demonstrated that women had less value than men in relationships. In fact, it was Christianity’s regard for women that was often used against it. Treating women with respect and dignity was considered a sign of weakness in the Greco-Roman world.

The Greco-Roman world also had a low view of the poor. The Stoics taught that it was undignified to associate with the poor, the weak, and the outcast. As a result there is no record of charitable effort as such in the ancient world. When the Roman upper classes were distributing food or other support to the poor, it was not an act of caring concern for the poor, it was patronage for the purpose of accumulating honor and prestige for the giver. The Romans drew a distinction between caritas and liberalitas. Caritas (charity) was a Latin word that meant to give freely to those who can=t give back. Liberalitas, on the other hand, meant to give something in order to get something in return, whether that was favors or simply honor and attention. The more people that came to you for help, the greater in social standing you appeared to be. The world into which Jesus was born did not consider most human lives to be of great value.

Then Jesus came. He reinforced the teaching of His Jewish heritage. Human beings were made by God in His image (Gen 1:27) and were, therefore, crowned with glory and honor (Psa 8:5). But that was only the starting point for Jesus’ message about human dignity. Human beings were souls for whom He died (1 Cor 8:11). Jesus valued children and urged them to come to Him (Matt 19:14) when others would have driven them away. Instead of running away from lepers, Jesus treated them with kindness and compassion. Although he knew that Judas was about to betray him, He did not “throw him under the bus” in front of the other disciples (John 13:27-29). Though He was fully aware of Simon the Pharisee’s past history, he did not expose the details of that history to the other dinner guests (Luke 7:39-47). Thought the Pharisees were cruel and hypocritical in bringing the woman taken in adultery to Jesus, He uplifted her, but not at the expense of the Pharisee’s reputation in the community. He let them preserve their dignity (John 8:5-9). Jesus treated even the bitterest of opponents with respect and kindness.

Jesus behavior toward women, in a Greco-Roman society that did not respect them, also drew a sharp contrast with the norm. He treated Mary like a disciple at a time when women were not seen as deserving of an education (Luke 10:38-42). He did the same with her sister Martha at a later time (John 11: 20-27. He even allowed women to travel with His entourage, something rabbis would have frowned upon (Luke 8:1-3). He delegated his message to Samaria to a woman of low reputation in that town (John 4:27-30, 39-42). He took time to offer words of approval and comfort to the woman who found healing by touching His garment (Mark 5:25-34). This treatment of women would have stood out in first-century society.

Jesus not only treated the poor and the outcasts with great kindness and dignity, He taught those around him to do the same. One memorable teaching was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He put the elites of Jewish society and their attitudes toward those less fortunate in sharp contrast with that of Samaritans, who were a despised class in Jewish society. A representative of those elites was forced to acknowledge that selfless help to the unfortunate was the right thing to do. He encouraged His disciples to treat the unfortunate the same way that they would treat Him, their teacher. After all, He Himself had left the riches of heaven and become poor in human terms in order to lift up the poor and neglected (2 Cor 8:9). Even the circumstances of His torture and death made a statement about true power and dignity. He was dressed in royal robes and wore a crown of thorns. In His kingdom, suffering with Him put one at higher status than earthly power equations. The teaching and behavior of Jesus would change everything.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Health Care II (What If– 14)

As was the case with science and research, the basic insights and structures that make modern medicine possible were birthed in a context of Jesus’ followers and influence. Since the story is not widely known, let me review a few key examples. The world’s first vaccine (for smallpox) was invented by Edward Jenner (1749-1823). Through this single medical advance Jenner may have directly saved more lives than any other person in history. In his own words, he confessed the motivation for his work was his relationship with Jesus: “I am a follower of Christ. I am a tool in the hands of God.” Another well-known health care pioneer was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), an English social reformer who was also the founder of the nursing profession. She wrote, among other things, “Christ . . . came into the world to save sinners . . . to deliver men from sin and its consequences.” Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), a French chemist and microbiologist, led the way in understanding the causes and prevention of disease, laying the foundation for public health and much of modern medicine. Joseph Lister (1827-1912), a British surgeon, pioneered antiseptic surgery. Both Pasteur and Lister were fervent Christians. And the name of the “Red Cross” speaks eloquently to the motivations of its founders. As in other areas of science, the key developments in medicine were motivated by Jesus.

The same can be said for the concept of the modern teaching hospital. In the United States, the best research hospitals were founded mostly by Christian denominations or by groups of believing Christians. The original research hospital, Massachusetts General (a clinical arm of Harvard Medical School today), was founded by a pastor named John Bartlett. Bartlett had a passion for the poor and the neglected of society, motivated by Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus said: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” At that time (early 1800s) most medical care was done in people’s homes, with doctors making “house calls”. This meant that quality health care could only be afforded by the wealthy, who could pay not only for the visit but for all the doctor’s travel time as well. No location in the Boston area provided round the clock care to the general public. Bartlett reasoned that if you could gather a group of doctors in one place, the poor and the underserved could travel to that place and receive affordable care. And so Massachusetts General Hospital opened up in 1821.

In Baltimore Maryland, a number of years later, a Christian named Johns Hopkins founded a teaching hospital that combined clinical care with education and research, possibly the first true teaching hospital. The motto of Johns Hopkins Medical Center (now called simply Johns Hopkins Medicine) is: “The truth will set you free.” As noted earlier in this series, that was one of the most famous sayings of Jesus. Like Pastor Bartlett, the original Johns Hopkins was motivated by Jesus to advance the science of medicine. In fact, the top ten research hospitals in the world by most accounts were all originally staffed by Christian-educated medical doctors. Most of these ten are readily recognizable names: Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic. Johns Hopkins Medicine, Massachusetts General, University of Michigan Medical Center, University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, UCLA Medical Center, Cedars-Sinai, Stanford University Medical Center, and New York Presbyterian Medical Center. Nine of the ten were founded by committed Christians. The tenth, Cedars-Sinai, was founded by Jews, but even that hospital was largely staffed by committed Christian doctors. There are many hospitals in the world that were founded by people of other religions or no religion. What is significant is that these ten are the “seed” research hospitals that created the medical breakthroughs that all hospitals seek to emulate today.

While the United States and these ten hospitals have led the way in medical research, mission hospitals around the world have been founded by committed Christians of many denominations to continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus in nearly every place. Not least among these is the extensive cohort of Seventh-day Adventist mission hospitals that were inspired by Jesus through the writings of Ellen G. White. Many of these are among the most respected medical establishments in their respective countries. The crown jewel of Ellen White’s vision for “continuing the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus” is Loma Linda University Health in southern California. With assistance from LLUH, not only are SDA mission hospitals being strengthened in their mission, but some ten medical and dental schools have risen up in far-flung places like Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines, India, Peru, Chile, Nigeria, Rwanda, and more. And so Jesus’ influence on the medical profession and its clinical counterpart continues.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Health Care (What If– 13)

A big surprise when I was doing my research on the historical impact of Jesus was how crucial His ideas were to the advances of modern medicine. As usual, let’s begin with the context, health care in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ day. There were a number of positives in that context. Hippocrates (460-c. 370 BC), contemporary of Socrates and Plato, is often called the “Father of Medicine”. He established medicine and healing as a distinct discipline of study. He believed diseases had natural causes, they were not punishment from the gods. But his work only went so far, because he was largely ignorant of anatomy and physiology. Like the Greek philosophers of his time, he seems to have felt that hands-on research was beneath his dignity.

A century or so after Jesus, Galen (129-c. 216 AD—Greek: Klaudios Galȇnos) crossed the boundaries of hands-on research to dissect monkeys and pigs, since dissection of humans was strictly forbidden at that time. In this way he developed a rudimentary understanding of anatomy and physiology. He also broke with the traditions of his day in seeing mind and body as a unity, the one affecting the other. So he pioneered theories of psychosomatic healing. He also performed some rudimentary surgeries. He is, perhaps, most famous for founding the great medical school in Pergamum, the ruins of which can be visited today. Because of his philosophical convictions, a number of psychosomatic treatments were performed there, so he could be called the father of whole person care.

But there is in fact no direct line from Galen to modern medicine. He was so famous later on that his erroneous theories were as influential as his promising ones, holding back the advance of medicine in the Middle Ages. And there were other problems. The last time I visited the ruins of Galen’s medical school and clinic, I noticed an 820 meter roadway leading to the entrance. Triage involved the patient having to walk that whole distance. If they made it, they were admitted for treatment, if they didn’t make it they were sent away. Health care in the Greco-Roman world was for “useful” people, not for general public. Among those useful people were soldiers, elites and gladiators. Helping the sick was considered a sign of weakness, so the sick were often ostracized, unless they were wealthy and powerful. “imperfect” children were often drowned, as they would never be “useful”.

A stronger foundation for modern medicine could be found in ancient Judaism. The sanitary practices in the Pentateuch, for example, foreshadow many public health practices today. Belief in one God steered the Jews away from magic as a response to sickness. Belief in the wholeness of human beings and in the goodness of the body would have made a huge difference in the Greco-Roman world had it taken Judaism more seriously. But then Jesus came and transformed these biblical ideas in a way that changed everything.

The first thing one notices about Jesus is that He seems to have spent much more time healing than teaching or preaching. And He not only commissioned His disciples to preach, but also “to heal” (Luke 9:2, ESV). Whenever His disciples entered a town, the first thing they were to do after having something to eat was to “heal the sick” that were in that town (Luke 10:8-9, ESV). Not only that, Jesus’ healings were in the context of great compassion for those He was healing (Matt 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:31; 5:19; 6:34, etc.; Luke 7:13). And who can forget the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), where Jesus tells His disciples that he identifies with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the sick. Along with Paul, Jesus acknowledged that the human body was a temple of God and should be treated with similar respect (John 2:19-21; 1 Cor 6:19-20). These teachings and practices of Jesus were in direct contrast with those of the Greco-Roman world.


It is clear that the early church understood Jesus’ commission to heal the sick to apply to them as well as His disciples. In the early centuries, before the church became the religion of the Empire, Christians did not prioritize the elites for healing but helped those who needed it the most, such as orphans, widows, the poor, the deformed, and the disabled. Once Christianity had become the religion of the Empire, one of the first actions (at the Council of Nicea) was a decree that hospitals should be erected wherever there were churches. Basil in the East and Fabiola in Rome founded the world’s first true hospitals. In contrast to Galen, these Christian hospitals focused on the poor. The wealthy were treated at home or at elite centers of healing. The cross-fertilization between the cathedral hospitals and cathedral schools created the seedbed of modern medicine, which we will explore in the next blog.

Let me close by acknowledging the dark side of the church on this issue. The early Christians went along with Greco-Roman society in forbidding the dissection of human bodies, so scientific medicine didn=t advance dramatically until after Reformation. Then things began to take off.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus, Science and Research II (What If– 12)

As noted in the previous blog, the Greeks made an advance toward modern scientific research in seeing the world as something that ought to be understood. This was a big step in the direction of scientific research, rejecting the ideas that the world was the abode of gods that should be left alone, or that it was an illusion. But the Greek advance in scientific thinking never produced a scientific revolution because they despised matter and manual labor. These are two things you have to be engaged in and with, in order to advance scientific knowledge. In seeing matter and manual labor as goods Jesus set the table for a major change in people’s thinking.

The first impact of Jesus’ attitude toward the world was on the church. If God made the world and declared it good, science (based on scientia, the Latin word for knowledge) is simply “thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” in the words of Johannes Kepler. And if human beings are designed in the image of God, then they are to be as thoughtful and creative as God is. So the seeds of the “Scientific Revolution” were planted in early universities, which were all grounded in Christian principles and idea. As noted, these included freedom of thought and inquiry (not just rote learning), but also the dignity of labor and positive view of natural world. These “Jesus ideas” laid the foundation for what would later become known as scientific method.

To some degree the dominance of the medieval church and general ignorance of the Bible held the potential for scientific advances back until the Reformation rediscovered and again promulgated the teachings of Jesus. With the Reformation came an explosion of science. A number of factors were in play. It was a time of spiritual revival and intense Christian belief. Protestant society was open to reading, learning and independent thought. But the Reformation added one further ingredient, the idea that human beings are essentially sinful. If human hearts are sinful and perverse (Jer 17:9), then ideas cannot merely be asserted, they need to be demonstrated. Science, then, needs to be based on replicable experiments, where ideas are held accountable to data. Because even the results of experimentation can be manipulated, the only safety was to subject the results of science to Scripture. And so the Reformation came up with the idea of the two books of revelation, the Bible and the evidence of the natural world. The words of God and the works of God should be in harmony.

If one has any doubts about the impact of the Reformation on the development of the scientific revolution, one need only look more closely at the kind of people who laid the groundwork for modern science. Virtually all scientists until 1750 were fervent, believing Christians, including the key founders of scientific research. The names are legendary, their Christian commitments, not as well known. We can start with Isaac Newton (who studied at Cambridge University). He is widely considered the father of calculus, the laws of motion, and the binomial theorem, all foundational to scientific research. Less well known is that he took time to write commentaries on the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. He studied Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. There is no better window on his Christian commitment than his own diary, where he puts in writing his innermost thoughts. There you will find lines like the following: “We are in . . . his son Jesus Christ, this is the true God.” “Christ died for our sins.” “Christ hath loved us and hath given himself for us.” Newton was clearly no secular humanist. He was driven and motivated by his relationship with Jesus.

Johannes Kepler is thought of as the father of modern astronomy, celestial mechanics, and even the pinhole camera. Interestingly, he began his studies to become a pastor, but he was too good in math and his teachers quickly urged him to consider moving in that direction. It is a good thing for human history that he did. But he never abandoned his commitment to the gospel and kept it in mind as he pondered the universe. In his diary you will find statements like, “Before the universe was created, there were no numbers except the Trinity. . .” Like Kepler, Blaise Pascal was a committed Christian. He was also the father of geometry, physics, the scientific method, and the mechanical computer. His commitment was put on record in his diary: “Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you . . . . Jesus Christ . . . may I never be separated from him.”

The Royal Society of Great Britain was the first great scientific association. Yet its founder were not only Christian, 62% of them were Puritans, the strictest branch of English Christianity. And the founder of most branches of science were not only Christians, they were creationists. To believe that God created the universe does not mean you will do bad science, some of the greatest of scientists had no problem integrating their Christian beliefs with their scientific endeavors. The list of names is extensive, I will share only a few. The following scientific disciplines were founded by committed Christians: Antiseptic surgery (Joseph Lister), bacteriology (Louis Pasteur), calculus (Newton and Leibniz), celestial mechanics (Johannes Kepler), chemistry (Robert Boyle), comparative anatomy (George Cuvier), electromagnetics (Michael Faraday), galactic astronomy (William Herschel), genetics (Gregor Mendel), glacial geology (Louis Agassiz), isotopic chemistry (William Ramsey). No less an authority than Rodney Stark affirms that 51 of the 52 most influential scientists of the Scientific Revolution were committed Christians. At least half of them would be what we might call “born-again” believers, active and devoted followers of Jesus.

With all these historical facts in mind, it is fair to wonder if science as we know it would exist had Jesus never been born. Had Jesus never existed would there be an internet, cell phones, cars, airplanes, central heat and AC, electric lights? I suspect the world would be a very different place if Jesus had never been born. Much of what brings us comfort and joy in today’s world we ultimately owe to Jesus.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus, Science and Research (What If– 11)

When it comes to the origins of modern-day science and research, there is a popular narrative that goes something like this: The ancient Greeks were fledgling scientists that, left alone, would have brought the world to where we are today even sooner. But then, unfortunately, Christianity took over the Mediterranean world, put a stop to scientific thinking, and the result was the Dark Ages. It was the Muslims in the Middle East that invented science and they passed it on to the Europeans, resulting in the Renaissance. To this day, Christianity is doing all it can to stifle science. Conclusion: Christianity and science are fundamentally incompatible. Get rid of Christianity and science would flourish as never before and everyone would benefit.

But this popular narrative ignores a number of historical facts. So once again, let’s take a closer look. It is likely true to say that scientific thinking, at least in the Western world, began with the Greeks. But the Greek philosophers never produced a “scientific age”. The main reason for this is not the interference of Christianity, but the methodology of the Greek philosophers themselves. You see, the Greek philosophers were deductive thinkers rather than experimental researchers. They despised the material world and they despised manual labor. As a result, while they came up with many brilliant theories of how things work, they didn’t test their theories (what we call research), as that would require literally getting their hands dirty. They thought long and hard about how many teeth might reside in a horse’s mouth, but never actually opened a horse’s mouth to find out (gross!). There were exceptions to this general trend, like Archimedes and Galen, but as a rule they did not encourage the kind of hands-on research so characteristic of today’s world. As we noted in the previous blogs on education, they also emphasized memorization and conformity over critical thinking. The proof of that? They never produced universities and they did not produce a scientific revolution.

Elsewhere in world, it was no different. The Arabs were inherently fatalistic, so they didn’t try to transform the world, they believed only God could do that. Animists, on the other hand, equated the natural world with the gods and you don=t experiment with “the gods”. In India, the prevailing philosophy was that the physical world is unreal, an illusion. And if that is the case, scientific experimentation doesn’t make a lot of sense. Things were more promising in China. Chinese people invented the abacus, the crossbow, gunpowder, paper, and printing. But without anything like the Reformation, Chinese science didn’t go very far. There was no “Scientific Revolution” in China until recent times.

Then Jesus came. Like a mustard seed, His view of the world gradually brought about changes in the way people thought, and these changes made all the difference over time. Jesus rejected the idea that the material world was evil and, therefore, unworthy of investigation. For Him the world was a gift from a loving God to the human race. Rather than being despised, the world was to be mourned as a victim of sin, but delighted in as a gift of love and a glimpse of the glory of God. It was not to be worshiped, as the animists did, but it was to be cherished, cultivated, investigated and enjoyed. In this Jesus was building on His Jewish heritage, which affirmed that God created the world and that the world He made was “very good” (Gen 1:31). Human beings were created to care for the earth, to understand and shape it (Gen 1:28). The material world was a positive thing that human beings could preserve and transform with their labor (Gen 2:15). Jesus affirmed the Jewish belief in the dignity of labor by His own practice as a carpenter or stone worker. A great philosopher, Jesus did what the Greek philosophers would never do, get His hands dirty improving the world around Him.

While Jesus and the Jews of His day shared this view of the earth and the dignity of labor, Judaism had only a marginal influence on the Greco-Roman world. It was the influence of Jesus and the Jesus movement that eventually prevailed in the Greco-Roman world. Jesus set the foundation for scientific research and also the basis for critical thinking (Isa 1:18; John 8:32, 36). The search for truth was affirmed as a central task for those who would follow Jesus. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead: “Science is grounded in the Christian conviction about the rationality of God.” On what basis would Whitehead make such an assertion? We will look at the evidence for that in the next blog.

Summing up. The Greeks made an advance toward modern scientific research in seeing the world as something that ought to be understood. The Hebrews provided support for that idea in seeing the world, not as an object of worship, but as a cause for worship, it is a record of God’s mighty acts. Collectively, this was a big step in the direction of scientific research, rejecting the ideas that the world was the abode of gods that should be left alone, or that it was an illusion. But the Greek advance in scientific thinking never combined with the Jewish idea of the world as a gift of God worthy of investigation. At least not before Jesus came. Only then did the idea that the world should be both understood and shaped begin to transfer people’s thinking.