What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?

I was having dinner a couple of years ago with Ted Baehr, founder of Movieguide and the Christian Film and Television Commission. I consider him the single most effective Christian influencer in Hollywood. His web site (movieguide.org) get tens of millions of hits every month and has helped a whole generation “learn to discern” when it comes to the media and the entertainment industry. He urged me as a historical religions scholar to consider a question I had not thought about much before. What difference did the life and teachings of Jesus make in the world, as evidenced by history? How is today’s world different because Jesus lived? It stands to reason that if Jesus was who He claimed to be, a member of the godhead come to earth to show us what God is like, He would be expected to have had an outsized impact on history beyond his brief recorded life. If a historian traced the impact of Jesus’ life on the world today, what would he or she find?

I decided to take on that task and spent about six months exploring the work of others who had asked such a question, and the evidence of history that could either back or refute their findings. For your convenience, I list the major book-length sources I found. 1) The first major book-length attempt to answer the Jesus question was by Edward Ryan, The History of the Effects of Religion on Mankind (London: J. F. and C. Rivington, 1788). It was reprinted in 2018 by a London-based book publisher names Forgotten Books. 2) In the following century came a major two-volume work by William Edward Hartpole Lecky entitled History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. The first volume was published in 1876 and the second in 1869 by the New York publisher Appleton. The first volume is available in the Leopold Classic Library collection and both are accessible online. This Irish historian was considered significant enough in his time to be awarded honorary doctoral degrees by the Universities of Dublin, St. Andrews, Oxford and Cambridge.

This theme has received much more attention in the last several decades. 3) In 1994 there appeared a book whose title inspired the title this blog series: D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Positive Impact of Christianity in History (Nashville: Nelson Books, 1994). Kennedy at the time was senior pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He earned a PhD in world religions from New York University. Newcombe was a documentary filmmaker and often served as a co-author of books. The book was specifically written to counter the charges against Christianity that were mounting at the time. 4) Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001). Schmidt, at the time, was a retired professor of sociology at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. While the first two works written by historian, the books by Kennedy and Schmidt are deliberately apologetic for Christianity.

5) More recently came a book by David Bentley Hart, an American philosopher and Orthodox theologian. Hart has taught at a number of American universities, including Virginia, Duke and St. Louis. In 2015 he was appointed as Templeton Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Notre Dame. His most relevant work for this topic is entitled Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). 6) And finally, there is the work of John S. Dickerson, an award-winning journalist, entitled Jesus Skeptic: A Journalist Explores the Credibility and Impact of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019). Each of these six books contributed to the insights I will share in the course of this blog series.

I will begin this series by considering the arguments that Jesus had a net negative effect on history. We will look honestly at the “dark side” of Christianity’s legacy. We will also explore some of the reasons the followers of Jesus had such a negative effect on the world. We will then take up the positive legacy of Jesus on education, science, health care, slavery and race relations, government and economics. In historical terms, the legacy of Jesus and His teachings is complicated.

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