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.

The Day That Truly Changed the World (TDTCTW 16)

The cross is also the New Testament’s final answer to the problem of suffering we began to address in the previous chapter. The cross is the most powerful response to the question, “How can I believe in God after September 11? How can I believe in a God who allows thousands of innocent people to suffer when He could have done something to stop it? If God exists and He is good, why doesn’t He do something at times like that?”

These questions are directly related to what happened to Jesus on the cross. As Jesus was dying on the cross, His greatest suffering had little to do with physical pain from the spikes through His hands and feet, the thorns piercing his forehead, or the torturous effort to breathe enforced by crucifixion. His greatest suffering arose from the apparent absence of God in the midst of His suffering.

Jesus knows from experience what it is like to suffer undeserved suffering and pain. He did not deserve to be whipped, beaten, slapped and spit upon. He did nothing to deserve a sentence of death, a hateful mob, or the torture of crucifixion. To the victims of September 11 the cross says: “God knows, He understands, He has tasted what it is like to suffer without having caused it in some way.”

Like the book of Job, the cross offers up no definitive answer to the problem of unjust suffering. What it does, however, is offer companionship in suffering. The times when we experience undeserved suffering and pain are like our own Friday in Jerusalem. We feel as if our experience were unique, as if no one has ever been more alone. But Jesus Himself went there in depth on the original Good Friday. He understands what it is like to be totally alone, totally rejected and abused. He’s been there and done that. And in a sense He tasted just a bit of everyone’s experience (1 Pet 2:20-24).

But for Jesus the story didn’t end on that Friday. It seemed to and He Himself seemed to see no hope for the future when He cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” But His suffering and abandonment turned out to be a prelude to the incredible affirmation of Easter Sunday. When He was raised from the dead His acceptance with God was re-affirmed. In some sense the whole human race stands in a new place with God. The cross has turned human suffering into a prelude.

What difference does it make to believe in the cross today? For me it changes everything about suffering. Some have used undeserved suffering as an excuse to disbelieve in the existence of God. But atheism has not lessened human suffering one iota. If anything it makes it worse, because one is all alone in the suffering, the suffering has no meaning, and it offers no future.

But the cross demonstrates several things that make a difference. It tells us that we are not alone, even though it may feel that way. It tells us that suffering doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care, He cares ever so much, but he doesn’t always intervene to avert pain. God’s absence in suffering is not a hostile one or a helpless one, it has a higher purpose. In the light of the cross we have a reason to endure, even though we may not know the particular reason why. When we suffer without deserving it, we share in the experience of Jesus. When we feel the absence of God in our pain, we share in the experience of Jesus. He went there before us and understands how we feel.

Why September 11 and similar tragedies in the course of history? There is no satisfactory answer at this time. Yet it is possible to discern a merciful hand in the events, in spite of their horrific nature. The toll at the World Trade Center could easily have been tens of thousands dead– if the planes had struck a few hours later in the day, if they had struck the towers at a lower level, if the towers had collapsed more quickly, if evacuations hadn’t started so quickly and efficiently in the south tower. As horrible as events were, it could have been, in a sense should have been, much worse.

For those of us who experienced it, September 11 was an unimaginable expression of evil at its worst. It fundamentally altered our perception of the world and our own role in the world. But September 11 was not the most evil act of all time. The Holocaust, as chillingly brutal and unfair as it was, was not the most evil act of all time. The Inquisition, the Crusades, the genocides of Armenians, Russians, Rwandans, and Cambodians in the 20th Century, the slave trade across the Atlantic, all of these qualify as acts of systematic pre-meditated evil. But none of them qualify as the most evil act of all time.

The cross was the most evil act of all time. When human beings, for temporary and limited political advantage, crucified the God who came down and lived among us, they acted in the most incomprehensible, unfair and evil manner possible. In rejecting Him, they were doing more than just condemning an innocent man to death, they were destroying the source of their own life and rejecting their own place in the universe. The cross of Jesus Christ is an evil act of infinite proportions. If the human race is capable of such an act, no evil action is unimaginable.

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of human evil. God has turned the cross into a powerful act of reversal. The greatest evil ever done has been transformed by God into the most powerful act of goodness ever performed. By death God brings life. Through defeat comes victory. Through shame, humiliation and rejection come glory, grace and acceptance. Through the cross God has turned the tables on evil and death. The greatest evil has become the basis for the greatest good.

The cross shows us how to live in conflicted times. In the light of the cross there is plenty we can do in the face of terrorism. We can learn to love our neighbors the way God does. We can help to build bridges between groups in our communities. We can make a daily effort to project love and care into the world, and not return evil for evil. We can visit the sick, feed the hungry, and comfort the suffering. We can even learn to love our enemies the way Jesus did! The cross demonstrates that, in the grace and power that come only from God, evil can be transformed into good.

The cross was a day of great terror, and many who saw it ran away dismayed about what was happening. The person who had healed others, who banished disease and hunger wherever he walked, who gave love and hope to downtrodden multitudes, was cruelly and unjustly executed while still a young man. What if those who watched this senseless act of violence had said, “How can we ever trust God again?” What if they had gone home, renounced their belief in God and said, “Either God does not exist, or he is a monster that has a complete disregard for love and justice.” If they had, they would have missed the greatest act of God’s love and justice in human history.

That’s why I believe that God can be trusted after September 11. Evil seems to rule only if we don’t look carefully or wait long enough. God is still going to use people like you and me to change the world in the aftermath of evil. Wars, violence and terrorism are born in the heart. But the cross has exposed the fundamental weakness of evil: it can be overcome with good. So I have become willing to fight evil wherever it is found– among “them” (whoever they are), among “us” (whoever we are), but most of all “in here,” inside of me. I think it’s time to start a new conspiracy in this world, a conspiracy with a world-changing message, evil will be overcome with good. This is our mission.

The Implications of the Cross (TDTCTW 15)

According to the Bible human beings are not simply imperfect creatures that need improvement, we are rebels who must lay down our arms. The only way out of our human condition is to “lay down our arms,” acknowledge that we are on the wrong track and allow God to work whatever changes are needed in our lives. This is our ultimate jihad, our ultimate struggle to overcome evil.

This “repentance” is not fun. As the chapter on my personal jihad illustrated, accepting the reality of our brokenness is something we naturally shy away from. Acknowledging failure is humiliating and repugnant. But it is the necessary path toward redeeming our lives from the downward spiral of the evil that besets us all. It is the only way to bring our lives into the sunshine of reality. This “repentance” is simply recognizing the truth about ourselves. The day that changed the world can never change us unless we are willing to be changed, unless we recognize that change is needed.

The neat thing about God’s plan is that He understands what this struggle for authenticity is all about. In submitting Himself to the humiliation of the cross, Jesus experienced the kind of surrender we need. In the Garden of Gethsemane He struggled to give Himself up to God’s plan. And the Bible teaches that if we follow Him in His surrender and humiliation, we will also share in His conquest of death and find new life in our present experience (Rom 6:3-6).

September 11 was more than just the work of a few kooks and fanatics, it was a symptom of deeper issues that plague us all. As we have seen, the struggle toward authenticity is not an occasional necessity, it is fundamental to the human condition, whether we acknowledge it or not.

A fundamental need of human beings is to have a sense of personal value, that who we are truly matters. This need is in stark contrast to the reality (described in the jihad chapter) that the more we know about ourselves the more we dislike ourselves and the worse we feel. We need a sense of worth, yet authenticity seems to lower our value. How can we elevate our sense of self-worth without escaping from the dark realities within? That’s where the cross comes in.

How much is a human being worth? It depends on the context. If they were to melt me down into the chemicals of which my body is made, I understand I would be worth about twelve dollars (make that thirteen, I’ve gained a little weight). But the average American is valued by his or her employer at a much higher level than that, something like $50,000 dollars a year. But suppose you were a great basketball player like Michael Jordan. Suddenly the value jumps to tens of millions of dollars a year. And if you were the nerdy designer of the software everyone in the world uses, you would be valued at tens of billions of dollars (Bill Gates)!

You see, we are valued in terms of others. But according to the Bible human value is infinitely higher than the value we assign to each other. According to the Bible, Jesus was worth the whole universe (He made it), yet He knows all about us and loves us as we are. When He died on the cross, He established the value of the human person. When the Creator of the universe and everyone in it (including all the great athletes and movie stars that people often worship) decides to die for you and me, it places an infinite value on our lives. And since the resurrected Jesus will never die again, my value is secure in him as long as I live .

So the cross provides a true and stable sense of value. This is what makes the story of that Friday in Jerusalem so very special. The cross is not just another atrocity. It is about God’s willingness to take on human flesh and reveal Himself where we are. It is about the value that the human race has in the eyes of God. It is about God’s plan to turn the human race away from evil and hatred and violence. The original day that changed the world, therefore, provides hope for a better world in the aftermath of September 11.

It is clear that none of the great faiths have lived up to the ideals of their sacred texts. Followers of each have, at one time or another, succumbed to the temptations of earthly power and wealth. Followers of each have thought so highly of their thoughts as to feel justified in destroying individuals who thought differently. After September 11we must beware our own personal tendency to judge others, to despise those who think differently, to marginalize those who look different, talk different, and pray different.

The best hope for this world after September 11 is an authentic walk with God that not only takes the “terrorist within” seriously but sees in others the value that God sees in them. If every one of us is flawed yet valuable, all other seekers after God become potential allies in the battle to create a kinder and gentler world. Armed with a clear picture of reality and a sense of our value, we can become change agents in the world. And the seeds of that change were planted one Friday in Jerusalem.

One Friday in Jerusalem (TDTCTW 14)

Almost two thousand years ago there was a Friday in Jerusalem that changed the world. All the elements of September 11 occurred within the experience of a single person, but that experience had implications that affect every person who ever lived. For followers of Jesus that Friday in Jerusalem was, more than any other, the day that changed the world. Jesus’ death was more than just the execution of an innocent man, it was designed by God to unite the human race and ultimately the entire universe (John 12:32; Col 1:20). According to the Bible, Jesus is much more than a man, much more than a prophet. He is God come to earth, but in disguise, housed in a human body (John 1:1, 14). His mission did not end in a tomb, but continues to change the world today. The relevance of Jesus’ mission to our search for God is directly proportional to the reality of that claim.

This central aspect of Christian faith was perhaps best explained by C. S. Lewis, the great British scholar and novelist. According to his book Mere Christianity, Christians believe that behind events like September 11 is a universal war between the principles of good and evil. It is a civil war and this world is being held hostage by the rebel forces. Evil exists here because the world is enemy-occupied territory. On the other hand, the good we see in the world is evidence that God has not abandoned it to the Enemy. He continues to exert His influence with any who are willing to follow Him.

How did this evil get into the universe? Lewis argues that God created beings with free will. If we are free to be good we are also free to be bad. So free will has made evil possible, even though God did not choose to create evil. Why make people free then? Because the same freedom that makes evil possible is also the only thing that makes love, joy or goodness truly worth having. True happiness can only occur in the context of loving choice. Evidently God thought that the pluses of freedom were well worth the risk.

But what if God’s creatures used their freedom to go the wrong way, what if they used it to turn from Him, what if they used their freedom to produce unspeakable horrors like September 11? What then? Does this mean God Himself is evil, or perhaps powerless? The Bible says no to both options. Evil exists not because God is a tyrant, but because He prefers openness and freedom. Evil exists not because God is powerless, but because He wanted human beings to be powerful in ways that mirrored His own freedom of action.

But what has God done to start overcoming the evil in the world? According to Lewis, God has done several things, and these are outlined in the Bible. 1) He has provided the conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong that few humans are without. 2) He has provided some, from Abraham to Moses to Paul, and perhaps Mohammed and others outside the Christian sphere, with visions and dreams that helped clarify the central issues of good and evil. 3) In the Old Testament He provided the story of a people (Israel, the Jewish nation) and the struggles through which God sought to teach them more clearly about Himself.

But then came something special, something surprising. 4) Among the Jews appeared a man who went around talking as if He were God. He claimed to be able to forgive sins, something only God can do. Jesus could not be simply a good man. If a mere man claimed to be God he could not be a good man. To quote Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”

If Jesus is merely another prophet, a man among many, He is a fraud. But if He is what He claimed to be, God Himself taking on human flesh, then the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the greatest events that ever happened in the course of human history. That Friday in Jerusalem would then be the day that changed the world.