When talking about the impact of Jesus we are not talking about a straight line. The world did not just magically change the moment Jesus arrived. Jesus introduced principles that fundamentally challenged the world of His day and gradually, over centuries, altered the way many human beings thought and lived, resulting in massive transformation of the existing order of things. This can be demonstrated in so many areas of human thought and action: Education, science and technology, health care, the value of human life, slavery, civil rights, religious liberty, even music, literature and the arts. Some call this the “mustard-seed principle.”
In Luke 13:18-19 Jesus said: “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” The Kingdom of God was one of the analogies Jesus used to describe His mission in the world. In this passage He explains the analogy of the Kingdom with another analogy, the analogy of the mustard seed. His ministry was like the mustard seed, which is so small as to seem incapable of changing the world. But that tiny seed can grow into a tree-like bush, large enough for birds to make nest in its branches. The act of putting the seed into the ground does not immediately change the landscape. But given enough time and the right kind of environment, the resulting plant can make a major impact on the landscape.
To deepen the point on that same occasion, Jesus used a different analogy to illustrate the same basic principle: “And again he said, ‘To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.’” Luke 13:20-21. Jesus’ life and teachings were like leaven added to a dough of bread. There is no immediate visible difference between the leavened dough and the unleavened dough. But the leaven begins doing its work in the dough and over time, it rises and changes the outcome of both the dough and the baked bread that results. The impact of Jesus’ life and teachings cannot be fully assessed in terms of their immediate impact. One has to view a gradual, almost imperceptible transformation of the world over the course of human history.
Paul addresses the same issue in Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The gospel of Jesus Christ does not always have immediate, visible impact. It involves a gradual transformation of people and societies. It requires critical thought and application to achieve maximum impact. It may require deep commitment and sacrificial action on the part of many to achieve its impact on the world. It often requires going against the grain of prevailing orthodoxies.
The early Christians didn’t set out to change the world. They didn’t see overthrowing Rome as a major task. But the transformation of the world would happen gradually, as a by-product of changed lives. The influence of Jesus was and is not obvious in the world. But it ended up overturning the world of His time and has resulted more recently in massive transformation of the way human beings do things and experience life. I will be exploring several of these transformations in blogs to come. We will begin next time with the theme of education. Education is, perhaps, the greatest agent for transforming the world today. But the transforming power of education today is largely a by-product of Jesus’ life and teachings. Seem like an over-reach? Just stay tuned.
Anyone can draw up a moral code, the challenge is getting anyone to follow it without some sense of a divine standard. There are really only two options for developing a societal code of morals and ethics. You can follow an inspirational figure like Jesus or you can bow to some superior power who enforces its moral and ethical will on others. In the history of the human race, it appears that no one has been more inspirational than Jesus of Nazareth. Remove Him from the equation and His message becomes like a cut flower. Separated from its roots, it is still beautiful, but it won=t last long. The 20th Century showed us what the world would be like if Jesus had never been born. It also showed us what the universe would be like, if Satan were in charge. For all its horrors, the 20th Century is crucial evidence in the Great Controversy. God=s desire is for our good, He truly can be trusted. And the best evidence for that is Jesus’ impact on history.
I cannot prove to you, as a historian, that Jesus was God in human flesh. What I can say is that He was the most influential human being who ever lived. If you have committed your life to Him and He is real to you, you are not an idiot. If you have not committed your life to Him, you would be wise to consider it, it might be the smartest decision you=ll ever make.
But is the whole story of the Jesus of history really being told? Would the world really be better off if Jesus had never been born? A good historical researcher will not be limited by one side of the story, but will consider the whole body of evidence. Based on the whole body of evidence, I would argue that Jesus= life and teaching unleashed more innovation and positive outcomes than any other human being in all of history. Our very familiarity with Christianity as it is today can blind us to the revolutionary and transformative implications of Jesus= life and teachings.
In this series, I am not aiming to prove Jesus was God and that all should follow Him. History alone cannot do that. But I aim to show that purely as a human being, Jesus did more to influence subsequent history than any other person who ever lived. In the blog to follow, I hope to show that if Jesus had never been born, higher education as we know it would likely never have happened. And if higher education had never happened, the fruits of higher education, like science, technology and advanced health care, would likely not have happened either. I can’t wait to take you on this journey with me.
With the death of Christian faith in Europe in the Twentieth Century, we got a glimpse of what the whole world might be like had Jesus never been born. The Twentieth Century saw the rise of brutal totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Millions of people were confined to Soviet gulags or Nazi concentration camps. Millions of these were either shot, gassed, hanged or died of starvation and disease. The century also witnessed the return of abortion and infanticide, things that had largely been eliminated under Christian influence in the past. There were brutal wars in which tens of millions were killed. And all of this centered in the formerly Christian continent of Europe.
With the rise of relativity in physics and the uncertainty of quantum mechanics, people began to apply these ideas to the realm of morality and ethics. Albert Einstein, for one, would have none of it. For him, relativity applied to physics only, it had no implications for ethics and morality. But most people don’t think as deeply and consistently as Einstein. There was a natural tendency to think that relativity and quantum uncertainty pull the rug out from under the Christian moral compass, and open the way to a greater kind of freedom. But even a great atheist like Nietzsche was not fooled. He warned already in the Nineteenth Century: “The collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum.” The history of the Twentieth Century told us how that vacuum was filled. It was filled with the kind of inhumanity toward others that most people thought had been eliminated from the human race through evolution, education and material progress.
During the 20th Century a horrific total of more than 170 million people were killed. Of this number at least 130 million were killed because of atheistic ideology. 15 million deaths can be attributed to the Nazis. 40 million deaths can be laid at the feet of Stalin and Soviet Russia. An even more horrific total of 70 plus million died at the hands of Maoist China. Additional millions were killed in Cambodia due to the Communistic ideology of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. In these horrific slaughters we can see the first fruits of a post-Jesus world. In the words of David Bentley Hart: “The will to lead modern humanity onward into a post-religious promised land of liberty, justice, and equality has always been accompanied by a willingness to kill without measure.” This echos the words of Edmund Burke a couple of centuries earlier: “Human behavior needs restraint, the less within, the more is needed without.” I would suggest that whatever positives the 20th Century brought to the West were a legacy of Christian culture. The distinctive contribution of that century was unparalleled atrocities.
If these numbers do not trouble you in a world that contains nearly eight billion people, keep in mind that in the 2000 years of Christianity, with all of its horrors, the total number of people killed unjustly by Christian governments totals about 17 million maximum. The Inquisition is rightly criticized as an affront to human freedom and dignity, but its 30,000 victims pale in comparison with Auschwitz’s minimum of 1.1 million and possibly as high as two million. Consider also the great amount of criticism leveled against Christianity on account of the Salem Witch trials, which killed 20-25 people. Every one of those executions was a tragedy, but compared to Auschwitz, where technology allowed the killing of people on a mass scale, this was a relatively minor event in the history of humanity’s inhumanity of others.
Without God, moral relativism reigns. There is no solid foundation for ethical or moral thinking. When moral relativism takes hold of a society, human life becomes cheap. When you devalue God, you devalue human life. I understand that Napoleon once said he saw first hand what men without God look like during the French Revolution: “AOne does not govern such men, he shoots them down. They have descended to the level of beasts.@ The bottom line is: You become like the God you worship. If you worship actors, athletes and politicians, you become more and more like them. If you worship power, you become cruel and self-serving. If you worship wealth, you become greedy, and you lose compassion. If you worship self, you become your own worst image of yourself.
Some people see only the positives of Christianity and find in it a source of pride and a sense of superiority over others. Others see only the negatives of Christianity and find it a curse to humanity that would be best eliminated. In this series I am trying to be honest with both aspects. But seeing the negatives in all their horror (in contrast to the transforming power of Christ’s life and teachings) raises the question, how can the same religion be so powerful for good and so evil at the same time?
You see, religion is a human response to the perception that God is at work in a particular context. To celebrate God’s actions and teachings in a particular context, and to create a context in which others can learn about these, humans beings create a religion. And as a response to the perception of God’s presence in the world, religion is a beautiful thing. But over time, religions tend to become less and less focused on the original mission and more and more focused on preserving the institution. And so every religion has a beautiful side and a dark side. The overall biblical explanation for this is that all religious institutions, including Christianity, are a battleground in the universal conflict between Christ and Satan. God is at work in Christians and in Christian institutions. But Satan is also at work in the same. History is the evidence that both forces have been and are at work among the followers of Jesus. So the broader, biblical answer to the problem is that Christianity is an arena in the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan over the character and government of God.
In the New Testament, more specifically, there are a number of considerations that address this issue. One of them is the concept of the two ages (Mark 10:29-31; Luke 20:34-35), the now and the not yet. Jesus brought in the new age of the Kingdom (Matt 4:23; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43), but the old age of sin and suffering is still with us (Rom 8:18-23). So the New Testament speaks of the same things as present realities (the now—Heb 6:5), yet not fully so (the not yet—Heb 9:26-28). The life of heaven has been realized yet not fully realized (I Cor 10:11 and 15:22-24; 1 Pet 1:20 and 1:5). So the life of the church was expected to be a struggle more than a foretaste of heaven. There would be tares among the wheat, even in the church (Matt 13:24-20). There would be a Judas, even among the disciples. So the New Testament predicted in advance that the church would include people of all kinds, some of them teaching things contrary to the teachings of Jesus (Luke 12:51-53; Acts 20:29-30; Rom 2:24; 1 Tim 4:1). The founding document of the Christian faith was very clear that the future church would portray a very mixed picture (while very symbolic, Revelation 13 seems to offer a similar prediction about the church).
The mixed picture of the church can also be understood in terms of behavioral science. Sociologists speak of two types of religion that people may embrace. Intrinsic religion is freely chosen as a good in itself, worth pursuing on its own merits. One goes to church because one wants to, not because of outside factors. Extrinsic religion is a means to another end. One goes to church to please others, to keep a job, or to look good within a particular community. From a Christian perspective one might distinguish between genuinely converted and those who are there for other reasons, whether or not they realize that. Christian faith as a whole should not be judged on the basis of those who are not truly committed or do not truly understand the implications of Jesus’ teachings. So there needs to be a distinction between “Christianity” (as the faith of Jesus) and “Christendom” (the institutional version that is often compromised by the desire for wealth and power in this world. For many the faith goes no deeper than commitment to a football team. Not everyone who identifies themselves as Christian has been transformed by the gospel. While the history of the Christian church is very disappointing, it should not be surprising.
In today’s world the only church that will have positive influence on society is a church that goes back to the basics of Jesus’ teaching. It will avoid worldly forms of church government.
It will renounce political power and influence. It will root out corruption (enhancing wealth and worldy power) within itself (both systemic corruption and individual corruption). It will renounce intimidation in religion or church politics. In short it will be a church that embraces weakness out of an overwhelming focus on the character of God that embraced the cross. Those who truly know God will not settle for less.
The saga of misdeeds performed by seemingly committed Christians is not only out there in places like Germany, Spain, France, and Rwanda. America has its own questionable history. One incident that is frequently mentioned is the Salem Witch Trials, which occurred in colonial Massachusetts in 1692-1693. Over that time period several hundred people, both men and women, and including small children, were accused of witchcraft. Some twenty were executed and others died in prison. What is particularly horrifying is that these executions all occurred in a relatively small twin community where people largely knew each other, and they were encouraged and supported by the famous preacher Cotton Mather. The communities of Salem Village and Salem Town were, in fact, rather fractious to begin with. Personal vendettas, combined with some extreme views regarding the operations of Satan in everyday life, led to an escalating situation in which many people seem to have been falsely accused, and many people wrongly executed. Torture, even of children, was at times used to gain both confessions and accusations. While such witch trials in colonial America were not unique to Salem, Massachusetts, the scale of the Salem witch trials was unprecedented and led to the general rejection of “theocracy” as a model for American government. On the positive side, the biblical requirements of “two or three witnesses” led the church to see that these trials and executions were not based on sound religion, so the church belatedly brought them to an end after a year and several months. But that intervention could not recall the toll in lives and in the emotional and spiritual consequences of these witch trials.
As we will see, slavery was pretty much the norm around the world until movements in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries finally brought it to an end. But before that, the slave trade was often practiced even in Protestant lands and was frequently justified by the misuse of biblical texts. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery was brought to an end in America, but continued on for another hundred years in a different form through segregation and the power of the lynching tree. While lynching usually took place in the hours of darkness, at times it occurred in the light of day with the full blessing of Protestant churches and pastors. And the consequences of slavery and its aftermath still impact African-American communities to this day. In South Africa, apartheid became official government policy in the Twentieth Century, with the strong support of the prevailing Protestant church.
From the Fifteenth through the Twentieth Centuries, colonialism was the public manifestation of the “Enlightenment” sense that white Europeans were inherently superior to others in science, technology, and even religion. While some Christians in general and many Adventists in particular, protested the exploitation of native peoples around the world, Christian missions often benefitted from and participated in activities that led to the marginalization of many non-European cultures around the world. To this day, lighter-skinned people often expect and get preferential treatment around the world, a lingering legacy of colonialism. And this legacy has resulted in some non-Christian cultures claiming the moral high ground in their interactions with the Christian West.
The above examples are probably sufficient to show that I am well aware of the kinds of accusations leveled against the Christian church today and of the validity of many of those accusations. There is much more that could be said, including the exploitation of child labor in England during the Industrial Revolution and the corrupt behavior of some television evangelists and their treatment of women. One could also add the sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse of children by clergy, most prominently Roman Catholic priests. All of this must be acknowledged as part of the legacy of Christianity. As a result, unprecedented numbers of young people in the West have abandoned religion entirely and often all faith in God. The Asins of the church@ are used as an excuse to reject Jesus and all the good He brought to the world.
But is the whole story really being told? Would the world really be better off if Jesus had never been born? A good historical researcher will not be limited by one side of the story, but will consider the whole body of evidence. Based on the whole body of evidence, I would argue that Jesus= life and teaching unleashed more innovation and positive outcomes than any other human being in all of history. But before we get to that more positive story, I want to explore the question of why? If the impact of Jesus’ life and teachings is so positive, why have so many of His followers had such a negative impact on the world?
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.