Tag Archives: What if Jesus had never been born?

Summary: If Jesus Had Never Been Born, How Would Things Be Different Today? (What If—24)

Let me sum up the impact of Jesus on today’s world in a series of statements based on what has been said in the previous 23 blogs.

If Jesus had never been born:

There would be an 85-90% chance you wouldn’t be able to read. If you are a woman, there is a 99+% chance you couldn’t read this blog or anything else.

There would be no Harvard University, no Oxford University, and definitely no Loma Linda University, the place where faith and science are at home together.

There would be no science as we know it and no Scientific Revolution that has totally transformed daily life for most people.

There would be no civil rights for anyone but the elites of every society.

There would be no modern medicine with its amazing cures and preventives.

There would be no Mayo Clinic, no Johns Hopkins and no Loma Linda University Medical Center.

There would be no eyeglasses and no contact lenses.

There would be no antibiotics and no hospitals as we know them.

The defective, the ill, and the aged would likely be marginalized or terminated.

There would be no cell phones, no social media and no internet (maybe that would be a good thing).

There would be no electrical grid and no central heat or air conditioning.

There would be no hot, running water in your house.

At least one of your siblings would have died in childhood.

Most people over 40 years of age would be dead.

Most people over 35 would have no teeth.

There is a 40% chance you would be a slave, regardless of race or ethnicity.

You would routinely experience what it is like to be hungry and not be able to do anything about it.

If you are female, it is likely you wouldn’t be allowed to own land.

If you are female, your father would likely have sold you to your future husband and you would be regarded as his property.

Most people would make a living by working all day with their hands.

Most societies would be brutal and violent.

Sports like “The Hunger Games” would probably be a reality.

The most efficient form of transportation would be horses.

What’s the point? None of this proves that there is a God and that Jesus Himself is God made flesh, the greatest revelation of what God is like. Nor does it prove that everyone in the world should follow Jesus. But it does demonstrate that, purely as a human being, Jesus did more to influence subsequent history than any other person who ever lived. And He claimed that His revolutionary teaching came directly from God. If that is true, the decision you make about Jesus is the most important decision you will ever make. And if you have chosen to follow Jesus you are not a fool, you are simply following where the evidence leads.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom III (What If—23)

The next main development on the way to the American experiment was The Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a religious revival in the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. It was so successful that it seems to have united all the American colonies in a common spirit, regardless of denomination. The basis of that common spirit was a common authority, the Bible. The Great Awakening was opposed to tyranny in all forms and promoted liberty of conscience for all. This set the stage for the American Revolution, which was birthed by the pulpits of New England and, in many ways, led by Christian preachers.

There is a strong biblical foundation to the ideas articulated in the Declaration of Independence (AD 1776), which includes these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Wide awareness of the principles of freedom, equality, fundamental rights, rule of law, and religious liberty were grounded in the Great Awakening and the Scriptures. Many signers of the Declaration, including John Adams, Patrick Henry and John Witherspoon were deeply committed Christians. Even those like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, whose Christian orthodoxy was questionable, were deeply influenced by the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.

This was followed soon after by the American constitution, which was grounded in the above principles and also in the Presbyterian model of government. There are at least five biblical principles at the foundation of the American constitution. 1) Government is by law rather than the whim of a ruler, and that law must be grounded in the law of God. 2) All members of society are equal under the law. 3) Human rights are grounded in creation and in the ten commandments. Human rights derive from the fact that human beings were made in the image of God. 4) The protection of individual liberty was essential. 5) While humans are made in the image of God, they are also fallen and sinful, therefore humans cannot be trusted with power. This led to the principle of separation of powers which would provide checks and balances to prevent any one person from abusing their power or the majority from abusing the minority.

There is reason to believe that the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) were based, in part, on Isaiah 33:22: “For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver; the LORD is our king; he will save us.” In Israel, all three roles resided in the king, which did not turn out well. As outlined in the American Constitution, the executive (president and cabinet), legislative (Congress), and judicial (Supreme and lower courts) branches of government provide separation of powers, with each branch being checked and balanced by the other two.

I find it interesting for our situation today to contrast the American Revolution with the French Revolution, which happened shortly after. In American, while church and state were to be separate in terms of law, religion and liberty were not separable. Liberty was grounded in the principles of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. In France, on the other hand, religion was seen as the adversary of liberty, human freedom would only be achieved in the absence of religion. In France, the end result of democracy in the absence of Christian morality was the tyranny of the Reign of Terror (AD 1793-1797). Democracy without restraint quickly led to the same kinds of abuses that resulted in the death of Socrates. As noted by Edmund Burke: AHuman behavior needs restraint, the less within, the more is needed without.@

With the waning of the Protestant foundation of American society today, a strong tension has arisen between equality and freedom (religious or otherwise). Equality of opportunity and freedom are very compatible. But when equality is expressed in terms of equality of outcome, it is in tension with freedom. Genuine freedom tends to result in inequality of outcome because some people are smarter than others and some people work harder than others. Given that reality, the only way you can achieve equality of outcome is by force, which is the antithesis of human freedom. It will be interesting to see if religious liberty can survive in a society moving away from the teaching of Jesus.

If Jesus had never been born, freedom as we know it would likely not exist. And if it did, it would probably be only for the elites. Genuine civil liberties today exist primarily in countries with a Protestant or a Jewish base. When it comes to religious liberty, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim countries tend to be quite restrictive compared to the countries with Protestant and Jewish origins. Like Christianity, the American experiment is flawed. It has changed the world for the better, but it is still struggling to apply the principles to itself.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom II (What If—22)

The teachings of Jesus about human freedom had a strong impact on the church in the next centuries. The church father Tertullian of Carthage (ca. AD 155-220), the first to write extensively in the Latin language, spoke out strongly in favor of freedom of conscience, even though the Empire was not friendly to the church at the time. A significant moment in human freedom was the altercation between the church father Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and the Christian Emperor Theodosius, around AD 390. After rioting in Thessalonica took the life of the Roman governor, Theodosius responded by sending in the army and slaughtering 7000 civilians who had gathered in the local hippodrome. When he heard about this, Ambrose sent Theodosius a letter rebuking him for this brutality and telling Theodosius that he would be refused communion until he demonstrated repentance. The key point in the letter is Ambrose telling Theodosius that “no one is above the law”. Even kings are subject to a higher court, namely the judgment of God. This concept is crucial to western democracy today. Around the same time, Augustine (ca. AD 400) extended the concept of liberty to pagans, arguing that they should not be forced to accept Jesus.

While developments in the Roman world were important, it was in the British Isles that the fruit of Jesus teaching on human freedom would have the biggest impact on our world today. Through the efforts of Saint Patrick (arrived in Ireland around AD 432), the Ten Commandments became the foundation of civil law in Britain. By the time of King Alfred (ca. AD 890), the Ten Commandments and the golden rule had become the foundation of English law. But the key turn for human freedom was the Magna Carta, a thoroughly Christian document written in AD 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I enshrined freedom under law as a key element of British governance and became the inspiration for the United States Constitution five and a half centuries later. So it was in Great Britain that the early Christian advances in the realm of human freedom were passed on from the Mediterranean world to modern times.

The next key development in the march of human freedom was the Reformation, particular the branch of the Reformation centered in Calvin’s Geneva. John Calvin set up an organizational structure for both the church and the city that was based on the Scriptures, particularly the principles taught by Jesus. The Presbyterian model of church governance that arose in Geneva (and followed to a great extent by the Seventh-day Adventist Church) included government by law and elected representatives that included checks and balances. Based on his reading of the Bible, John Calvin was well aware of sinful human depravity, so he did not trust a government without checks and balances against the abuse of power. This was a very important advance in human governance.

The advances in human governance achieved by the Reformation had a strong impact on the “American experiment”. This impact began with the Mayflower Compact, put together by the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts (AD 1620 and following). These earnest followers of Jesus decided that rule in the new settlement was to be by mutual agreement. All were to be equal under law and there was to be no aristocracy among them, a major step for people accustomed to British nobility. But in spite of the important concepts in the Mayflower Compact, the Massachusetts Colony was not a bastion of religious liberty. Deviations in theology from the Presbyterian authorities was punishable. So Roger Williams (AD 1636) had to leave the colony and settle in Rhode Island to establish a beachhead of religious liberty on the American continent. Soon after, in Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn guaranteed religious liberty in that part of the colonies. Pennsylvania welcomed people of all religious persuasions from AD 1682 on and in AD 1701 Penn established the Charter of Privileges, which spelled out the religious liberties the colony would protect. So by 1700 religious liberty had established strong roots in the American colonies. But that was only the beginning.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom (What If—21)

I apologize for the long silence. I have been chasing many things lately and these blogs do take significant time to write. Hope they are worth the wait.

People think of Athens as the birthplace of intellectual freedom and democracy, and in a real sense it was. But the freedom that Athens initiated was only for the elites of society, it didn’t apply to the common people. And it was fairly limited even for the elites. The elites of Athens could vote but they had no protection against abuse by the majority, whatever they decided. The state was considered more important than the individual. That meant that the individual of Athenian society was subject to the whims of the collective body. It was the “tyranny of the majority”. There was no idea of “individual liberty” in Athens. The classic example of that was the fate of Socrates, who was condemned to death by a vote of 280 to 220. So Athens made some important contributions to the idea of human freedom, but did not go nearly far enough.

The Jewish world in ancient times contained many examples of abusive leadership in both the political and religious spheres (think Rehoboam and Caiaphas, among others). But the Israelites had a strong love for freedom, grounded in the Exodus experience. They remembered that they were slaves in the land of Egypt and that God had brought them out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21, etc.). The same God also instituted the Jubilee, a once-in-a-lifetime event when liberty was proclaimed throughout the land (Lev 25:10).

An additional Jewish contribution to human freedom was the idea of human equality. After all, if everyone was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), no one is less so than any other. Equality was reinforced by Deuteronomy 10:17-19, where God is declared to show no partiality. His love is not centered on the rich and powerful, He loves orphans, widows, and foreigners, people who can usually offer nothing in return.

God’s commitment to impartiality and freedom is also seen in the law of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:25). We recognize that having two or three witnesses to establish the truth of a matter is a good idea. But the implications of such a law go even further. Requiring two or three witnesses meant that no one, not even the king, could arbitrarily deprive someone of life and liberty. This was a shocking limitation on kingly power in the ancient world. It also meant that no one is above the law, not even the king. This was a radical idea in ancient times.

Finally, it could be argued that the Ten Commandments are the very foundation of universal human rights. The Ten Commandments meant that Israelite law was designed to protect the family (commandments five and seven), to protect life (commandment six), to protect property (commandments eight and ten) and to protect truth (commandment nine). From these flow a high regard for human rights to life, liberty, property, and the family as the glue and backbone of society.

Then Jesus came. Building on the foundation of Judaism, He underlined the importance of freedom, equality and equal treatment of all. In John 8:32, 36 He noted that the purpose of truth is not to restrict people but to truly set them free. Paul underlined this teaching of Jesus when he wrote that wherever the Spirit of God is found, there is true liberty (2 Cor 3:17). In Matthew 22:21, Jesus articulated the importance of keeping the church and the state separate. His followers were to be supportive of the highest goals of state and society while keeping the things of God central to everything they did. He highlighted the character of God, which is exhibited in the sun and the rain, realities that affect all people equally (Matt 5:45-47). He encouraged all to be like God in His impartial treatment, even of those who are opposed to His principles (Acts 10:34-35). There is no more distinction of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Followers of Jesus and Paul were to treat everyone equally, without distinction of gender, race or social standing.

While these principles could be found within the teachings of Judaism, there were seriously absent in the Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born. One of the first things one would notice about the Roman Empire is that it was not a free place. More than seventy percent of the inhabitants of the Empire were slaves. The Emperor had power of life and death over just about everybody. And slaveholders had power of life and death over their own slaves. The inklings of freedom and democracy that had stirred Athens were long gone by the time Jesus came. As in so many other areas, His arrival was a turning point in human history.

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.

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.