December 7, 2016

Twice upon a time. Twice upon a time Christianity literally changed the world. Twice upon a time Christianity saved the world. Twice upon a time life-affirming Gospel compassion overcame the culture of death. Of course, it doesn’t surprise us. We see frequently how through His Word and Church, Jesus asserts His crucified authority over sin and establishes His resurrected victory over death. He protects from danger, provides for needs, frees consciences, cheers hearts, and heals bodies every day. But for those who keep count, it’s twice worldwide already—so far.

The ancient pagan world before Christianity regularly disposed of lives deemed unproductive. Greeks and Romans routinely abandoned babies to exposure, disowned and drowned unwanted infants—especially the impaired or female ones. In addition, they persistently pursued fresh and more effective methods for aborting pregnancies—surgically and chemically—as had every Mesopotamian empire that preceded them. Popular demand for amusement pressed slaves, condemned criminals, and prisoners of war into service as blood-sport gladiators. The thrill-seeking public forced them to fight each other or wild animals to the death (popular not only with Romans but also in Greece, Syria, and Asia Minor). Human sacrifices—particularly newborns and captives—were often offered to heathen idols by Canaanites, Irish, and other predecessors of present-day European peoples, as well as Meso-American Aztecs and Mayans prior to the arrival of Christian influence. Classical philosophers popularized suicide in Greco-Roman civilization, not only accepting but encouraging it through instruction and example. Women were denied basic freedoms and deprived of human dignities such as property, employment, monogamy, and mobility—even among the Hebrews.

Early Christians opposed it all. As individuals and as an institution, they intervened. The Creator who incarnated Himself as gracious Savior inspired them to defend and support every human life He made, redeemed, and summoned into ongoing communion with the same love He embodied toward His own. From Jesus’ first followers onward, Christians disputed abandoning and killing infants, disapproved of all forms of abortion, spoke against gladiatorial games, protested human sacrifice, fought against acceptance of suicide, and implored culture and government to do the same. Their efforts met success, and in time all such practices became illegal and nearly ceased in the Roman Empire and other areas significantly swayed by the Gospel worldview.

The emerging churches integrated women alongside men in worship and work, discouraged polygamy, and honored widows. They standardized medical care; established the world’s first hospitals, nursing homes, and orphanages; and invented therapeutic nursing and care for the mentally ill. In contrast to the quid-pro-quo “charity” Romans and Greeks occasionally offered to able-bodied beneficiaries for presumed payback, the Church gave freely and abundantly to the poor, the ailing, and the dying. And beginning in her infancy, she protested slavery—in many cases freeing slaves with her own funds—so that by the Middle Ages this systemic oppression was almost extinct across Christian Europe.

What the Gospel accomplished in the Old World, it soon extended to the whole world. Its next conquest claimed human life for Christ via missionary endeavors. Abortion, abandonment, and outright infanticide ran as rampant in pre-Columbian America, tribal Africa, the Far East, and the South Pacific as it once had in imperial lands. Ritual human sacrifice and slave trading predominated nearly universally in these cultures as well. Women and children, along with ailing, impoverished, and aged people, faced prevalent neglect, if not absolute contempt. Hindus, Scandinavians, Chinese, Maori, and some Native American communities cremated widows alive in their husbands’ funeral pyres. Euthanasia and cannibalism commonly occurred.

Nevertheless, a succession of Christian missionaries caring for life as well as heart and treating body along with soul brought life-giving, life-saving acceptance; forgiveness; and sanctity even into the farthest and darkest corners of the earth. Living out their own experience of the Reformation message that Jesus Christ justifies each person’s life by God’s grace and not one’s own works, in language and action they affirmed the absolute value of every human being in every state and every stage, no matter what she had done or what he could not do. Patiently but relentlessly they reformed entire societies so that practices once pervasive and acceptable have become unlawful and unthinkable practically everywhere.

So here we stand. We’ve been here before. We’ve done this already – twice. The God of the Gospel of grace remains undefeated. The message of life for free and for all in Christ Jesus has a history of achieving both just what we are putting it to work on and all that we hope it will. May it do so also among us and through us. 

Alvin J. Schmidt, in Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, and George Grant, in Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present, detail the history of these developments.