The Effects of Christianity (Part 1)
April 9, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
The Effects of Christianity (Part 1)
(Points from this article were taken from How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt1)
With the approach of Easter—the celebration of Jesus conquering death by rising from the grave to bring salvation to the world—it seems an opportune time to look at the positive effect Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has had on humanity in the two thousand years since. When Jesus laid down His life so that those who believe in Him can enter into an eternal relationship with God, He changed the lives and eternal destinies of billions of people. Through the lives of those who believed in and followed Him, He brought great change to the whole world. This short series will explore some of the ways in which Christians and Christianity have made the world a better place.
Of course, many Christian values originated from the Jewish Torah (the Old Testament in Christian Bibles), but Christianity has been the major vehicle for the spreading of Judeo-Christian culture, and is also the means by which the message of salvation through Christ has been spread throughout the world.
Value of Human Life
Jesus was born at a time in history when the Roman Empire ruled much of the known world. As such, the moral standards of Rome permeated much of society. The Romans held a low view of human life. A person was regarded as having value only if he contributed to the political fabric of society. This is seen in several ways in the Roman world, such as the practices of infanticide, gladiatorial games, and suicide.
The early Christians, on the other hand, held a more sacred view of human life, as they believed what Scripture teaches about the value of life and that human beings are made in the image of God.
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.2
You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.3
They understood that God honored human life by sending His Son to become incarnate as a human being:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.4
Because God values human life, the early Christians understood that life was to be honored and protected.
Infanticide and Child Abandonment
The killing of newborn children soon after birth was common in the Greco-Roman world. Infants were killed for a variety of reasons, such as due to being born deformed or frail, unwanted, or because the parents felt they couldn’t afford to care for the child. The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote, mad dogs we knock on the head … unnatural progeny we destroy; we drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.5 Often the means of killing an unwanted child was through exposure, the abandoning of newborn children on the side of the road or on dung heaps or in garbage dumps.
To Christians, infanticide was murder, and early Christian writings condemned it. The Didache (written between 85 and 110 AD) stated, Thou shalt not … commit infanticide. Christians throughout the first four centuries AD did not have the political power to put a stop to the infanticide commonly practiced in Roman times, and were themselves suffering persecution and martyrdom. However, during that period Christians often took abandoned babies into their own homes or placed them with other believers, who cared for them and often adopted them. This differed from many non-Christians, who would sell abandoned children into slavery. In 374 AD, the Emperor Valentinian formally outlawed infanticide due to the influence of a Christian bishop. While infanticide was never fully eradicated in the Roman Empire, Christians continued to condemn it. After the fall of Rome, when separate countries developed in Europe over the centuries, infanticide was no longer a common or legal practice.
Another example of the low view of human life in ancient times is the gladiatorial games in which gladiators fought, often to death, as a form of entertainment. These popular events were held in arenas throughout the empire from 105 BC to 404 AD, the largest of which was the Roman Colosseum. It is estimated that 500,000 people were killed in the Colosseum alone. At times, 30–50 thousand spectators would watch these games. The Emperor Trajan (98–117 AD) held gladiatorial games which lasted four months, during which ten thousand gladiators fought, resulting in thousands of them being killed—all for entertainment. (Eventually, persecuted Christian martyrs were killed for their faith in the Colosseum.)
Christians of the time were appalled by the heinous disregard for human life and blatant disregard of God’s command, “You shall not murder.” Church leaders condemned these games because they shed human blood, and they admonished Christians not to attend. As Christianity grew, it was eventually recognized as an official religion, when the Emperor Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. Christian emperors such as Theodosius the Great and Honorius eventually banned gladiatorial games throughout the Roman Empire. In his book about life in Rome, Author Jerome Carcopino stated that the butcheries of the arena were stopped at the command of Christian emperors.6 W. E. H. Lecky wrote:
There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, a feat that must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church.7
Throughout Old Testament times, we read of societies which practiced human sacrifice. Child sacrifice was common among the followers of Baal in Canaan. In the vicinity of the ancient city of Megiddo in northern Israel, archeologists discovered the remains of infants who had been sacrificed in the temple of Ashtoreth during the rule of Ahab and Jezebel.8 Some fallen kings in Israel turned away from God and sacrificed their own sons to the Canaanite god Moloch.9 Such human sacrifice wasn’t limited to the Canaanites or the fallen kings of Israel. While human sacrifice was outlawed throughout the Roman Empire by Jesus’ time, Christians encountered it centuries later in pagan lands. For example, before the gospel was brought to them by St. Patrick, the Irish people sacrificed prisoners of war to war gods and newborns to the harvest gods.10 Human sacrifice was common among pagan Prussians and Lithuanians until the thirteenth century. This came to an end because of Christian influence.
In Roman times, the taking of one’s life was often considered an act of self-glory, and suicide was widely practiced. Many well-known Roman philosophers and writers, as well as some Roman emperors, committed suicide. It was also used as a punishment, as emperors sometimes ordered people they were displeased with to “open your veins.” While there was no prohibition on Roman citizens taking their lives, it wasn’t allowed for slaves, as they were considered property; nor for soldiers, unless they were surrounded by adversaries on the battlefield.
Christians preached that since God is the giver and creator of life, it is His prerogative only to end a person’s life. Christian leaders in the third and fourth centuries, such as Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Eusebius, opposed suicide. Church councils from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries also opposed it. Thomas Aquinas wrote that taking one’s life was morally wrong because it was a sin against nature:
Everyone naturally loves himself; suicide also injured the community of which man is an integral part; it was a sin against God’s gift of life.11
For more about suicide, see Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Safeguarding Human Life, Part 3).
In the Roman world of Jesus’ day, the value placed on human life was very low. The killing or abandoning of newborn children didn’t to our knowledge evoke moral outrage. Taking one’s own life was not generally understood to be morally wrong. Watching gladiators killing one another for the purpose of entertainment was considered normal. (Of course, today there are many movies and television shows which egregiously portray violence, death, and murder; a difference is that while they may not be spiritually healthy to view, the death portrayed in them is acting, and not actual death.)
Life was cheap in ancient times. However, as Christianity started to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the value placed on life began to increase. The message that human life was sacred and the understanding that taking the life of an innocent human being was morally wrong took root. The impact of the Christian message over the centuries brought about a moral understanding regarding human life which has spread throughout the world, and has helped to change the world.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
2 Genesis 1:27.
3 Psalm 8:5.
4 John 1:1–2, 14.
5 Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Anger 1.15.2.
6 Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 247.
7 W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals: From Augustus to Charlemagne (New York: D. Appleton, 1927), 73.
8 H. H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 198, 206.
9 2 Kings 16:3, 21:6.
10 Thomas Cahill, “Ending Human Sacrifice,” Christian History 60 (1998): 16.
11 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1948), 2:1463.