Christianity – Problem or Solution?
Christianity – Problem or Solution?
by Nick Park
One of the central claims of Christianity is not just that the Gospel is true, but that accepting Christ produces positive and radical change in our lives. If this is true, then when large numbers of people become Christians, we should expect to see their lives, and society around them, being transformed for the better.
So how are we to respond when fingers are pointed at great wrongs committed in supposedly Christian societies, and even perpetrated by the established church? For example, what about the Spanish Inquisition? Why did ‘Christian’ societies practise slavery? Is it true that religion is the major cause of wars in the world?
There are several misconceptions here which need to be addressed:
1. Christianity has never existed in a cultural or historical vacuum. The fact of the incarnation shows us that Jesus lived as a man, at a specific time in history and as part of a culture (Jewish, but occupied by Rome). All Christians (including ourselves today) are, to some degree, shaped and influenced by their surroundings. It is certainly a cause for shame that too many Christians throughout history have unthinkingly accepted society’s standards. But the problem was not that Christianity itself was cruel. The problem was that all too often the church was not Christian enough!
2. It is a false assumption that pagan pre-Christian societies were gentle or peaceful cultures. For example, we all recognise that much colonialism in Central and South America was brutal and exploitative. But the cultures it replaced were even worse. Thousands of human sacrifices had their hearts ripped out while they were still alive. We should lament the cruelty of the colonialists without romanticising some mythical concept of a pre-existing ‘noble savage’.
3. This leads us to a further point. While Christians have often fallen short of their own standards, they themselves are not the problem. Human nature is the problem. If Christianity were the problem, then removing Christianity would produce a kinder, gentler and more peaceful society. However, history demonstrates the opposite. Those societies that have attempted to eradicate Christianity have subsequently become worse, not better. The Spanish Inquisition is, quite rightly, viewed as a dreadful thing. Over 10,000 people were killed over a period of 200 years. That represents 10,000 shameful and horrific acts of murder. But, as China discovered, getting rid of the Christians doesn’t stop people being murdered. Under Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958-1962) between 18 million and 45 million lost their lives. To put those figures in perspective, in a society where Christianity was removed, more people died every day between breakfast and lunch than were killed in the entire history of the Spanish Inquisition.
4. A genuine understanding of history reveals that even where nominal ‘Christians’ behaved dreadfully, such as in Central and South America, there were committed Christian missionaries who opposed the oppressors. They sheltered the victims of colonialism, and even persuaded Rome to excommunicate anyone involved in slavery. These heroic efforts, in the face of greed, wealth and political power, deserve more recognition in the historical record.
5. We need to distinguish between Christianity as a cultural environment, and Christianity as a living faith in Christ. When Christianity is dominant in a society, many people are cultural Christians. Yet those who are committed Christians have often behaved in a counter-cultural way. A prime example would be when Evangelical Christians in both Britain and North America, based on their commitment to Christ and understanding of the Bible, led the way in the abolition of slavery. This contrast between nominal and committed Christians is illustrated by the fact that we know of virtually nobody who was against slavery, yet after becoming a committed Christian changed their position to endorse slavery. Yet we know of thousands of people who were involved in the slave trade as cultural Christians, yet became abolitionists after coming to a personal faith in Christ. True, a nominally Christian society was capable of great evil, but when people became committed Christians they often changed things for the better.
6. The idea that religion is the major cause of wars in the world is a misconception. Less than 7% of all the wars fought in history can, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as having a major religious component. Wars are fought for a variety of reasons, including nationalism, ethnic tensions, territorial expansion, scarcity of resources and greed. If we analyse those 7% of wars in history that had a major religious component, we discover that over half of them were Islamic wars of conquest, which can hardly be blamed on Christianity. A considerable number of other wars, of course, involved other non-Christian religions. So, Christianity has only been a factor in a tiny percentage of wars. Of course, even one war in the name of Christianity is one too many, but it is manifestly untrue to blame the majority of wars on Christianity, or even on religion in general.
7. A final misconception in concentrating on the historical failings of Christianity is to ignore all the good that was done by Christians over the same period of time. Church organisations founded schools, universities and hospitals. Committed Christians who worked in the area of science, often funded by the patronage of churches, developed many of the key scientific discoveries and advances upon which our modern knowledge is founded. Many of our modern concepts such as the necessity for safe working conditions and social welfare programmes were developed by Christians as an extension of their faith in Christ. It is well-known that William Wilberforce’s biblical faith motivated him to devote his life to seeing slavery abolished. What is not so well-known is that the same faith led him to join others in establishing the first animal welfare organisation in history (what is now the RSPCA) and also to establish the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Christians have often failed to live up to the standards of our faith. We should never gloss over those failings, otherwise how can we do better in the future? Yet, even beset with human sinfulness and frailty, Christianity has played a pivotal role in the last 2000 years in bringing us to where we are today. Our faith began in the Roman Empire, in a society built upon slavery and bloodshed. Life was indescribably cruel, with the rape of slaves and children considered not only legal, but normal. Torture was commonplace, while cruelty to animals and the murder of fellow human beings was one of the most popular forms of public entertainment. For most of us, life in such a society would be unthinkable. That transformation has, to a great extent, happened because of (rather than in spite of) Christianity.