Christian Book Previews Home
Christian Book Previews

Dr. Alvin J. Schmidt

Author of  How Christianity Changed the World

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt  |  Interview

Zondervan: How has Christianity sanctified human life?

Albert: History shows when the early Christians entered the Greco-Roman culture, human life was cheap and expendable. Infanticide was widespread and legal. Infant girls were especially vulnerable; few Roman families had more than one girl. Infant abandonment and abortion were also common. In addition, most Roman emperors killed people at will and with impunity. The Roman populace relished seeing humans brutally mauled and killed in gladiator shows. Suicide was advocated by the philosophers and practiced by many.

In contrast, the early Christians saw all human life as sacred. They opposed infanticide, and by 374 Valentinian (a Christian emperor) outlawed it; they rescued and reared abandoned infants. They also condemned abortion, consistently boycotted the gladiator contests, and rejected all forms of suicide. In time, Christianity's high view of human life became institutionalized in Western culture so that today even secularly minded individuals, although they might approve of abortion, still see human life as the ultimate human value. This sanctified view of human life is a legacy of Christianity.

Zondervan: Why did hospitals originate with Christianity?

Albert: For centuries people became sick, but before the advent of Christianity there were no hospitals to nurse and heal them. The Greeks and Romans had physicians, and even some hospices for shelter, commonly near Aesculapia or iateria (shrines where the sick came for medical advice), but they had no place for the sick to recuperate, to receive medical nursing and rest.

This all changed when St. Basil in Cappadocia (a bishop in the East), moved by Christ's words, "I was sick and you looked after me," built the first hospital in A.D. 369. It consisted of several buildings, housing physicians, nurses, and rehabilitation units. In 375, Fabiola, a wealthy widow, built a hospital in the West. By the end of the fourth century hospitals appeared in numerous places. By the sixth century most of the monasteries also had hospital facilities. During the Crusades (twelfth and thirteenth centuries) numerous hospital orders arose, such as the Order of Hospitalers, Knights of Malta, Hospitalers of St. Lazarus, and others. And from the late Middle Ages to our modern era, Christianity's eleemosynary ethic continued to erect hospitals. Even today many still bear Christianity's imprint, evident by their names: St. John's Hospital, St. Luke's, Baptist Hospital, Lutheran Hospital, Methodist Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital, etc. Thus every time we see a hospital we owe a debt of gratitude to the early Christians.

Zondervan: Explain how charity and compassion began with Christianity?

Albert: In addition to originating hospitals, Christianity introduced and institutionalized charity and compassion. A reknowned historian of ancient societies once wrote: "The idea of humanity was wanting in the old world." He was right. The Roman writer Plutarch (d. A.D. 120) said people in Carthage, for example, offered up their children, having their throats cut without their mothers shedding a single tear.

The Romans practiced liberalitis, not caritas (charity).. Liberalitis provided help for the needy only if some benefit accrued to the giver, whereas, the caritas meant giving help without expecting anything in return. Many pagan philosophers argued against caritas. Instances are known where the pagans even deserted their stricken relatives during epidemics. Christians, however, had compassion for the sick and dying, often forfeiting their own health and lives as they cared for them.

Early in the church, Christian caritas spawned many institutions of charity and compassion, such as buildings that provided shelter for strangers and travelers, orphanages, houses for the poor, homes for the aged, hospices for the blind, and places for the mentally disturbed. As time progressed, Christians formed a wide variety of associations that aided the sick, the poor, and the dying. In more recent times, schools for poor children on Sunday (18th century England), schools for the deaf, the Red Cross, YMCA, service clubs, the United Way, and the profession of nursing were all begun by Christians. Even today's child labor laws have their roots in Christian compassion.

Zondervan: How have many people unconsciously adopted Christian values?

Albert: Given the longstanding, pervasive presence of Christian values, many individuals have unconsciously internalized them. For instance, people in free societies believe that no one is above the law. This moral norm is derived from the Bible and Christianity. In ancient societies kings and emperors were above the law; they took the lives of innocent people without any one being able to hold them accountable. Other examples of internalized Christian values include: the single standard of adultery, a value which comes directly from Jesus' teachings; that it is criminal for adults to have sex with children (behavior which once was legal and common among the Greco-Romans); that infant girls and boys have equal human value; that infanticide is criminal; that the poor should not be left to starve; that slavery is evil and immoral; that the right to own private property is a fundamental component of freedom; and that God is not a respecter of a person's ascribed characteristics.

Zondervan: How is modern science the product of Christian theology?

Albert: Christianity posits a rational God, separate from the natural world, and who created man with a rational mind capable and free to discover God's laws in nature. This assumption, contrary to Greek philosophy, was necessary for the birth and development of science.

At the center of science lies the empirical testing of theories. The ancient Greek philosophers developed great theories, but they never tested them, for that would have involved manual labor, intended only for slaves. Christian monks and laymen, on the other hand, to whom labor was honorable, linked theory with research as they dissected cadavers in the study of medicine; such behavior was the extension of physical labor. Da Vinci and Vesalius, two devout Christians, made other advances in empirical biological research. The major work of Copernicus' (The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies) was published by his Lutheran friends, one being a theologian. Kepler, convinced that "the divine works . . . shine forth everywhere in the structure of the world," was motivated theologically to discover three planetary laws that today's astronomers could not do without. Pasteur, who demonstrated life comes only from existing life, was so motivated by his Christian faith that he likened himself to a "Breton peasant." Many other examples could be cited.

Zondervan: How did Christianity elevate the status of women?

Albert: The status of women was incredibly low before and during Jesus' time. Ancient literature depicts women as evil, unclean, inferior, and with virtually no rights. For instance, Aristophanes, the Greek poet, in his play Lysistrata has the chorus say: "Women are a shameless set, the vilest of creatures." The rabbinic oral law said: "All women convey uncleanness . . ." Aristotle saw woman as "a deformed male." The Athenian woman could not leave her husband's house without a male escort. Respectable women were not to speak to men in public. And adultery was defined in terms of a woman's marital status, not the man's.

Jesus broke with the cultural practices that demeaned women. He saw woman no more evil than any man; nor he did see her as unclean. He introduced the single standard of adultery by saying that a man could commit this sin by looking at a women (regardless of her marital status) with lust in his heart. He did not tell women to be silent, nor did he rebuke them for following him in public. He even told them to tell the disciples that he had risen from the dead. With these precedents, the early Christian women worked with men as coworkers in converting countless pagans. Women, like men, were baptized, catechized, and given equal access to the Lord's Supper. Other changes occurred. Christianity rejected polygynous marriages and the husband's autocratic power over his wife; and it gave women the right to reject unwanted male suitors. In India the spirit of Christ led to abolishing the burning of widows (suttee); in China it ended the cruel practice of binding the feet of young girls. And in recent years, the outlawing clitoridectomy of African-Islamic girls in Western countries is another product of Christianity's elevation of women.

Zondervan: What are some of the highpoints in Christian art, music, and literature?

Albert: One of the highpoints of Christian art, recognized even by non-Christians, is the Gothic architecture of Europe's magnificent cathedrals. One art historian has said: "No architecture like the Gothic so spiritualizes, refines, and casts heavenward the substance which it handles." And artists like Masaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dürer, Rubens, and Rembrandt have enriched the displays of countless museums. In music, the majestic accomplishments of Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven will never be equaled. Their music continues to raise the spirit of its listeners to heights unknown before. In the realm of literature, authors influenced by Christ revealed , as Thomas Carlyle said, "the thoughts of thinking souls." This is evident in countless works, whether it is St. Augustine's The City of God, Dante's Divine Comedy, Thomas More's Utopia, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, or C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.

Zondervan: What holidays, words, and sayings did Christians contribute?

Albert: The word "holiday" originated with Christians in England, and as many know, it once meant "holy day," such as the days of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc. Today it has virtually lost its meaning, for the general populace sees it largely as a day off from work. Sunday, the day on which early Christians commemorated Christ's resurrection, although now highly secularized, is still the most significant day of the week. It has the least amount of people working and more businesses closed than any other day. Christmas time, also highly secularized, is now largely a time of giving and family reunions. The expression "Good Samaritan" remains unequaled as symbol of compassion. Words or symbols, such as martyr, creed, B.C. A.D., christening, cemetery, cathedral, and many others have become an integral part of the English language, here and abroad. They have enriched the language and are virtually irreplaceable.

Zondervan: Are you not giving Christianity more credit than it deserves? What about its negative influences?

Albert: After Christianity was legalized by Constantine in 313, it sometimes had members (some of them as leaders) in its midst, who failed to "let their light shine among men" by contradicting Christ's teachings. Some erroneously approved of slavery; some suppressed women; others (the Crusaders) tried to gain converts with the sword; and still others countenanced corruption, within and outside of the church. Nevertheless, in time Christ's will prevailed so that in time countless salutary changes occurred. Human life was sanctified, sexual morals were elevated, women obtained freedom and dignity, hospitals appeared; charity and compassion were institutionalized, labor received dignity, universal education was implemented; science was spawned; slavery came to end where Christianity had a major presence; liberty and justice surfaced; art and architecture took on a new beauty; music gained an uplifting resonance, and literature conveyed new insights. In short, the negative aspects gave way to Christ's positive accents, and much of the world is a far better place today than it was before God became incarnate in Jesus Christ.