One of the things that really bothers me about Christians these days is that we are so ill-equipped to answer the increasingly well-articulated arguments from atheists and otherwise anti-religious persons who point out the horrible track record of Christianity and the irrevocable damage that has been done across the world in the name of Christ. Christians today are liable to just sort of shrug and say “that’s not what I’m like,” or find some other way to distance themselves from Christian history (such as calling themselves “followers of Jesus” rather than Christians or a “gathering” instead of “church”).
As marquee atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens proclaim Christianity to be the single most damaging thing to ever befall humanity, are Christians in any position to rebut? Or are we going to simply rely on the frail argument that the “new Christians” are different than the “old” ones (read: crusades, inquisition, imperialism, witch trials, etc)?
When one interrogates the assumption that Christianity has done more harm than good to humankind, we see that it is an idea founded in a rather shoddily conjured historicism. Sure, Christianity has been used to justify a lot of evil—but so have atheism, and paganism, and virtually all other –isms the world has ever seen. Any organized belief system, after all, can be skewed to fit the most heinous inclinations of a wayward soul. In fact, it is often the most secular, areligious societies that wreak the most havoc, not the Christian ones. Think about Stalinist Russia or the various other communist regimes that dotted the globe in the twentieth century. They rejected any belief in God and systematically slaughtered millions of their own people. Think about the French Revolution—a thoroughly secular, godless movement that resulted in the barbaric purging of wide swaths of the innocent citizenry. Clearly a belief in God is not a prerequisite for horrific violence. And then there is the much larger human history (10,000+ years) predating Christ’s arrival on earth: and surprise surprise, all of it is littered with bloodshed and brutality.
Far from a malevolent force of destruction in the world, however, Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement or guiding principle in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign can be traced back to Christians, or at least Christian teachings. Christians led the way in the abolition of slavery and were the first to publicly deem it immoral and denounce it as sin (Wesley, Wilberforce, etc). Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and most major charities and humanitarian organizations (Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, Feed the Children, World Vision, etc) have decidedly Christian roots. Christians were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities (such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale). They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, substance-abuse programs, and many other progressive reforms.
It all goes back to the teachings of Jesus (feed the hungry, clothe the poor, protect the widows, etc) and the practices of the early Christian church. The early church appointed deacons to care for widows and the sick (Acts 6:1, James 5:13), and they were remarkably more open and tolerant (to women, different races and classes, etc) than anyone else in the first century. Tim Keller explains it well when he writes, in The Reason for God,
“At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them. It meant they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents. We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?”
Furthermore, though it is hard to imagine it today (when Christians seem inexplicably marginal to the thought life of the world), devout Christians have also regularly been the biggest shapers of science, thought, art, and culture. People like Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, Augustine, Rembrandt, Bach, Handel, Chaucer, Milton, Dostoevsky, and T.S. Eliot are just a few names from the impressive list of our Christian forbears.
I do not mean to offer any sort of defense for the many horrible things that have been done by Christians and in the name of Christ over the last 2,000 years. There is no justification for that. We must own up to them just as much as we own up to the many great, selfless things that have been done by Christians. But I also want to point out that Christ is who He is regardless of Christians. He is love, perfect and unconditional. We are just His followers: fallible, weak, human, confused. Sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we get it right. More often the latter, I hope and pray…