It’s easy to characterize religion as a blood-thirsty enterprise, a perpetrator of witch hunts, crusades, and religious jihad. But has Christianity been the cause of such evil, or does the truth turn out to be just the opposite?
It’s easy to characterize religion as a blood-thirsty enterprise. History seems to be strewn with the wreckage of witch hunts, crusades, and religious jihad. If God does exist, a caller to my radio show offered, He ought to be tried for crimes against humanity.
The recent terrorist attacks have added a new twist: Our battle is not against terrorism per se, but against any religion that claims to be true. Thomas Friedman writing in the New York Times called it “religious totalitarianism.”[i]
Friedman’s solution: pluralism, the idea that “God speaks multiple languages.” No one faith is exclusively true. Instead, all faiths are legitimate paths to God and anyone who claims otherwise is the enemy. Friedman’s call to arms, however, is misguided for three reasons.
First, it’s self-defeating. The issue is not God’s linguistic ability, but whether anything particular is true about God and whether God has made any specific demands on us regarding conduct, worship, or salvation. Do the details matter to God?
Friedman says no; God is a pluralist. He fails to recognize that this is a narrow, exclusivist (excluding non-pluralists), religious claim that he thinks is true. Not only is he dogmatic about this doctrine of God, he’s also militant. Those who disagree should be silenced. Friedman counters what he mistakenly perceives to be “religious totalitarianism”(in fact, most exclusivist religions are not militant) with the genuine article. His view commits suicide.
Second, Friedman misdiagnoses the problem, which he thinks is religious dogma. Of necessity, though, everyone (including Friedman) is dogmatic about issues of truth. It can’t be otherwise. Any claim is either true or false. If true, then those that contradict are wrong by simple force of logic.
The problem is not religious dogmatics, but religious error. The problem with Muslim terrorists is not fundamentalism, but that their fundamental beliefs are simply false. Ironically, Friedman’s pluralism prevents him from asking the only question that really matters: What religion is true?
Finally, it’s just erroneous that religion has been responsible for more carnage than anything else in history. The challenge has two parts. An allegedly factual observation about history is then taken as an inherent criticism of religion in general and Christianity in particular.
This is misguided. First, the crimes themselves have been exaggerated. Second, the greatest evil in the world actually comes from those who deny God’s existence. Third, Christianity cannot be held responsible when people do un-Christian things. Finally, Christianity’s real record of goodness is without peer in world history.
The first problem with this objection is that many “religious” crimes have been misconstrued or greatly exaggerated.
Many conflicts that appear at first glance to be religious in nature are actually political or cultural wars that divide along religious lines. The strife in Northern Ireland is not a theological dispute about Catholicism vs. Protestantism per se, but rather a cultural power struggle between two groups of people. In like manner, much of the conflict in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is the result of ethnic hostilities, not genuine religious differences.
The Crusades, the Inquisition, some of the religious wars of the Reformation, and the Salem witch trials, on the other hand, were more theological. Even so, the record is not as grim as many make it.
Thousands of witches were not burned at the stake. The Salem witch trials resulted in only nineteen executions before it was stopped by Christians. The Spanish Inquisition involved thousands and the Crusades tens of thousands, not millions.
Of course, it’s tragic when even a handful of innocent lives are taken. Injustice isn’t justified because the numbers diminish. But an accurate accounting does serve to put things in perspective, especially when one considers the alternative: Has atheism fared better?
The simple fact of history is that the greatest evil has always resulted from denial of God, not pursuit of Him. Dennis Prager has noted, “In this [20th] century alone, more innocent people have been murdered, tortured, and enslaved by secular ideologies—nazism and communism—than by all religions in history.”[ii]
Grab an older copy of the Guinness Book of World Records and turn to the category “Judicial,” sub-heading “Crimes: Mass Killings.” You’ll find that carnage of unimaginable proportions resulted not from religion, but from institutionalized atheism.
Guinness reports, “The greatest massacre ever imputed by the government of one sovereign against another is the 26.3 million Chinese killed during the regime of Mao Zedong between 1949 and May 1965. The Walker Report published by the U.S. Senate Committee of the Judiciary in July 1971 placed...the total death toll in China since 1949 between 32.25 and 61.7 million.”[iii]
In the USSR, Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn estimated that state repression and terrorism took over 66 million lives from 1917 to 1959 under Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev.[iv]
The worst per capita genocide happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. According to Guinness, “More than one third of the eight million Khmers were killed between April 17, 1975 and January 1979.”[v]
The greatest evil does not result from people zealous for God. It results when people are convinced there is no God to whom they must answer.
“I Never Knew You”
The third problem—one often overlooked—is captured in a question: Is oppression and bloodshed either a religious duty of Christianity or a logical application of the teachings of Christ? If not, then violence done in the name of Christ cannot be laid at His door.
Imagine yourself a builder who sent out crews with detailed, written instructions for their work. Instead of building, though, they destroyed. Would you be responsible? That would depend on one thing: the written instructions.
One can’t hold Christianity responsible when so-called Christians violate the written instructions. The fault is not with Christ, but with people who disobey Him.
Jesus was quite clear on this: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). His command to love extended even to one’s enemy (Luke 10:29-37).
The Apostle John reflects the same view: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: Anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).
Nothing in Christian teaching itself mandates forcible conversion to the faith or coerced adherence to Biblical doctrines. The teachings of Christ do not lead logically to wanton bloodshed.
Jesus Himself warned of interlopers, wolves in sheep’s clothing. His assessment of them is unmistakable: “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).
The actual track record for genuine disciples of Jesus Christ—those who follow the written instructions—is much different. Two Biblical teachings have made Christianity the greatest force for good in the history of the world.
First is the teaching that God reigns over a moral universe He created. He requires virtuous behavior from His subjects and will one day judge each person’s conduct with perfect justice.
Second, Christian morality is informed by the notion that human beings are made in the image of God and therefore have transcendent value. This has been the foundation for Christian ethics for 2,000 years.
Love for Christ and a desire to obey Him has transformed the world in four areas: education, human rights, acts of mercy, and general moral transformation of culture.
Modern education owes its origins to Christianity. The reason is simple. One of the goals of the Reformation was to get the Bible into the hands of the common man, in the language of the common man. This did no good if he didn’t know how to read. Primary public education, then, was part of the foundation for the Reformation.
Historian Earle Cairns writes in Christianity through the Centuries:
Education was one of the earliest concerns of the colonists, according to the pamphlet New England’s First Fruits. This was in the tradition of the Reformation because Calvin and Luther had emphasized the need of education so that the individual could read his Bible and so that leaders for the church and state could be trained. The Bible had first place in their curricula and that of the educational institutions of early America, and classical training took second place as an aid to the full knowledge of the Bible.[vi]
In fact, almost all of the Ivy League schools were started with theological intent—Yale, Harvard, Brown, et al. Our own educational system was founded on the need to teach citizens to read the Bible and to provide leadership for the church and state.
This was the pattern wherever Christianity went. In A Concise History of the Christian World Mission, Herbert Kane reports, “In China...missionaries...operated thousands of elementary schools, as well as hundreds of high schools, as well as thirteen full-fledged Christian universities.”[vii]
Missionaries made Africa literate. Kane notes, “There are 860 known languages and dialects in Africa. A hundred years ago fewer than twenty had a written form. Since then five hundred have been reduced to writing—all the work of missionaries.”[viii]
These dedicated Christians created written languages for many African tribes where no writing existed. “The missionaries had to start from scratch—inventing scripts, writing textbooks, and opening schools. For many decades they were the sole purveyors of education....In 1923 only one hundred of the six thousand schools in British Africa were government schools. As late as 1961, 68 per cent of all the school children in Africa were still in mission schools.”[ix]
The first president of Ghana and one of the earliest presidents of Kenya—a former Mau Mau insurrectionist leader—acknowledged the debt they owed missionaries in laying a foundation for their country’s independence.[x] Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad, Zaire, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia all had Christian presidents at one time or another.[xi]
In the nineteenth century, William Wilberforce spent a lifetime working to abolish slavery in England and the British commonwealth. Cairns records, “Slavery was ended in British possessions by an act passed just before Wilberforce’s death in 1833,” an achievement, he adds, that “would have been impossible without the work of Wilberforce and his evangelical friends in Parliament.”[xii]
Opposition to slavery by Christians here in America led us into Civil War. Their objection was based on the Christian belief that human beings are free people before God and ought not be owned by anyone else. This conviction was the moral foundation for abolition.
David Livingston, an adventurer who charted the dark regions of Africa, was actually a missionary. “By his travels in Central Africa, [Livingston] exposed the Arab slave trade as ‘the open sore of the world.’”[xiii] In fact, it was Christian missionaries who entreated European powers to intervene in Africa to stop the slave trade carried on by the Arabs.
True, European countries also participated in slavery, but always under protest. This protest, driven largely by the moral impulse of Christians, eventually prevailed. Kane reports:
By precept and example [missionaries] inculcated the ideas and ideals of Christianity—the sanctity of life, the worth of the individual, the dignity of labor, social justice, personal integrity, freedom of thought and speech—which have since been incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drawn up by the United Nations.[xiv]
Acts of Mercy
Mother Theresa was well known as a humble Christian who spent her life in service to the poor people of Calcutta. She was one of many.
George Mueller relied on prayer and selfless dedication to start orphanages all over nineteenth century England. Mueller’s contemporary and fellow countryman John Howard devoted his life and his sizable fortune to prison reform. Historian Earle Cairns notes that “before his death in 1790 from jail fever, which he caught while inspecting a vile prison, he traveled fifty thousand miles and spent thirty thousand pounds of his own money on prison reform.”[xv]
In America, people like William Booth with The Salvation Army and Chuck Colson with the Prison Fellowship have worked tirelessly to alleviate staggering human suffering.
Evangelist John Wesley was possibly without peer in his impact. “Historians readily acknowledge that Methodism ranks with the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution as one of the great historical phenomena of the [eighteenth] century, and some subscribe to the idea that Wesley’s preaching saved England from a revolution similar to that of France” [emphasis added].[xvi] As a result of Wesley’s work, reforms were instituted so there was no need for revolution.
Cairns reports, “Most of the social reforms [in England] between 1787 and 1850 were the outcome of evangelical effort for the poor.”[xvii] Kane notes, “In China [the missionaries] operated 270 hospitals....These accounted for more than half of all the hospitals in the country. Today India has 450 hospitals in the Christian Medical Association.”[xviii]
For every well known servant of Christ to the poor and downtrodden there have been thousands upon thousands more who served quietly, unnamed and unnoticed.
Salt and Light
Even secular observers have conceded the contribution of the faithful followers of Christ. “Thinking largely of Africa, Professor E. A. Hootan of Harvard said: ‘As an anthropologist, I have completely reversed my opinion of missionaries. These men and women have contributed more to our knowledge of the peoples of the world than have the entire ruck of professional travelers and explorers. They may have done more than the anthropologists themselves.’”[xix]
Herbert Kane sums up the noble contribution of the true followers of Christ:
The missionaries of the nineteenth century were a special breed of men and women. Single-handedly and with great courage they attacked the social evils of their time: child marriage, the immolation of widows, temple prostitution, and untouchability in India; footbinding, opium addiction, and the abandoning of babies in China; polygamy, the slave trade, and the destruction of twins in Africa. In all parts of the world they opened schools, hospitals, clinics, medical colleges, orphanages, and leprosaria. They gave succor and sustenance to the dregs of society cast off by their own communities. At great risk to themselves and their families they fought famines, floods, pestilences, and plagues. They were the first to rescue unwanted babies, educate girls, and liberate women.[xx]
“Above all,” Kane sums up, “they gave to the non-Christian world the most liberating of all messages—the gospel of Christ. They converted savages into saints; and out of this raw material they built the Christian church, which is today the most universal of all institutions.”[xxi]
This is Christianity’s real record, not a history of evil, violence, and debauchery, but a legacy of radical transformation for good.
[i]Thomas Friedman, “The Real War,” New York Times, 11/27/01.
[ii]Dennis Prager, Ultimate Issues, July-September, 1989.
[iii]Donald McFarlan, ed., Guinness Book of World Records 1992 (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1991), 92.
[vi]Earle E. Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 365.
[vii]J. Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1982), 167.
[xix]Christian World Facts (New York: Foreign Missions Conference of North America, 1941), 96, as quoted in Kane, 170.