Ancient societies and religion were not known for their care for the sick and dying. Christians who often risked their lives to care even for non-Christians represented a radical difference in the values taught by the Bible than anything else known at that time.
It was common in ancient societies, including Rome, which saw the inception and rise of Christianity, to abandon the sick and dying. Roman religion did not teach followers to care for the helpless.
Destitute families lacking any resources to help sometimes even abandoned the chronically ill to die. In Rome, sick or elderly slaves were routinely left to waste away on Tiber Island. Unwanted children were often left to die of exposure. If a father decided that the family couldn’t afford to feed another child, that child would be abandoned on the steps of a temple or in the public square. Almost without exception defective newborns were exposed in this way. (Christian History magazine)
In ancient Greek religion, the god Asclepius was sought for healing, but there was no ethic of caring for the sick and dying that this god encouraged.
Against this backdrop, Christianity was a distinct contrast. The Bible teaches the intrinsic value of every human being, and this is what motivated early Christians to begin caring for their ailing. Church leaders followed the biblical admonition to visit the sick. Congregations and communities set up formal practices for care. And as this became common among Christians, they were challenged to care for non-Christians, as well.
In the third century AD, an epidemic swept across Northern Africa, Italy, and the western empire. As many as 5000 people a day were dying in Rome. The sick were abandoned in the streets and the dead left unburied. In Carthage, the Christians were blamed for the disease, and the emperor ordered Christians to sacrifice to their gods to end it. Carthage’s bishop, Cyprian, encouraged Christians to care for the sick and dying. They buried the dead and risked getting sick by taking in the sick. This was repeated other times in the early centuries of the church during epidemics. Christians introduced a new concern and standard of care for sick people.
Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Christianity, argues that some of the marked growth of the church in the early centuries can be attributed to care and compassion Christians showed for the sick. He tracks increased conversion rates during three plagues: the Antonine plague (2nd c.), the Cyprian plague (3rd c.), and the Justinian plague (6th c.). Christians demonstrated their love for God and biblical values, and they offered a very attractive witness.
Their example has been followed through the history of the Christian church. Catholic orders were devoted to care. Mennonites in Holland and Quakers in England formed societies to improve health care. Modern medical missionaries carry on in this mission today.
Today, we take for granted the responsibility to care for the sick regardless of religious convictions. It was Christians practicing what the Bible taught them that began caring for those in need.