Recently I read a comment an atheist made about Christmas movies. He noted that in a long list of favorite Christmas movies featured on the website RottenTomatoes.com, there was not a single movie about the birth of Jesus or about Jesus himself. All the films listed were about Santa Claus, the Christmas spirit, or some heart-warming incident that took place in December. While remarking the irony (and absurdity) of such a list, the atheist in question nevertheless thought it was justified because the Christian story is, as he put it, “garbage.”
Now whatever you think about the truth of Christianity’s claims, Christianity is not garbage. Christianity has done far more good in this world than harm, and anyone who denies this is either ignorant of history or intellectually dishonest. To the extent that evil has been done in the name of Christianity, it has been done contrary to the teachings of Jesus. As someone has said, “Christianity is not a source of savagery and fanaticism; it is the chief victim of savagery and fanaticism.” Like many good things, Christianity has often been co-opted by evil people for their own purposes. But despite the perversion of Christianity by some professing to be Christian, more good than evil has been done over the centuries because of Jesus’ influence.
It is important, I think, to distinguish between the influence for good on individuals and the influence for good on societies or entire nations. Christianity has influenced many individuals to be more kind and unselfish (remember Chaucer’s parson), but its influence on the broader culture has been much slower and spasmodic. Sometimes people reproach Christianity for spawning wars such as the Crusades or the European civil wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This seems remarkably naïve to me. War has been a constant throughout human history. Pre-Christian Europe was racked by war and conquest, as was pre-Christian Africa, Asia, and North America. The “Prince of Peace” may be criticized for not having eradicated the human propensity to violence, but he cannot be held responsible for inspiring or encouraging it. Christianity may have been a pretext for war, but it has never been the true cause of war.
Christian teaching has made individuals better, and over time the cumulative effect of those millions of individual behaviors have served to make society, or at least Christian societies, marginally better. Humanity as a whole still has a long way to go. I have a Chinese friend who did not grow up with any Christian influence but who has been stuck as an adult by the altruism of Christian behavior in America as contrasted with the daily life he experiences in China. Christians simply behave better toward one another and toward others than do the Chinese who have no religious upbringing. Christianity emphasizes generosity over selfishness, patience over anger, honesty over greed, forgiveness over hatred, and humility over arrogance. Where human nature is allowed to express itself uninfluenced by Christianity, you may expect the latter traits to overshadow the former.
Perhaps someone will object that they know several kind, compassionate, and noble people who are not believers in God. If they are North Americans or Europeans or South Americans, I would suggest that this is probably because they have been reared by Christian parents or at least in a society imbued over the last millennium with Christian values. They may not consciously recognize the source of their character traits and values, but you may be sure that Christianity is probably somewhere at the root.
Christianity has not been able to reform human nature entirely. That was not its intention from the outset. The goal of Christianity was and is to reconcile humanity to God despite the human inclination toward evil (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). That said, Christianity has tried to make the world a better place both one person at a time and nation by nation. As I write, Christian missionaries are at work in Russia, Ukraine, and China attempting to undo decades of atheistic indoctrination. Unfortunately, the moral progress of continents and nations is glacially slow. Slow, to be sure, but not completely unnoticeable. If American politics are slightly less corrupt than, say, Afghan politics, it is due in large part to the Christian foundation of our nation. If not that, then what does make the United States more amenable to justice and human rights than other nations?
I believe any unbiased historian must admit that Christianity has played a key role. The abolitionists of the nineteenth century were primarily Christian. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by the daughter of a Christian minister, Henry Ward Beecher. The British slave trade was abolished largely through the efforts of William Wilberforce, a committed Christian. One may counter that southern preachers justified slavery using the Bible, but the simple truth is that their Christian theology was wrong. The New Testament nowhere justifies slavery or presents it as something desirable. Written in the days of the Roman Empire, it recognizes slavery as a societal reality dating from a pre-Christian antiquity, but it strives only to attenuate the evils of slavery, not to defend slavery itself.
The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote, “I’ve spent a number of years in India and Africa, where I found much righteous endeavor undertaken by Christians of all denominations; but I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society [a British socialist association] or a Humanist leper colony.” Granted, in our day there are a few secular organizations like Doctors Without Borders (1971) that do amazing charitable work, but they are following the lead of a long and distinguished Christian tradition, for example, the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).
Christians have established more colleges, hospitals, child-care facilities, and retirement homes than any other group, secular or governmental. Think about The Red Cross (1863), started by Jean Henri Dunant (1828-1910), reared a devout Christian in Switzerland. Dunant was also the father of the Geneva Convention and received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Consider The Salvation Army (1865), started by the Methodist minister William Booth (1829-1912). Goodwill (1902) was founded in Boston by Edgar J. Helms (1863-1942), a Methodist minister and social innovator. Alcoholics Anonymous (1935) sprang from ideas provided by an Episcopal rector, Sam Shoemaker (1893-1963), who led the American branch of a Christian movement known as the Oxford Group. The list of Christian good works is nigh endless.
Dennis Prager, a Jewish author and radio host, has said, “Imagine it’s midnight, and you are walking in a very bad area of the city. You’re alone in a dark alley, and all of a sudden you notice that ten men are walking toward you. Would you or would you not be relieved to know that they had just attended a Bible class?” I think that says it all. Whether Christianity is true or not, I may never know in this life, but I am absolutely sure it is good and beautiful. Christianity is by no means garbage.