By David Feddes
How much influence can one person have? Suppose I told you of someone who influenced music more than anyone else in music history. That would be impressive, wouldn’t it? Now suppose I told you that this same person also knew sculpture, painting, architecture, and literature more than anyone else? That might sound like too much to be true.
But suppose I went further and told you that if this person had never lived, there would probably be no computers, no airplanes, no telephones, and no electricity in your home. Would you believe such a thing? What person could possibly have such influence in music, art, and architecture, while at the same time providing the basis for scientific research and invention? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Would anyone except an insane person—or perhaps a politician who doesn’t know when to stop bragging—dare to claim so much influence?
Actually, though, I’ve barely started listing all the areas this person has influenced. Without his influence there might be no freely elected governments and no constitutions that place limits on government power. Ordinary people would have very few rights and freedoms, very little educational opportunity, and very little economic opportunity. Without his influence, slavery would be common. Women would be viewed more as property than as persons. Family life would be much worse than it is.
It would be common to kill widows when a husband died. It would be common for female babies and handicapped babies to be abandoned to starve or be eaten by wild animals. It would be common to kill old people or let them starve to death if they could no longer care for themselves.
Without this person’s influence, few, if any, hospitals would exist. Few, if any, colleges and universities would exist. Billions fewer people would be able to read and write. In fact, billions fewer people would be alive at all.
Could any one person be such a world changer? Could the same man change the fine arts, science, government, economics, education, family relationships, and every sphere of civilization? It sounds crazy, almost as crazy as a man claiming to be God. But as a matter of fact, that’s who I’m talking about: Jesus Christ, the man who claimed to be God.
You might not be aware of the impact Jesus has had on the things I’ve mentioned. But these things are not just far-out fantasy; they are firm fact. Even thinkers and scholars who don’t believe in Jesus as God recognize that Christ changed the world more than anyone who ever lived and that Christianity has decisively influenced all the things I’ve mentioned and more besides. In this article and others to follow, we’ll examine the facts about areas transformed by Christ, the world-changer.
How Did He Do It?
Before we get into details, let’s first ask the general question: how did he do it?
During Jesus’ time on earth, he didn’t produce any grand art or architecture. He didn’t compose any music or write any books. He didn’t hold any government position. He didn‘t propose any new scientific theory or invent any new technology. Jesus didn’t start any hospital or university. He didn’t start a literacy program. He didn’t lead a political movement to free slaves and improve women’s status. He didn’t have a wife or children.
And yet this man who never headed a family of his own transformed family life for billions. This man who never led a slave revolt or a women’s rally brought dignity and liberty to countless women and former slaves. This man who never published a page of his own writing produced the most literate, educated civilizations in the world. This man who was never a professor, researcher, or inventor spread a way of thinking that enabled science to flourish. This man, who was never a lawyer and never held a government post, set the framework for just laws and human freedom. This man, who produced no artistic masterpieces, became the inspiration for the finest art and literature on Earth.
How did Jesus do it? How did he change so many different areas of human life and culture? He did it without making any of these things his main focus. He did it by connecting people to God, the source of all human flourishing. He did it by bringing God’s reign of love, truth, beauty, and power to bear on the lives of one person after another. He did it by changing people from the inside out: he changed their hearts, and they changed their culture. Jesus didn’t change the world all at once. He changed it through small beginnings and steady growth, through the hidden but ever-spreading influence of God’s kingship, which was embodied in Jesus’ own person and spread from him to others.
Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”
Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Luke 13:18-21).
When Jesus compared God’s kingdom to a small seed, he was a penniless wanderer in a poverty-stricken area of a weak country occupied by a foreign army. Jesus was unknown to the world’s ruling powers and leading thinkers, and his followers were lower class nobodies. Jesus and his band seemed as small and insignificant as a tiny seed lying unseen in the dirt. But Jesus declared that this seed of God’s kingdom would grow and branch out, becoming so big and beneficial that countless people and entire nations could nest and find shelter in its branches. It seemed unlikely at the time, but that’s exactly what happened.
The comparison to yeast makes a similar point: a little bit makes a big difference. When a woman makes dough for bread, she uses lots of flour and only a little yeast. When the yeast is tucked into the flour, it’s no longer visible. Yet somehow that yeast affects the entire lump of dough. In the same way, God’s reign in Christ starts out small, invisible. It works gradually, secretly, seldom in the headlines. But the invisible turns out to be invincible. Nothing can stop it from fermenting and spreading into more and more areas of life, more and more spheres of culture. When God became a man in the person of Jesus, the yeast of God’s life and power entered the dough of this world. The yeast of the Christ-life has been spreading through the loaf of humanity ever since. When the yeast of Christ’s gospel gets into your life, it affects every part of your life. When the yeast of Christ’s gospel gets into a country and civilization, it affects every sphere of culture. It does so not instantly or violently, but gradually and quietly. It takes time for bread to rise, and it takes time for Christianity to transform culture. But over time the world-changing yeast of Christ has shown its power.
Jesus deserves credit for all sorts of things that many people aren’t aware of. What would this world be like without Christ? What if Jesus had never been born? That’s a fascinating question, and it’s the title of a fascinating book by D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe. The book describes “the positive impact of Christianity in history” and shows that “had Jesus never been born, this world would be far more miserable than it is.” Another helpful book for understanding Christ’s impact on the world is Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett. A third book, the most detailed of all, is titled Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, by long-time sociology professor Alvin J. Schmidt. All three books describe the huge impact of Christ the world-changer in one sphere of life after another, and all three books have contributed a great deal to the articles I’ve written on this subject.
Noted historian Paul Maier, after reading Alvin Schmidt’s book on how Christianity transformed civilization, was deeply impressed and said other readers would “be amazed at how many of our present institutions and values reflect a Christian origin.”
Not only countless individual lives but civilization itself was transformed by Jesus Christ. In the ancient world, his teachings elevated brutish standards of morality, halted infanticide, enhanced human life, emancipated women, abolished slavery, inspired charities and relief organizations, created hospitals, established orphanages and founded schools.
In medieval times, Christianity almost single-handedly kept classical culture alive through recopying manuscripts, building libraries, moderating warfare through truce days, and providing dispute arbitration. It was Christians who invented colleges and universities, dignified labor as a divine vocation, and extended the light of civilization to barbarians on the frontiers.
In the modern era, Christian teaching properly expressed advanced science, instilled concepts of political and social and economic freedom, fostered justice, and provided the greatest single source of inspiration for the magnificent achievements in art, architecture, music, and literature that we treasure to the present day…
In a climate of multiculturalism and its mandate to “find the truths in all world religions,” it is hardly politically correct to say this, yet after reading this book, I must: No other religion, philosophy, teaching, nation, movement—whatever—has changed the world for the better as Christianity has done.
Not all cultures are equal. Some cultures are better than others, and the best cultures on earth are those that have been most influenced by Christ and the Bible. If that sounds arrogant, I’m sorry, but it’s a fact. Multiculturalism pretends all cultures are equal, regardless of what religion has shaped the culture. But, says economist Thomas Sowell,
Those who say that all cultures are equal never explain why the results of those cultures are so grossly unequal. When some cultures have achieved much greater prosperity, better health, longer life, more advanced technology, more stable government, and greater personal safety than others, has all this been just coincidence?
If all cultures are equal, why do so many people leave countries dominated by non-Christian religions in order to live in countries where Christianity has historically had the greatest influence? If all cultures are equal, why did communist countries built on atheism have to build walls to keep people from leaving for other countries? No country on earth is perfect and no culture is completely Christian, but it’s a fact that those cultures are best where the seed of Christ’s kingdom has been growing the longest and where the yeast of Christianity has worked its way most thoroughly into all aspects of the culture.
There’s a story about an American soldier during World War II who met a native on a remote island. The native could read and was holding a Bible. When the American soldier saw the Bible, he said, “We educated people no longer put much faith in that book.” The native, who was from a tribe of former cannibals, replied, “Well, it’s good that we do, or you would have been eaten by my people today.” Not all cultures are equal.
Who Did It?
In other parts of this series, we’ll have more in-depth descriptions of various areas of culture where Christ changed the world for the better. (You can order free printed copies for yourself or read them online at BacktoGod.net.) For now let’s just look at a quick sample of major advances and ask who did it.
People in the Roman Empire entertained themselves by watching gladiators fight and kill each other. A brave man, at the cost of his own life, brought the butchery to an end. Who did it? A Christian monk named Telemachus.
It was common throughout the ancient world to abort unwanted babies or, if the abortion failed, to abandon the babies in out-of-the-way places to die of exposure or be eaten by animals. But a group of people searched out many of these babies, took them home, cared for them, loved them, and raised them as their own children. Who did it? The Christians. And still today Christians are leaders in respect for unborn babies and in adopting babies other people don’t want.
Who drafted the Magna Carta, the great document limiting royal powers and establishing basic rights? The Archbishop of Canterbury was a major influence. Who wrote the Mayflower Compact, America’s first written constitution? Christian Pilgrims, eager to serve Christ in freedom. Who was the teacher of James Madison, the main author of the U.S. Constitution? John Witherspoon, a Christian pastor. Who laid down principles of economic free enterprise? A Christian named Adam Smith.
Most public schools no longer teach such facts to students, but facts are still facts. Despite political correctness and multiculturalism, it remains true that freedom and human rights have flourished most in countries influenced by Christianity. No nation is perfect, and no political or economic system is totally Christian–but the seed and yeast of Christ certainly have made some nations better places to live in than others.
Who started the first hospitals? Christians did. Who was the pioneer of modern nursing? A Christian named Florence Nightingale. Who started the International Red Cross? A Christian named Henry Dunant. Whose discoveries about bacteria opened the way for major medical advances? A Christian named Louis Pasteur. Who pioneered safer surgery with sterile instruments? A Christian named Joseph Lister.
Who invented a printing press and made books available to masses of people? A Christian named Johannes Gutenberg–and the first book he printed was the Bible. Who started the world’s great universities, such as Oxford, Paris, Heidelberg? Christians did. Who started America’s great universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton? Christians did. Who promoted schools that gave educational opportunities to all children and not just to the elite? Christians did. Who invented sign language for deaf people? A French priest. Who developed the standard alphabet of raised dots that enables blind people to read? A Christian named Louis Braille.
Who pioneered the greatest advances in scientific discovery? People who were themselves Christians, or whose view of reality had been shaped by Christian concepts. People who believed in many gods didn’t look for a rational order in the world. People whose religion taught that physical things are unreal or bad wouldn’t bother studying physical reality. But people who believed that one God created and ordered the universe believed they could learn something of that order, and people who believed that Christ himself became physical knew that the physical world must be real and valuable. Without such confidence, there would be no Copernicus, no Galileo, no Newton, no Pascal. We would not have modern science as we know it, and the many amazing inventions we enjoy would never have come into being.
Who invented four-part musical harmony? Christian choirs. Who was the first man to play keyboard instruments with all five fingers? A Christian named Johann Sebastian Bach, who is also considered by many to be the greatest musician of all time.
As for literature, I can hardly begin to tell of the influence of Christ and the Bible. Let’s just say that without Christ, we would not have the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Tolkien. Charles Dickens declared that the greatest story in all of world literature is Christ’s parable of the prodigal son. Whether others would agree with that, the fact remains that without Christ, much of the world’s greatest literature would simply not exist.
That’s just a quick sample of Christ’s impact on culture and civilization. Christ changes people, and his people change the world. Minds guided by Christ’s truth and hearts motivated by Christ’s love have grown like seed and spread like yeast, so that there is no other person in history whose influence can begin to compare with the influence of Christ the world changer. As someone once wrote, “All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life.”
Seek First His Kingdom
Those of us in places that have inherited the cultural blessings of Jesus’ influence should honor and thank Christ for these blessings. We must seek the personal transformation and relationship to God that is the secret power behind these blessings. And in a time when many individuals and cultures are walking away from their Christian heritage, we must beware of a new barbarianism which loses the cultural blessings of Christianity and loses the eternal blessings of salvation.
There have been people who recognize that a Christian influence greatly improves people and cultures but who don’t trust in Christ or submit to him in their own life. For example, in the 1800s a British newspaper was harshly criticizing Christian missionaries overseas for trying to change people of other cultures. In response to the criticism, Charles Darwin wrote a letter to the editor in favor of the missionaries. Darwin said that if a voyager was cast ashore on some uncharted island, he would wish that missionaries had been there first. Still, although Darwin recognized the civilizing power of Christianity, but he did not personally believe in Jesus as the Son of God and did not take the Bible as God’s Word.
It’s a tragedy to know the many benefits of faith in Christ and yet not trust Christ yourself. We live in a world that is far better than it would have been if Jesus had never come, but as Jesus himself once asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” The cultural benefits of Christ are only hints of the perfect new world he will bring when he comes again with power and glory. We will never enter that perfect world unless we turn to Christ in this world. Jesus says, “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5). But before you can forever enjoy everything made new, Christ must make you new.
The only way you can be made new is not first of all by trying to improve this or that aspect of the world but by repenting of your sins, giving up on your own ability to save yourself or change the world, and instead trust in Jesus’ death to pay for your sins, count on his life to give you eternal life, seek his guidance to direct your conduct, and seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. And as Christ the world changer makes you new, he can also renew the world through you.
Much of modern culture is cutting itself off from the life of Christ. We think we can have compassion, freedom, and progress, and beauty without a connection with Christ and without the Bible’s guidance. And it turns out that not every good thing in culture withers away the instant people cut themselves off from Christ. Cut flowers look lovely and lively for awhile before they start to wither. But the withering will eventually come. Where fewer people follow Christ, eventually sexual immorality rises, abortion increases, family life falters, economies are hampered by corruption, science and technology become dehumanizing and dangerous, art and literature get uglier. Some of this we see taking place already.
For cultural renewal and for personal salvation, we need Christ the world-changer. The world changer’s kingdom is like a growing seed. For you to be part of that growth, his life must be in you. The world changer’s kingdom is like yeast spreading through the loaf. For you to be a leavening influence on others, the yeast must be at work in you. Personal salvation and cultural transformation go together, and Christ is the source of both.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.