THE COLUMBUS ENCOUNTER
In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue–and the world hasn’t been the same since. On October 12, 1492, Columbus stepped ashore a small island in what we today call the Bahamas, and this year marks the five hundredth anniversary of that event. It’s a good time for us to think about what kind of man Columbus was, and to reflect on the impact that his discovery has had on all of us.
Columbus is sometimes depicted as a free thinker who had to battle the superstitions of his age. Everybody around him believed the world was flat, but Columbus bucked the tide and insisted that the world is round. His voyage was a triumph of science over superstition.
Well, that makes a good story, but that’s all it is–a story. The fact of the matter is that 1,300 years before Columbus was even born, Ptolemy of Alexandria was teaching that the earth is round, and many of Columbus’s contemporaries were convinced that the earth is round.
To get funding for his voyage, Columbus didn’t have to convince people that the world is round. He had to convince them that the best way to reach Asia would be to sail west instead of east. And he was completely wrong about that. Columbus knew the earth is round–he had that much right–but he badly underestimated its circumference, and he figured that Asia would be less than 4,000 miles west of the Canary Islands. In fact, however, it’s more than triple that distance. If Columbus’s calculations had been accurate, if he’d known how far west Asia really was, he probably wouldn’t have even considered his voyage, and he certainly wouldn’t have convinced the king and queen of Spain to support him.
But thanks to his gigantic mistake, Columbus sailed west. And fortunately for him, there just happened to be an entire world out there at roughly the point he expected Asia to be. Columbus sailed into history by believing firmly in his own miscalculations. It seems that October 12 isn’t so much a celebration of science as of blind luck.
But what if there was more to it than luck? Columbus himself said that his success wasn’t based on his own brilliance, but he didn’t attribute it to luck, either. Instead, he talked about a sense of God’s leading in his life. Listen to what he wrote in a letter to the monarchs of Spain:
Neither the sciences …, nor the authoritative citations from them, were of any avail… I attest that [the Holy Spirit], with marvelous rays of light, consoled me through the holy and sacred Scriptures… encouraging me to proceed.
A bit later in this same letter, Columbus wrote:
I am the worst of sinners. The pity and mercy of our Lord have completely covered me whenever I have called [on him] for them. I have found the sweetest consolation in casting away all my anxiety, so as to contemplate his marvelous presence.
I have already said that for the execution of the enterprise of the Indies, neither reason nor mathematics, nor world maps were profitable to me; rather the prophecy of Isaiah was completely fulfilled.
At that point, Columbus seemed to be thinking of Isaiah 11:10-12. The prophecy says that the Lord will “reach out” and “reclaim” his people from many different nations “and from the islands of the sea,” “from the four quarters of the earth.” Columbus applied this, and many other biblical prophecies, to himself and his voyages. He insisted that he was making it possible for distant lands to hear the gospel and come under the rule of Jesus Christ.
It’s fascinating to explore what Columbus wrote about his faith. That’s a side of him that very few history books have emphasized, and yet it could be essential to really understanding the man and his achievements. The Encyclopedia Britannica, in discussing Columbus, says flatly, “It is a fact that Columbus discovered America by prophecy rather than by astronomy.” That’s a startling statement. It means that when we think about the life and the legacy of Christopher Columbus, we need to look at the faith he claimed to have.
About now you may have the feeling that I’m about to declare that Christopher Columbus was a great hero and that it was his Christian faith that made him so heroic. Some Christians have wanted to say that. For a while, some even wanted Columbus officially declared a saint. But the truth is, it would be easier in many ways if we could pretend that Columbus had nothing to do with Christianity.
You see, Columbus wasn’t the first man to discover America. People from Europe may have called it “the new world,” but it wasn’t new at all. It was just new to Europeans. Millions of Native Americans had been living there long before Columbus arrived. History books often say that in 1492 Columbus discovered America, but according to a placard carried by a Native American protester, “In 1492 the Native Americans discovered Columbus invading their territory.”
Columbus was a man of great achievements, but he was also a man of great atrocities. Many children’s books stop after reporting Columbus’s first voyage. But what about the second voyage, when Columbus and his men returned to Spain with 500 Indian slaves? On that voyage most of the Indians died either on board the ship or shortly after they arrived in Spain, but what did Columbus do? He wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
And that’s not all. In his administration of the islands, Columbus demanded that natives bring him gold dust. Those who didn’t bring enough would have their hands cut off. Since there was hardly any gold dust to be found, many people lost their hands and their lives. Others were so full of terror that they committed suicide rather than face the gold-hungry Spanish. After Columbus came others. He was the first, but not the worst.
Those who came later brought even greater destruction. I have to admit that when I look at Columbus from the perspective of the victims rather than the victors, I’d just as soon say that the man had nothing to do with Christianity. And yet, whether I happen to like it or not, the fact remains that Columbus portrayed himself as a devoted believer in Christ; he depicted his work as a fulfillment of prophecy; he claimed to be a vital part of God’s plan to spread the gospel to the rest of the world.
What can we say about all this? What do we say about a man who wanted to sell as many slaves as possible in the name of the Holy Trinity? What do we make of someone who depicted his discovery as a bridge for the gospel to reach new lands, and but also provided a bridge for all sorts of evil things to cross over?
We could take the easy way out, and say that Columbus’s talk about the Bible was all a pretense, that his talk about faith in Jesus and his desire to bring new lands to Christ was simply a ploy to win the support of the powerful religious hierarchy and the rulers of Spain. That’s possible, of course. But what if Columbus really meant what he said? What then?
We like to keep things simple, to separate the good guys from the bad guys. We can’t conceive of someone being a hero and a villain at the same time. But that’s what Columbus was. He was a man of enormous courage and vision; he was a man of enormous arrogance and cruelty. He was a man who wanted to spread the gospel to the glory of God; he was a man who wanted to increase the territory of Spain for his own glory and profit. He was a man of great achievement; he was a man of great atrocities.
History is full of such people if only we’re willing to pay attention. The Bible says that King David was a man after God’s own heart. He was a mighty man of faith. He was a courageous soldier and a passionate poet. But he also committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah. On another gruesome occasion, David defeated an army of Moabites. He took all the soldiers who had surrendered. The Bible tells us that David “made them all lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live” (2 Samuel 8:2). Imagine that! Slaughtering helpless, unarmed prisoners of war, and choosing the victims simply by where they happen to be lying!
Or think of Martin Luther. He dared to stand alone against the fury of a corrupt hierarchy. He gave the Bible back to the common people. He showed that salvation is found in Jesus, not in rituals. Was Luther a great man? Yes, indeed. In fact, he’s one of my own personal heroes. However, not everything he did was heroic. Martin Luther said some absolutely horrible things about Jewish people, and his words fanned the deadly flames of German anti-Semitism.
Facts like these make those of us who are Christians very uneasy. We like to repeat over and over the story of David, the brave underdog who challenged Goliath with his sling. But what about the David that God called “a man of blood,” the David who arbitrarily butchered helpless captives, the David who murdered one of his own men to add one more woman to his harem? We praise Luther the Reformer; we ignore his anti-Semitic remarks. We’d rather have the mythical, sanitized version of our heroes.
Many of us take that same approach to Columbus. Some Christians would like to say that he was a hero and that it was his faith that made him heroic. Don’t bother us with the darker side; we believe in the Columbus we read about as children, and he’s a prime candidate for sainthood. Others take the opposite approach. If we can’t have Columbus as a spotless hero, let’s declare him a monster who didn’t have an ounce of genuine Christianity in him. Let him be either a hero or a villain, but whatever you do, don’t torment us with the painful paradox of a man both courageous and corrupt, both visionary and vicious, a man who advanced the cause of Christ and also did some of Satan’s work.
However, the perplexing truth of the matter is that it’s seldom easy to draw a line between the good guys and the bad guys. The line between good and evil often runs right through the middle of a person’s heart. Astonishing virtues often come in the very same package as horrifying vices. When we see this in our heroes, it scares us. We’re reminded of our own divided selves. The Bible reminds us that Christians should not assume they’ve been made perfect. The Christian still has two different powers striving inside him. Galatians 5:17 says, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want.”
People are so complex, especially when it comes to the awful mystery of sin. That’s why King David himself prayed, “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). That’s a prayer every one of us needs to pray continually. We may be involved in things that are horribly sinful, even as we think we’re doing God a favor. Columbus wanted “in the name of the Holy Trinity” to sell as many slaves as possible. He equated the ruthless conquests of the Spanish with the advance of the kingdom of God. Columbus may well have done these things without realizing he was sinning at all.
You and I don’t need to pass judgment on Columbus. We need to search our own hearts and our own lives, realizing that even if we belong to Jesus Christ, we are capable of committing grievous sins. We need to confess again and again our desperate need for God’s mercy. Our only hope is to echo the words of Columbus: “I am the worst of sinners. The pity and mercy of our Lord have completely covered me whenever I have called [on him] for them.” If Columbus is in heaven, it’s only because of the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. If David is in heaven, it’s only because of the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. If Martin Luther is in heaven, it’s only because of the love and mercy of Jesus. If you and I go to heaven, it will be only because of the love and mercy of Jesus, only because his blood can cover our hidden sins as well as the ones we knowingly committed.
Let us do more than seek forgiveness, however. Let us face the continuing reality of our old sinful nature, and depend more and more on God’s Spirit to actively fight against it. In connection with the Columbus anniversary, we need to fight one sin in particular: the sin of despising and exploiting other racial groups. 1492 opened the way for the exploitation of Native Americans. Columbus’s practice of enslaving Native Americans and transporting them to Europe later evolved into transporting native Africans to the Americas as slaves. 1492 was also the year that 150,000 Jewish people were forcibly expelled from Spain in order to glorify Jesus Christ. The sins of racism and oppression have been a blight on human history and a stench in the nostrils of God. Let us utterly renounce all such prejudice. Let us resist every form of oppression and exploitation and poverty that still lingers in our society today, and work for real justice.
At the same time, we renounce all prejudice and exploitation, however, we must not renounce the importance of knowing Jesus Christ as Savior. Lately, some people have been bending over backward to apologize for everything that’s happened since 1492. They even apologize for the fact that Christian missionaries urged native peoples to forsake their tribal religions and become Christians.
But we’re not going to rectify the sins of the past by apologizing for spreading the very gospel that has done so much good for so many people. Columbus was wrong about many things, but he was not wrong in wanting more people to know about Jesus.
And besides, is it really humble to apologize for Christianity as “the white man’s religion”? That’s not humility–it’s the worst kind of arrogance! How can anyone claim Christianity is somehow the white man’s religion? This faith took root among Jewish people in Palestine, where Asia and Africa meet. One of the first Gentile converts was a black African from Ethiopia. The greatest theologians of the early church were from Asia and North Africa. Today there are more practicing Christians on the continent of Africa than in Europe. More Christians attend church in Korea than in Spain or Great Britain. Many Native Americans in my own denomination embrace Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. They are grateful for the missionaries who introduced them to Jesus. They aren’t demanding apologies for having been given the gift of eternal life.
So how can anybody apologize for Christianity as a white man’s religion? White people themselves wouldn’t be Christians if it hadn’t been for missionaries from other cultures! It’s silly to pretend that people who come to Christ from every tribe and language and people and nation need an apology for being offered eternal life.
When we look at Columbus, there’s no doubt he was too quick to equate his own culture with God’s kingdom. And there’s no doubt he was working with mixed motives. He talked in one of his letters about the prospect of “turning so many peoples to our holy faith,” yet in the very same sentence, he also talks about the economic payoff for Spain. But whatever motivated him, the fact remains his voyages were the first step in spreading the gospel of Jesus to another part of the world. In spite of the evils that followed Columbus’s discovery, God used that event to help spread his gospel “to the four quarters of the earth.”
And that’s something we can celebrate on this five hundredth anniversary. It’s like what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians. He said that some were preaching Christ for false motives, such as envy and selfish ambition. “But what does it matter?” Paul asked. “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this, I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
Do the sins of Columbus, and the other racist evils that followed in his wake, mean we should stop proclaiming the glorious gospel of forgiveness and joy? Never! Granted, many Christians didn’t practice what they preached. But that only means the practice was wrong, not the preaching. It’s the practice of racism and exploitation that needs to be stopped, not the preaching of the gospel. The Bible says that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him–whoever!–might not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). That’s good news, even when the behavior of some Christians has been bad news. When I spread that news, I’m not claiming that Christians are perfect. But Jesus is perfect, and his gospel brings freedom.
Take a non-religious example. Thomas Jefferson didn’t practice what he preached. Jefferson wrote that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, but even as he wrote that, he owned black slaves. Now, should black Americans reject Jefferson’s democratic insight because they reject Jefferson’s owning of slaves? Not at all. Instead, they have taken that principle of God-given, inalienable rights to advance their own freedom.
In the same way, millions of people found that Jesus is good news for them even if some Christians were bad news. God has helped them somehow to see beyond the cruelty of self-proclaimed Christians to the love of Christ, to see beyond the deceptions of the oppressors to the truth of Jesus, the great liberator.
So, my friend, I make no apology for trying to convince you to follow my Lord. There are some things that make me feel ashamed: I am ashamed when I look at some of the sins in the history of Christianity. I am ashamed whenever I discover sin in my own life. But one thing I shall never be ashamed of: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). I need to keep telling you about Jesus, no matter what your racial background, because the blood of Jesus applies to people of every kind, and his gift of eternal life is too good to keep to myself. I pray that you find peace and salvation in him.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, that salvation depends on your blood and your mercy, and not on our deeds. Forgive our sins, including our hidden faults. Make us more like you. Forgive us, especially for sins that have scandalized others and made it hard for them to really hear the good news of the gospel.
We praise you, heavenly Father, for your great and sovereign plan which uses even such a man as Columbus to bring great good even out of great evil. May all the people of the earth hear of Jesus, and by your Spirit help many of them to trust in Christ. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.