by Bill Nugent
In 80 AD at the opening day of the Coliseum in Rome, gladiatorial contests resulted in the deaths of untold numbers of gladiators and wild beasts. The early church leader Tertullian (c. 160 AD – 220 AD) condemned gladiatorial contests. He urged Christians not to attend such spectacles. Other Christian leaders did likewise. Centuries later, the Christian emperor Theodosius I (r. 378-395) ended gladiatorial games in the East and a few years later his son Honorius ended them in the West.
The Christian influence in the ancient Roman empire resulted in many other social reforms. Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD), the first emperor to profess Christian beliefs, promptly outlawed the branding of the faces of criminals, branding of slaves and also forbade crucifixion.
Early church leaders also preached against suicide. Suicide was a common practice among ancient Romans. Pagan Roman philosophers and writers approved of suicide. The famous philosopher Seneca took his own life as did several emperors. Christian teaching on the sanctity of human life brought the practice of suicide into public disdain.
Christians also opposed the exposing (leaving outside to die) of female babies. Such babies were gathered by Christians and adopted by Christian families. Justin Martyr (c. 100-166 AD) wrote about this. Christianity had a profound impact for good in the ancient world. Jesus said of us “Ye are the salt of the earth”(Matthew 5:13).
Pagan societies (of which Rome was but one) do little to restrain evil. The concept of the sanctity (sacredness) of human life is a Judeo-Christian concept that is clearly taught in the Bible. Societies in various parts of the earth that have little Christian presence tend to deny human rights and destroy human lives. Atheistic Communist societies such as the old USSR and communist China killed millions of people in the 20th century.
In the 1700s there was a philosophical period called the“Enlightenment” that was also called “the age of reason.” In the 1800s there was the “Romantic” period of art and philosophy. The Romantic period was a call to de-emphasize reason and exalt emotion. It was also a call to return to nature and to paganism. There arose at that time what we call the “myth of the noble savage.” In this myth, pre-christian societies were depicted as happy, simple, bucolic people living lives of unfettered joy in the woods. Reality was far different. Slavery, torture, polygamy and cannibalism were just a few of the barbaric practices suppressed by the arrival of Christianity.
Europe, under the influence of Christianity, was the first continent to abolish slavery. Slavery was outlawed all across Europe but continued on other continents. The prominent Christian statesman William Wilberforce (1759-1833) worked tirelessly to abolish slavery in lands held by the British Empire and to abolish the slave trade. Christianity certainly inspired the abolition movement that ended slavery in the United States (though tragically through war).
Jesus said “the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 5:13). (Matthew12:33 NASB). The fruit of Christianity has been social reform of all kinds that result in the recognition and expansion of human rights and liberty. In those places where Christian societies have lapsed into oppression it is because the Christians have deviated from the plain teaching of the Bible. Where the Bible has been honored, liberty has reigned.
Much of the material for this article was gleaned from the book by Alvin J. Schmidt Ph. D. titled Under the Influence: How Christianity transformed civilization which I highly recommend.