Today we all regard compassion, justice and freedom as fundamental to human flourishing.
These ideals are based on the biblical worldview: every person has been created in the image of God. Supremely, Christians affirm the dignity of every human life because God himself, in Christ, became flesh. Christ was incarnate from the moment of conception. God, the giver of life, demands that human life should be protected from conception to natural death.
From the inception of the Christian Church at Pentecost, countless followers of Jesus Christ have lived out the biblical command to love God and love neighbour. Through history, Christians have challenged injustice and abuse, and provided care for the needy, often at great cost to themselves. This has had a beneficial and widespread impact on all areas of human life, including healthcare and philanthropy.
Jesus’ teaching that his followers were to love enemies and show mercy to all was revolutionary in his day. In pagan culture, compassion to the needy was often regarded as foolish. From the earliest centuries, Christians cared for the sick (whether they were believers or not), provided hospitals, looked after lepers, rescued abandoned infants, and resisted abortion. A major factor in the rapid growth of Christianity during the first three centuries (despite persecution) was the Christian ethic of protection of life and care for the needy. Believers risked their own lives to care for others during plagues. By contrast, the pagans often abandoned even their own families to flee to safety.
The early universities grew out of the communities of teachers and students based around Christian cathedrals. The conviction that the Creator God has called us to study his works as well as his words lay behind scientific endeavour and resulted in significant medical advances.
For centuries, the Church provided care for the sick, the poor and the elderly by means of the monastic system. In areas impacted by the Reformation, after many monasteries were closed down, there was a fresh upsurge in Christian provision of hospitals and dispensaries: one of the ethical results of the Evangelical Awakenings.
Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) is remembered as the ‘The Father of English Medicine’. He was motivated by his Christian faith and urged everyone involved in the care of others to remember that we will all answer to God for how we have treated them. We are not to be proud of our abilities or knowledge, as it is all a gift of God’s grace and to be used for his glory and the benefit of others. However needy or pitiful the person we are caring for, they must be afforded dignity, because Christ’s incarnation has for ever ennobled the human nature that he, the eternal Son of God, took upon himself. All who care for others should be humble – all are likely in time to be dependent on the care of others.
Worldwide, Christian missionaries have led the way in providing medical clinics, blood banks, mental health programmes, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation schemes. Working in some of the toughest situations on earth has led to some major medical breakthroughs, such as the missionary Paul Brand’s pioneering treatment of leprosy.
Christianity is the first truly global religion. Local believers across the world serve their fellow human beings in medical and dental care, as well as other vocations and ministries. Christians are often allowed access even to closed countries to minister to physical needs.
Because all people are made in God’s image, and because of God’s ‘common grace’, we find those who are not Christians also extending excellent medical and dental care to others. We are thankful for that and give God the glory. The gifts these colleagues possess, whether they acknowledge it or not, come from their Creator.
God has created us as whole people, body and soul. Jesus cared for both. Christians through history have done the same. The unique and glorious contribution Christians bring is that we, alone, have the message of hope in the face of death. Jesus Christ rose from the dead and triumphed over sin and death. He lives and reigns for ever in his glorified body.
However excellent the medical care we extend, we cannot ultimately prevent death, but believers can look forward to being raised, with glorified bodies, to love and serve God for ever in the new heavens and new earth. The certainty of our eternal security, and the passion to share this great hope with others, has motivated so many Christians to go to the hard places, at great personal risk, many at the cost of their own lives, to care for both the bodies and souls of our fellow human beings.