How Christianity Transformed the World: Christianity’s impact on freedom and justice

Many today would argue that Christianity has changed the world for the worse.

The “new atheists” don’t just see Christianity as wrong but evil. They believe that we need to be liberated from outdated ideas of moral absolutes and cast off “superstition”. Science (not religion) can solve our problems. The way history is sometimes presented is that Enlightened Rome (pagan) collapsed; then came the Dark Ages (religious superstition); but during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, human reason triumphed over religion. Humanity entered the uplands of scientific progress unhindered by faith. Human virtue (without God) could achieve human rights, freedom and prosperity.

That simple narrative has been discredited. In reality, the historical evidence points to the overwhelmingly positive impact biblical Christianity has had through the centuries. The world has been changed immeasurably for the better because of the life and witness of Christ’s followers.

The title for this short series is taken from a book by Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World. The foreword claims that Christianity has been:

…the most powerful agent in transforming society for the better across two thousand years… No other religion, philosophy, teaching, nation, movement – whatever – has so changed the world for the better as Christianity has done.

Of course, this is a vast topic. Christianity today is the first truly global religion: a third of the world’s people are nominally Christian. There is no way that the full impact of Christianity can be measured. And we cannot deny that in the past, in the name of Christ, injustices have been wrongly perpetrated. We need to distinguish institutional religion from real living Christianity. And we should never claim that Christians have a monopoly on virtue and compassion. The Bible teaches that God has placed his moral law on the hearts of all humans made in his image; he has given us all a conscience. So, we often see reflections of God’s own kindness in the generous and altruistic acts of people who don’t even believe in him.

But from the inception of the Christian church at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus have sought to love their neighbour and to reflect God’s moral character. We can trace at least some of the beneficial and widespread impact this has had. In this first article we will consider the themes of freedom and justice, leaving the specific question of religious freedom for the next article. The third article will address the protection of life and the dignity of women; the fourth article will look at philanthropy and health care; and the final article will discuss Christianity’s impact on educational provision.

Christianity and Freedom

Many people assume that the liberty and justice that we take for granted today are the results of secular thinking.

In reality, the liberties and rights that we value in free societies are to a great degree the result of Christianity’s influence. They are based on the conviction that all humans, made in God’s image, are equal in dignity (Genesis1:26-27).

In 2016, Cambridge University Press published a comprehensive two volume symposium, Christianity and Freedom, which incorporated years of research by a team of international scholars. The overall conclusion was that:

…free institutions hardly ever developed in places that were not influenced by Jewish and Christian ideas. Outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has been rare for thinkers to suppose that God endowed us with a nature of our own, that freedom is part of that nature…

The origin of the idea of “human rights” is the concept of the person which is founded on the biblical view that all people are created in the image of God. This is what affords equal dignity to every individual. And the incarnation of Christ confirms the significance of our human condition. Christianity stands alone. Humans are made in the image of God; but then God taking human flesh underlines the dignity of the human person.

The historical reality is that regimes which have denied the existence of God and followed an atheistic or “hard secularist” political philosophy have demonstrated the least regard for human rights. Where no God is acknowledged, the State can all too easily “become God”, with appalling consequences. Under Communist governments, so called “enlightenment atheism” regards religion as a “false consciousness” which should be eliminated through propaganda and “re-education”. Militant atheism treats religion as an anti-revolutionary social force which must be suppressed by political measures.

Response to Slavery

Sociologist Rodney Stark writes:

Of all the world’s religions, including the three great monotheisms, only in Christianity did the idea develop that slavery was sinful and must be abolished… Slavery was once nearly universal to all societies able to afford it… only in the West did significant moral opposition ever arise and lead to abolition.

The Christian conviction that every human being is made in the image of God stood in stark contrast to the culture of the ancient world, which rested on brutal slavery.

The great Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that without slaves to do labour, enlightened people wouldn’t have the energy and leisure to pursue wisdom and virtue. It never occurred to Aristotle that a slave might have the right to pursue wisdom and virtue! The philosopher Plato believed that slaves had no souls, so they had no human rights; masters could treat them as they wanted. There was no concept of universal human dignity in ancient culture.

Of the seventy or so million people in the Roman Empire, at any one time around a seventh of them, ten million, might have been slaves. It was socially acceptable for male freemen to use women, young men, children, and slaves for their own sexual gratification. “Sheer violence, institutional and personal, was integral to ancient sexual culture.”

In this context the apostolic witness that “in Christ we are all one, whether slave or free” (Galatians 3:28) was revolutionary. There were no pagan cults where slaves and free could both belong on an equal footing. For churches to admit free people and slaves as fellow members was unprecedented. And the early church built on this radical teaching.

Early in the fourth century, Lactantius in his Divine Institutes said that in God’s eyes there were no slaves. Chrysostom, also in the fourth century, proclaimed that when Christ came he annulled slavery. He told the wealthy in his congregation to buy slaves, teach them a trade, and then set them free.

The Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa, AD 335-395, attacked slavery for its sheer arrogance and violation of the free nature of human beings made in God’s image. “Do you condemn man to slavery whose nature is free and autonomous?” Gregory demanded.

How much does rationality cost? How many obols for the image of God?… For He who knew human nature said that the entire cosmos was not worthy to be exchanged for the soul of a man.

It took time to root out slavery in the Western world. But treating slaves with dignity as Christian brothers and sisters, embracing them in the church family, giving them communion, all laid the way for arguing that, as slaves were part of the body of Christ, they should be freed. Over the centuries, increasing numbers of manumissions took place, and also increasing numbers of marriages between slaves and free. One such marriage took place when Clovis II, King of the Franks, married his slave Bathilda in 649. She eventually mounted a campaign to halt the slave trade and redeem those in slavery. During the 8th century the Emperor Charlemagne opposed slavery; by the 11th century the last vestiges of slavery in Christendom were abolished.

One of the greatest heroes of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), a former slave who, on numerous trips to the South, helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom.

The transatlantic slave trade brought back the horror on a far wider and more terrible scale. When Queen Elizabeth I was told of the early efforts to take slaves from Africa to the Americas she was outraged and warned that the slave trade would call down the vengeance of heaven. But commercial interests prevailed; between the reign of Elizabeth I and the end of the 18th century, about ten million African slaves were taken over to forced labour in the Americas (and they were the ones who didn’t perish on the journey). Shockingly, by the eighteenth century, the prevailing legal and public opinion in England was that slavery was acceptable. Many people believed that the wealth and power of Britain would collapse without the slave trade.

Then, as now, people argued that if something was legal, it was acceptable. The evangelist John Wesley disagreed, demanding:

Can Human Law turn light into darkness or evil into good? Notwithstanding 10,000 laws, right is right and wrong is wrong still!

Famously, Wesley cheered on and encouraged William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the best-known campaigner against slavery. On his deathbed Wesley wrote to Wilberforce:

Unless God has raised you up for this very thing you will be worn out with the opposition of men and devils but if God is for you, who can be against you?

Wilberforce often had need of that encouragement! On 12 May 1789, he rose to his feet in the House of Commons and delivered an eloquent, passionate, closely-researched speech that lasted three hours. The response? “We need more evidence.” That delaying tactic would be used for the next 18 years. Year after year, Wilberforce introduced a bill to outlaw the slave trade. Year after year, the establishment prevaricated.

He was vilified as a national traitor by many. English military hero Lord Nelson spoke of “the damnable Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”. Sometimes he nearly achieved success. In 1796 his bill was thrown out by 74 votes to 70, just four votes short. The bill fell because about a dozen MPs who had promised support had not bothered to show up: they’d gone off to the opera, or into the country.

Eventually in 1807 the bill to abolish the slave trade passed by a staggering 283 in favour and 16 against. Wilberforce wept as the crowded House of Commons gave him a standing ovation. Twenty-six years after that, just before his death, on July 26 1833, Wilberforce received word that Parliament passed the abolition act, freeing 700,000 slaves and agreeing to payment of two million pounds in compensation to owners.

Wilberforce was only one among many faithful campaigners. One of the often-forgotten leaders was Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838). He was the behind-the-scenes researcher, a statistician who tirelessly worked 18-hour days to provide the hard facts. During his long fight against injustice he was continually vilified, slandered and attacked, but he persevered. Another forgotten hero was the evangelical Granville Sharp (1735-1813). As a young man he was powerfully moved by an encounter with a young runaway slave in London’s docklands. He single-mindedly devoted his life to the cause of abolition. In 1772, he argued that English law stretching back to Magna Carta did not justify the practice. He later memorably remarked that “no power on earth” can make slavery right. In the famous Somerset case, Sharp applied for a writ of habeas corpus for the freedom of James Somerset, arguing that as he was not the property of his master he could not be forcibly shipped to Jamaica. After the Somerset case, English courts consistently upheld the rights of former slaves against their masters.

The global curse of people trafficking is partly fuelled by the exploitation of women and children in the so-called “sex trade”, which involves buying, selling and abusing human beings.

In America, slavery continued for a further thirty years. But many heroically resisted it. Thousands of runaway slaves were led to freedom in the North and in Canada by both black and white abolitionists who organised a network of secret routes and hiding places that came to be known as the Underground Railroad. One of the greatest heroes of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), a former slave who, on numerous trips to the South, helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom. Finally, in 1863 Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in America by issuing his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

The story of slavery in America is deeply disturbing. We can only be sickened to read the testimony of one Christian slave who reported that his master served him communion in the morning, and then whipped him in the afternoon for arriving a few minutes late to his shift. We can only be appalled to know that simply meeting in clandestine prayer meetings out of work hours could be punished by brutal flogging. But the other side is the countless inspiring stories of courage and sacrifice.

The dignity and spiritual power of the Christian testimony of those suffering dreadful abuse was later analysed by Martin Luther King (1929-1968) who developed a whole theology of suffering from the experience of black believers suffering discrimination. Famously, he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” In other words, we are all descended from the same first parents, we are all made in the image of God, we all have equal value, and we all have a real responsibility for each other.

The shocking reality is that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before.

The International Labour Organisation says there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Once again Christians are in the front line of opposing slavery and people trafficking. The International Justice Mission is a significant, international Christian network fighting abuse, but there are others. The global curse of people trafficking is partly fuelled by the exploitation of women and children in the so-called “sex trade”, which involves buying, selling and abusing human beings. This in turn has been exacerbated by the sexual revolution. The demand for unlimited sexual “freedom” has created moral carnage. It is those trapped in slavery who pay the highest price. There are countless Christians devoted to rescuing and rehabilitating those trapped in slavery. Christians oppose pornography, and oppose the buying and selling of sex, which are major factors behind the vast increase in trafficking.

Christianity and Justice

Our triune God is characterised by perfect righteousness and justice. He is the great lawgiver. The Creator has placed his moral law on the hearts and consciences of all the people he has created (Romans 2:15). Each will have to give account to him. Our God is characterised by justice, and he expects rulers to be just as well:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. (Leviticus 19:15)

Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent: the LORD detests them both. (Proverbs 17:15)

This is what the LORD says [to the King of Judah]: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place (Jeremiah 22:3-5).

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

Throughout history, rulers have been tempted to use power for their own advantage. In the Old Testament, God’s prophet Elijah condemned wicked King Ahab when he forcibly took Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21).

In the New Testament Paul taught that all rulers are God’s “servants” or “deacons” placed in society to keep order by punishing evil and rewarding good (Romans 13:1-8). Rulers, like all people, have God’s moral law placed on their consciences. Each will answer to God at the Day of Judgement for how they have fulfilled their trust.

The Biblical Foundation for Magna Carta (1215)

In 2015 the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta was celebrated. Magna Carta Libertatum is Medieval Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties”. It was a charter of rights agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215. Over eight centuries this has symbolised the right of the people to limit the power of the government. It was framed by Archbishop Stephen Langton and others as a way of curbing the king’s tyrannical power.

Magna Carta made it clear that the king’s authority was not unlimited. The king could not help himself to the property of his subjects; or make up laws to suit his own ends; or exploit the judicial system to enrich himself by collecting bribes. In short, the charter established the principle that no one, not even the king, is above the law. Ever since it was agreed in 1215, it has been used to protect life, liberty and property, and as the basis for constitutional rights and liberties around the world. That is something for which Christians can thank God.

Certainly, at the time, the legal rights that Magna Carta spoke of, applied only to freemen. But it set the trajectory for these freedoms to be extended to everyone. Over the twists and turns of the centuries, with many reversals and advances, these ideas have come to dominate the legal landscape. The influence of Magna Carta spread to the USA and most countries in the West.

Baroness Caroline Cox has been at the forefront of humanitarian work in some of the most dangerous places on earth for many years. She believes:

…it is the Judeo-Christian tradition with its inherent respect for the human individual and its cherishing of the concept of individuals’ rights and freedoms, which has generated and sustained the most humanising and humanitarian internationally recognised laws and policies, such as the abolition of slavery and the concept of Genocide.

Caroline Cox has often visited Burma, where her project HART works with local partners, in areas where human rights abuses abound. They testify that the Burmese Government dislikes Christianity especially because it “fosters genuine democracy by encouraging individuals to think for themselves”. That is a powerful tribute to biblical Christianity. Similarly, on a trip to a war-torn region of Sudan she was told by one leader of the great gift of education given to his people by British missionaries. Education, he said, had given his people the freedom to think for themselves: “You cannot give anyone a greater gift or freedom than that.”

Today, internationally, Christians in many different capacities and ministries sacrificially campaign for justice.

A research project of many years duration by Robert D Woodberry showed that where there has been the most impact of Bible-believing mission in the world, there are governments which are most respectful of human rights, and the rule of law, and least prone to tyranny. It is a historic fact that individual freedom and rights are most prevalent where Christianity has had the greatest impact.

Today, internationally, Christians in many different capacities and ministries sacrificially campaign for justice. For example, the International Justice Mission, mentioned above as one of the major organisations working against modern slavery, was founded in the 1980s by an American lawyer, Gary Haugan. He was outraged that so many well-meaning attempts to help the poor were worse than useless when the poor were unable to secure justice. A fundamental cause of poverty is the absence of the rule of law. If someone works hard, but their profits are stolen and there is no means of justice, that destroys all incentive.

What is the point of giving a poor widow a loan to start up her own business if as soon as she makes a profit, it is stolen from her and she can get no redress? You will never get social and economic justice until you have legal justice, including property rights. When some government officials and their friends are above the law it means that what you work hard for can simply be grabbed by the powerful – or by those who have guns, and who have the means to bribe higher officials.

Christians care about justice, because we worship the God of Justice. And he expects us to uphold justice too. The prophet Isaiah foretold the mission of God’s servant, the Messiah:

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice. He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. (Isaiah 42:4)

Our God is a God of justice, and his Word is the source of our ideas of freedom, human rights and religious liberty. Across the world today it is often Christians who are sacrificially standing for liberty for the enslaved and justice for the oppressed.

This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for February 2020.