“Without God and the future life? How will man be after that? It means everything is permitted now.”Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Vintage, 1991), pg. 589
Communist Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany eliminated an incredible amount of human life. Stalin was responsible for around 20 million deaths. Mao Zedong’s regime is credited with a staggering 70 million deaths. Hitler comes in third with around 10 million murders attributed to his name. The twentieth century was the world’s great experiment in seeing what intentionally godless governments would produce. The end result was a century with more slaughter of human life than all other centuries combined.
Without question, the saving grace of the western world has been the presence of an inherited Christian worldview. Abraham Lincoln, William Wilberforce, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were able to make assertions about human rights and usher in civil rights reform based solely on a belief in the biblical Imago Dei (i.e. “the image of God”) – the idea that all humans have value because God himself imbued humanity with special value.
As the faith of a nation goes, so goes its perception of personhood.
Consequently, if you’ve been following trends of Christian religious activity over the past 20 years, it was no surprise to you that the New York State legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act on January 22, the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The act allows abortion at any point during a pregnancy (24 weeks had been the prior limit) if it is deemed “necessary to protect a woman’s life or health.”
If you’ve ever read Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s famous article in the NY Times from over two decades ago, you knew this was coming. If you realized that the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) targeted New York upon its founding in 1969, you knew this was coming. If you were aware that over a quarter of all pregnancies in New York already end in abortion, you knew this was coming.
When you’re raised in the United States, it’s perhaps easy to forget that abortion and infanticide have been quite common in world history. The reason they have been forbidden in the West for centuries is only because Western values were shaped by Christianity. Author Benjamin Wiker makes the case in Moral Darwinism:
“[T]he laws against abortion and infanticide in the West are only intelligible as a result of its Christianization, and the repeal of those same laws is only intelligible in light of its de-Christianization.”Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), pg. 100.
A fairly apples-to-apples comparison of what we see happening today in America is what was seen in the Roman Empire. The Twelve Tables – the earliest known Roman legal code, written about 450 B.C.E. – permitted a father to expose any female infant and any deformed or weak male infant to the natural elements to let them die in the fields. Philosophers Plato and Aristotle, both recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy. (cf. Plato, Republic 5; Aristotle, Politics 2,7) Seneca regarded the drowning of children at birth as both reasonable and commonplace. Tacitus stated that the Jewish mindset: “it is a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child,” was but another of the Jews’ “sinister and revolting” teachings (cf. The Histories 5.5). The famous Roman medical writer, Celsus, goes into great detail in De medicina (cf. 7.29) about how to surgically carry out an abortion. Etc.
Some of these thoughts are new to America. But they’re not technically new.
So, the relevant question then is: How did the early Christians, with very little political, educational, or financial clout, react to the tragedy taking place around them?