/ health care / J.K. Wall

The Difference Christianity Makes

During the novel coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen doctors and nurses in hospitals worldwide selflessly put themselves in danger to care for people infected with the virus.

Like Cedar Wang, a pastor’s wife and nurse at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey. “This is why I became a nurse,” Wang said recently. “As stressed and fearful as I’ve been, I like to think I’m growing stronger and more capable at what I’m called to do.”

This dedication to care for people in the face of danger has been common during the coronavirus pandemic. So common, it appears normal. But it’s not.

In fact, the reactions we’ve seen to the coronavirus are the complete opposite of cultural attitudes toward disease and health care before Christianity began to spread around the world.

During the Roman Empire, two great plagues struck. The first, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, lasted 15 years and killed a quarter or more of the population. In response, the famous classical physician Galen fled Rome and the people in need and stayed at his country estate until the danger passed. [1]

The second plague arrived about a century later and, again, the non-Christian Romans made little attempt to help the sick.

“At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease,” wrote the Bishop Dionysius in a letter recorded by the Christian historian Eusebius. [2]

By contrast, the Christians living in the Roman Empire during the second plague nursed their own—and many of their non-Christian neighbors too. Dionysius described the response of many Christians this way:

“Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”

As we now know, the results of basic nursing care can keep many people strong enough to allow their own immune systems to fight off infections—even a novel virus. During this second plague, according to historian Rodney Stark, most Christians who were infected actually survived—causing their pagan neighbors to credit them with “miracle working.” Those miracles even extended to more than a few pagan neighbors of Christians. [3]

But Christians at the time did not know how the immune system works. What they did know—and what today still drives Christians to sacrificial service—is the seemingly paradoxical truth that, even in death, there is life. Life after death, yes. But also life amid death here and now.

“We are afflicted in every way,” wrote the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, “but not crushed; perplexed, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

In the 4th Century, during another plague, Christians created houses for the sick. Eusebius, who witnessed that plague, wrote that Christians “rounded up the huge numbers who had been reduced to scarecrows all over the city and distributed loaves to them all.”

And by the Middle Ages, Christians had so fused medicine and charity as to create a new invention—the hospital. This invention has been so powerful and so faithfully pursued by Christians, that it has now spread to nearly every country in the world—even officially atheist countries such as China. It is hospitals where patients today, when infected with the coronavirus, are treated.

Today, many non-Christians regard Christian cultural engagement as pernicious. And even a surprising number of my fellow Reformed Christians suggest there is nothing distinctive about Christian cultural endeavors versus those of non-Christians. But to say such things, people have to take for granted centuries of cultural influence by Christians and Christianity.

The coronavirus should help us no longer take that cultural influence for granted. Because no one wants to be going through this pandemic with a pre-Christian approach to disease.

What difference does Christianity make? It often makes the difference between life and death—both in this life and the one to come.

[1] Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2011), 114-15.

[2] Stark, 117-18.

[3] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by C.F. Cruse (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), Book 7, Sec. 22.

J.K. Wall

J.K. Wall

J.K. Wall is the author of "Messiah the Prince Revisited," published by Crown & Covenant Publications. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Christina and their three boys, John, Arthur and Theodore.

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