This coming Sunday the world over, Christians will celebrate the holiday of Easter, which commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the Resurrection is more than just a holiday — Christians believe it was a unique historical event, and some historians argue that it was the turning point in the history of the world, enabling the modern world’s prosperity and freedom.
Without the Resurrection, “we would still be in a world of mystery and probably in a world of repressive empires,” Rodney Stark, a social sciences professor at Baylor University and author of many books including The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, told PJ Media in an interview.
“Remember, at the dawn of history, people didn’t live in really tiny countries — they lived under huge, huge empires, nasty ones,” the professor added. He argued that Christianity historically has been the driving force behind limited government, science, capitalism, the abolition of slavery, medicine, organized charities, and more — and that Christianity would have been impossible without the belief in the Resurrection.
“Without the Resurrection, you don’t have Christianity, and without Christianity, you don’t have any of this,” Stark declared.
Indeed, the New Testament says as much. In I Corinthians 15:17, Paul wrote, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” The gospels all agree on one count — that Jesus’s disciples scattered, and Peter rejected him, around Jesus’ crucifixion. That manner of death, besides being the most painful, was also the most disgraceful, and it stands to reason that Christianity would have died were it not for belief in the Resurrection.
But how exactly did Christianity change the world? Stark considered many aspects of Western civilization, and traced their roots back to a Christian inspiration.
“Science is unique to the West, and it is not only a major factor in producing modernity, but it is an example of it,” the sociologist argued. “Why do we have science in the West? It’s generally understood that only in the West did we think it was possible.”
Here’s what Stark means: “In the rest of the world it’s thought that the universe is far too mystical to be worth thinking about,” much less experimenting on. But “in the West, the universe was created by a rational God, and consequently it runs by rules and therefore it makes sense to try to understand and discover the rules.”
It wasn’t so much that Westerners or Christians just happened to be smarter than everyone else — they just believed that the universe could be rationally understood, that it was created by a rational God, and that humans being made in God’s image could understand His order behind things.
Western medicine and the Western university are also unique contributions of Christianity that tie in with this notion of science, Stark argued.
Capitalism often gets a bad reputation, but Stark has defined it in terms of market complexity — the exact kind of banking and investment that unleashed unprecedented prosperity and technological innovation in recent centuries. While many have argued it came from the “Protestant work ethic,” this professor actually traced the phenomenon back to Catholic monasteries in the Middle Ages.
Many things had to happen to make capitalism possible. “One was the notion that commerce itself was legitimate, that it was not indecent,” Stark explained. “In almost all known societies at that time commerce was degraded — it was thought to be nothing a gentleman would have any connection to.”
“The fact that Christian theologians, who had taken vows of poverty, nevertheless worked out that commerce was legitimate, that it was okay that you could earn interest on money” is fascinating, the sociologist explained. He cited the Catholic Saint Thomas Aquinas as a key example.
3. Limited government.
“The fact is that the church declared itself superior to the state, that God was above the king, and so throughout this whole era of Christendom you have this situation where in a moral sense the king always had this limit of power,” Stark explained. In contrast to most kingdoms and empires throughout history, there was a tension between the religious and secular authorities, and the church’s claim to be above the state actually helped weaken state control.
Interestingly, the Crusades themselves demonstrate the power of the church over the state. The First Crusade was launched in response to the mistreatment of pilgrims to the Holy Land. But the very reason such pilgrims existed was that members of “the aristocracy of Europe who had done something bad were told by the church, ‘Unless you’re going to the Holy Land, I won’t absolve you.'”
Stark also noted that as democracies developed in the Italian city states, “the bishop was always on the side of freedom.”
Contrary to popular belief, “the Catholic Church did not believe in the divine right of kings — that was a Protestant notion in the mid-seventeenth century.” Indeed, “St. Augustine went on and on about the fact that the kings were pretty suspect people, pretty close to the moral margin.”
While Jesus famously told his disciples to pay taxes to the government, he also drew an enormously important line. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17) didn’t just mean “pay your taxes.” It also meant that Christians — who are made in God’s image as coins are made in Caesar’s image — owe their ultimate loyalty to God, not to the state.
“It was only in the West that a society has ever overcame slavery, except when it’s forced by outside forces,” Stark explained. Christianity inspired the “only civilization that has ever discovered within itself that slavery is immoral and gotten rid of it.”
Indeed, the West abolished slavery twice — once in the Middle Ages and again more famously under the influence of William Wilberforce in the British Empire and many abolitionists in America.
Indeed, the very idea of universal human rights can be traced back to the Spanish Scholastics, late medieval scholars who argued against enslaving Native Americans under Spanish rule.
“There is this immense notion of the value of the individual that ultimately seems to me to be extremely Christian” and “the basis of Western civilization,” Stark argued. He claimed that the emphasis on individuals is “an extremely Christian notion,” because it traces from morality that individuals “are personally responsible for our own salvation and for sin.”
While many Christian denominations emphasize the importance of community, the sociologist argued that “ultimately they really all come down to the fact that salvation is individual and salvation depends on the individual’s actions” or faith. “The group may sin, but it doesn’t matter — your sins are what count in your fate.”
6. Organized charities.
Other scholars, like Alvin J. Schmidt in his How Christianity Changed the World, have emphasized Christianity’s unique rejection of abortion, and the faith’s unique creation of organizations to care for orphans and the sick. Modern orphanages and hospitals would be unthinkable without Christianity’s unique emphasis on the value of all human life.
Acts of charity are not unique to Christianity, of course, but Stark argued that the organization of these charities is unique.
“Christianity lent itself to religious organization in important ways,” the sociologist explained. “In the pagan world, people patronized temples, they didn’t belong to them. When you belong to an organization, that organization is able to have a tremendous amount of energy and create things like hospitals and be able to sustain them.”
“It’s been enormous how many of our institutions” came from Christian callings, Stark added. “The notion of caring for abandoned infants was certainly a Christian vocation.”
Why not the Jews?
The Jewish people have made tremendous contributions to the modern world in science, commerce, and many other endeavors. Their faith is very similar to the Christian faith — after all, Christianity came from Judaism. So why didn’t the Jews spearhead these innovations?
“Until modern times, the Jews were a tiny little oppressed minority that could play no role in the rise of science,” Stark lamented. He praised their enormous contributions — especially to science — as “astounding,” but noted that they “were never in a position to influence history that much” due to their small population and “discrimination” against them.
At the same time, “there are some important parts of Christianity that are not derivative of Judaism,” Stark added, like “belief in salvation in the normal Christian sense.”
Does this prove the Resurrection happened?
Despite the enormous impact Jesus’ resurrection made on the history of the world, Stark argued that this impact does not prove the event actually happened.
“It still remains a matter of faith,” the sociologist told PJ Media. “Because we don’t have any film of the resurrected Jesus, it’s not something that you can prove.”
Stark did argue that “there’s nothing to contradict it, except of course that this is a miracle,” but just because there is no clear contradiction doesn’t mean the event had to have happened, he said.
When apologists argue that the disciples would not have died for a lie, the sociologist would accept that argument, but not as concrete proof. “What they’re saying is that people at the time believed it — that doesn’t prove it happened.” Rather, “If we found people at the time who didn’t believe it, then we’d be in trouble.”
Stark has another book coming out at the end of April, Why God: Explaining Religious Phenomena, in which the sociologist presents a social science theory of religion which takes it more seriously on the merits than famous names like Sigmund Freud and Emile Dirkheim.
“Guys like Freud and Durkheim are really trying to reduce religion to something else,” Stark told PJ Media. He explained that “it’s hard to deny that religion has played an enormous role in our social lives, and all I’m trying to answer is, ‘How come?'”
Indeed, it would be impossible to understand how belief in the Resurrection shaped Christianity and the world while dismissing the idea of religion as an “opiate of the masses.” If the Resurrection is the central event in the history of the world (and the billions of Christians across the world should say so, if indeed they are Christians), then that very fact calls out for explanation.