The ancient gladiator "games" give us a vivid picture of the callous Roman disregard for life. Imagine huge crowds of blood-thirsty spectators, screaming with excitement, as slaves, prisoners and criminals walk into arenas across the Roman Empire. There, men would fight each other to the death. While they fought, the crowd roared with excitement, "Kill him! Lash him! Brand him!"Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), p. 62.
Gladiatorial contests started about three centuries before the birth of Christ. Sometimes more than a hundred gladiators would fight in a day, and the games would last for days, weeks – even months. As sociology professor and pastor Alvin Schmidt points out in How Christianity Changed the World, the spectacles were deeply entrenched in the Roman culture:
Thus, by the time Christians arrived in Rome, the Romans had watched hundreds of thousands of gladiators mauled, mangled, and gored to death for at least three hundred years. These games, as one historian has noted, "illustrate completely the pitiless spirit and carelessness of human life lurking behind the pomp, glitter, and cultural pretensions of the great imperial age."Ibid., pp. 60-61.
The barbaric cruelty, the agonizing screams of the victims, and the flow of human blood stirred no conscience in the crowds of the gladiatorial events.Ibid., p. 62.
The death and depravity horrified Christians, who were vocal in their opposition and encouraged believers not to attend these bloody spectacles.
Christianity Valued Human Life
Christianity teaches that human life has value and dignity because men and women are made in the image of God. Christianity inherited this teaching from the Jews and the creation account in Genesis. Jews and Christians alike took seriously God's command, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17).
Building on this foundation, Christians believed that the incarnation of Christ took the value of humanity even further: Humans are valuable because God the Son became a man. Jesus was born as an infant, grew into manhood, and died in our place on the cross. Jesus' life, death and resurrection manifest the value of human life.
In addition, Jesus taught his followers, by words and examples, to have compassion on people. He said that the two highest commands were to love God and to love others. He told the disciples to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." Jesus also modelled this compassion for his followers as He fed the hungry, healed the sick and cast demons out from tormented individuals.
In sharp contrast, Romans generally had contempt for pity, mercy and compassion. Sociologist Rodney Stark notes the difference with Christian teaching and attitudes in The Triumph of Christianity:
In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice.Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p. 112.
Professor Schmidt concurs, "[T]he Greco-Roman culture did not see the hungry, the sick, and the dying as worthy of humane assistance. The worth of a human being was determined by external and accidental circumstances in proportion to the position he held in the community or state."Schmidt, op. cit., p. 130.
One of the most obvious ways Romans demonstrated this lack of mercy and contempt for pity was in the gladiatorial contests. Though the games continued for hundreds of years more, Christian influence grew, and Christian emperors eventually stopped these barbaric entertainments. Schmidt quotes the historian W.E.H. Lecky as he comments on this achievement:
There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, a feat that must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church.Ibid., p. 63.
Care for the Poor and Sick
In addition to stopping the violence of the games, the church demonstrated a value for life and the dignity of humanity in many other pro-active ways. In a world where human life was devalued and where pity and mercy were viewed as weak, the early church demonstrated love and compassion for orphans, widows, the sick and the poor. Here is just some of what the early church did as it exhibited mercy to a dark world:
- The book of Acts describes the apostles healing the sick and establishing deacons to care for widows within the congregation.See Acts chapters 3, 5 and 6.
- The Apostle Paul collected donations from wealthier churches to take to the poor in Jerusalem.See, for example, Acts 11, Romans 15 and II Corinthians 8.
- James, the brother of Jesus, instructed the early church, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1:27 ESV)
- Church fathers, such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian, describe church members donating money to care for orphans.Schmidt, op. cit., p. 132.
- After Christianity was legalized by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christians built orphanages, hospices, homes for the elderly, housing for strangers and travelers, and institutions for the blind.Ibid., p. 145.
Non-believers noticed, and some came to Christ after seeing the compassion of believers for each other – and for those outside the church.
For example, plagues swept across the Roman Empire with regular occurrence, and the response of most people was to flee the affected cities and towns, if they could afford to do so. Those who couldn't leave avoided all contact with the sick, even casting victims out of their homes.
When a devastating plague swept through Alexandria, Egypt, in about 250 A.D., Bishop Dionysius wrote that non-Christians, "thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died."Ibid., 152-153; see also Stark, op. cit., pp. 114-119.
But Christians cared for the sick – within the church and without – because people had dignity and worth. A member of Constantine's army, Pachomius, saw how Christians cared for his fellow soldiers who were sick and starving. He converted to Christianity and was the founder of an order of monks in Egypt. He devoted his life, as Jesus taught, to loving God and loving others.Schmidt, op. cit., p. 130; “St. Pachomius,” Catholic Online, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=800 (June 29, 2018).
Sometimes the world today seems as dark as it did in the era of the early church. But take heart! Our world is radically different due to 2,000 years of Christianity, and just learning about our own church history can be uplifting and encouraging. To learn more about the positive effects of Christianity, and how Christians can continue to influence the world for good, read:
- How Christianity Changed the World, by Alvin J Schmidt
- Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People, by Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet
- The Triumph of Christianity, How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion, by Rodney Stark
- Third Time Around, A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present, by George Grant
It can be inspiring, as well, to read biographies of heroes of the faith who helped transform the world. Here are just a few ideas:
- A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael and Through Gates of Splendor, by Elisabeth Elliot
- Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, by Karen Swallow Prior
- Great for God: Missionaries Who Changed the World, by David Shibley
- Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness, Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas
For more books, articles, Focus on the Family Broadcasts, DVDs and ways to get involved, our resource lists have lots of ideas: