Portrait Of Christianity

We could have gone on to discuss other historical blots on Christianity, including the oppression of women, which has occurred despite Jesus' countercultural attitude toward them, and the way many people in the South on quoted the Bible in a twisted attempt to justify racism and slavery. But I had already spent a long time grilling Woodbridge. Without trying to defend the indefensible he had sought to provide some context and explanation In order to establish whether these episodes were exceptions or the norm for Christianity, it was time to explore the other side of Christian history.

"Given all we've talked about," I said, "what's fl bottom line? Is the world worse off on better off because of Christianity?"

Woodbridge sat bolt upright in his chair. "Better off he insisted. "No question about it. These are regrettable historical instances that shouldn't be swept under the rug. We should apologize for them and efforts should be made to make sure they don't recur. At the same time, though, the vast sweep of Christian history has been very beneficial to the world."

"I suppose it's easy in talking about the sins of Christians to forget the role of atheism in trampling hums rights," I observed. I took out a book and read Woodbridge some remarks by prominent Christian Luis Palau:

The seismic shock of out-and-out atheism sent tidal waves across Europe and beyond, accounting directly for the annihilation and butchering of more than one hundred million people this past century alone. Humanity has paid a steep, gruesome price for the awful experiments in deliberate antitheism carried out by Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and others-each of whom was profoundly influenced by the writings of the apostles of atheism After watching atheism proliferate ... it's clearer than ever that... without God, we're lost. 25

"I agree that without God, we're lost," Woodbridge responded. "That's not to say an atheist could never govern well, because, from the Christian point of view, the atheist benefits from God's common grace. But given the lack of framework in atheism for making moral decisions, it's easy to see why the world has experienced the horrors of these regimes. Where there's no absolute moral standard, raw power often wins."

"What would you say are the positive ways Christianity has contributed to civilization?"

Woodbridge settled deeper into his chair. He ruminated on my question for a few moments and then answered in a voice whose sincerity and wonder and enthusiasm conveyed his deeply felt love for the church.

"I see Christianity's influence as a resplendent mural with many scenes, each depicted in bright, brilliant, and beautiful colors," he said. "Without Christianity, there would be an awful lot of grays and only a few scattered and disconnected lines here and there giving any sense of meaning. But Christianity adds so much meaning, hope and beauty and richness to the picture."

Intrigued by the imagery, I asked, "What would the painting show?"

"The very center scene would portray the story of Jesus and his redemption for our sins. Finally, once and for all, he dealt with the issues of our guilt, our loneliness, and our alienation from God. Through his atoning death and resurrection, he opened up heaven for everyone who follows him. That's the greatest contribution Christianity ever could have made. It's summarized in John 3:16: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.'

"Also, Christianity provides us a revelation as to the meaning of life and the existence of universal morality. Without that revelation, it's very difficult to have any sense of what meaning is. You end up like Albert Camus, who said in the opening paragraph of The Myth of Sisyphus, 'Why should I or anyone not commit suicide?' Well, Christianity explains why not. It gives us a frame of reference for living, for following a moral path, for relating to God and others in a healthy and deeply meaningful way.

"Brush strokes in the painting would depict scenes revealing vast humanitarian impulses that have been inspired by Christ's life and teaching. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants-all have been deeply involved in helping the poor, the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised. They've been willing to work against their own personal interests to serve others. Losing all of that-all the missionary work, all the hospitals, all the homeless shelters, all the rehabilitation programs, all of the orphanages, all of the relief organizations, all the selfless feeding of the hungry and clothing of the poor and encouraging of the sick-would be a devastating blow to the world.

"In addition, the impact of Christian thought adds other scenes and gives shading and nuance and depth to the painting. Christians have given their minds to God, and their literary, musical, architectural, scientific, and artistic contributions, if taken away, would render the world much more dull and shallow. Think of all the great educational institutions that Christians built, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which were originally conceived and constructed to advance the gospel.

"Finally, there's the power of the Holy Spirit that colors everything good. Can you imagine what the world would be like if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn? I mean, talk about your local horror show! It's bad enough the way things are now, but if the restraining power of the Holy Spirit were not here, then the horrible side of life would emerge even more graphically than it already does."

"As you look at this painting of history," I asked, "do you see the positives of Christianity overwhelming the negative instances that we've discussed?"

"Yes, I do," he said without hesitating. "I'm heartsick about the times when we, as Christians, have not lived according to Jesus' teachings and thereby created barriers to the faith. But I'm just so grateful for the nameless men and women who have humbly and courageously upheld the faith through the centuries, who have served in obscurity, who have given their lives to help others, who have left the world a far better place, and who have struggled to do the right thing despite incredible pressure to do otherwise.

"When I think of Christian history," he concluded, "they're the first to come to my mind. They're the heroes who are too often forgotten."

He stopped. Then, with a wistful smile, he gave them his greatest tribute: "They're what Jesus envisioned."

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