In the second century after Christ, a great epidemic swept across the
Roman Empire. Known as the “Plague of Galen,” it killed so many people that Marcus Aurelius spoke of caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from the cities. It is estimated that between 25-33% of the population of the empire perished during the four years that the unknown disease rampaged across the land.
About 100 years later another epidemic struck the Roman world. At its height five thousand people a day died in the city of
alone. The devastation of most epidemics tend to be greatest in urban areas where people are concentrated most densely, but these plagues were not limited to the cities. Calculations based on Dionysius’ account suggest that 2/3 of the population surrounding Rome may have perished. Alexandria
Though lacking sophisticated medical knowledge of how disease spread, most people did what is natural in the face of such destruction: run. Those that could abandoned the dying in the cities and escaped into the country where the disease had not struck. These people, of course, were wealthy and could afford to live someplace else; the poor were left to fend for themselves and hope that the angel of death would skip over them. But the healthy poor avoided the sick poor, leaving friends, neighbors, and even family members alone to die a terrible death.
The pagan religions of the
Roman Empire provided neither answers nor hope for people when these disasters struck. The priests of these religions could offer no answer as to why the gods had sent such misery—or even if the gods were involved or even cared. Not that they were around to ask; they fled along with the highest civil authorities and the wealthy, leaving behind even more disorder and suffering.
Thucydides, in History of the Peloponnesian War, says that people were afraid to visit one another. As a result,
They died with no one to look after them; indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention….The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law….No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately.
Not so with the small Jewish sect called Christians. Those that were wealthy enough to run—and sociological evidence is such that there were probably more Christian converts drawn from the wealthy than is traditionally thought—instead stayed. Not only did they stay, but they took care of the sick. And though the Christian community suffered in the plagues, they did so at a much lower rate than did the rest of the population. This is not because God smiled on them and supernaturally protected them while withholding such protection from everyone else. It is because the Christian religion taught that not only did their god love them, but also required them to love others. In pagan religions, the gods might have sexual desire for some humans, but not love. The gods had no real regard toward the humans, except maybe anger or jealousy. But the god of the Christians was characterized by love, and expected humans to love each other as well. This, coupled with a belief that death wasn’t an end to existence but a transition to a brighter future, led the Christians to somewhat fearlessly stick it out and tend to the sick. Some of the sick died, and some of the healthy got sick and died as well, at a much higher rate than among the pagans.
Why? Just because of love? Well, yes, in a way, because love compelled them to stay and care for the sick, feeding them, giving them water. And modern epidemiologists say that this simple provision of food and water allowed persons who were temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably. In other words, the survival rates in these plagues would have been higher had the sick just been given simple food and water.
The Christians had a theology, an epistemology, and a praxis that compelled them to help the sick and dying and that allowed them to not fear death, and this is among the many reasons Christianity grew from a small sect to a major force in the
So it’s strange to hear forms of Christianity that only preach half of that formula. Their theology is almost exclusively about getting people to heaven when they die—not, admittedly, a bad thing—through a formula that truncates the true Gospel. Christian love and compassion are only about helping people on this side of death live on the other side—so ministering to the hungry, the sick and the dying mainly involves telling them the going-to-heaven formula. Giving food to the hungry is seen as opening a door to evangelism, and nothing more. And issues of justice, in their view, are just liberal red herrings distracting people from the real issue of evangelism and salvation.
These early Christians in the Roman Empire, and in fact Christians throughout most of their history, did not make issues of justice, compassion, and self-sacrificial love separate issues from each other or from evangelism. They didn’t treat them as separate issues at all. There was just one issue—trying to live their lives as Jesus taught them to live.
They risked their lives and served the sick, and Christianity survived and even thrived in the face of these plagues. Others sought to save their own lives, and ended up losing.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”