Christians Stood Out In Early Christianity For Their Love To All During Terrifying Epidemics While Others Fled

Dionysius, around 260 AD, wrote a tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of local Christians in the great epidemic of that time. Look at the contrast between Christians and others:

most of our brother Christians 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 death to themselves and died in their stead…. the best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that their death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

They heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease they push 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 spreading contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might they found it difficult to escape. [1]

This is a remarkable contrast. Of course it is only one report by a Christian bishop, but it is a doozy. We will look at corroboration from secular sources in a few minutes. But for right now let’s just look at what a difference Christians made in the world. The culture, the norm, was selfishness. This is the same culture that practiced routine abortion and infanticide. Human life, that is, someone else’s human life, did not hold much value. Christians, seeking to follow the teaching and example of the Lord, loved people. This is at the core of the spirit of Christ, to manifest the love of God in care and nurture.

For corroboration on this difference between the Christians’ and the pagan’s way of dealing with epidemics and people in need in general look at Julian who, around 362 A.D., complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia that pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians. Julian said that recent Christian growth was caused by their moral character, even if pretended, and by their benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead. In another letter to a different priest, Julian wrote “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priest, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” Julian also wrote “the impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” [2]

To show you that this lack of care by the pagans was not limited to the times above look at this quote from Thucydides’ writing in his history of the Peloponnesian war. Thucydides himself was a survivor of this plague in 431 B.C..

The doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods…. equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of the oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to these things.
They died with no one to look after them; indeed there are 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 had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshiped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. [3]

Here we have another record about the nature of care in the culture written some seven centuries before Dionysius’ statement above. In the culture during one of these epidemics there was no hope. It didn’t matter to men terrified of the death mounting around them what the law was or what the priests taught. They were in pure terror and fled. And it, in contrast, the response of the Christians shows you the incredible force of the love of God in people with the spirit of Christ. In knowing that they had eternal life and eternal rewards Christians were able to do what no one else in the world was willing to do. They cared for people, nursing and caring for them in spite of the death mounting around them.

It is a remarkable realization that what changed was that people, in accepting the love of God with the spirit of Christ in their lives, became compassionate, giving lovingly to people dying of disease for which there was no known cure, even to the point where they sometimes lost their lives to the disease themselves. They no longer feared death.

The sociologist Robert Stark makes an amazing point. Stark’s interest in his book, The Rise of Christianity, are the factors for the growth of Christianity during the first centuries after Christ, including the role of Christians in epidemics. Whereas today we may be well accustomed with secular groups like the Red Cross and numerous other charities where people care for the sick that was not the case a couple thousand years ago. According to Stark the pagan and Hellenistic philosophies behind most people’s actions did not have a Golden rule, to love others as yourself, to even love your enemy. What Stark documents is how people of the time reacted in epidemics, and it was basically to take care of yourself. When an epidemic happened back in times without antibiotics or even the knowledge of germs and viruses, one of the first things that happened was that people with resources fled as noted above. But Christians applied the Golden Rule, nursed one and all and there were numerous benefits including a superior recovery rate and a much lower mortality rate for the Christians. That amazing result bears repeating: the Christians had superior recovery rates and lower mortality rates while being the only people to continuously care for contagious, dying people. While Stark attributes this primarily to the therapeutic affect of nursing he does appear to allow there to be a little more to it;

Against this background, consider that a much superior Christian survival rate hardly could seem other than miraculous. Moreover, superior survival rates would have produced a much larger proportion of Christians who were immune, and you could, therefore, pass among the afflicted with seeming invulnerability…. who was to say that it was the soup that they so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them, rather than the prayers the Christians offered on their behalf? [4]

No matter how you look at it this was a dramatic change in the world that has persisted to this day and even changed the way that non-Christians respond to disasters. Changing the world by caring for the sick in epidemics with amazing results, this is the life changing power of the Lord at work.

[1] The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996 p. 82-83 Stark quotes Dionysius in the book as evidence of this dramatic cultural impact of Christianity in the world at that time..
[2] ibid. p. 83-84
[3] ibid. p. 87
[4] ibid. p. 90-91

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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