“The West became a humane civilization because it was founded on the precepts of a teacher who insisted that man was valuable.” – Vishal Mangalwadi
It is without question that Christianity has changed the face of the world, and it has done so on the back of the Bible. This ancient book carefully composed, transmitted, and passed accurately through generations has instigated positive political, social, religious, and economic reform.
For example, In 17th Century Scotland, Samuel Rutherford – a preacher – read his Bible and saw that all men are created equal under God. Rulers weren’t meant to lord it over their subjects. Reasoning from Scripture, Rutherford argued that Kings are not above the law, but that they are held to a higher law. At first rejected in Great Britain (Oxford University burned the book), it influenced the founding governmental systems of the United States of America, and eventually led to political reform limiting a monarch’s power here too.
Schools and Universities have been established by people reading their Bibles. Hospitals and healthcare programs have been created also. The Salvation Army tackles poverty. William Wilberforce, reading his Bible, campaigned to end the Slave Trade, and while he was at it set up the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
So how is it that the Bible, a mere book, can cause so much change? It is because, in short, the Bible gets the answers to the basic and grandest questions of life right. It’s not that men read a parable or a Psalm and have a creative idea in the shower that sets their whole life on a path to reform (although that may happen), but that when we read the Bible as a whole, as a complete book, we see it speak accurately to three key areas of life: our value, our condition, and our hope.
Our True Value
Firstly, the Bible tells us that human beings are valuable. Being made in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:26,27) endows human beings with dignity, worth, and value. No other part of Creation is made in God’s image. All of Creation is made “good” but humans are set apart, marked as special.
This goes a long way to a firm ethical foundation for the treatment of humans. Why is it wrong to enslave other people? Because all human beings are equally valuable. Why should we not murder? Because all human beings are equally valuable.
In the New Testament the true value of humans is marked by the extraordinary sacrificed of Jesus Christ. God’s own son, come to die to save us. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls this the “greatest good” – the best thing we can think of our imagine – and it happened for us.
Humans are prone to two excesses when we remove the Bible as the yardstick for our worth. Firstly, we can think too little of ourselves. One could reduce humans to be of equal value to animals, or other living things like trees. After all, if all we are is simply another type of animal – albeit more highly evolved – then let’s treat each other like animals. Perverse sexual ethics, ethnic cleansing, and slavery all become hard to argue against when we take this position. If we aren’t any more special than any other random collection of atoms, then why should we treat each other as special?
Equally, we can also think too much of ourselves. If there is no God, perhaps we are God! We might think that we are the very best, and we can do what we want. We could argue that we can dominate nature because we are God. When our value is too high we make all other things serve us. Why bother, for example, about taking care of the environment when it is there only for us to use as we like?
The Bible values humans correctly, neither too high nor too low. On this base we have built civilisations that protect and defend human rights, and argue against excesses committed both against and by us.
Our True Condition
The second question that the Bible accurately answers is the question of the condition of humans presently. That is, what state do we find ourselves in today?
The Bible tells us that humans are both fallen and finite. These are worth looking at, so let’s unpack these two attributes.
When talking of our fallen nature, the Bible says that the condition of man is marred by sin. We were created as “very good” but when sin entered the world, our condition deteriorated. We were created as good, and for good things, but now we operate in an affected state. This means that our intentions are not perfect. Our actions don’t always hit the mark. We are capable of great good, but equally we are capable of great harm.
Because we know this, we can create systems to help limit the damage done by our bad choices, and promote those things that are good. We can limit our governments from making harmful decisions, whilst investing in them the power for positive change.
Coupled with this, the Bible tells us that we are finite. We are created with a beginning, and with limits. Only God is infinite. We have not always existed. This properly articulates our limitations, that is, we have this one life. The life we’re living now is the one that we have been giving. The years we live on this earth on these bodies are the only years we have. We have existed before and we will be reincarnated in the future.
What happens in this lifetime is therefore of great importance. This is our life, now.
Again, without the Bible humans can go one of two ways when attempting to answer this question for ourselves.
Firstly, we can say that there’s nothing wrong with us. We aren’t in any way broken. Perhaps we’re on an evolutionary scale, getting better and better, but we’re not inherently restricted. If only we were to “free our mind” or “realise our potential” we can alleviate the suffering of ourselves of and of others. If we try really hard, we can create perfection because at our core we are perfect.
Communism is an idea that wants perfection. It desires harmony. It longs for unity. But without correctly diagnosing the condition of humans that we face, it fails to understand that left alone, we can’t arrive at perfection, because we don’t have the capacity for perfection within us. All of the education, all of the money, all the goodwill and charity in the world will not solve our problems, because our problem is much deeper. Our problem of sin hampers all of our efforts.
On the opposite side, we can observe all of the problems and conclude that we are totally broken and beyond help. Life quickly becomes meaningless when viewed this way. Pessimism leads to despair. “Why bother?” is the operating slogan. We have all these problems and nothing to fix them with.
When the Bible describes our fallen states, it doesn’t say that we lost all of ability for good. Although the Bible says that we aren’t and can’t be good enough to fix our problem, it doesn’t say that we can’t use our minds, our finances, our time to help others, to cause there to be more good in this world.
By correctly labelling us as both “good” and “broken” the Bible shows us our limits, and points to the need of outside help. We’re not too optimistic about our condition, but neither are we too pessimistic.
Our True Hope
After answering the questions of our value and our condition, we need to ask, “Where is our hope?” What are placing our trust in?
When the Bible tells us that are both valuable and broken, it doesn’t leave us to wallow in the theatre of “what could have been” dreams. We aren’t resigned to pondering “If only …” thoughts.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, ESV)
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God come as a man, we are given a true and dependable hope. We will be restored to completeness again, our sin-condition will be removed once and for all. This isn’t something that we achieve for ourselves, but something that God does for us. We can’t earn it; God freely gives it.
We have reason to live, a reason to strive for great change and resist evil, and we have assurance of this too.
Man with God can do great things. Man with God can face the problems, the terrors, the horrible things that blight our world, and say that they won’t always be this way. We can wake up, and with God’s help make a change this very day. A true change that leave its mark for all eternity.
Because history is going somewhere our efforts have lasting value. Because we know who is leading us to salvation, we have true confidence.
Without God involved in the picture humans have to place their hope in either something else, or nothing at all.
If we decide to say there is no ultimate hope, no chance of redemption or salvation, then all of our efforts operate under the banner of “It’s all for nothing”. We can ignore our conclusion and try to eat and be merry, for tomorrow we shall surely die. Or we can stare this harsh conclusion square on and live congruently with our conclusions. “What really is the point of anything, then?” we muse. Such painful answers lead to despair and misery, and sometimes insanity.
The other angle humans explore is that of placing our hope in something else. This could be ourselves and our good deeds, or our children, our countries etc. Anything good can become God in this case, our ultimate hope and answer for meaning.
These other areas may hold up for a while, but under the enormous pressure of ultimate hope every good thing collapses. Our marriages, our careers, our hobbies – they were never strong enough to save us. We might invest large chunks of our lives in the belief that if we apply ourselves diligently to these or other areas they will deliver. On the day that they let us down, devastation can reign. Stockbrokers who lose it all in a crash can contemplate taking their own lives. Children who disappoint can overwhelm their parents with a wave of grief that they don’t recover from.
A good thing can become a terrible curse when we expect it to deliver us to the promised land. Instead of enjoying it for its goodness, we promote it to Saviour and when it fails us we can simply fall apart. Our hope evaporates and sucks our security with it.
The Bible has a term for the misapplication of hope to finite things: idolatry. We make idols out of other things and, in a way, through our time, money, energy worship them. When the Bible forbids worshipping idols it’s not the laws of a tyrannical, needy despot who cannot stomach the loss of attention, but the best guidance from a loving Father who knows exactly what we need and tells us exactly where we can find it.
By answering these questions correctly the Bible properly describes reality to us. We can see ourselves as God sees us, as we really are.
This self-knowledge is vital for when we answer the basic questions incorrectly we can not live the best way, and our efforts will fail. Our views of the world and of each other are deficient until we see God and in his reflection see ourselves.
The Bible has changed the world because humans have read it, discovered how truly valuable they are, learnt of their broken condition, and delighted themselves in the assurance of the great promise of Jesus Christ of ultimate salvation and redemption.
The truth is discoverable, it is knowable, and it is available in a bookshop, a library, or a bed-side cabinet near you.