Plagues and Pandemics: A Proving Ground for Christians

Posted Jan 28, 2021

Dr. David Deane, PhD (read the entire issue here)

Renowned sociologist Rodney Stark had a big problem. This book by the sociologist Rodney Stark examines the rise of Christianity, from a small movement in Galilee and Judea at the time of Jesus to the majority religion of the Roman Empire a few centuries later.)

He needed to account for the rise of Christianity. Being a social scientist, however, he could not use the answer that many Christians would — “Christianity rose because it was God’s will”. No, Stark needed to work out how an obscure Jewish movement came to dominate the Western world in exclusively secular terms.

The triumph of Christianity means that we underestimate the challenge Stark faced. We forget that Jesus’ message was not just alien to Roman ears, the Christian message was considered wicked. We don’t get this. Classical historian Tom Holland’s recent book Dominion shows that contemporary western society’s understanding of right and wrong is unconsciously Christian. For example, the idea that the strong are wrong for oppressing the weak, something we take for granted, was not common in the ancient world. Things like the last being first and the first being last, or “turning the other cheek”, were not simply stupid in the eyes of Roman culture, they were seen as profoundly immoral. Because of this, we find it impossible to really appreciate how alien and unacceptable Jesus’ message was to Roman culture.

If we really want to get a sense of how unlikely Christianity’s rise was, we need to remember that Judea was the backwater of the Roman Empire and that Jesus’ home of Galilee was the backwater of Judea. To see Jesus from Roman eyes, then, we would need to imagine someone economically disadvantaged and from a profoundly disadvantaged place. Not a “cool” disadvantaged place either. Maybe more like a trailer park in Alabama. Then we would need to remember that the message this person offered, in their uncouth, “hick”, accent, would have been seen as horribly immoral, something totally unacceptable. How could such a person, with such a message, lead a movement to take over the Western world? In his book the Rise of Christianity, Stark needs to account for it, using only secular logic.

Stark holds that plagues and Christian responses to them played a key role in the massive growth of Christianity during its first four centuries. The account he offers is both inspiring and challenging for Christians today, in a time of COVID-19. In this article, I want to begin a discussion of Stark’s conclusion by

  1. Recounting this story of how Christians responded to plague in the ancient world
  2. Attempting to uncover the theology that led Christians to act in these ways and, finally
  3. Briefly identifying the challenge these actions and their underlying theology poses to Christians today as we deal with COVID-19 and its consequences.

CHRISTIANS DURING ANCIENT PLAGUES

Stark claims that the second century Antonine plague and the third century plague of Cyprian both played a key role in Christianity’s rise from an obscure Galilean movement to preferred status in the Roman empire by the early fourth century. The precise nature of the Antonine plague (165AD – 180AD) is hotly debated. It may have been one plague or two. It may have begun in Mesopotamia or in Eastern China. It may have been smallpox or measles. What is not in question is that it was devastating. Carried through the arteries of the empire by the military, it decimated the Roman Empire. Stark and others claim that up to a third of the Roman Empire died, an estimate that I think is too high. But at least 10% of the empire perished in this plague. Surprisingly, it also led to a massive increase in the Christian population. Why?

One reason is simply that people become more religious in times of great need. Archeology has shown that the rate at which temples were built increased massively during the Antonine plague. This increase in general religiosity led to an increase in Christianity too. But Christianity also grew disproportionately. It’s growth massively outstripped the growth in other religious traditions. In some cities the Christian population doubled during the plague. The reason for this is that Christians died from plague at a lower rate than the general population. While all religions benefitted from people turning to God, the percentage of a population who were Christian rose because Christians were dying in less significant numbers than others.

Was this miraculous? Perhaps, but Stark attributes this to the fact that Christians stayed in the city to care for their sick friends and family. This level of care — Christians bringing their friends and family water and food etc. — led to them surviving at a higher rate than other people, whose networks of support fled the city when the plague struck. The Christian population increased during the Antonine plague because Christians stayed in the cities to care for others, leading to Christians surviving at a higher rate. While the population of a city decreased overall, the percentage that was Christian swelled. This was further enhanced as Stark contends (based on primary sources) that the survival of Christians led to the belief that the Christian God was saving Christians and so, as the plague wore on, people converted to Christianity in large numbers.

Our understanding of how Christians behaved during these plagues is clearer due to us having more sources from the plague of Cyprian in the century after. One of these sources was Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, after whom this 3rd century plague is named. Around 5000 people were dying in Rome each day. Cyprian’s sermons against the backdrop of this horror are inspirational. He challenges Christians to care for others, to risk themselves, and to remember Christ in whose image they are called to be. Non-Christian sources corroborate the fact that, again, Christians stayed, they risked their own safety to nurse others and survived at a higher rate. Importantly, Christians nursed everyone, not just those in their own community. The Roman emperor Julian, known by Christians as Julian the Apostate, was radically anti-Christian and wrote to a pagan priest “the impious Galileans in addition to their own, support ours, it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.” Thus Christian and radically anti-Christian sources agree on how Christian responded to the plague, that they stayed and cared for others, and not just for other Christians.

The answer to Stark’s question became increasingly clear. During plagues, Christians risked everything to help those in need and became a beacon for others. Their message of eternal life in Jesus Christ drew others in and the credibility of their message came from their actions. The risks they took, their care and compassion for others, proved that they were really believed the gospel. This inspired others. And the by-product of their care and compassion was an increased survival rate. In the first century, Christianity was an obscure Jewish movement, in the second century we have the Antonine plague, in the third century the plague of Cyprian, and, in the fourth century, Christianity is the dominant religion in the Western world. Was all this entirely attributable to the fact that Christians cared for each other, were fearless and witnessed to their faith, during plagues? No, but their witness, their faith, and their actions, testified to the power of the gospel, and was therefore a significant factor in the phenomenal growth of Christianity.

WHY DID CHRISTIANS ACT LIKE THIS?

My question is easier to answer than Stark’s. The New Testament and the writings of the early Church Fathers clearly show the theology that drove the early Christians to act like this.

It all began with how they understood their relationship with Christ. For them it was never a relationship between a person and an ideology, or something that was present only in the form of a text or memory. It was a relationship between two living things — us and Christ; two things whose bodies are in relationship. Paul, in the earliest Christian writings, is clear on this. He tells us that Christ lives in him (Gal. 2:20). But how?

The answer is through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells, for Paul “in your mortal body.” (Rom. 8:11) The Holy Spirit is distinct from, but also one with, Christ. Thus, when we receive the Holy Spirit, we become one, in a very embodied, real, way, with Christ. We become — and the significance of this cannot be overstated — Christ’s body.

Colossians 1:15-20 expresses the faith of the early Christians. It is nothing less than a creed. It is a testimony of what early Christians believed. And it is as early as any text in the New Testament. Thus, the faith this “creed” expresses is not the product of late theological musings. It is what the earliest Christians believed. Crucially, the Church is understood there as Christ’s body.

For them, the Holy Spirit united each Christian to Christ; Christ, who comes to dwell in them through this Holy Spirit. This indwelling changes them. Through the Spirit they live and grow in relationship to this living, growing, evolving, presence of Christ within them.

So how does this help explain Christian actions during times of plague? It makes them one body collectively. Not individual bodies, but one body. The Holy Spirit is God, God is one. The Holy Spirit is not broken up into shards, one shard in Paul’s body, one shard in Cyprian’s, one shard in Miriam’s. No, the Holy Spirit is one. Therefore, Paul, Cyprian and Miriam are part of the one Holy Spirit. It is not that their individuality is absolute and the Holy Spirit (and therefore Christ) must be subordinate to them and become part of their bodies. No, their individuality is broken open by the presence of the one Holy Spirit, by the one Christ, inside them. They become part of a whole. They are no longer individuals, no longer isolated. Christ is not a shard in each person, each person is part of a whole body, part of a greater one. Early Christians could not see themselves as individuals. The Church was one body comprised of people who were not not each other. This wording is clunky but if we say they were “one” we will think far more metaphorically than they did. We will think they were “one” in the way Canadians are “one”. But this is not how they saw it. Christ is one. Christ really dwells in each person through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit was visible, you could see people united through this one real presence in them. A real presence that binds them together by dwelling in each while being one, unbroken, and whole. This wasn’t metaphorical to them. This was real.

This is the key to understanding early Christian actions. If a person is part of one body, then, if someone else is hungry, they too are hungry. They would no more say “you are hungry but I’m fine” then they would say, “My stomach is hungry, but I’m fine”. If one is grieving then all are called to help and if one is struggling then this is a problem for all. And, crucially, just as Paul would never say “My lungs have plague, but I am fine” he would never say , “Miriam has plague, but I am fine”. This is why Christians didn’t flee. They were part of a body, the body of Christ, in which all oppositions, Jew and Greek, Slave and free, male and female, were overcome.

Christians struggle with the fact Paul does not condemn slavery but, for Paul in Ephesians, master and slave, husband and wife, love and serve each other like they love and serve Christ. Their social hierarchy is dissolved as they are no longer not each other. They are one and so the powers and principalities are subdued in this new life, this new body of Christ. He may have been naïve and Christians later on would come to take very seriously the human sinfulness in the institution of slavery that impedes us achieving all that Christ desires for us. Eventually such injustices were criminalised because the transformation of human beings, which Paul knew was possible, was always on the way.

But while it was not universal, the transformation was real and evident all around early Christian communities. They were certain — the evidence was everywhere — that the spirit ignites human capacities and makes them capable of more. People gave their surplus to the poor. They shared all they had with others. They died in the Colosseum rather than renounce their faith and (importantly for our purposes here) they risked death to stay with and care for the sick.

These actions “proved” to many the truth of their promises. Christ told them that incredible things were possible with faith and now, all around, the evidence of this was clear. Christians were living differently. The promise of Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead dwells in you then He will give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit” was proved by the way they preached, by the way they gave all to the poor, by how they died in the sands of the Colosseum and by the way they cared for the sick. Saul was infused with the Holy Spirit and became a different thing — Paul. Paul lived differently and acted differently. So too Christians lived and acted differently in this world. This was visible. This was real. And it was visible and real in the way they saw each other as part of a whole and, because of this, cared for each other when they were sick.

This account of why early Christians cared for the sick at great personal risk would be incomplete without acknowledgement of the role the resurrection played in shaping all early Christian thought. Since Karl Marx, the idea has been common that faith in heaven means that people will care less about the world and people in it. The early Christians, however, prove that Marx was wrong. For them, the hope of eternal life in Christ empowered them to risk all for others. They had seen death conquered in Jesus Christ. They knew that the empire of death was no more. Because of this they could risk death to help others. And they did. They did by giving to the poor and they did in caring for the sick. Because of their faith in eternal life the Roman empire couldn’t cower them into submission. The resurrection was the dynamite that powered early Christian action.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR US TODAY?

The growth or decline of Christianity is not based on the good work Christians do for society. Despite this, the evidence is clear: Christianity grew spectacularly when Christians showed that their faith was real and that led to them living different kinds of lives than their contemporaries. How Christians lived during the Antonine plague and the Cyprian plague told the world how real and transformative Christian faith was. Scripture promised that a relationship with Christ would transform each person who is open to it. And the wider world, looking at Christian behaviour during plagues, saw that it was true. Because of this, Christianity grew.

What this means for us today is clear: If Christians do not live differently during this time of pandemic, then we are telling the wider world that relationship with Christ does not make a difference. If Christians act with no more love and compassion than everyone else, then Christians are witnessing to the fact that the presence of the Holy Spirit (who is love itself) in our bodies does not make a difference. Early Christian action witnessed to who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ has done when it counted most. Their radical challenge to us is to do as they did.

Now, we know far more about disease than they did. Therefore, our love and compassion will look different. We are not called to take the risks they did because we know that these risks can spread disease. Our witness may be less dramatic, but it must be just as real. The consequences of the current pandemic are legion. Our world is suffering economically. Anxiety, depression, and stress are increasing. Families are fraying. People need support. This is not simply about health care. It is crucial that people will look back on this time and note the charity, compassion, joy, and courage that identified Christians during this pandemic. The Holy Spirit is alive in the bodies of Christians and the Holy Spirit is faith, hope, and love, itself. Christian action must be marked by faith, hope and love, whether it’s in the hospital or the school, whether it is in being attentive to the needs of neighbours, or even in turning the other cheek to an anxious family member. Challenges like this pandemic look at Christians and ask — “Is your faith real?”. The Early Christians answered this with a resounding “yes”. It is important that we answer likewise.