When it comes to sharing the gospel today, many of us feel somewhat apathetic or insecure. One reason for this deficit is the absence of a clear and accurate picture of the role that the Christian mission and people like us have played in the great sweep of history.
This quest for the truth becomes more urgent in light of the particular version of history being advanced by a variety of articulate atheists or "anti-theists" today. They assert that a serious study of the past demonstrates that Christianity—along with other religious beliefs—is not benevolent, or merely benign, but actually bad. It is antiquated, superstitious and ultimately destructive. It is responsible for incalculable bloodshed, unforgivable injustice and mind-numbing ignorance. Far from being a blessing to human civilization, "faith" has been a blight to human advancement. In a debate with Alister E. McGrath, Christopher Hitchens summed up the conclusion this way: "I can't believe there is a thinking person here who doesn't realize that our species would begin to grow to something like its full height … if it emancipated itself from this sinister, childish [religious] nonsense."
Although this opinion is being peddled with fresh packaging today it is hardly new. This view of history first gained prominence back in the late 18th century with the widespread reading of Edward Gibbon's book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon caricatured Christianity as having brought down the grandeur of classical civilization—fettering the human spirit and the life of the mind to which Greece and Rome gave birth. As Christianity expanded, says Gibbon, it weakened the Roman Empire, paving the way for the church to take over and subject the Western world to its superstitions and regressive rules.
As this storyline goes, the church went on to ban books, suppress science and womanhood, and plunge once noble Europe into the Dark Ages. Bent on taxing people to fund their material and moral excesses, the church's leadership crusaded across the Middle Ages, skewering infidels, racking skeptics and burning dissidents. Thankfully, however, some courageous intellectuals finally revolted against the church's Darth Vader-like grip and birthed the Renaissance. They followed it up with the magnificent Enlightenment, staving back blind religion. In time, thank Man's goodness, these bright thinkers managed to invent the modern era and bring us to the present moment when—if with John Lennon we dare to imagine—we can be free of the Christian disease once and for all and enter a new age of progress and peace. In fact, we would have had that better world a whole lot earlier if that Easter hoax had never happened.
This is what is being taught as "history." Can you see why people steeped in this tale might be resistant to the Christian message or discouraged about sharing it with others?
The Enemy Is Partly Right
As we'll see, however, this storyline is quite a revision of history. Before going there, however, it would serve God's reputation and our credibility well to make the same confession once voiced by Tony Campolo: "We have met the enemy and they are partly right." Jesus once said that only the truth can set us fully free to be his people (John 8:32). The painful truth is that atheism has a foothold today in part because there have been many times in history when people of Christian faith (or marching beneath some other religion's flag) have sinned boldly against God and people. Whether by ignorance, pride, greed or some other deadly sin, they have repeated the very atrocities by which ostensibly religious people crucified Jesus because he threatened their institutional power or personal throne.