The gods feel no love for humans, Aristotle taught. "God so loved the world," Christians answered. That response changed the standard of living in this world, says Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton) and a professor at the University of Washington. His article is condensed from CT's sister magazine CHRISTIAN HISTORY. A little-known fact is that Christians in the ancient world had longer life expectancies than did their pagan neighbors. In fact, many pagans were attracted to the Christian faith because the church produced tangible (not only "spiritual") blessings for its adherents. These benefits included:

Social services. In a world entirely lacking in social services, Christians were their brothers' keepers. At the end of the second century, Tertullian wrote that while pagan temples spent their donations "on feasts and drinking bouts," Christians spent theirs "to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined to the house."

Similarly, in a letter to the bishop of Antioch in 251, the bishop of Rome mentioned that "more than 1,500 widows and distressed persons" were in the care of his congregation. This charity was confirmed by pagan observers, too. "The impious Galileans support not only their poor," noted the emperor Julian, "but ours as well."

Health services. When two great plagues swept the empire in 165 and 251, mortality rates climbed higher than 30 percent. Pagans tried to avoid all contact with the afflicted, often casting the still living into the gutters. Christians nursed the sick, even though some believers died doing so. We now know that elementary nursing—simply giving victims food and water without any drugs—reduces mortality in epidemics by as much as two-thirds. Consequently, Christians were more likely than pagans to recover.

Women's rights. Women greatly outnumbered men among early converts. However, in the empire men vastly outnumbered women because of female infanticide. "If you are delivered of a child," wrote a man named Hilarion to his pregnant wife, "if it is a boy, keep it, if it is a girl, discard it." Frequent abortions "entailing great risk" (in the words of Celsus) killed many women and left even more barren. Christians, however, practiced neither abortion nor infanticide and thus attracted women.

Women also enjoyed higher status and security than they did among their pagan neighbors. Pagan women typically were married at a young age (often before puberty) to much older men. But Christian women were older when they married and had more choice in whom, and even if, they would marry. In addition, Christian men could not easily divorce their wives, and both genders were subject to strongly enforced rules against extramarital sex. The apostle Paul indicates that women held positions of leadership within the church, as was confirmed by Pliny the Younger, who reported to Emperor Trajan that he had tortured two young Christian women "who were called deaconesses."

Urban sanctuary. Greco-Roman cities were terribly overpopulated. Antioch in Syria, for example, had a population density of about 117 inhabitants per acre—more than three times that of New York City today. Tenement cubicles were smoky, dark, often damp, and always dirty. On the street, mud, open sewers, and manure lay everywhere. Newcomers and strangers, divided into many ethnic groups, harbored antagonism that often erupted into riots. For these ills, Christianity offered a unifying subculture, bridging divisions and providing a strong sense of common identity. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity and hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate fellowship. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.

Close-knit community. Because the church asked much of its members, it followed that it gave much. Because Christians were expected to aid the less fortunate, they could expect to receive such aid, and all could feel greater security against bad times. Because they were asked to nurse the sick and dying, they too would receive such nursing. Because they were asked to love others, they in turn would be loved.

In similar fashion, Christianity mitigated relations among social classes, and at the very time when the gap between rich and poor was growing. It did not preach that everyone could or should be socially or politically equal, but that all were equal in the eyes of God, and that the more fortunate had a responsibility to help those in need.

Behind tangible motives Christians believe the Holy Spirit prodded and persuaded pagans to believe. Christian conversion, after all, is ultimately a spiritual affair. But it is not too much to think that God used the tangible to influence the spiritual.

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