By L. Alfred James
In the past few weeks, we’ve surveyed attempts throughout history to create a modern nation without the use of any kind of scripture. In France (in the 1700s), the result was 40,000 deaths and the arrest of two percent of the adult population. In communist countries (in the 1900s), the result was even more devastating: Approximately 100 million people were killed by communist regimes, regimes who had the best of intentions—they wanted to create a fair society.
It is not hard to understand how this could happen. If a national government believes that there is no revelation from God, then there obviously is no law decreed by God. Human beings have no law higher than human law. Thus, the basis of all law will be whatever the government decides. In other words, the law will be determined entirely by the whims of the government, and there will be no way to challenge it. This is why the leaders of deistic and atheistic governments have free reign to harass, imprison, torture, and kill anyone they want to. Without any kind of scripture, there is no way to object to their behavior. There is no objective reason for believing that human beings have intrinsic value. As a reminder, saying, “The Bible condemns your behavior,” means nothing to these people. It amounts to saying, “I don’t like it like it when you murder people.” Not very persuasive.
So, we’ve seen that respect for the Bible’s message has made a huge difference in the governments of the world.
The Impact of Christian Missions
If you want further proof of the Bible’s power, consider an opposite situation. Consider what happens among a violent people group that had no scripture, and is then converted to Christianity.
In 1956 five young missionaries from Wheaton College relocated to the Amazon Basin of Ecuador to try to reach the Waodani people, a tribe that was infamous for violence and rampant murder. More Waodani people died at the end of a spear than any other way.
The Waodani killed all five of these young men. That was not very surprising. However, their family members carried on their missionary efforts and established friendships with the Waodani. They eventually shared the gospel with them and forgave them for murdering their husbands, fathers, and brothers. That was very, very surprising. Because of their love, courage, and mercy, many of the Waodani people received Christ as their Lord and Savior. This radically changed their entire culture.
Previously, the life expectancy of the Waodani was merely 33 years of age. More than half of all Waodani died by getting speared. Since then, the homicide rate has dropped by 90 percent, and (for the first time in memory) there are members of the Waodani tribe living into their sixties and seventies. In fact, this astonishing cultural revolution was recently dramatized in the movie End of the Spear.
Such a turnaround is no coincidence. History demonstrates that the message of the Bible has a powerful effect on cultures, motivating them to practice charity, to show mercy, to think carefully, and to do good.
A similar result happened with the Motilone Indians. In 1961 a 19-year old blond-headed Bruce Olson began living among the Motilone Indians in Columbia, learning their culture and their language. He had to suffer through many trials before he could effectively share the gospel with them, including being shot with arrows and enduring an illness that almost killed him.
He strategically used a “power encounter” with a witch doctor to prove his credibility. This greatly enhanced his ability to share the gospel with them. As time passed, he helped them develop a written language and taught them basic medicinal practices. Many of these Motilone people came to Christ, and this radically transformed their entire culture. As David Miller explains:
At the request of tribal elders, Olson set up jungle schools to teach the Motilone to read and write their language. Eventually, four hundred tribal scholars would go on to graduate from Colombian high schools; more than forty have earned university degrees. Today, Motilone doctors and nurses staff the tribe’s twenty-four healthcare centers. Motilone agronomists direct a dozen farming cooperatives and Motilone lawyers advise tribal elders on legal matters.
The result: a tribe which was slipping toward extinction in the 1960s because of disease, malnutrition, and war with encroaching homesteaders and oil companies is now prospering. Life expectancy has increased by decades as infant mortality and death from epidemics have plummeted. A strong tribal economy provides steady income for community development and the Motilone live peacefully within the borders of their own 320 square mile tribal preserve.1
If you study the history of Christian missions, you will encounter many stories that sound very similar. The Bible’s message is transformative, pacifying, civilizing, and humanizing. It intensifies our humanitarian instincts by providing an intellectual basis for them and softening our hearts by experiencing God’s love for us.
Stories like this are so common that this topic has become a subject of intense research. The impact of the Bible’s message on the world has actually started to gain serious academic momentum. Many scholars have noticed that there is a strong connection between Christianity and democracy, governmental integrity, the pursuit of knowledge, human rights, and a healthy national infrastructure.
Reams of sociological and economic data have been collected to evaluate the impact of Christian missionaries all across the globe. Whereas in the past it was popular to lampoon missionaries as naïve zealots who disrespect native cultures, nowadays it is becoming more common for anthropologists and sociologists to admit that the enterprise of Christian missions has been incredibly beneficial to the world. For instance, after combing through hundreds of thousands of pages worth of economic data, Bob Woodberry has discovered that Protestant Christianity has been massively beneficial to the human race:
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.2
That is a very fascinating claim, but incredibly uncool to say in academia. Because of the thoroughness of Woodberry’s research, and because of how unpopular it is, numerous studies have been launched in an attempt to disprove it. Nonetheless, the research keeps reinforcing it. “Yet so far, over a dozen studies have confirmed Woodberry’s findings. The growing body of research is beginning to change the way scholars, aid workers, and economists think about democracy and development.”3
And it isn’t just Christians who are convinced by Bob Woodberry. Robin Grier, professor of economics at Texas Tech, says, “I’m not religious. . . I never felt really comfortable with the idea of [mission work]; it seemed cringe-worthy. Then I read Bob’s work. I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. They left a long legacy. It changed my views and caused me to rethink.” Regarding Woodberry’s work, Grier says, “I think it’s the best work out there on religion and economic development. . . . It’s incredibly sophisticated and well grounded. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.”4
The Central Figure Of Human History
If you’ve read the past few articles in this series, I hope you can now see that humanity needs the Bible. When we set it aside, we end up creating social chaos. But when we embrace it, and faithfully follow (and proclaim) its message, we end up making the world a much better place. This is why the Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette came to believe that the ministry of Jesus Christ is the most important episode in all of history:
Measured by its fruits in the human race, that short life has been the most influential ever lived on this planet. As we have been at pains to point out, the impress of that life, far from fading with the passing centuries, has deepened. Never has Jesus had so wide and so profound an effect upon humanity as in the past three or four generations. Through him millions of individuals have been transformed and have begun to live the kind of life which he exemplified. Through him movements have been set in motion which have made in society for what mankind believes to be its best—in the inward transformation of human lives, in political order, in the production and distribution of goods to meet the physical needs of men, in healing physical ills, in the relations between races and between nations, in art, in religion, and in the achievements of the human intellect. Gauged by the consequences which have followed, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have been the most important events in the history of man. Measured by his influence, Jesus is central in the human story.5
2. Andrea Palpant Dilley, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” in Christianity Today (January 28, 2014).
5. Kenneth Scott Latourette, Anno Domini: Jesus, History, and God (Harper and Brothers, 1940), 227.