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The Truth of Christianity By William Harry Turton Characters: 32212

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

(A.) Its Early Triumphs.

(1.) Its immense difficulties.

(2.) Its marvellous success.

(3.) The so-called natural causes of success: they all imply the truth of the Religion.

(4.) Contrast with Mohammedanism.

(B.) Its Later History.

(1.) Its vitality in the past; very remarkable.

(2.) Its effect at the present; very beneficial.

(3.) Its prospects in the future; very hopeful.

(4.) The spread of Rationalism; but this is no new difficulty, while it shows the strength of Christianity, and being only destructive, can never take its place.

(C.) Conclusion.

The history of Christianity, which seems to have been foreknown to its Founder, forms another strong argument in its favour.

The argument we have next to consider is that derived from the History of Christianity. This religion, it must be remembered, originated, spread over, and finally conquered the civilised world in an historical age. And since the fact of this conquest can neither be disputed nor ignored, it must be accounted for. How is it that an obscure Jewish Peasant, who was crucified as a malefactor, some nineteen centuries ago, should now be worshipped, by over five hundred million persons, including all the most civilised nations of the world? As a mere historical problem, this requires some solution, for an effect in history, as elsewhere, must have an adequate cause. And it is scarcely too much to say that this is the most remarkable effect in the history of mankind. Here, then, is the subject we have to discuss; and we will first consider the early triumphs of Christianity, and then its later history.

(A.) Its Early Triumphs.

Now it seems hard to exaggerate either the immense difficulties the religion had to overcome, or its marvellous success in overcoming them.

(1.) Its immense difficulties.

In the first place, we must consider the immense difficulties of founding such a religion as Christianity. Our familiarity with the subject prevents us from fully realising this, so perhaps an analogy will help to make it clear. Suppose, then, that missionaries now appeared in the cities of Europe, in London and Edinburgh, for example, and preached that an obscure peasant, who had been put to death somewhere in Persia as a malefactor, had risen from the dead, and was the God of heaven and earth. What chance would they have of making a single convert? Yet the first preaching of Christianity at Rome or Athens must have been very similar to this, only far more dangerous. Indeed, it is hard to over-estimate the difficulties of founding a religion, the principal doctrine of which,-and one that the Christians so boldly proclaimed,-was that of a crucified Saviour.[445]

[445] 1 Cor. 1. 23.

And all this took place among civilised nations, and in a literary, one might almost say a rationalistic, age; when the old pagan religions were being abandoned, because men could no longer believe in them. What, then, must have been the difficulty of introducing a new religion, which was (apparently) more absurd than any of them, and which worshipped One Who had been crucified? Christianity had, of course, many other difficulties to contend with especially in regard to its absolute claims; for it was a religion which could stand no rival, and its success meant the destruction of every heathen altar. But these sink into insignificance, compared with the great difficulty of the Cross.

(2.) Its marvellous success.

Yet, in spite of every difficulty, Christianity prevailed. The new religion spread with great rapidity. This we learn not only from Christian writers, who might be thought to exaggerate; but from impartial men such as Suetonius and Tacitus. The former says that in the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54) the Jews in Rome, stirred up by one Chrestus (i.e., Christian Jews), were so numerous that the Emperor thought it expedient to banish them; and the latter that at the time of the great fire (A.D. 64) large numbers of Christians were discovered at Rome. While some years later Pliny, one of the Roman governors in Asia Minor, complained to the Emperor Trajan that the Christians were so numerous that the temples had long been deserted, though at the time he wrote (A.D. 112) they were being frequented again. He also bears witness to the exemplary lives of the Christians, their steadfastness in their religion, and the divine worship they paid to Christ. And as the religion did not originate in either Rome or Asia Minor, Christians were presumably as numerous elsewhere.

Nor can it be said that they were only to be found among the poor and ignorant. For Pliny himself admits that they included men of every rank in life; and the undisputed Epistles of St. Paul, such as that to the Romans (about A.D. 55), show that he thought his readers well educated, and quite able to follow a difficult argument. Moreover, according to the Acts, the people were by no means willing to accept Christianity without inquiry; and St. Paul was obliged in consequence to have long discussions on the subject. This was especially the case at Ephesus, where he reasoned daily in one of the schools, for about two years,[446] which does not look as if his followers were only among the poor and ignorant. While elsewhere we have the names of some eminent converts.

[446] Acts 19. 9-10; 17. 17.

Among these may be mentioned Erastus the treasurer of the city at Corinth; and Crispus, the ruler of the Synagogue there; Dionysius, the Areopagite at Athens; Manaen, the foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch; Apollos, a learned Jew of Alexandria, who had made a special study of the Scriptures; and Theophilus, a man of high rank (as is shown by the title Most excellent), none of whom are likely to have accepted the religion of the Crucified, without very strong evidence.[447] And recent discoveries in the catacombs have made it probable that a distinguished Roman lady, Pomponia Gr?cina (wife of the General Aulus Plautius) who Tacitus says was accused in A.D. 57 of having adopted a foreign superstition, was also a Christian.[448]

[447] Rom. 16. 23; Acts 18. 8; 17. 34; 13. 1; 18. 24; 1. 1; comp. 23. 26; 24. 3.

[448] J. Orr, Hist. and Lit. of early Church, 1913, p. 43. Tacitus, Annals, Bk. xiii., ch. 32.

Now what was the cause of this wonderful progress? It is easy to say what was not its cause. Physical force and the authority of the Government had nothing to do with it. Its missionaries did not preach with sword in hand, nor were they backed up by the civil power. All they did, all they could do, was to appeal to man's reason and conscience, and this appeal was successful. And we learn from the Christians' themselves, e.g., in the Acts, that there were two main reasons for this. The first was the confident appeal to the facts of Christianity, such as the Resurrection of Christ, as undisputed and indisputable; and the second was the occasional aid of miracles. And the more we reflect on the subject, the more difficult it is to account for it, without at least one of these causes. For the spread of Christianity was not like that of a mere philosophy, or system of morals. It depended entirely on certain alleged matters of fact, which facts were quite recent at the time of its origin, occurred at the very place where it was first preached, and were open to the hostile criticism of an entire nation. This, it is needless to say, is without a parallel in history.

But it may be said, notwithstanding this rapid progress at first, Christianity took nearly three centuries to conquer the civilised world. Undoubtedly it did, but the significance of the conquest is not diminished by this. It is rather increased when we remember that at intervals all through this period the Religion suffered the fiercest persecution. That it should have survived such a fearfully prolonged struggle, and have finally conquered, does but show its inherent strength. We may look in vain for anything like this in the rest of history. No other religion has ever withstood such persistent attacks; no other religion has ever obtained such a complete and almost incredible triumph, the Emperor of the civilised world being brought to worship One Who had been put to death as a malefactor. In short, the progress of Christianity was as unique as its origin, and can only be satisfactorily accounted for by its truth.

(3.) The so-called natural causes of success.

We must next glance at some natural causes which have been alleged as accounting for the wonderful spread of Christianity. Those brought forward by Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chapter XV.) are five in number. The first is the intense zeal of the early Christians. And doubtless this was a most important element in spreading their religion. But what gave them this intense zeal? What was it that made them so fearfully in earnest about their new religion, that they faced a life of suffering, and a death of martyrdom in preaching it? There can be but one answer. It was because they were so absolutely convinced of its truth. It was vouched for by what they considered overwhelming evidence, so they willingly risked everything for it. Their zeal, then, is but evidence for their conviction, and their conviction is but evidence for the truth of what they were convinced of; and valuable evidence too, for they plainly had much better means of knowing about it, than any that we can have.

Secondly, there is the doctrine of a future life; and doubtless this also had much to do with the success of Christianity. A longing for immortality seems inherent in man, and the vague guesses of philosophers were quite unable to satisfy this. It might be true that men should live again, but that was all they could say. Christianity alone, resting on the actual fact of Christ's Resurrection, said it was true; so here men found the assurance they wanted. But is it likely that Christianity should have so thoroughly satisfied them in this respect, had there been any real doubt as to Christ's Resurrection?

Thirdly, we have the miracles ascribed to the early Christians. Gibbon's argument here is more difficult to follow. Of course if these miracles were true, they would have greatly assisted the new religion; but then they would have been, not a natural but a supernatural cause of success. If on the other hand, the miracles were false, it is hard to see how the early Christians could have helped their religion by claiming miraculous powers which they did not possess, and which their contemporaries must have known that they did not possess.

Fourthly, we have the pure morality taught and practised by the early Christians. And no doubt this had something to do with helping their religion. But again we must ask, what was it that enabled the Christians alone in that age of vice and wickedness to lead pure lives? They ascribed it themselves to the example and power of their Founder, and nothing else can account for it. Christian morality cannot be a stream without a source, and no other source can be assigned to it. But could a mere human Teacher have had this more than human influence over thousands of converts, most of whom had never seen him?

Lastly, comes the union and discipline of the early Church. This may have helped Christianity in the later stages of the struggle, but could obviously have been of little use at the commencement. Moreover, why should Christians of various nations and classes have been so thoroughly united on this one subject, unless they were convinced of its overwhelming importance? On the whole, then, these so-called natural causes of success are at most only secondary causes; the truth of the religion is what they all imply, and this is the real cause which alone can account for its success.

A better way of explaining the spread of Christianity, which is now often adopted, is by saying that it arose at a favourable crisis. The dispersion of the Jews throughout the known world would, it is urged, have facilitated the spread of a religion founded by Jews. The speculations of the Greeks as to a Divine Word, or Logos, would have prevented the doctrines of the Trinity, and the Incarnation, from forming any great difficulty to the learned classes. While the mass of the people were disgusted with the old mythologies of Greece and Rome. These were dying out, because they failed to satisfy human nature, and men were longing for something better. They wanted, as men always will want, a religion; but they wanted it free from the absurdities and immoralities of Pagan worship. Christianity then appeared, and as it was found by many to meet the demand, it naturally succeeded.

In answer to this it must be remembered that Christianity was not a religion founded at Rome or Athens, in which case it might perhaps be said that the demand caused the supply; but it arose as a small Jewish sect in Palestine. While the fierce persecutions it had to endure show that it did not obviously meet the requirements of the day, even apart from the tremendous difficulties involved in the worship of the Crucified. But now suppose, for the sake of argument, that this had been otherwise, and that the world was so suited to receive Christianity as to account for its rapid spread; would the inference be against its Divine origin? Certainly not; for the agreement in this case would be far too close to be accidental. It must have been designed. And it would thus show that the God Who rules in history, is also the God Who introduced Christianity. So here again the proposed explanation, even if admitted, does but imply the truth of the religion.

(4.) Contrast with Mohammedanism.

And this conclusion is rendered still stronger when we contrast the progress of Christianity with that of Mohammedanism. For here we have the one example that history affords of the spread of a religion which can be compared with that of Christianity. Yet the contrast between the two is very marked, whether we consider the means by which they were spread, or their alleged evidence of truthfulness. For Mohammed did not appeal to reason, but to force, and all we have to account for is that he should be able to collect an army, that this army should conquer, and that the conquered should adopt the religion of their conquerors, about which they were often given no option. In the spread of Christianity, on the other hand, no force whatever was employed, and it had immense difficulties to contend with. In fact it carried a cross instead of a sword. Thus the contrast between the two is just what we should expect between the natural and the supernatural spread of a religion, the one advancing by worldly power, the other in spite of it.

But an even greater contrast has still to be noticed, which is that Mohammed did not appeal to any miracles in support of his claims-that is, to outward matters of fact which could be judged of by other people. And this is the more remarkable since he refers to the miracles of previous prophets, including those of Christ, as authentic,[449] but never claims to have worked any himself. The obvious conclusion is that he felt, as all men must feel, the overwhelming difficulty of asserting public miracles if none occurred, and he therefore appealed to force, because he had nothing better to appeal to. Yet, as we have seen, the early Christians asserted such miracles from the first. They were not advocates of a creed, but witnesses for certain facts, such as the Resurrection and other miracles which they believed they actually saw; and there is nothing corresponding to this in regard to Mohammedanism, or any other religion. It may of course be said that Mohammedanism shows that a religion can make rapid progress without miracles. No doubt it does; and so does Buddhism, which also spread rapidly. But it does not show that a religion which, like Christianity, claims to rest on miracles, can make its way if those miracles are false.

[449] Koran, Sura v.

(B.) Its Later History.

We pass on now from the early triumphs of Christianity to

its later history, and will consider in turn its past vitality, its present effect, and its future prospects.

(1.) Its vitality in the past.

To begin with, a strong argument in favour of Christianity is its vitality. It has survived in spite of external assaults and internal divisions; and its spread and continuity can only be satisfactorily accounted for by its truth. This is an argument the force of which increases as times goes on, and fresh difficulties are encountered and overcome. Moreover, the social state of the world has changed immensely, yet Christianity has always kept in touch with it. It has shown itself suitable for different ages, countries, and social conditions; and, unlike other religions, is still in sympathy with the highest forms of civilisation. In short, Christianity has kept possession of the civilised world for sixteen centuries, and is as vigorous in its age as in its youth.

Its long reign is indeed so familiar to us that there is a danger of not noticing its importance. Can we imagine a man now who should found a religion, which nearly two thousand years hence should be still flourishing, still spreading, and still recognising him not only as its founder but its God? Yet this would be but a similar case to that of Christianity. Amid all the changes in history it alone has remained unchanged. Its doctrines, at least the essential ones, contained in the Creeds, have been the same, century after century, and its Founder is still worshipped by millions.

(2.) Its effect at the present.

In close connection with the history of Christianity comes its effect on the world. A religion which has reigned so long, and over the most civilised nations, must of necessity have had some influence for good or evil. And with regard to Christianity there can be little doubt as to the answer. The present state of the civilised world is a standing witness to its benefits, since nearly all our moral superiority to the nations of old is due to this religion.

For example, it has entirely altered the position of women, who are no longer looked down upon as they used to be. It has also altered the position of children, who were formerly considered as property, and at the disposal of their parents, infanticide being of course common. Again, it has changed our ideas as to the sick, a hospital being almost entirely a Christian institution. It has also changed our ideas about work. In all the nations of antiquity, and in heathen countries at the present day, a workman is looked down upon. But to Christians, who believe that God Himself worked in a carpenter's shop, all work is ennobled. Once more, it has created a respect for human life as such, and apart from the position of the individual person, which was unknown in ancient times. In short, our acknowledgement of what are called the rights of man is almost entirely due to Christianity. Nor is there anything surprising in this; for the common Fatherhood of God and the common love of Christ naturally afford the strongest argument for the common rights of man. In Christ, as St. Paul expresses it, there can be neither bond, nor free; male nor female; for all are equal.[450] The good which Christianity has done is thus indisputable.

[450] Gal. 3. 28.

But it may be said, has it not also done some harm? What about the religious wars and persecutions in the Middle Ages? With regard to the wars, however, religion was, as a rule, the excuse rather than the cause; for had Christianity never been heard of, there would doubtless have been wars in the Middle Ages, as in all other ages. With regard to the persecutions, they must be both admitted and deplored; but we may ask, what religion except Christianity could have been mixed up with such persecutions, and yet have escaped the odium of mankind? Christianity has done so, because men have seen that it was not the religion itself, but its false friends who were responsible for the persecutions. The important point is that the New Testament, unlike the Koran,[451] does not authorise, still less command, the employment of force in gaining converts.

[451] Koran, Sura viii. 12; ix. 5; xlvii. 4.

We now turn to another aspect of the subject. Not only has Christianity done much good in the past, but it is doing much good at the present. This also is beyond dispute; anyone can verify the fact for himself. Thousands of men and women spend their lives in self-sacrifice among the poor and sick solely for the sake of Christ. Of course, it may be said that all this is folly and that we ought to try and benefit our fellow-men for their own sake or for the sake of the State. But, whether folly or not, the fact remains. The vast majority of those who visit the poor and sick (Sisters of Mercy for instance) do not do so for the sake of the State, or even mainly for the sake of the poor themselves, but from avowedly Christian motives. They believe that Christ loves these poor, and therefore they love them too, and willingly spend their lives in trying to help them.

It is also a fact that this strange attraction which Christ exercises, over the hearts of men is unique in history. Can we imagine anyone spending his life in visiting the sick in some large town, and saying that he is doing it for the love of David, or of Plato, or of Mohammed? Yet all through the civilised world thousands are doing it for the love of Christ. And this influence, be it observed, is not like that of other great men, local and temporary, but world-wide and permanent. Christ is thus not only, as we saw in the last chapter, the holiest of men, but the mightiest of men also; the Man in short who has most influenced mankind. And, with trifling exceptions, few will dispute that this influence has been wholly for good. So judged by its fruits, Christianity is a religion which might very reasonably have had a Divine origin.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that though Christianity has done so much good, it has not entirely reformed the world,-it has not even stopped wars among Christian nations-and its failure to do this, after trying for so many centuries, is thought by some to be adverse to its claims. But others think that its partial success and partial failure are just what we should expect if it were true. And what is more to the point, this seems to have been expected by its Founder, for He always implied that the good and the evil-the wheat and the tares-were to be mixed together until the end of the world. Moreover, its failure has been due almost entirely to the inconsistency of its adherents. If all men were Christians, and all Christians lived up to the religion they professed, there would be little to complain of, even in this imperfect world.

On the whole, then, the effect of Christianity is distinctly in its favour. It has done much good, and will probably do more as time goes on; though it has not entirely reformed the world, and probably never will. But the good it has done is an actual fact which cannot be disputed, while the argument that it ought to have done more good is at least open to doubt.

(3.) Its prospects in the future.

Lastly, the spread of Christianity seems likely to continue, and some day we may expect to see it universally professed in the world, as it is in Western Europe at the present time, though, of course, there will always be individuals who dissent from it. The reasons for this confident hope are, that, speaking broadly, Christian nations alone are extending their influence. Japan may, of course, be quoted as an exception, but strange to say Japan seems to be becoming Christian.

And to this must be added the fact that Christian missions are now being revived to a large extent; and, though they are not always successful, yet, taken together, they secure a good many converts. Moreover, there is no other side to this argument. It is not that Christianity is being adopted in some countries but renounced in others. The gains, whether great or small, are all net profits. With one exception, there is not a single instance for many centuries of a nation or tribe which once adopted Christianity changing its religion to anything else. And the exception, that of France at the time of the Revolution, strikingly proves the rule; for the change could not be maintained, and in a few years Christianity again asserted itself throughout the country.

(4.) The spread of Rationalism.

But an important objection has now to be examined. It is said that even in Christian countries an increasingly large number of men either openly reject Christianity, or give it at most a mere nominal approval. This may be called the objection from the spread of Rationalism, and it is an important one, because it is an attempt to meet Christianity with its own weapons, by appealing to reason. Of course it must be remembered that a great deal of the infidelity of the present day is not due to reasoning at all, but to the want of it; and it is hopeless to argue against this. For how can men be convinced of Christianity, or anything else, if they will not take the trouble to examine its claims?

But putting aside this class, there are still many men who may fairly be called Rationalists-men, that is, who have studied both sides of the subject, and whose reasoning leads them to reject Christianity. They admit that there is evidence in its favour, but they say that it is far from convincing. And it is believed by many that Rationalism is spreading at the present day, and will eventually become common among thoughtful men. Now, of course, the whole of this Essay is really an attempt to meet this objection, and to show that, when carefully considered, the arguments in favour of Christianity far outweigh those against it. But three additional remarks may be made here.

The first is, that this is no new difficulty. Rationalism has existed ever since the Middle Ages, and was most aggressive and most confident in the eighteenth century, as a single quotation will show. Bishop Butler in the preface to his Analogy of Religion, 1736, says, 'It has come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.' It is now nearly two centuries since these words were written, and Christianity is still flourishing! Therefore, as all previous attacks have proved futile, there is no reason to believe that the present one will be more successful.

Secondly, these continued assaults on Christianity afford in one respect additional evidence in its favour; since they show, as nothing but repeated attacks could show, its indestructibility. Had Christianity never been assailed, its strength would never have been apparent; but now we know that, try as men will for centuries, they cannot get rid of this religion.

Thirdly, it must be remembered that Rationalism is all destructive and not constructive. It can show many reasons for not believing in Christianity, but it can give the world nothing which can in any way take its place. It has no satisfactory solution for the great problems of life. Why does man exist at all? Why has he got free will? What is the meaning of sin? Is there any forgiveness for sin? What is the meaning of death? Is there any life beyond death? Is there a judgment? Can we dare to face it? Shall we recognise those whom we have loved on earth? In short, what is man's destiny here and hereafter? These are the questions which always have interested, and always will interest, mankind. Rationalists may say that the Christian answer to them is incorrect; but they can offer no other which is worth a moment's consideration.

(C.) Conclusion.

Before concluding this chapter one other point of some importance has to be noticed. It is that the early history of Christianity with its continual triumph amidst continual persecution, seems to have been foreknown to its Founder; as well as His own marvellous influence in the world.

These prophecies of Christ concerning His own religion are certainly very striking. We find, on the one hand, a most absolute conviction as to the triumph of His Church. It was to spread far and wide; its missionaries were to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations, and its enemies would never prevail against it.[452] And on the other, there is an equally certain conviction as to the constant sufferings of its members, who were to expect life-long persecution and the universal hatred of mankind.[453]

[452] Mark 16. 15; Matt. 28. 19; 16. 18.

[453] E.g., Matt. 10. 17, 22.

Yet these strange prophecies of continual success amidst continual suffering were for three centuries as strangely fulfilled, including even the little detail that Christ's followers were to be hated for His name's sake.[454] Since as a matter of fact they were often persecuted for the mere name, and it was this that made them so indignant. Thus Justin says, 'You receive the name as proof against us.... If any deny the name you acquit him as having no evidence against him.'[455] As Christ foretold, it was literally for His name's sake.

[454] Mark 13. 13.

[455] Justin, Apol. 1. 4; 1 Peter 4. 14.

Moreover, Christ's assertions regarding His own influence in the world are equally remarkable. We will give but two examples.[456] He said, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Myself. He was lifted up on the cross, and, however strange we may think it, millions of men have in consequence been drawn to Him with passionate devotion. Again, He said, I am the light of the world. And now, after nearly nineteen centuries, both friends and foes admit that His is the teaching which has enlightened and purified mankind. Had He been a mere Jewish peasant, His making such prophecies as these seems almost as incredible as their fulfilment. But what shall we say when they were both made and fulfilled? Have we not here a powerful argument in favour of Christianity? Nor can we get out of the difficulty by denying the genuineness of the passages; for they would be quite as remarkable if invented by an evangelist, as if spoken by Christ Himself.

[456] John 12. 32; 8. 12.

We may now sum up this chapter on the History of Christianity. We have considered in turn, both its early triumphs, and its later history; and each of these is, strictly speaking, unique, and each is inexplicable on purely natural grounds. But undoubtedly the more important is the marvellous success of Christianity at first, in spite of the immense difficulties it had to encounter; and, as we have seen, all natural explanations of this fail hopelessly.

The historical argument, then, leads us back to miracles; for every other explanation of the first triumph of Christianity is found to be inadequate. While, on the other hand, the establishment of the Christian religion is just what we should expect if the miracles were true. And of course true miracles, not false ones, are required to account for it. The most holy and the most powerful religion the world has ever seen cannot have been founded on falsehood or fable. In other words, if we deny that the Christian miracles occurred, and take from Christ all that is superhuman, we cannot imagine Him as the Founder of Christianity. There would be an obvious want of proportion between cause and effect. And, as a matter of fact, it was not a natural Christ, but a supernatural Christ-the Christ of the Gospels-who won the heart of mankind, and conquered the world. We seem thus forced to the conclusion that the only thing which can account for the history of Christianity is its truth. Anyhow, it is plain that its History forms another strong argument in its favour.

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