In his What If? books, Robert Cowley invites scholars to imagine other paths history might have taken. What if Socrates had died in battle and not become a philosopher? What if the Chinese had discovered the New World? What if Martin Luther had been burned at the stake? But the most fascinating question they tackle is: What if Pilate had pardoned Jesus? Carlos M.E. Eire envisions a not very compelling Christianity without a crucifixion. But this being Christmas, I wonder why no one has done an "It's a Wonderful Life" and contemplated what the world would be like if Jesus had never been born. Would the world have been a better place, as atheists say? I'm not a historian but I do not know a lot about Christian history and I know some things that would not have happened if Jesus never lived.
At first let us confine ourselves to the social and historical effects of the absence of Christianity. One thing that would have happened is the complete fragmentation of the West after the fall of Rome. As it was, there were warring barbarian tribes. But if there were no Christian church, there would have been no network of dioceses and monasteries throughout a politically divided Europe. There would have been no common tongue based on an educated clergy required to read and write Latin. When barbarians felt they needed people who could read and write in order to, say, manage their estates or empires, they hired clergy to do it for them. We get the word "clerk" from "cleric." The Emperor Charlemagne was considered remarkable simply for learning to write his own name. The true reason for the so-called "Dark Ages" was the collapse of Roman civilization under the onslaught of Germanic tribes, not the church. The church was the only light at that time.
Before that, when the Roman Empire's capitol moved to Constantinople, and the experiment of having co-emperors in the East and the West collapsed, the power vacuum in the West was filled by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, who was by default the richest and most powerful person in Europe. Only he had the resources and structure to help the poor and the sick. Only he had the authority to negotiate with the barbarians, anxious to loot the ruins of the once great empire. Take away Christianity and and when the barbarians conquered Rome, they would not have been conquered in turn by the Roman Catholic faith. The Germanic pagans would have encountered Greco-Roman pagans. Since the barbarians didn't care for literacy and learning from books, the intellectual history of the West might have died right there.
Without Christianity, there would have been no monks. There is no equivalent movement among Jews or European pagans. Monasticism arose when Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire. Those who would have been eager martyrs turned to other forms of self-sacrifice and extreme Christianity. Some became hermits. Others formed contemplative sub-cultural societies. Different monastic orders emphasized different Christian ideals. While some withdrew from most interactions with society, others became teaching orders and still others devoted themselves to taking care of the sick. It is from these latter orders that most universities and hospitals arose in the West. And the knowledge they built on came from the ancient Greek writers whose works were preserved by the monasteries. Without Christian monasteries, not only would the great universities and hospitals either never have come into being or been delayed by centuries, but the same can be said of the Renaissance.
Ironically, one major, although tragic, contribution to the Renaissance would be lacking: the Crusades. Now this is a shameful period for the church, but historians point out that the Crusades did bring Europe into contact with the then more civilized Islamic cultures, which preserved some of the wisdom of the Greeks. This in turn got Christians interested in the works of the past the Muslims had, which led to them discovering so many of them gathering dust back home in the monasteries and this initiated interest beyond the monks and helped kick off the Renaissance. Sadly, without this series of terrible wars, this alternate history Europe would have remained isolated and intellectually stagnated, with no monasteries to act as repositories of knowledge and centers of learning, and no influx of new ideas to trigger the Renaissance. It probably wouldn't have come about because of Muslim incursions into Europe, either. I'm sure that Charles Martel would still have stopped the Muslims of Spain at the Battle of Tours, if only to preserve his Frankish kingdom. I'm also sure that Ferdinand and Isabel would have would have expelled the Moors, not for religious reasons but in the spirit of conquest and consolidation. Besides I have never found anything particularly Christian about those 2 Spanish monarchs.
Might Europe have gotten the knowledge from what the Muslims left behind in Spain? After they were expelled, Gerard of Cremona went to Toledo and translated 92 Arab works, which included translations of and commentaries on parts of Aristotle, the astronomer Ptolemy, and physicians Hippocrates and Galen. But he did so under church auspices. And he made these works accessible by translationg them into Latin. But remember: no church, no Latin as a common tongue, no interest by the secular authorities in learning from books. So, again, this would be unlikely.
Might things have gone better for the Jews, at least? I doubt it. Anti-Semitism didn't start with Christianity but began under the successors to Alexander the Great, long before the birth of Christ. One of those successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, tried to force Hellenization upon the inexplicably (to him) monotheistic Jews. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Jews over this attempt. But the relationship of the Jews with other pagans would have foundered over the same issue: their refusal to add other gods to their worship. In fact, during the Middle Ages, it was often the local bishop who protected the Jews against ignorant accusations by the populace. We have many documents and a couple of papal bulls in which the lies used to justify atrocities against the Jews are refuted and denounced. I fail to see that removing Christianity from the equation would make mobs more tolerant of what they saw as strangers who kept to themselves and who would not celebrate the religious feasts of the majority. Stalin and Hitler proved that anti-Semitism is not exclusive to Christians.
Remove Christianity from the world and I wonder how far science would have progressed. While China, India and the Islamic empires all had their golden ages and made notable contributions to science, it was in the Christian West where science continued to blossom. Beginning with Boethius in the fifth century, a huge number of significant scientists were not merely presumed Christians but were monks, priests, bishops and even cardinals. It has been postulated that science flourished in the West because of the belief that there is one God who made man in his image and that therefore man could understand creation, another product of the mind of God.
Take away Christianity and there would be no pilgrims with a religious motive to leave England and settle in America. The New World would have been colonized by the companies that originally had sponsored the pilgrims' efforts but would there be spiritual or ethical components to offset the commercial ones?
Take away Christianity and where would the impetus for the abolition of slavery have come? From the earliest days of the movement, Christians have been in the forefront of liberating victims of this universal institution, even making slaves into bishops in the first century.
Despite all the talk about how Islam elevated the status of women, it is in the Christian West where women have achieved the most.
And the idea of non-violent resistance to evil came from the Sermon on the Mount. That's where the Quakers and the Amish and Gandhi and Martin Luther King got it. Where otherwise would you derive this idea? And all of these ideas came to other cultures because of Christian missionaries, who translated the Gospel and set up schools.
But the principle loss to the world if Jesus had never been born would be the revelation that God is love. The Jews and Muslims see God primarily as just. He can be merciful but he is seen as chiefly interested that people keep his law. While the Hebrew Bible proclaims God's steadfast love towards his people, with hints of his concern for the righteous people outside Judaism, God is depicted only as coming to the world as a triumphant judge. He is not seen as so loving that he would become a human being and die for the whole world. Were he seen like that in the Hebrew scriptures, the Jews of Jesus' time would not be so resistant to the idea. We Christians can see the clues in retrospect: the prophesy in Genesis 3:15, the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Passover lamb, the suffering servant of Isaiah. But without looking through the lens that is Jesus Christ, it is not an Old Testament theme that jumps right out at you.
There are plenty of religions in the world that emphasize personal righteousness. There are plenty that emphasize social justice. There are plenty that emphasize inner peace. There is only one that emphsizes self-sacrificial love. There is only one that says that God is in fact that love.
Most religions have some form of the Golden Rule, usually stated negatively: Don't treat others in ways you would not like to be treated. Only one says you must go farther than that and actually love not only your neighbor but also your enemy.
All religions have a problem with people who claim to be adherents while violating the rules. Their only solution: return to following the rules. Only one says that keeping the rules doesn't matter if you do not have the Spirit of God's love within you, because only that Spirit can change you and enable you to keep the rules. Indeed, God is more interested in you becoming the kind of person who doesn't need to keep checking the rules and who knows through the Spirit when to set some rules aside. As C.S. Lewis said, Christianity is more like painting a portrait than following rules. The portrait we are to paint with our lives is that of Jesus.
As Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. Take away Jesus and you have a world even more rife with strife and ignorance than the one we have. You'd have a world in which everyone is expected to do the just thing and no more. You would have a world in which no one is expected to go the second mile, turn the other cheek or reach out to those who oppose you or who oppose God. Let us therefore thank God for the true Christmas gift: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Word of God, God incarnate, Love incarnate, Savior, Redeemer, Priest and King.