This Christmas, with Christians reflecting on the significance of Jesus’ birth, I’m inspired by the question posed by the late D. James Kennedy thirty years ago: What if Jesus had never been born? It’s a fascinating exercise, where we unravel the threads of time and imagine how different the tapestry of history might look with just one thread missing.
It’s quite counterintuitive, of course, for a Christian to pose such a counterfactual question. So, humor me for a moment as we embark on a journey through an “altered history,” where Jesus’ absence creates a profound vacuum that affects the world we would experience.
Religion and Spirituality
At the heart of this vacuum would be a drastically altered religious and spiritual landscape. The world’s people would never know what it would be like for God take on human flesh, exemplifying God’s law and then atoning for the sins of the world. The religious sphere would be dominated by works-based salvation, an anxiety and despair-inducing quest that consistently ends every time in failure.
Polytheistic paganism might have maintained its stranglehold on half the world, replete with anthropomorphic “gods” who fight with one another, and “rule the world” based on their whims and caprice. Alternately, Hinduism and Buddhism might have gained an unprecedented ascendance, dotting the landscape with shrines for ancestor veneration and temples for Eastern meditation. Yet again, Islam might have forced its way to power, replete with polygamy and Sharia law. Regardless, the religious landscape would be altered, almost beyond recognition, and not for the good.
Ethics and Moral Philosophy
Although the salvation wrought by Jesus is by grace alone and through faith alone, he affirmed the significance of the moral law woven into creation’s order. By affirming the Ten Commandments (which paved the way for the development of civil law in Western society) and by revealing their deeper application, he pointed society towards a love-based interpretation of adherence to those laws. Can you imagine Western law and society deprived of Jesus’ interpretation?
Other teachings of Jesus such as the Sermon on the Mount, have been pivotal in shaping the moral compass of Western civilization. In a world without Jesus, principles like forgiveness, compassion, and turning the other cheek might not have become as ingrained in societal values. Community structures, too, would likely have evolved along different lines, perhaps more aligned with political or familial ties rather than religious fellowship.
Art, Architecture, and Music
Imagine our world without the majestic artwork inspired by the life and ministry of Jesus: the Byzantine era’s majestic mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible; the Romanesque sculptures and frescoes depicting Jesus’ crucifixion and Second Coming; the Gothic cathedrals with their soaring spires and stained glass windows; and the Renaissance era’s fusion of Christian themes with humanism (e.g., da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece). Similarly, architecture: try to envision the world landscape without marvels like the Notre-Dame Cathedral or Saint Peter’s Basilica. Still again, try to conceive of the musical realm deprived of Handel’s “Messiah” or John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” These great works—and many others—were focused like a laser on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Similarly, the literary realm would be a pale shadow of itself if Jesus had never been born. Without his life, death, and resurrection, the New Testament would never have been written, the Old Testament never given global attention, with the Bible’s stylistic characteristics thus never bequeathing to the literary world its narrative techniques, symbolism, and moral storytelling. Further, without Christian monasteries, the great works of ancient Greece and Rome likely would never have been safeguarded and translated for posterity. What’s more, without Christian writers such as Dante, Chaucer, and Milton, the tradition of epic narrative wouldn’t have been perpetuated. Still again, bereft of Christian novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the tradition of modern fiction would lack the moral rigor and ethical nuance we have come to expect.
Scientific and Educational Advances
It is often overlooked how Christianity and the Church played a crucial role in the development of modern science. Scientific scholars acknowledge that modern science emerged among theologians, monks, and professors in Medieval and Renaissance Christian universities and monasteries. Luminaries such as Copernicus (astronomy), Bacon (scientific method), Pascal (geometry), Maxwell (physics), and Lavoisier (chemistry) paved the path for contemporary scientific advances. Thus, it is quite ironic that unbelievers often accuse Christianity of being anti-science or argue that the historic relationship between science and Christianity is coincidental. Quite the contrary.
Because of Jesus’ life and ministry and the subsequent embrace of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, the foundations of modern science were set. Think about it. Christians believe the world is God’s handiwork, ordered by him into the regularity we now experience, and charged by the grandeur of God. Thus, Christians not only had high motivation to study the world (its complexity and majesty tell us something about God), but they also had confidence that their study of the world reveals objective truth (the scientific method is premised on regularity, which is premised on God’s sustaining order for the world). Indeed, the earliest universities in the West, such as Oxford and Cambridge, and eventually Harvard and Princeton, were founded on Christian principles.
Legal and Political Systems
The legal and political systems of many nations are rooted in Judeo-Christian ethics. Principles such as the human dignity (sanctity of life), equality, justice, and liberty can be traced back to the teachings of Jesus. Correspondingly, Christianity has influenced virtually everything that makes up the modern legal system, from the structure of courts to the nature of laws themselves. Without his influence, the legal landscape of the modern world would likely be unrecognizable. Furthermore, the political realm, particularly in terms of leadership and governance, has been profoundly influenced by Christian ideals. Concepts like servant leadership and the responsibility of rulers to their people might have developed differently or not at all.
Social and Humanitarian Causes
The teachings of Jesus heavily emphasize unconditional love, human compassion, and authentic community. Without these teachings, the modern world’s approach to community life and social welfare could have been vastly different, possibly lacking the emphasis on charity and social support systems that were inspired by Christian ethics. Indeed, Christianity has been a driving force in the establishment of hospitals, orphanages, and charities, thus alleviating suffering and improving the quality of life for countless individuals. The absence of these institutions that were founded on the compassionate teachings of Jesus would have left a gaping hole in the social fabric of our culture.
In conclusion, the hypothetical absence of Jesus Christ from history would have had monumental implications. It would have created a cascade of negative changes in the religious and moral landscape, and an enormous void in art, literature, music, science, education, law, politics, and philanthropy. While it is impossible to fully comprehend the extent of these changes, it is clear that the world as we know it would be unrecognizable. The impact of Jesus’ teachings and his role as a central figure in human history cannot be understated, proving that his influence extends far beyond the confines of religious doctrine and into the very core of human civilization. Thank God for the babe born in a manger two thousand years ago. “He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.”