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In A.D. 165, a plague struck the Roman Empire. In 15 years, from one-fourth to one-third of the entire population died—many needlessly. Another plague, with similar results, struck a century later. In both plagues, the mortality rate among Christians was much lower than among non-Christians. Why?

Neither Christians nor pagans had access to effective medicinal drugs. But the Christians had two things the pagans lacked.

As historian Rodney Stark writes in The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, most pagans feared death because they expected mere oblivion or, at best, a drab existence in a shadowy underworld.

More importantly, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice. As E. A. Judge explained, classical philosophers taught that “mercy indeed is not governed by reason at all,” and humans must learn “to curb the impulse”; “the cry of the undeserving for mercy” must go “unanswered.” Judge continued: “Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up.”

Consequently, when plagues struck, those who could—like the physician Galen—fled to avoid the contagion. Those who couldn’t flee still tried to avoid the sick. “When their first symptom appeared, victims often were thrown into the streets, where the dead and dying lay in piles,” Stark writes.

It was different among Christians, for two reasons.

First, unlike pagans, Christians believed that, by the merciful grace of God in Christ, they would be raised from the dead to a glorious new life (2 Corinthians 4:17), when “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality,” and so death had lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15). So Christians believed that if they died from disease contracted while caring for the ill, the result for them would be glorious, and so they were able to overcome their fears.

Second, Christians had learned mercy from Jesus. Jesus had taught them that in the last judgment, He would say to some people, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” They would respond, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And He would answer, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:34–40).

Not only had Jesus taught mercy toward the sick, He had also exemplified it—healing the sick, even touching lepers, and ultimately laying down His life as a substitute for sinners.

Though the ancient world lacked antibiotics and other effective medicines, what many sick people needed was much simpler: water and food.

Pagans, who feared death and considered pity a character defect, usually provided neither. Instead, as Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote at the time of that plague, the non-Christians “deserted those who began to be sick and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets when they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied.”

But Christians, who didn’t fear death but considered mercy, even at great personal sacrifice, a high virtue, freely and lovingly gave basic care to the sick. Indeed, that was one of the top responsibilities of church deacons.

Stark describes the consequences:

It is entirely plausible that Christian nursing would have reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds! The fact that most stricken Christians survived did not go unnoticed. This surely must have produced some conversions, especially by those who were nursed back to health.

In addition, while Christians did nurse some pagans, being so outnumbered, obviously they could not have cared for most of them, while all, or nearly all, Christians would have been nursed. Hence Christians as a group would have enjoyed a far superior survival rate, and, on these grounds alone, the percentage of Christians in the population would have increased substantially as a result of both plagues.

What went on during the epidemics was only an intensification of what went on every day among Christians. Because theirs were communities of mercy and self-help, Christians did have longer, better lives. This was apparent and must have been extremely appealing.

As Stark pointed out in his book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, the Christian faith also provided the worldview foundation necessary for limited government, religious and economic liberty, and the birth and growth of science and technology, leading to both prosperity and improved human health and lifespan through heightened economic productivity and medical science.