Did you ever imagine you would know so much about infectious disease? Yet as the Coronavirus has moved from east to west, becoming a global pandemic, fear has gripped our communities and now threatens our health, economy and way of life.
But the story of pandemics is as old as human history. In fact, the rise of Christianity probably would not have happened without them.
A close look at the records from Roman cities of the era reveals that the Christian response to epidemics is a large part of the reason why faith triumphed over unbelief. Roman cities were unpleasant places – dingy, filthy and damp. Conditions were ripe for disease. And in fact, plagues killed thousands without mercy. And when the plagues came, the rich left. This included the political leaders, the wealthy and the doctors who valued their own lives more than their citizenry.
In addition, Roman culture was not kind to the vulnerable. Infanticide was legal and widespread. Statesmen like Seneca and philosophers like Aristotle and Plato advocated for the exposure of unwanted infants to the elements where they could be adopted or perish. This practice especially impacted girls who had less social cache than boys and was so extreme that it led to a gender imbalance in the general population.
But the Christian response to these social needs revitalized Roman society and provided a new way of life that could cope with the brutal realities of life:
First, Christians didn’t leave their families or neighbors when the plagues came. They stayed and provided food, water and compassion. And even though many Christian caregivers died in these acts of costly love, Christian communities survived the plague at a much higher rate. And those non-Christian neighbors who survived after being cared for by a Christian were of course much more likely to convert to the faith.
Second, Christians didn’t kill their kids, and they raised abandoned children who had been left to die. As a result, Christian communities brought many more children to adulthood. And those adopted by Christians became some of the best witness to the power of faith.
Finally, Christians prioritized their marriages and families, divorcing at a much lower rate than the general population. Over time, this meant that Christians had more vibrant family networks which in turn contributed to their resilience.
In the end, Christianity spread not because of power or politics, even though Christianity was eventually adopted as the official religion of the Roman government. The real reason for the rise of Christianity is that their love went viral as a better way of life.
The revolutionary teaching and example of Jesus provided a new foundation for living based on mercy received and mercy given: “A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34–35).
Christians extended this self-sacrificing love not only to each other, but to all in Jesus’s name. And the principle that charity should be extended beyond one’s own tribe and family changed the world.
Maybe the rise of Christianity provides the blueprint for its revival today. Perhaps how we sacrificially love those suffering from the coronavirus and other maladies will be part of Christianity’s resurgence today.
 The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark