Plagues and the Promises of God
Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad. (Proverbs 12:25)
In his book The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark discusses an astounding development in the growth of the early church. Periodically plagues would sweep through the Roman Empire, terrifying the populace as they killed 10-25% of the inhabitants of cities. The second century Plague of Galen (perhaps smallpox or measles) killed up to 2,000 people per day in Rome and the third century Plague of Cyprian (perhaps smallpox or influenza) killed 5,000 people per day in Rome. Understandably, anyone with the means of fleeing would run to the countryside.
But amazingly, the Christian community largely stayed in the cities. Even though many of the Christians were upper or middle class and had the ability to leave, they remained in order to provide nursing care to the sick. Their willingness to serve the city had a few crucial effects:
1) The Christian community gained a reputation for great compassion, providing care not only for their own, but for the wider pagan population as well.
2) The nursing care they provided improved survival rates among their community, which was interpreted by Christians and non-Christians alike as God’s providential protection for his church.
3) Many pagan people who lost their social networks of friends and family during the plague found a new, robust family in the church.
As a result, even though the Empire suffered terrible setbacks during the plagues, the Christians rapidly advanced as a percentage of the population. Eventually this led to the Christianizing of the Empire and, through it, the Western World.
The key question is this: What made them stay? What would make you stay? Even if it was good for the movement overall, why did individual Christians risk their lives, especially if they had the means to leave? Were they thrill-seekers – the ancient equivalent to sky divers or extreme sports enthusiasts? Or were they masochists – eager to inflict self-harm? No, not at all.
Instead, the Christians remained because of their beliefs about the future. At the heart of the faith was their confidence in the resurrection of Jesus and, therefore, of the certainty of their own resurrection from the dead. This meant that even if the worst happened and they died they would be just as safe as they had been before the plague, destined for eternal life with Christ.
Holding to right doctrine has huge effects on our lives. As Proverbs expresses it, these Christians were not “weighed down with anxiety” because “a good word” – the promise of the resurrection – had given them tremendous confidence. It was not their intrinsic character that enabled them to stay, but the good news about Jesus. Right belief led to great bravery and compassion.
What are the implications for us? For one, the best way to fight anxiety as a Christian is to think about the big picture. Even if the worst happens – even if I die in a plague – I will rise again with Christ to a renewed human life with a restored human body. For another, it reminds us that we do not (and cannot) fight anxiety on our own. Living a morally courageous life requires a “good word” coming from the outside, the proclamation of what God has done and will do for us.
So today, think through the big picture of Christianity. Let the news of the gospel temper your anxieties and rejoice because, in Christ, you really are safe.
Father, thank you for the faithfulness of the early church and thank you for the confidence I can have in the resurrection. By your Spirit, make me thoughtful and brave and compassionate as I walk with you. In Christ’s Name, Amen.