During a survey conducted in the UK at the end of 1999 people were asked about what the word ‘Millennium’ meant to them. It was mainly associated with parties, celebrations, holidays, and having a good time. Indeed the changeover into the year 2000 was quite unique in turning both a century and a millennium. That certainly gave reason to celebrate. But is that all there is to it? We managed to avoid the big picture and therefore got a fragmented and distorted view of something vital that is of great importance: Without the AD there is no real year 2000!
‘Anno Domini,’ the Latin words for ‘the year of our LORD’ are abbreviated as ‘AD.’ It marks the year when Jesus Christ was born. In AD 525, after the LORD was born, Pope St. John I, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, asked a Scythian monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus to create a new dating system. It had to measure time before and after Christ’s birth. Dionysius decided not to have AD 0, neither did he want to have BC 0, just AD 1 and BC 1. ‘BC’ stands for ‘Before Christ.’ Perhaps he wanted Christ to be at the centre of time, not an empty zero. By the 9th century it was agreed that the faithful monk had made a mistake in his calculations. The birthday of Jesus most likely took place sometime in the year BC 4-6.
The actual year 2000 was probably around 1996 already. We have all been late in celebrating. Thankfully, it is not the exact date that matters, it is the fact that it really happened. Jesus, God in human form really did come to live among us, to save us from our sins. And he will come again. The Bible did not just predict Jesus’ first coming but also his return. But this time he will not come as a baby in a manger. He will appear as the King of the Universe to put an end to all evil in the world. He will come to judge us all and to create a new heaven and a new earth, free from suffering and pain.
In the light of Jesus being so central to history it is indeed the greatest crime of the Millennium to have marginalised him to the fringes of our society! The fact that people seldom think of the ‘AD’ when talking about the Millennium merely symbolises the terrible tragedy we are surrounded by every day! Just think of the agonising consequences caused by adultery, drugs, drunkenness, greed, fraud, lies, hypocrisy, murder and so on. Indeed, the punishment we have to bear for committing the crime of the Millennium is horrendous. The Bible warned long ago that if we chose to live our lives without God such a disaster would be inevitable:
‘Without guidance from God law and order disappear…’ (Proverb 29:18)
and in the Old Testament book Hosea 4:6 God says,
‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.’
Together we urgently need to go on a journey of discovery to find the causes that led to the crime of the Millennium. Let us start by looking at the heights from which we have fallen.
Historians agree that the beginning of Europe and its development can not be understood apart from Christianity. The arrival of the Gospel united the separated northern part of Europe. Until then the nature worship of the Germans, the mythology of the Scandinavians and the fertility cult of the Etruscans held the different tribes in a state of animosity towards each other. Aided by the political development of the Roman empire, the message of Jesus created a rich, unequaled heritage, producing a unique oneness that allowed for diversity in language, living and housing.
But how do we explain the coalition between church and state for selfish gains, the crusades, religious wars, slavery, colonialism and the two world wars? The answer lies in the fact that only secondary Christian values, such as brotherhood and liberty, justice and equality were accepted by the nations of Europe. The cross of Christ and its personal application was sadly rejected by many. Having set the stage let us now look at Europe’s common Christian heritage which is slowly taken away without people even realizing it. Rev. Wim Rietkerk describes the seven pillars on which European civilisation is built as follows:
A. The linear concept of time in history
The first thing that distinguishes a pagan culture from a Christian culture is the difference in awareness of time. A real pagan life style is always cyclical, whereas the Biblical view of history is always linear. There is a tremendous difference. In spite of all of our sins, we still believe that history is not a prison, that life is not a samsara, a cycle, a circle. No, Europeans believe that we live in the direction of a future, that something will happen that finally will be the disclosure. Basically, a European from his tradition does not believe in reincarnation; he believes in resurrection. (But this is changing.) Total despair is therefore impossible in a Christian world view because God is a God who is active, who is merciful, a wonderful God who stands above history. He gave it a beginning, and he will be at the end. That is our view on history. He is the Alpha and the Omega.
B. The importance of man’s calling
Out of this basic awareness of time flows a different view on our calling, the calling of man. This awareness of being called, not to escape the world, neither to adapt to the world, but to change it, is what made Europe great.. Every real European, whether Christian or not, is at work to shape the environment. Every real European is at work to realise something of a dream inside the outside world, the surrounding world. This is what we Christians call the cultural mandate: to be fruitful, to fill the earth, to cultivate it.
This has so deeply influenced the European mind that no one in Europe can really believe that we have to escape the material world, as eastern gurus preach, or that we should accept life as a fate, as the Moslems preach. So that is a second point that is a pillar under European civilisation: the awareness of man’s calling, that he is crucial in changing history.
C. The redemption of labour
Closely connected with our view on calling is our faith in the meaningfulness of human labour – intellectual work, artistic work, craftsmanship, science and technology. The correlation between man at work and an environment made by a reasonable God is the basis for human science, and is rooted only in Christianity. With that comes the importance of human responsibility. Our choices shape the world. Our actions can have an enriching result, or we can also choose to be dead producing machines. But in all cases, labour is meaningful. God called us to work.
D. The dignity of man
The fourth underlying conviction in the biblical worldview is the dignity and the uniqueness of each individual man and woman. That is a precious treasure of European civilisation. What a compassion flows out of this basic pillar, the belief in the dignity and uniqueness of each individual person, created in the image of God. All over Europe the traffic stops when an ambulance comes by.
We hardly are aware of it, we do not watch it, but it is remarkable. All these strong and healthy people behind the wheel of their car, they stop and wait for one ill, weak individual. That does not happen in India. Europeans understand that a person is not just a wheel in a machine, or a copy. He or she is an original. He or she is wanted in a cosmic sense, because Someone wanted him or her.
Even after losing faith in God, a European still believes that each person is unique. That is a pillar of European civilisation, a pillar that cannot be absent in the house of our culture. But at this moment, it is shaking. Witness the danger in new legislation on the handicapped, the unborn and the terminally ill, for example, in Holland. The belief in the uniqueness, the preciousness and the dignity of each individual, unborn, or ageing, is dying with this legislation.
E. Mediating structures
Only through the Bible have European nations learnt the right structures for interhuman relationships. Because we are often not aware that we derive them from Christianity, the seed is being picked out of our pockets before we realise what is going on. We should fight for these values! Monogamy in European civilisation is a fruit of Christianity, as is the place of the family, the protection of marriage, structures for school, business, university, all the intermediating structures, and finally civil government. All these spheres redeemed through the preaching of the Gospel.
Out of this preaching flowed a strong community life, around family, equality of man (and woman – much too late pursued), and respect for delegated authority. Christianity recognised there was no final authority among men, that authority needed accountability. Hence the basis of democracy was built in human civilisation. Each sphere of society is equal to each other, and each is directly under God. That is the Calvinistic view of society. This has been the predominant European view on the structures of human society, and comes from the Bible, even if many Europeans do not believe in the Bible anymore.
F. Moral order
Among these secondary Christian values are the moral values. Even non-Christian Europeans agree it is wrong to steal, it is wrong to have more than one wife, or to do perjury, and that we should love one another as ourselves. I am always amazed that when you ask people individually what the highest value is, they say loving your neighbour as yourself. They forget the first, the highest commandment, and take the second one, to love your neighbour as yourself. All these rules for moral behaviour come from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and have provided the basis for moral behaviour in Europe.
G. Socio-political values
Only the Biblical message preaches that God is a God of righteousness, that he hates the oppressor, and that he is on the side of the poor. The missionaries preached this message across Europe. Because of that message, all of us have common political values: solidarity with the poor, equality by the law and before the law, freedom of the individual, etcetera, etcetera. Today we call these values human rights, but they are in fact fruit of Biblical revelation, fruit of the fruit of the Spirit. These social political values are present all over Europe, and in every European political party.
But today these values are being slowly cut off from these roots. Scholar Jurgen Haberma, who cannot be called a Christian, says in a book on post-modern culture: ‘Post-modern man is characterised by the fact that he wants to pick the fruits without the roots’. We know what happens when you cut tulips or daffodils from the field. They continue to flourish in your home where you put them in a vase, but without the roots and the bulbs they must wither and die. That is the tragedy of the modern European.
What follows focuses primarily on the history of Great Britain but very similar accounts can be drawn in many countries where Christianity was and is influential.
The message of the Bible was probably taught already since the early part of the third century AD in what the Romans called ‘Britannia’. In the late ninth century AD King Alfred the Great put the Biblical Ten Commandments at the beginning of his own law book to communicate that they should be understood ‘by the love and compassion of the Lord Christ.’ Already before and ever since the Bible has shaped our laws based on its understanding of truth, individual responsibility, the preciousness of life and justice.
By the end of the thirteenth century AD a Church was established in each village and city. The building itself was at the centre of public life. Where the clergy men were committed Christians, biblical values heavily influenced the whole community for the good. The establishment of hospitals and hospices started out as attachments to monasteries in medieval times.
The purpose of the ‘hospitium’ was to care for the sick, the poor, the elderly and travellers if they could not be looked after by their own families and relatives. Committed Christians helped medical science to advance in major ways. To name just a few: Joseph Lister developed antiseptic procedures, James Simpson pioneered chloroform as an anaesthetic, Arthur Rendle Short was the leading authority in the use of blood transfusions, Annie McCall started the first ante-natal and post-natal clinic.
The idea of education was largely born in the Church. In 1860 AD, twenty years before state education came into being, about two and a half million children went to schools, the majority of which were run by Churches and Christian charities in England.
The complete Bible is currently translated into 366 languages and is still the worlds number one best-seller. No wonder it has influenced the development of language, literature, classical music in a unique way.
Many Christian scientists pioneered early discoveries and progress, such as:
-Charles Babbage (1826): He designed the first automatic, digital computer. The Professor at Cambridge stated that careful scientific study is wholly compatible with a belief in the truth of the Bible and the Christian hope of life after death.
-Sir Ambrose Fleming (1849): The pioneer of electric light, radio and telephone.
-James Maxwell (1831): He laid foundation for modern radio, television, radar and satellite communications through his work on electromagnetism.
-Lord Kelvin (1824): The founder of modern Physics.
-Sir John Herschel (1792): He made outstanding contributions to physics of light and the science of astronomy and astrophysics.
-Michael Faraday (1791): Pioneer of the electric motor, the dynamo and the transformer.
-John Ray (1627): His work laid foundation for sciences of ornithology, botany, and zoology.
-Robert Boyle (1627): He developed what is known as the Boyle’s law in chemistry and physics.
The church became more and more powerful and wealthy. With its success came the dangers of pride, corruption, misuse of power, spiritual and moral weakness. At one stage it even passed a law against reading the Bible in the English language! The bad example of the leaders influenced the followers to such an extent that society fell back time and time again into selfish, damaging behaviour. The problem is deadly and it lies not only around us but also within all of us! The reason for this sad fact is found in the desire of men to be independent from God, not to be under his control but under one’s own.
The temptation put before Adam and Eve that they would…. be like God….(Genesis 3:5) and therefore not in need of him anymore proved to be too great to be resisted. Religious people may emphatically state that they can not live without God but by their lives they communicate the opposite message. Through their prayerlessness, stubbornness, greed, evil thoughts, selfishness and pride, they say to God: “I don’t really need you, I can live by myself.” Yes, they do good deeds, some of them more than others, and these are very helpful.
But when it comes to living in fellowship with God good works alone can never satisfy the Holy and Almighty One! A change of heart, a new life is needed and even then God needs to constantly forgive us every day because we fall short of honouring Him. That is exactly what is offered to everyone in the world through the Bible! This is why its message is called ‘Good News’!
Out of God’s love for us and to satisfy the demands of His Justice, He became flesh in Jesus to pay the punishment for our sins by his death on the cross. Salvation, a place in heaven, is free for everyone who believes in that work of Jesus because it cost God so much! True believers now devote all their heart, mind and strength to honour God with their life, out of a deep gratitude to the Saviour.
Those Christians who sought to fight against evil during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by leading the nation back to the truth of the Bible were known as ‘Reformers’. William Wilberforce, possibly bringing about the greatest social reforms in his day, fought successfully against the slave trade. As a result it was banned on British ships in 1807. Finally, in 1833 slavery in the whole of the British empire was abolished. A group of committed Christians known as the ‘Clapham sect’ financed and established the colony of Sierra Leone in Africa to be a home for freed slaves. This group was also used by God to prohibit the savage ‘sports’ of bear and bull baiting.
In 1834 James Hammit, along with other Methodists, campaigned for better working conditions, the right of employees to express their views freely and for fair wages. As a result they were sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. A hundred years later the Trades Union Congress honoured Hammit in an inscription on his grave ‘as the Pioneer of Trades Unionism.’ Many early trades union officials were members of local Churches.
Christian groups who popularised the Temperance Movement led the fight against Alcoholism, the major drug of the nineteenth century. Under their supervision coffee houses and alcohol-free centres for workmen and their families were opened. Community nursing in the UK can be traced back to church visitors giving care and advice on hygiene and medical matters.
Today’s Probation Service was significantly influenced by the Police Court Missionaries who worked with the Police and courts to supervise those convicted of minor offences. The late nineteenth century saw almost three-quarters of all charity organisations being run by evangelical Christians. Lord Shaftesbury, heir to the many estates of his father devoted himself very successfully to the needs of the poor and the underprivileged. According to the Times Newspaper he did as much for children as Wilberforce had done for slaves.
He stated that his views on everything were governed by his total commitment to Jesus Christ and the Bible. At his memorial service in 1885 many thousands of the poor came to pay him respect. Some school boys who followed Shaftesbury’s coffin carried a banner with the words of Jesus: ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’.
Missionaries, such as Amy Carmichael left the shores of England to rescue abandoned children and girls whom their parents gave up to be prostitutes and temple slaves in India. Others worked to end the burning alive of widows, known as ‘suttee.’ In the Pacific Ocean islands the teaching of the Bible helped to end head hunting and cannibalism. In China Christians worked to abolish the opium trade. Today, more then £125 million is used for overseas aid each year by charities whose motivation for their work is obedience to Christ and the Bible. (e.g. Tearfund, Christian Aid, the Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund, etc.)
Since AD, the year of our Lord’s birth, the world has changed dramatically. Assurance of forgiveness, peace on earth, eternal life in heaven, a personal relationship with God, all have become possible through Jesus. Sadly today, particularly in the western world, many have replaced worship of Jesus by worship of self or other idols. The result is disastrous: crime, rape, deceit, hopelessness, despair, broken relationships. All have become an everyday occurrence. Christianity is looked at as irrelevant, some think even as the cause of the mess we are in.
As we have seen by looking at some crucial points of history, this is definitely not the case. Whenever the Christian faith is practiced according to the Bible its influence in personal life, family and society is absolutely breath taking. It is not too late to change. Dear reader, are you truly searching for a better quality of life? Are you prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of the truth? Then take heart from this promise God gave to you:
‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:13-14)
Sources: ‘Europe: God’s Experiment?’ by Rev. Dr. Wim Rietkerk, Paper adapted from an address given at the 1993 New Europe Forum (NEF), Brussels.
‘AD’ by Brian H Edwards, Ian J Shaw, Day one Publications, Surrey, 1999, ISBN 0902548948