The Big Question 41: Did Christianity Invent Charity?
Mar 18, 2019 1931
Did Christianity invent charity?
There’s a lot of things that we don’t think about in our culture. We just take them for granted. And this is one of them: where did charity come from?
And what I mean by charity is selflessly helping others. A visible aspect of charity that we see in the world is in the existence of not-for profit charitable organisations.
In ancient times, there was no concept of charity to be found anywhere. It is the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and particularly Christianity itself that introduced charity into the world.
Sure, there were always people saying that you should do be helpful, even merciful, to others, and do good to them. But the reasons were always self-centred. By giving to others or helping them, you became a better person, or you helped the community so you yourself could have a nicer existence, or you made the gods take notice of you and be nice to you and grant your requests, and so on. Do you see what I mean?
But that’s not charity. In a sense, these are like business transactions: I’ll do something for this person because I get something in return. And because these ideas were essentially self-centred, they were never strong enough to become pervasive or universal.
That’s why there were no charitable institutions in the ancient world. I mean, there were no hospitals in ancient times. Another example: There were no orphanages in antiquity. If your baby was disabled or you didn’t want it for any reason, you just exposed them, which meant that you left them in the wilderness to die. Such a world seems unimaginable to us today, but that’s how it was. These early Christians didn’t do it to get brownie points with God, but just because they thought this different way to live was the right way, although it was completely contrary to their culture.
Although, and I want to emphasise this, there are many good things to be learnt from other cultures and religious traditions even today, the idea of charity, based on indiscriminate kindness, is inherently unique to Christianity. The historical evidence from both Christians and pagans shows that from its origins, charity was one of the key things that set Christians apart from other people. And this was in an ancient world that was essentially uniformly mean, cruel, and heartless. If you don’t live in a world like that today, it’s largely because of Christianity. It’s because of those who saw the example of how Jesus treated others, and followed his teachings, and it’s because of how these people influenced the development of civilisation.
It was only through our Judaeo-Christian tradition that the idea of charity, and the emergence of true charitable practices, came into the world. It was there in Judaism, however it was amplified and universalised by Christianity. And it’s still true that almost all of the charitable institutions that we have in our country today are faith-based Christian organisation, or else have Christian roots.
I know that there are some people who want to cut Christianity out of our society, blaming it for everything bad, and crediting it with nothing good. But that’s just not what the evidence of history shows.
In my view, our society has a lot for which to be grateful to the Christian faith.