Questions of Greatness and Goodness

Jesus wrote no books, created no great art, built no monuments and spent only three years as a public figure two millennia ago.

“The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is ‘What did he leave to grow? Did he help men think about new ideas with a vigor that persisted after he was gone?’” H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, the great English writer considered “the father of science fiction”, was a forward thinker, believing in the progression of man in the vein of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. He was no friend of orthodox Christianity, nor of any religion. (See Wikipedia) “None of his contemporaries did more to encourage revolt against Christian tenets and accepted codes of behaviour, especially as regards sex….” (See Britannica).

It’s ironic I suppose, then, that I am thinking about Jesus as I read his words.

Wells expressed a hope in his writing “that human society would evolve into higher forms”. He believed from early on in the “doctrine of social progress”. (See Britannica) World War I impacted the idealistic hopes of youth, but Wells continued to believe that humankind could progress through knowledge and education.

I wonder what Wells would say today? How much have we progressed? Would his waning optimism have shriveled altogether if he had lived long enough? His last written work, Mind at the End of its Tether, written at the outbreak of World War II, suggests some further erosion in the hope of his youth, painting a very bleak picture of the future of mankind in which nature itself rebels against the evils of men.

Though H.G. Wells visited with both Lenin and Stalin, he probably didn’t know all the details of the atrocities that Stalin (particularly ) committed. A grim estimate of people killed at Stalin’s direction is 40 million! (See ibtimes) What would Wells have thought about the progression of mankind if he knew the truth? What if he knew of all the genocides that occurred and would occur in the 20th and 21st centuries alone? (See The worst genocides of the 20th and 21st Centuries)

Should H.G. Wells’ test of greatness by changed to include goodness?

An atheist friend of mine challenged me to prove to him that the world is a better place with religion (and Christianity in particular). I don’t recall exactly how I responded to him, but I have thought about his challenge since then.

We can’t deny that bad things have been done by people in the name of religion, including Christianity. I would not deny it. But what of the good?

H.G. Wells poses a question about greatness. My friend poses a question about goodness.

Human Beings have shown a proclivity for using for evil anything and everything that was meant for good. Vehicles provide great benefit to society, but they can be deadly in the hands of a terrorist bent on taking out a crowd of people. Perhaps, the greatest and most ubiquitous theme of science fiction is the manipulation of scientific advancements for evil purposes. Religion in the hands of people who use it to perpetrate evil is no different than anything else.

Paul says, “Though every man be a liar, yet God is true.”

One man stands out in history by the test of greatness that H.G. Wells suggested unlike any other man. Though his public life spanned only three years, his legacy lives on. Though he has been gone for 2000 years, his life and words and deeds continue to affect millions who are alive today as vitally and freshly as they affected many millions more who have lived and died.

This man didn’t build anything. He didn’t write a book. He didn’t create great art. He didn’t invent anything. He wasn’t a great statesman. He had very little influence on anything of great import in history during his life. Yet, he is the central figure in all of history. His birth is the datum by which all dates are referenced in the calendar that the world has used for centuries.

He was born into a very humble family in a far flung and largely ignored province of the Roman empire. He lived a humble life. The following he attracted during three years of public life was modest. Yet millions and millions have followed him in the centuries that have passed since his death.

Though he wrote no books, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions of books, poems, stories, articles and even treatises have been motivated by him and written about him.

Jesus Christ is claimed by every major religion in the world today to be a great religious man. Arguably no person in history has had more influence on the generations that followed, than Jesus. No person in history has sustained the kind of influence Jesus has sustained.

Though people in the Western world might not notice, the influence of Jesus is arguably greater today that at any time in history since his death. One of the fastest growing churches in the world today, if not the fastest, is in Iran. From only about 500 Christians in 1979 there are over a million Christians in Iran today. More Muslims and become Christians in the last 20 years than have done so in the previous 13 centuries combined. (See Where Christianity is Growing the Fastest, by Gene Veith, Patheos, Aug. 4, 2016)

Nineteen of the top twenty countries in which Christianity is growing the fastest in the world today are in Asia and Africa. Of those 20 countries in which Christianity is growing fastest, 11 of them are predominantly Muslim. (See The top 20 countries where Christianity is growing the fastest, in Nations Magazine, Nov. 1, 2013)

Before the recent government crackdown on Christianity in China, it was largely reported that China was “experiencing an explosion of faith”. (See In China, Unregistered Churches Are Driving a Religious Revolution, Ian Johnson, The Atlantic, April 23, 2017) The estimated number of Christians in China has soared from about 1 million when communism took power to over 60 million in 2017.

But all of this begs the question, perhaps, whether the greatness of the life and influence of Jesus was for the betterment of mankind. This is the question my atheist friend challenged me with. We find an answer in the unlikely source of W.E.H. Leckey, the secular politician and historian:

It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue but the strongest incentive to its practice; and has exerted so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.”

(W.E.H. Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1895) New York : D. Appleton and Co. Retrieved 15 May 2017.) Though he once studied theology as a young man, Leckey, like H.G. Wells, favored evolutionary theory to theology and embraced rationalist thinking or religious faith. (See www. He believed in secularization. (See the commentary of R.F. Foster) He opposed the combination of nationalism and religion. (See the commentary of Brian Garvin) Yet, he acknowledged the great and beneficial influence of Jesus on history.

Ravi Zacharias, raised in the Hindu tradition, became a Christian as a young man “on a bed of suicide”. Jesus transformed his life. He is in a unique position to compare the influence of Jesus to that of other religious personalities and religions that sprung up after them. He speaks with a certain authority, then, when he says that no other religion could have produced the advancements the Western world has made for the betterment of mankind and, specifically, the United States of America. No ethic, but the ethics informed by the words of Jesus,  Ravi Zacharias says, could have given birth to the United States.

The ideas of natural law, the equality of all men and inalienable rights are uniquely informed and shaped by the words of Jesus. The individual right to pursue life as each person wishes to live it, liberty to live according to each person’s conscience and happiness are uniquely Christian in origin. That the progenitors of our nation didn’t live up to these principles does not in any way negate their significance and importance in leading people into more noble ways of living. (Not that we should hold these principles, themselves, up as idols in place of God.)

Of the test of greatness and goodness there is no match for Jesus. He sacrificed himself in obedience to his message and the truth of which he spoke. Jesus said that greatest love is this: that one lay done his life for another. And Jesus lived what he said.

The greatest among you is the servant of all. Do not repay evil with evil; do, rather, what is honorable. Do not repay insult with insult; repay evil with blessing. This is the legacy of Jesus.

That we don’t live up to it is no measure of the greatness or goodness of Jesus. Jesus stands above all that came before him and all that have followed. Even by the measure of secular humanists, Jesus is the epitome greatness and goodness.

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