By Victor Knowles
In Frank Capra’s acclaimed and heartwarming 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, God sends an angel named Clarence to earth to show George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) what life would be like if he had never been born. The moral of the movie (this is when movies had morals!) is that each person’s life has value and carries with it the potential of influencing many other lives for good.
In one sense, everyone’s birth somewhat changes the world in which he lives. But in a spiritual and eternal realm, only one birth has truly changed the entire world, and that is the birth of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus the Christ.
The Most Influential Life
More than anyone else, Jesus Christ has influenced the history of civilization. George Bancroft said, “I find the name of Jesus Christ written on the top of every page of modern history.”
While we do not know the exact date of Christ’s birth, we do know it altered the way the world measures time. The letters bc are standard for “Before Christ,” while ad (Anno Domini) means “In the year of our Lord.” The calendar is all about Christ. And if we accept 4 bc as the actual year of Christ’s birth, as many biblical scholars do, then 2006 marked the 2,010th birthday of Jesus.
The Bible says, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Joseph Nelson Green was probably thinking of that when he wrote this:
There is a strange legend of a world that grew colorless in a single night. The color faded from the sky; the sea became pale and motionless; the green vanished from the grass and the color from the flowers; the fire died from the diamond, and the pearl lost its light. Nature put on her robes of mourning, and the people who lived there became sad and afraid. A world had lost its life and light. If tonight, with one sweep of the arm you brush from literature the Christ, the scenes and suggestions from his life, the spirit which he exhibited, the principles for which he stood, you would have a world made colorless in a night.
Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette said, “Jesus is the most influential life ever lived on this planet.” Another historian, Philip Schaff, agreed:
This Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Muhammad, and Napoleon; without science and learning, he shed more light on things human and divine than all philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of schools, he spoke such words of life as were never spoken before or since and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, he set more pens in motion, and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, learned volumes, works of art, and songs of praise, than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times.
Christ and Civilization
In What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), Dr. D. James Kennedy points to the positive impact of Christ on civilization. Christ restored value to human life. Christians in Rome rescued abandoned babies. Why? Because their Master said, “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). A Hindu woman said to a missionary, “Surely your Bible was written by a woman . . . because it says so many kind things for women.”
William Wilberforce labored 45 years to abolish slavery in England. Jesus and his followers have done more to reduce poverty and suffering than anyone else in history. His parable of the Good Samaritan influenced people like Francis of Assisi, George Mueller, and General William Booth. Today there are Christian rescue missions in every major city. Christians and churches give more than $19 billion a year to the needy.
Many of the world’s languages were set to writing by Christian missionaries. The McGuffey Reader (written by a Presbyterian minister) was the backbone of American education for 75 years. Almost all of the early U.S. colleges and universities were started by Christian people for Christian purposes. The founding president of Princeton, John Witherspoon, said, “Cursed be all learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.”
Jesus had compassion for the lame and the lepers. He healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. His followers followed suit in healing the sick. The Council of Nicaea in ad 325 decreed that hospitals were to be established wherever a church was established. History would have a gaping hole without Florence Nightingale, “The Lady with the Lamp,” and Henry Dunant (founder of the International Red Cross).
Agnostic W.O. Saunders spoke to Christians about the impact of their witness:
Your agnostic is tremendously impressed by the power of your faith. He has seen drunkards and libertines and moral degenerates transfigured by it. He has seen the sick, the aged, the friendless comforted and sustained by it. And he is impressed by your wonderful charities, your hospitals, your nurseries, your schools; he must shamefacedly admit that agnostics, as such, have built few hospitals and few homes for the orphans.
Few? I can’t think of one!
Christ and the Arts
Think of the tremendous influence of Christ upon the arts. In Christ and the Fine Arts (out of print), Cynthia Pearl Maus wrote this:
More poems have been written, more stories told, more pictures painted, and more songs sung about Christ than any other person in human history, because through such avenues as those the deepest appreciation of the human heart can be more adequately expressed.
Remove Christ from history and you remove the great cathedrals of Europe, Michelangelo’s David, Raphael’s 300 paintings of Mary, and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Also gone would be John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, plus the collected works of Leo Tolstoy, T. S. Elliot, C. S. Lewis, and so on. George Frideric Handel wrote “Messiah” in 24 days and felt he was under divine inspiration. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote every note “solely to the glory of God.”
Christ and Transformation
Jesus Christ has transformed more lives than any other person in history. He gives “new life for old.”
He totally transformed the life of a man who would in time have the second greatest impact on the world—Saul of Tarsus. Hear his testimony.
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, . . . appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy. . . . The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. . . . Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:12-15).
If Christ could save Saul, transforming “The Terror of Tarsus,” he can change any man or woman on the face of the earth. And he has!
Sound the roll call. Former prisoners, prostitutes, abortionists, alcoholics, drug addicts, bank robbers, murderers, communists, atheists, skeptics, criminals, gang leaders—all have been gentled by Jesus.
Julian the Apostate threw his blood in the air and cried, “Thou hast conquered, Galilean!” Many Muslims, Jews, Hindus, philosophers, physicists, doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, and entire tribes of people have been conquered by the transforming power of Jesus of Nazareth.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men”—men like John Newton (“Amazing Grace”), Billy Sunday (professional baseball player turned influential evangelist), C. S. Lewis (Oxford scholar and former skeptic, author of Mere Christianity), and former New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur).
The list goes on and on and on. Make sure your name is on the list!
Victor Knowles is founder and director of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri. This article originally appeared in The Lookout.