There is a pervasive notion that man does not need God to be good. Some even contend that belief in an absolute is an impediment to moral progress. They see right and wrong as malleable concepts that have evolved over centuries and are continually being perfected by an enlightened vanguard. Behavior that was considered acceptable just a generation ago is no longer permitted today because we now know better. And we are far more civilized than our barbarous and superstitious ancestors. Society is continually improving on what is considered appropriate conduct and this progress is making the world safer and more humane. So it is believed.
For right and wrong to mean anything, however, they must be measured against an immutable standard. Cultures vary from one another and they also change over time but the only way to judge which practices are better than others is to compare them to a standard that does not change. And whether they realize it or not, those who are continually trying to perfect morality are still using some semblance of this standard, otherwise they would not advocate a moral position at all.
As the Apostle Paul explained, it is the natural law that is written on our hearts that bears witness through our conscience. Thomas Aquinas later wrote that adherence to this natural law is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law and that its general principle cannot be blotted out. But he went on to say that our understanding of natural law can get distorted with regards to particular actions when it is hindered by passions or vicious customs and corrupt habits, which result in a failure to see certain vices as wrong. This is the hardening or searing of conscience that Scripture warns against.
The uncertainty of human judgment, Aquinas contended, is one reason why divine law is necessary. Without it, man’s best attempts at reason fall short of achieving justice. In our fallen state we cannot consistently affirm rules of conduct that would seem obvious, like protecting the most vulnerable members of society. We cannot even agree on the moral imperative of protecting our own children. Consider, for example, how the least among us were treated during a time of unprecedented intellectual and cultural achievement. O.M. Bakke’s book, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, provides a disturbing look at the brutality directed towards children in the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world, while reason was flourishing.
The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who helped lay the foundations of Western civilization, nonetheless treated most members of their societies as less than human. Plato, whom C.S. Lewis praised as “no ordinary pagan” on account of his understanding of metaphysics, equated women and slaves with animals. Among the most educated, children were synonymous with stupidity and irrationality, symbols of human weakness. Cicero argued that children should only be praised for their potential qualities: “The thing itself cannot be praised, only its potential.” This position, according to Bakke, defined the prevailing view throughout classical antiquity. Children were objects that had not yet achieved personhood and therefore were to be used however one saw fit.
From conception, babies in the ancient world were in mortal danger. Abortion was widespread, complications from the procedure being one of the most common causes of female death. It was not fashionable for aristocratic women to want children and it was common for poor women to terminate their pregnancies for economic reasons. Legislation began to criminalize certain aspects of abortion from the second century onward but, according to Bakke, it was never out of concern for the intrinsic worth of the baby, only for respect of the rights of the father. All of the evidence shows that abortion was never seen as anything worse than a bad example because it was a hindrance to perpetuating the family name.
Despite the prevalence of abortion, however, more babies were probably killed after delivery than before. Of course, infant mortality was high due to premodern medical conditions. But many babies were killed by their own families. Bakke explains that before their “social birth,” a ritual known as the dies lustricus (day of purification) in ancient Rome, which occurred on the eighth day for boys and the ninth day for girls, newborns had no legal rights and could be exposed for any reason. Exposure entailed placing the baby out in the cold with no protection or food and simply leaving him or her for dead. Fathers had the legal right to expose their babies and doing so was “socially accepted and widespread from the time of Alexander the Great onward.” Bakke quotes scholar William V. Harris, who states that “an array of texts makes it obvious that exposure of infants was widely practiced in the high Roman Empire.”
Exposure was practiced by all classes for all manner of reasons. Of course, girls were more at risk than boys, being seen as inherently inferior. Scholars have reconstructed six hundred families from the inscriptions in ancient Delphi and only six of these families had more than one daughter. Babies that exhibited any noticeable deformities or appeared weak in any way were also likely to be exposed or killed outright. According to Seneca the Younger, such children were commonly drowned in the first century. Bakke explains that “the physician Soranus [writing in the second century] gives a long list of the criteria (some of them rather strict) a child must satisfy in order to be considered healthy enough to be allowed to grow up.” In what appears to be evidence of infanticide, Bakke cites the findings of archaeologist Lawrence E. Stager, who helped excavate a sewer in the Mediterranean city of Ashkelon that had been clogged with refuse in the sixth century and found the bones of nearly one hundred babies.
These abominable practices were not carried out shamefully in secret but done under the instruction of some of the most respected thinkers of the classical period. As difficult as it may be for the modern reader, whose values have been subconsciously shaped by Christianity, there was no societal condemnation for citizens of Greece or Rome to murder their young children. In many instances, they were encouraged to do so. The philosopher Plutarch, born in 45 AD, believed that a child who had not lost his umbilical cord is “more like a plant than a human being.” The ones showing defects were simply discarded. Cicero contended that it was inappropriate to grieve over dead babies and referred to his dead grandchild as a “thing.”
Even healthy children were sacrificed for the most inane and wicked of reasons. Poverty was often used as a justification and so was illegitimacy. Some children were killed to appease an evil deity or out of superstition. Plutarch records parents burning their babies alive to honor Cronus or Saturn, in the same manner that their pagan ancestors sacrificed to Moloch. It was not uncommon for the Romans to expose their children as a protest against the gods in response to events that people felt were gravely unjust. Bakke writes that “according to Suetonius, one of Augustus’s freedmen claimed that the Senate had issued a law in 63 BC because of an ‘evil portent,’ forbidding parents to raise the boys born in that year.” The same historian, Seutonius, records that when news spread of the death of Germanicus, the popular prince and father of Caligula, some parents reacted by killing their own children.
Bakke notes that no law forbade the exposure of children until the reign of Emperor Valentinian, in 384 AD. But passage of that law had nothing to do with concern for children but fear over how a dwindling population would harm the empire. Of course, not all babies who were exposed perished. Some were rescued from imminent death by passersby. These rescues, however, were not acts of charity. The babies, or foundlings, as they became to be known, were saved only to be forced into slavery or prostitution.
For the children who survived infancy, their childhood was dictated by the self-interest of their guardians. Broken homes were common, because of early death and widespread divorce, and children were typically raised by household servants. This created emotional distance for parents. Bakke notes that most of what was written on children concerned inheritance, investments, and keeping the family memory alive. He cites scholar Suzanne Dixon, described as the most sympathetic scholar for the sentimental idea of the Roman family, who nonetheless admits, “The modern concern for child welfare had no real equivalent in the ancient world.”
There was a widespread belief that character development was merely a biological development, not a process whereby desirable qualities were instilled through upbringing. Those who did mentor young people regularly inflicted harsh physical punishment, both at home and at school, as Augustine famously recalls from his own childhood. But this was not the darkest aspect of being a kid in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Bakke claims that pedophilia was seen as natural, something that young victims simply had to endure. He contends that the ancients did not make a heterosexual/homosexual distinction and the notion of consent and protecting minors did not exist. Freemen were expected to initiate sexual relations with both women and children, sometimes even with their own children, who were seen as passive actors who had no say in the matter.
There is one reason why cultural acceptance of such depravity remains unthinkable today: the profound influence that Christianity has exerted over the last two thousand years. The Mosaic Law was a light that pierced the darkness of human wickedness. While it condemned, its moral clarity was “sweeter than honey” to those who received it. For a world in despair, it was truly the only thing new under the sun. This divine law was fulfilled in Christ, whose redemptive work conquered sin and death. The earliest Christians understood that man is made in the image of God and that through Christ he has eternal significance.
Nothing could be more revolutionary or provide a greater temporal advantage. Children were no longer seen as exploitable objects whose value lay only in their utility or potentiality. Bakke explains, “Whereas pagans thought that a newborn baby was not a human person in the full sense, patristic thinking implies that the newborn possesses the fullness of human dignity.” Cicero and Seneca criticized parents for grieving over the deaths of their small children and the Greco-Roman tradition never devoted a single philosophical treatise to the question of child suffering. Christian writers were concerned about child welfare from the start. Cyprian, who became the bishop of Carthage in 248 AD, asks, “For what is lacking to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hands of God?”
This wisdom had deep roots in Judaism. Unlike the peoples who surrounded them, the Israelites condemned abortion, infanticide, exposure, and all other forms of child sacrifice, seeing them as a direct violation of the sixth commandment. The Jewish writer Philo, born in 25 BC, declared that murdering your child was “the worst abomination of all.” Bakke cites scholarship that claims “Abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, ‘on demand’ or as a means of birth control ‘is very likely not even contemplated in the Mishnaic law.’” He concludes that “Jewish law emphasized the profound immorality of killing a fetus, irrespective of the state of its development: this action was classified as murder.” Another early Jewish writer, Josephus, born in 37 AD, wrote extensively on the welfare of children.
Compassion for the most vulnerable was embodied in the life of Christ. The Son of God came as an infant, bestowing inestimable worth on all of creation by first humbling Himself in the form of a little one. He confounded the most educated religious leaders of the day by welcoming children with open arms while explaining that the purity and sincerity they exhibited are necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven. Christ showed the intrinsic worth of children to a world that had discarded them.
The church fathers expounded on this exalted status of children, seeing them as a metaphor for the Christian life. While the Greeks and Romans demeaned children for their weakness and lack of reason, Christian theologians revered their lack of duplicity and indifference to wealth and status. Bakke notes that Clement of Alexandria, born in 150 AD, wrote prolifically on the necessity of having a childlike innocence with regard to the faith. This did not mean blind acceptance or naiveté (the fathers, after all, were steeped in scholarship) but approaching faith with a genuineness that is free of ulterior motives. Admiration for children as beings made in the image of God is found throughout the early writings of the church and can be seen in Augustine’s exclamation, “In a living creature such as this everything is wonderful and worthy of praise.”
It is no surprise then that cruelty toward infants and children was condemned by Christian theologians, right from the start and in the strongest possible terms. Bakke quotes Clement, who wrote that abortion was murder and “against all human kindness.” In his Apology, Tertullian, born in 155 AD, declared that all forms of killing -- infanticide, exposure, and abortion -- are prohibited by Christians: “But with us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb . . . It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being and one who is a man, for the whole fruit is already present in the seed.” Tertullian argued theologically, philosophically, and empirically that the fetus has a life of its own and he anchored his objection to abortion in the Mosaic Law. That position was at odds with Roman law, which held that the fetus was not a person but a part of the mother.
Early Christian opposition to exposure was noted in the Letter to Diognetus, a Greek apologetic text from the second century that is included in the writing of the apostolic fathers, which states that unlike the pagans, “Christians do not expose their offspring.” Bakke finds no evidence to the contrary, noting that “No source in the time before Constantine tells us that Christians practiced the exposure of children.” Doctrinal opposition to all forms of child endangerment remained consistent and theologians devoted considerable time and effort expounding on the best ways to develop children into healthy and contented adults. Bakke cites the work of later Christian writers, such as Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and John Chrysostom. Christians were expected to make many sacrifices to ensure the spiritual and physical wellbeing of their children. There was no parallel to this effort in the Greco-Roman world.
It is a mistake to see the vast improvement in the way parents cared for their children as a gradual sociological process that accompanied modernization. It occurred in an instant, through the words and actions of Christ, which spread like wildfire. As Bakke explains, pagans did not even consider their offspring to be people. Christianity introduced the very notion of children to the Greco-Roman world. Morality is not an evolutionary byproduct derived from centuries of refined human reason. It comes from one source. The protections afforded the most vulnerable today are vestiges of a Christian culture.
If one doubts this, consider the moral confusion of our post-Christian culture. Intoxicated with empiricism, intellectuals in the west have made science the final arbiter of truth. Putting aside whether science can even survive apart from its Christian presuppositions (a question deserving of separate consideration), the elevated status of the discipline is absurd. As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “Science must not impose any philosophy, any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.” Examining and manipulating the physical world does not qualify one to render moral judgment. And yet we increasingly turn to biologists for answers to life’s most important questions because we have mistakenly reduced our entire existence to materialistic causes. The results have been disastrous.
By denying God, we deny our own intrinsic value and become dispensable. There have been more than fifty million abortions in the United States since 1973. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than fifty million abortions performed every year around the world. Abortion advocates invoke the same language as pre-Christian pagans, arguing that fetuses are not people. Our leading ethicists, thought to hold the most enlightened and progressive views, parrot the views of the ancients by contending that euthanasia is appropriate for newborns and children in certain circumstances because they lack the rational faculties of adults. Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, says we should be legally permitted to kill suffering infants in the United States, just as we do cats and dogs, and he predicts that this practice, along with euthanasia for adults, will be widespread once religion vanishes from the earth. With terrible irony, today’s ethicists invoke the moral high ground, while arguing that killing the patient, or the healthy person who simply wishes to take his own life, is the compassionate thing to do.
Author Wesley J. Smith, who has chronicled the expansion of euthanasia over the last twenty years, explains that “assisted suicide isn’t about terminal illness and never was” (just as abortion was never about protecting the health of the mother). Smith made that comment in his reflections on David Goodall, the 104 year-old scientist who recently committed suicide at a Swiss death clinic before a group of approving media. Goodall was joined by Philip Nitschke, who runs an international organization promoting the taking of life and who once said that “troubled teens” should have access to suicide pills that should be “available in grocery stores.” He recently helped engineer a 3D-printed “suicide machine” that is designed to “provide people with a death when they wish to die.” In explaining his intent, he insists, “It’s not just some medical privilege for the very sick. If you’ve got the precious gift of life, you should be able to give that gift away at the time of your choosing.”
Nitschke’s dark vision is becoming a reality. As Smith notes, doctor-administered lethal-injection euthanasia is now legal in six foreign countries and doctor-assisted suicide is legal in at least parts of four more, including six U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The Netherlands is at the forefront of this movement where more than 6,000 people’s lives are extinguished each year. Since the Dutch first legalized assisted suicide in the 1970s, the range of killable people has greatly expanded. It now includes people of all ages with conditions like tinnitus, alcoholism, or depression. An elderly woman was euthanized for macular degeneration, as was a young woman who had anorexia. Patients that are euthanized have their organs harvested. In Belgium, euthanasia has become an option for elderly couples who do not wish to face widowhood. In one case, this was initiated by the son of an elderly couple who explained that this was the best thing because he did not want to care for his own parents. Smith has documented cases where patients have been euthanized against their will.
In many ways, our culture is in a worse predicament than the Greeks and Romans. In spite of their callousness and brutality, the ancients attained an apprehension for the universals -- the true, the good, and the beautiful -- which gave them a respect and appreciation for their place in the universe and imbued them with a transcendent sense of certain duties and responsibilities. This ontological understanding of the world led Chesterton to refer to them as the good pagans. In contrast, modern man has only his perceived autonomy. Having rejected both God and nature, he lives in a state of chaos, attempting to break every constraint that is imposed on the will. All personal and social boundaries must be transgressed in the name of freedom. But instead of bringing liberation, this has brought confusion and heartache. In a futile search for meaning and contentment, life itself has become onerous, the last boundary to cross. As Scripture explains, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
All peoples possess an innate sense of right and wrong. As Aquinas explained, the natural law cannot be blotted out. But the farther a culture strays from divine law, the more distorted its understanding of natural law becomes. This is because reason itself is contingent on the transcendent being “who is over all and through all and in all.” By rejecting Him, reason looks more and more like a meaningless abstraction. In such an environment, justice and compassion are scarce.
God set before the Israelites a choice between life and prosperity or death and destruction. He instructed them to choose life, so that they and their children would live, that they would love the Lord their God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the Lord is life. As Christ explained, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” We would do well to heed this advice.