Ebola and Sacrificial Love: How Early Christians Handled Plague

With Ebola coming to America and fear gripping the nation (or, at least the media), I thought that it would be helpful to look again at how early Christians addressed sickness and plague. I wrote about this in my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide, and also printed this excerpt a couple of months ago when Ann Coulter was criticizing Christian missionaries for going TO Africa. Coulter said that they should have stayed here and attended to American needs. She was incredibly short-sighted, though. The sickness over there came here anyway.

When I think about how we should address a plague or an epidemic, perhaps the example of the early Christians is one that we should consider. Instead of seeking to save our lives and run away from the danger, maybe we should seek to serve others and be agents of healing. Even if we lose our lives, we have gained eternity. Can Christians be part of the solution here? Read this example from the past and tell me what you think.

In 260 AD, a great epidemic devastated the Roman Empire. These epidemics had been ravaging sections of the empire for a century and when one hit, the death toll was extraordinarily high, at times up to a fourth or third of the people. The common reaction to the onset of an epidemic was for the pagan Romans and Greeks to remove themselves from the sick and leave the cities as quickly as they could. They would leave the dying behind in the hope that they could save their own lives. But during these epidemics, a miracle of sorts happened. The Christians saw things differently.

Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, wrote to the church in an Easter letter that Christians saw this epidemic differently than the pagans did. He said, “other people would not think this a time for festival [but] far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy.” Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, writes:

Acknowledging the huge death rate, Dionysius noted that though this terrified the pagan, Christians greeted the epidemic as merely ‘schooling and testing.’ Thus, at a time when all other faiths were called to question, Christianity offered explanation and comfort. Even more important, Chris- tian doctrine provided a prescription for action. That is, the Christian way appeared to work.

The attitude of the Christians in Alexandria causes one to think of James 1:2–4 which states:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let en- durance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Instead of running away from the plague so they could be healthy and prosperous, the Christians of Alexandria reacted in the opposite way. They saw it as their duty to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. They saw the plague as an opportunity to depend upon God and to see God do miracles of love in people’s hearts.

Dionysius paid tribute to those Christians who loved their neighbor even to the point of giving up their own lives. He wrote:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead . . . The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

Dionysius then explained how the heathen acted. It was very different from the church:

The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

Stark goes on to illustrate that Dionysius’s observations of the Christians in Alexandria were not unique. This behavior of Christians all over the Roman Empire was much different from the pagan Romans. He tells the story of the Emperor Julian in 362 who tried to counteract the growing influence of the Christians and their charitable work through his own writings. Julian wrote:

I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence . . . The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.

“Galileans” was a term used to denote followers of Jesus, the Galilean, who said in his parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 that when you cared for those in need, you were caring for him:

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:35–40).

Early Christians were a people who would lay their lives down to care for the sick and those dying of the plague while everyone else was running away to save their own lives. How they became a people in America centuries later who would come to approve of human slavery and race-based segregation or turn a blind eye to the ravages of destitute neighborhoods, orphans, or abuses of consumerism because they did not want their way of life damaged is a great travesty. In Dionysius’s letter, we see an example of Christianity before it was subverted by Greek philosophy or by appeals to use it to enhance one’s way of life. This example has inspired Christians throughout history, as they have in pockets and movements large and small sought to recover the vitality of the early church and reform back to being a sacrificially loving people. But you cannot find this vitality unless you are willing to lay your life down.

And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:34–37)

The way available to us to recover the strength of the early church that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) is to return to Jesus and his life and teachings on the kingdom, the reality of the cross, sacrificial love, and the idea of a cross-shaped or “cruciform” community of faith called the “church.” The idea of a “consumer” church full of “consumer Christians” who are trying to enhance their life by using God and the Bible to carve out and obey principles that will help them live their “best life now” is foreign both to the gospel and the history of the early church, at least in its vibrant forms. I have not even begun to talk about the martyrs and those who were willing to leave home and family to share the gospel all over the world. of course, that kind of people did not exist only during the time of the early church. They have existed wherever the gospel was really believed and Jesus was truly looked to as Lord. Thankfully, those people exist right now all over the world and all over America, even if we do not always know their names. May their tribe increase.


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