In the midst of the global COVID-19 crisis, there are many features of our modern life that we take for granted. Toilet paper, meat, hand sanitizer—and hospitals. Although adequate medical care is still tragically absent in many countries throughout the world, a huge percentage of the world’s population can simply go to a hospital when they need medical attention.
This fact is worth pausing over. For much of human history, it was not self-evident that everyone deserved medical care. For much of human history, human lives were ranked on a scale of value. Medical care was for the wealthy or the important. Not every life deserved to be saved.
The prevalence of the modern hospital is rooted in religion. More specifically, hospitals as we know them were an outgrowth of the early Christian movement.
Radical atheists and secularists of all stripes have loudly decried the ways that organized religion, and the followers of religious traditions, have failed to live up to their own ideals, or the ideals of their founders. Rather than “poisoning everything” (as claimed by the late Christopher Hitchens), religions like Christianity have actually blessed the world with many of the wonderful features of modern culture that we take for granted.
The growth and development of hospitals is inextricably rooted in religion. Hospitals, as we know them now, are really a result of the early Christian movement. Motivated by the example of Jesus of Nazareth, who is depicted as a healer in all of the earliest Christian accounts, Christians introduced new notions of healthcare into the classical world. What made these early Christian hospitals unique was their focus on providing care for the poor, the destitute, and those that normally languished in classical society.
There were other types of medical institutions in the ancient world. But these were narrower in their focus. One might go there to spend the night and receive a dream from the god of healing (Asceplius) about what remedy to use to treat a medical condition. Other early medical centers catered primarily to soldiers, or other narrow groups. It was the early Christians who began establishing “houses of healing” that served all, and were focused on serving those on the margins of society.
Early Christian leaders like Eustathios and Basil of Caesarea (329-379) were leaders in this movement. Basil, in particular, seems to have led the way in creating the first institution that offered free medical care to those who would normally be left to die, such as lepers. Hospitals in the Christian east were soon respected for their compassion and medical skill.
Christians in the Middle Ages continued this trajectory. Christians who devoted themselves to a life of service in the various orders of monastics always emphasized caring for the sick, the poor, and giving hospitality to strangers. In the later medieval period, monastic orders such as the Augustinians, the Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Order began establishing hospitals in Palestine. Soon, these charity hospitals became a feature of European life. These monastic houses spread centers of medical care throughout Europe.
Jumping forward into modern times, the growth of hospitals was definitely influenced by churches and religious institutions. This legacy remains today in the names of many prominent hospitals in the US: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Memphis), The Christ Hospital (Cincinnati), Mount Sinai Hospital (New York), Providence Sacred Heart Center (Spokane), St. David’s Medical Center (Austin)—just to name a few.
In more recent times, Christians have continued the tradition of challenging the healthcare status quo by establishing and participating in a variety of Medical Cost Sharing Ministries. Groups like Samaritan Ministries, Christian Healthcare Ministries, Medi-Share, and Liberty Healthshare offer people a practical opportunity to practice the biblical commands to help carry the burdens of others and give generously to those in need (2 Cor. 8:13-15; Gal. 6:2).While some have attempted to criticize health sharing, these groups give believers a way to not participate in the tangled web of exorbitant insurance costs and governmental overreach.
Churches have also tackled the issues of our broken healthcare system through buying and paying off medical debts. Although a complex issue, the heart of compassion and biblical symbolism behind such actions is obvious. Jesus Christ died to pay the debt that we never could. What better way to manifest the love of Jesus than actually paying the debts of others?
In our secular, materialistic culture, we often take the most basic things for granted. Although many disagree on when a human life begins, we all generally agree that every human life has value. But this was not always a shared assumption. The fact that we can walk into a hospital today, and be treated with dignity and respect (although hospitals may fail to live up to their own ideals) is a direct result of Christian religious beliefs slowly transforming culture and society.
The next time you receive medical care, offer a prayer of thanks for the countless and nameless religious believers who started hospitals in late antiquity, and throughout Europe. In a world of toxic discourse, maybe we can have a little more historical objectivity, and realize that religion does not poison everything. As “houses of healing,” hospitals stand as a continued witness of the power of the Gospel to change cultures and transform them with the hope of Christ.
Gregory Soderberg is an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute. He also teaches online courses at Kepler Education. This post this first appeared on CrossPolitic.