The events that shape the destiny of nations and continents are not random, nor are they without purpose. God is working out a plan!
Many assume the rise and fall of nations and the great events of history are just a matter of chance—of being lucky—while some see mindless historical patterns and trends at work. Yet others see a “magnificent sense of purpose… as if there was a plan”—especially in the emergence of Europe, the rise and global spread of traditional Christianity, and the impact of Western civilization on the world (The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World, Stewart & Stewart, p. vi). Few today understand that God has a plan (Psalm 33:10–11) and that He guides the course of history by removing kings and raising up kings at crucial points in the history of human civilization (Daniel 2:21). In this article, we will look at a series of complicated and improbable events that paved the way for the rise of Europe and spread of historic Christian thought and values around the globe.
The story of God’s plan for Europe and the West begins in Genesis 12:1–3 and 13:16 with prophetic promises made by God to Abram (or Abraham) that his descendants would multiply and become great and be a blessing to the peoples of the earth. These promises were expanded and passed on to Abraham’s grandson Jacob, whose twelve sons became the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 35:9–12). God gave the Israelites a unique set of laws so they could be lights to the world, but, sadly, they failed to live by those laws and were carried into captivity—the northern ten tribes to Assyria about 721bc and the nation of Judah to Babylon about 586bc. The remarkable preservation of the Jews under the Persians (see the book of Esther) and their return to Jerusalem, after a 70-year captivity, made possible the prophesied birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, whose teachings are the basis of true Christianity. However, after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, the ten tribes of Israel never returned to their ancient homeland, but migrated into northwest Europe where they would expand and reap the blessings promised to Abraham—blessings they were prophesied to share with the peoples of the world.
As we review history, we can see how God intervened miraculously at several critical turning points to prepare Europe as a place where His purpose for Israel could begin to be fulfilled. In 480bc, Xerxes, king of the mighty Persian Empire, launched a massive invasion to conquer Greece and eventually bring all of Europe under his control. However, a small force of brave Greeks slowed him down at the narrow choke point at Thermopylae, and a calculating Greek navy destroyed the Persian fleet in the narrow channel at Salamis—saving the West from Persian domination. The unexpected outcome of these two battles changed the course of human history by allowing Greek culture to spread ideas of self-government, individual freedom, education, reason and advances in arts and sciences that would eventually set Western civilization apart from the rest of the world. Later, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the spread of the Greek language facilitated the spread of Christianity. Had the Persians won these two crucial battles, the West would likely speak a different language, follow a different religion and hold very different values—and probably not enjoy the freedoms it possesses today (Stewart & Stewart, chapter 2).
At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312ad, we see yet another pivotal moment God would use to shape Europe. There the Roman Emperor Constantine defeated a rival emperor due, in part, to a disastrous military mistake by an opposing emperor who was misled, according to some, by a “vision.” Constantine’s victory led to his so-called “conversion.” and decrees forbidding the persecution of Christians (see Stewart & Stewart chapter 3). The “Christianity” promoted by Constantine absorbed many pagan customs and ideas, yet the emperor also promoted the publishing of Bibles—the byproduct of which was increased public exposure to the teachings of Jesus Christ. As a result, Europe increasingly gained a generally “Christian” perspective. Even before Constantine, however, the true Gospel of Jesus Christ was able to spread over Roman roads during the Pax Romana—the period of relative peace throughout the empire from 30bc to 180ad (see the book of Acts and Lessons of History, Durant, p. 69).
The hand of God was evident on two more occasions when the course of European history could have turned in a very different direction. In the fall of 732ad, “Charles Martel defeated a powerful and seemingly unstoppable Islamic army” at the Battle of Poitiers in central France (Stewart & Stewart, p. 18). In the century before, Muslim armies swept out of Arabia and overran Persia, Egypt and half the Roman Empire, as they murdered, looted, enslaved and forcibly converted peoples they conquered to the worship of Allah. As a result, both true Christianity and its Roman-influenced hybrid, along with Judaism, nearly disappeared in these conquered lands. However, during the fighting at Poitiers, the leader of the invading army was killed and “that night, unexpectedly—really inexplicably—the Muslims abandoned their camp” and began a retreat back to Spain (pp. 170–171). Had the Muslim armies conquered Europe, Allah would be worshiped on the continent in place of anything like Christianity or biblical religion, religious freedom and human rights could be virtually non-existent, Europe’s civil laws might be based on the Koran, and the status of women would likely be dramatically different. The noted German historian Leopold von Ranke has written that the victory of Charles Martel at Poitiers “was the turning point of one of the most important epochs in the history of the world” because it was the battle that preserved Europe as a continent rooted in the culture and character of historic Christianity (p. 141).
The final threat to the emergence of a European “Christendom” that would transform the world was the Mongol invasion in 1236ad—a time when the cities and nations of Europe were waking up from the Dark Ages. Trade, commerce, banking and industry were growing, universities were founded and science was beginning to blossom. After conquering China and India and leaving a trail of devastation across central Asia, the Mongol army continued west, defeating a powerful Hungarian army, then plundering the country and enslaving thousands—especially craftsman and professional classes. The destructive invaders hoped to conquer Vienna—then Rome, Paris and London. However, as the Mongol army approached the city of Vienna, the Great Khan of Mongolia suddenly died along with his son. With no apparent heir, the Mongol royalty and their armies left Europe and headed home, focused on the fight to become the next khan—and they never returned (Stewart & Stewart, p. 203). Had the Mongol invasion succeeded, all of Europe—the land where the migrating Israelites had settled—would have been devastated, and the contributions to the world that sprang from European “Christendom” would never have taken place. God had a plan for Europe—as we will see in future articles!