Lists of great leaders who have influenced the course of history usually include names like Hammurabi, Plato, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Queen Victoria, and George Washington. Surprisingly, Jesus Christ is seldom placed in this category by modern, secular historians. Due to this omission or only limited references, millions of people have no idea of the tremendous impact Jesus Christ had on human history. Yet, when the curtain of silence is drawn back, the evidence of Jesus' historical influence is undeniable.
Skeptics claim that Jesus was just an itinerant local preacher who walked the dusty roads of Judea in a troublesome corner of the Roman Empire. However, scholars who study the influence of Jesus draw very different conclusions. Respected historian of Christianity Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan notes in his book Jesus Through the Centuries that the early "church father" Tertullian, writing about 200ad, referred to "the cultural significance of Jesus as the hinge on which history turned" (p. 26, emphasis added). Pelikan observes, as well, that the writings of Eusebius—sometimes called the "Father of Church History"—clearly show that, 1700 years ago, the famous historian believed that "the decisive event in the history he was narrating… had taken place in the life of Jesus Christ… [Eusebius] wrote a historical account whose turning point was the 'princepate of Augustus,' when Jesus Christ was born" (ibid, p. 31).
Michael Hart, author of a book ranking the most influential persons in history, comments, "The impact of Jesus on human history is so obvious and so enormous that few would question his placement near the top of this list," and notes that the largest religion in the world claims Jesus Christ as its founder (The 100, p. 47). Dr. Pelikan draws a similar conclusion, offering this sweeping assessment: "Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries… It is from his birth that most of the human race dates its calendars… [T]he very calendar of Europe, which then became the calendar for most of the modern world, evolved into a recognition of this view of the significance of the figure of Jesus as the turning point of history" (Pelikan, pp. 1, 32).
Dr. William Phelps, a professor of English literature at Yale University, states that the teachings of Jesus Christ "have changed the history of the world" (Reading the Bible, p. 59). Research scholar, Kenneth Samples, concludes that the teachings of Jesus Christ "laid the foundation for much of the ethical theory adopted throughout Western civilization" and that Jesus Christ had "the greatest impact on human history in terms of moral virtue" (7 Truths that Changed the World, p. 67). Dr. Alvin Schmidt, a professor of sociology, observed that without the influence of Jesus Christ, "the West would not have attained its high level of civilization" (How Christianity Changed the World, Schmidt, p. 12).
These are remarkable observations. But, why did Jesus have such a powerful impact on the course of human history?
Some modern critics assert that Jesus Christ never really existed and that He was a fictitious character created by recycling myths about pagan gods like Horus, Osiris, Tammuz and Adonis. However, these claims ignore the facts of history, and the contrived similarities do not hold up when original sources are examined. Instead, Jesus emerges as a real historical person from both biblical and non-biblical writers. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian writing about 90ad mentions Jesus as a wonder worker, crucified by Pontius Pilate and returning to life by a resurrection from the dead (Antiquities, 18;4). Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian writing just after 100ad mentions Jesus Christ as well, remarking on His crucifixion by Pilate and the rapid growth of the religion bearing His name (Annals, 15,44). Biblical writers cite dozens of prophecies written centuries earlier that were fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ. It is interesting to note, there are no prophecies about the coming of Buddha, Confucius or Muhammad.
Modern critical scholars claim that miracles ascribed to Jesus did not happen because they, personally, don't see miracles happening today—so they assume miracles cannot happen. However, such assumptions overlook the fact that Jesus' miracles, including His resurrection and the resurrection of others, were witnessed by many people (Acts 2:22, 32; 1 Corinthians 15:1–8) and were even commented on by non-biblical authors, such as Josephus.
The most unique quality that separates Jesus from other historical religious figures is that He claimed to be divine (John 10:30–33), the Son of God and the long-promised Messiah (Matthew 26:63–64)—claims that were repeatedly confirmed by His disciples (e.g., Matthew 16:16). These bold claims aroused the wrath and antagonism of religious authorities in His day, and they plotted to kill Him (John 11:47–53). However, the Scriptures clearly state, "the Word [Jesus Christ] was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1, 14). Scholars have noted, "Of all the world's religions, only Christianity proclaims that God has been embodied as a human being. Of all the founders of the world's great religious traditions, only Jesus Christ claims to be God" (7 Truths that Changed the World, p. 61). As God, He healed sickness and forgave sins (Mark 2:1–12), He raised the dead (Mark 5:35–42; John 11:41–44) and rose from the grave, Himself, three days after dying—as He predicted He would (Mark 8:31). No other religious leader ever made such astonishing claims and then backed up those claims with solid evidence. Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster and Muhammad were clearly human. Jesus Christ clearly acted with uniquely divine authority. This alone accounts for His incomparable influence on world history.
Jesus' message—the Gospel of a coming Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14–15), the opportunity to gain eternal life (John 3:16) and to reign on this earth with Jesus Christ for 1,000 years, or a millennium (Revelation 1:5–6; 20:2–4)—inspired and motivated His disciples. The noted historian Edward Gibbon records how "the assurance of such a Millennium was carefully inculcated" by early church leaders, and was "the reigning sentiment among orthodox believers" and a major factor in the growth of the Christian religion for several centuries until it was explained away and set aside by misguided theologians (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 15). However, the same Jesus who spawned a major turning point in human history by His first coming, promised to return (John 14:1–3) and set up a world government at the end of this age (Isaiah 2:2–4) that will bring peace and justice to all people on earth (Isaiah 9:6–7). Jesus Christ advised His end-time disciples to "watch" and "be ready" for another great turning point in history at His second coming—and, today, we see world events moving in that direction!