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Baptism: the Road Less Traveled PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Sunday, 26 December 2010 00:00

Just after Thanksgiving, a question occurred to me that I had never considered before.  Do we have any idea what percentage of the human race has actually been Christian since Pentecost?

I turned to my copy of the  2001 World Christian Encyclopedia and discovered, as I suspected, that they had not only asked the same question but seriously attempted to quantify an answer.  (Of course, these figures are at best, an educated guess.  But a guess by the only group of scholars in the world who have been pondering these sorts of questions and gathering this sort of data for the past 30 years.   It is the general outline rather than the specific numbers that are most useful.)

The graph below shows a startling reality that our intra-ecclesial discussions hardly ever address: the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived were not only not baptized, they never had an opportunity to hear about the Christian faith and/or be baptized.

As Catholics, we hold the sacramental economy of salvation to be normative, but in global human experience it has been anything but normal. Baptism, it turns out, is the road less traveled.

Take a moment to consider this graph.  The darker terra cotta color on the bottom represents the percentage of the world population that has been Christian over the past 2000 years.  Although there has been truly significant growth over the centuries, it is immediately obvious that non-Christians have always greatly outnumbered Christians.


Here are the numbers that correspond to the graph above:

Year            Global Population (millions)            % Christian                     % Non-Christian

100 AD                          179.51                                      0.45%                               99.55%

500 AD                          190.32                                    19.86%                               80.14%

1000 AD                        263.65                                    16.94%                               83.06%

1500 AD                        422.95                                    17.94%                               82.06%

2000 AD                      6,055.05                                    33.02%                               66.98%

2200 AD (est)             10,561.48                                    36.39%                               63.61%

Most of us would have no problems with acknowledging that in 100 AD, only 1/2 of 1% of the human race was Christian. But most Catholics in the west think of the world of 1500 AD as basically consisting of Christendom, a world where almost everyone was baptized.  But baptized Christians constituted slightly less than 18% of entire human race in 1499, the year that Thomas More first met his great friend, Erasmus.

From a global perspective, Christendom - which was essentially Europe in 1500 - was a ghetto.  Like many other human cultures,  Christian Europe understood itself to be the "civilized world".  Because of the difficulties of travel and communications, medieval Christians had fairly vague ideas of what lay outside.  (For example, the trail-blazing Franciscan John of Montecorvino, the first Archbishop of Peking, spent 5 years on his original journey to China.  Hearing of his wonderful work, the Pope sent out 7 Franciscan bishops to consecrate him Archbishop, but only 3 actually made it to Peking a year later.)

The World Christian Encyclopedia sums up the big picture this way:

  1. 1.  Of the roughly 36.8 billion people born between 33AD and 2000 AD, only 24%, or about 8.8 billion, have been Christians. (24.5% of all the Christians who have ever lived are alive today.  13.6% of all Christians who have ever lived are Catholics alive today.)

  2. Christianity has twice experienced explosive growth that dramatically outpaced world population growth.  The first time was between 33 AD when followers of Christ probably only numbered a few hundred and 500 AD when 37.8 million Christians made up nearly 20% of the global population. The second time was between 1800 and 1900 when Christians grew from 22.68% to 34.46% of the world's population in a single century.   A good deal of this growth was the result of dramatic improvement in health care and life span in 19th century Europe.  At the same time, the great Protestant missionary movement emerged out of an American student revival in New England in the early 19th century.

2.  More than three quarters of all men and women born since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, were never baptized. And this does not include the many millions who were born before the Incarnation!

3.  Evangelization:  Even more thought-provoking is the fact that only about 36% or 13.25 billion of all born during those 1,967 years were evangelized.  That means that only roughly 36% ever had a real opportunity to be baptized and respond to the gospel. Approximately 23.5 billion human beings - 64% of all who have lived since Jesus of Nazareth walked the roads of Galilee - never had the option to become a Christian.

I've been meditating on this for several weeks now.  There are so many implications.  I re-read my 32 page compilation of magisterial teaching on the topic of evangelization.  A number of things really stood out this time.  But one in particular:  most of the time western Catholics think and write and speak and practice as though baptism is the historic norm and not being Christian is the exception. At the beginning of the 20th century this was true for Europe (94.5% Christian), North America (96.6% Christian) and Latin America (95.2% Christian) but 65% of the human race lived in Africa and Asia where it was most definitely not true.

What does the Church say on the topic?  Here's a taste (the emphasis is mine):

  1. 1. "The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.  . . For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation." (Redemptoris Missio, 10)

2. "Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Savior wills that all men be saved.(128) Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life." (Lumen Gentium, 16)

3. It is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for salvation. Both these truths help us to understand the one mystery of salvation, so that we can come to know God's mercy and our own responsibility. Salvation, which always remains a gift of the Holy Spirit, requires man's cooperation, both to save himself and to save others. This is God's will, and this is why he established the Church and made her a part of his plan of salvation.(Redemptoris Missio 9)

4.  But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.(129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature",(130) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 844)

5.  The respectful presentation of Christ and His kingdom is more than the evangelizer's right; it is his duty. It is likewise the right of his fellow men to receive from him the proclamation of the Good News of salvation. God can accomplish this salvation in whomsoever He wishes by ways which He alone knows.(133) And yet, if His Son came, it was precisely in order to reveal to us, by His word and by His life, the ordinary paths of salvation. And He has commanded us to transmit this revelation to others with His own authority. It would be useful if every Christian and every evangelizer were to pray about the following thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God's mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them; but as for us, can we gain salvation if through negligence or fear or shame—what St. Paul called "blushing for the Gospel"(134)—or as a result of false ideas we fail to preach it? (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 80)

What does it mean, that the mysterious and difficult path through which salvation can happen for the non-baptized, has been the only way available for the majority of the men and women He has created and loved? What does it mean for the Church's primary mission of evangelization, for our theology and pastoral practice?


PS.  I'm posting a new end of year series on the State of Christian and Catholic mission in 2010.  If this sort of thing floats your boat, we'd love to have you join the conversation.


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