How Christianity thrived

Sometime ago I read a post by Scott Alexander on The Invention of Moral Narrative in which he tries to understand where our good v evil theme comes from. He’s trying to figure this out because,

I’m basing this off of my continuing confusion over the rise of Christianity. Christianity came out of nowhere and had spread to 10% – 20% of the Roman population by the time Constantine made it official. And then it spread to Germany, England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Armenia, and Russia, mostly peacefully. Missionaries would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody, they would politely ask him to ditch the War God and the Death God and so on in favor of Jesus and meekness, and as often as not he would just say yes. This is pretty astonishing even if you use colonialism as an excuse to dismiss the Christianization of the Americas, half of Africa, and a good bit of East Asia.

I’ve looked around for anyone who has a decent explanation of this, and as far as I can tell Christianity was just really appealing. People worshipped Thor or Zeus or whoever because that was what people in their ethnic group did, plus Thor/Zeus would smite them if they didn’t. Faced with the idea of a God who was actually good, and could promise them eternity in Heaven, and who was against bad things, and never raped anybody and turned them into animals, everyone just agreed this was a better deal. I know this is a horrendously naive-sounding theory, but it’s the only one I’ve got.

So how did Christianity defeat all these pagan gods?

Bart Ehrman, no apologist for Christianity, in a recent book on the subject argues that the emergence of Christianity as the victor over pagan religions in the ancient world was “the single greatest cultural transformation our world has ever seen.” Michael Kulikowski professor of history and classics at Pennsylvania State University says,

That a world religion should have emerged from an oriental cult in a tiny and peculiar corner of Roman Palestine is nothing short of extraordinary.

Michael Kruger summing up Ehrman says something very similar:

After all, argues Ehrman, how did a small band of uneducated Galilean disciples lead a religious revolution that eventually conquered the world? How does a religion go from a handful of people to 30 million people in just 300 years?

Kulikowski puts the problem in focus by narrowing in on the 4th century AD

The Roman empire became Christian during the fourth century CE. At the century’s start, Christians were – at most – a substantial minority of the population. By its end, Christians (or nominal Christians) indisputably constituted a majority in the empire. Tellingly, at the beginning of the century, the imperial government launched the only sustained and concerted effort to suppress Christianity in ancient history – and yet by the century’s end, the emperors themselves were Christians, Christianity enjoyed exclusive support from the state and was, in principle, the only religion the state permitted.

Both Ehrman & Kulikowski come to broadly the same conclusions: Christians were missionary (they sought to convert); they were exclusive (worship just the Christian God) and the were global (anyone could become a Christian). This was new, radical and as the message spread it slowly snuffed out the pagan lights.

That might explain the overall dynamic but it doesn’t really answer the question:  why did anyone, especially in light of the enormous social costs of being a Christian actually become a Christian? Tim Keller offers three reasons why:

  1. Keller sides with Rodney Stark over Ehrman here and says Christian care for the poor and sick and forgiveness towards their enemies made Christianity distinctive and compelling
  2. Christianity offered a direct, personal, love relationship with the Creator God
  3. Christianity offered assurance of eternal life

Keller then helpfully draws parallels to our contemporary situation

One reason was that Christians were ridiculed as too exclusive and different. And yet many were drawn to Christianity because it was different. If a religion is not different from the surrounding culture, if it does not critique and offer an alternative to it, it dies because it is seen as unnecessary. If Christians today were also famous for and marked by social chastity, generosity and justice, multi-ethnicity, and peace making — would it not be compelling to many? Ironically, Christians were “out of step” with the culture on sex to begin with, and it was not the church but the culture that eventually changed.

Another reason Christianity thrived was because it offered things that no other culture or religion even claimed to have — a love relationship with God and salvation by free grace. It is the same today. No other religion offers these things, nor does secularism. Nor can the “spiritual but not religious” option really capture them either. These are still unique “value offers” and can be lifted up to a spiritually hungry and thirsty population.

The early church surely looked like it was on the “wrong side of history,” but instead it changed history with a dogged adherence to the biblical gospel. That should be our aspiration as well.

 

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