In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. These are the first two lines in the gospel of John. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it (John 1. 3-5). John was talking about Jesus Christ, a man, or what some say, the Son of God. But who was he really? And why was he preaching salvation to the people of Israel in the first century?
Well, the first question is a matter of debate, and has been debated since the Christianity arose from obscurity in the desert of Israel. The second question is somewhat simpler. Throughout history, figures have arisen out of obscurity to preach a certain doctrine, or proclaim themselves as deities. The notion that a man would preach that he is the Savior and will bring salvation to those who follow him, like Jesus did is nothing new. But for some reason, the Jesus movement survived, while others did not. And it is not that it just survived, it flourished and eventually became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.
Why? Why did this movement continue and grow when faced with all the adversities and discrimination that it faced in the Roman Empire before 313 C. E? Why would people decide to convert to this new movement when there were so many other religions to believe, and when they knew that hardships lay ahead for them if they did? Well I believe that it was the uniqueness of the doctrine, particularly its fervent beliefs in its view of the afterlife and an all-powerful monotheistic God, which were so contradictory to the common views during the first few centuries C. E. , that led to the extraordinary growth of Christianity.
So what distinguished Christianity from the rest of the religions in the Roman Empire? For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of Gods one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God (John 3. 16-21). That, in a nutshell, is the doctrine Christianity. One, all-powerful God, passing judgement upon those who do not accept the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is His Son and the Savior, and if you believe that he is, than you will be saved. This God is the only God and he will not tolerate those who will not serve Him and only Him.
But for those who do, there is love and hope. Quite simple and easy to understand, if not easy to accept. The majority of the people in the Empire were, what Christian called, pagans. They believed in many different gods and the view of another god was something that was easily acceptable. But Christians had a different view on gods. They believed that there was only one God, and all other gods were false. This was something that was a new concept to the common people. In the pagan religion, tolerance was emphasized. Many of the gods were those found in the Greek religion, just with different names.
But there were many other gods and cults that were introduced all the time. There were also some primitive ideas that suggested a monotheistic view, a god that was more powerful and reigned over the other gods. But this view consisted of a pyramidical concept, with this all-powerful god above the other gods, which still is polytheism. In this concept were other beings, lower in stature, called daimons, closely related to demons in Christianity, which explained the evil in this world, because evil could not be ascribed to God (Goodman 289).
This panoramic view of gods led to a religion that was not a solidified, cohesive set of beliefs. Every person had his or her individual god that they were fear or love, and expected blessings or vengeance. Included in this view on the deities, was a despondent view on the afterlife. Some believed in a Homeric view of the afterlife, where the very best will go to the Elysian Fields. But this abode was only for the heroes, the rest would go to a more dreary place in Hades. The greatest honor that a person can receive is to be a considered a hero, but few ever were.
It was small comfort for the observers of a funeral procession to hope that there loved ones might go to the Elysian Fields, where if by a small chance they do, they will not be reunited with their loved ones. Other views, such as one portrayed by Plutarch, envisioned a half conciousness, a mere spark of life within your tomb for eternity. Other authors denied any notion of an afterlife. How an oppressive of a thought, the end of life at death, or slowly suffocating forever in your tomb. (MacMullen 11). But there was no real universal idea on afterlife or the on the gods.
Indeed, it was not a religion per se, it was just a set of individual beliefs that had a weak link between other individual beliefs. And through all these holes and cracks that this religion had, Christianity was able to seep through, and seep it did. The main reason why Christianity was able to penetrate into the Roman Empire is because of its differences. Compare paganism to Christianity: the main principles are extremely different, if not polar opposites. Christianity demands that a person makes a choice, not to be tolerant. To a Christian, there are no other valid religions. It is clear and concrete in at least that belief.
And there is also a belief that those who believe in Jesus Christ will be blessed and taken care of in the afterlife, that at least was clear cut. These views made the people face up to a choice: either they accept these views or they do not. There was no deviance from the set doctrines of Christianity allowed. This concrete decision that Christianity presented to a person either attracted people who were tired of confusing, disjointed doctrines, or drove people away. So why did people decide to accept it? Well, Christianity as it was presented, had some things that could be easily accepted and other things that were major hurdles.
As discussed earlier, the view of an all-powerful God was something that had been dreamed of before. So the Christian God throned upon high with legions of angels at his service was not that hard to accept. Also, the view on Satan and his demons fit very well with the previous view on daimons. To the pagan, this seemed very similar to his view on an all-powerful God with lower gods and daimons, at first. The difference began when this all-powerful God was at war with Satan and would punish eternally those who did not follow Him. This was a belief that most people would have trouble comprehending.
Shepard 18). This divided the deities to opposing sides, and more than that, it gave the chance of not a dreary afterlife, or no afterlife at all, but an afterlife of perpetual suffering. This was the major deterrent. So how did early Christians hurdle this obstacle to get converts? The actually methods of getting converts were numerous. The most common way of getting conversions was by performing miracles. Jesus was said to have performed miracles in the gospels, which attracted massive gatherings and followers. After his death, the apostles were granted the power to perform miracles by Jesus.
They spread around telling about the miracles of Jesus Christ, while they themselves would cast out demons and heal the sick. This would be the most effective way of convincing people who did not know the actually doctrines of Christianity that the apostles God was more powerful then their own. That was how most mass conversions happened. Even the story of St. Martin and the pine tree, which even though was not in this time period, demonstrated the power of a miracle can have over a mass of people. Whether these miracles actually occurred, is not the point.
Just the stories of these miracles were enough to win converts. During this time, there were numerous amounts of people that claimed that they heal the sick and cast out demons. Casting out demons was one of the most common miracles. In almost any public speech that was trying to convert people, the speaker would heal those possessed by demons. (Hutchinson and Garrison 19). This caused conversions to Christianity, even before the converts knew what they exactly converting to; they just knew that the God of the speaker must be powerful, therefore, needs to be worshipped.
All this occurred in the very beginnings of Christianity, or after the Edict of Milan in 313 C. E. , when Constantine legalized Christianity for the Empire. In between that time, most Christians did not publicly preach or perform miracles. This was the time of the persecution of Christians. Most Christians kept to themselves and stayed away from neighbors and their activities. This caused suspicion and despise. And since there were no Christians openly telling the pagans what they believed, the pagans had to figure it out themselves.
They were able to get bits and pieces of the truth, but of course, mixed with dark rumors and lies. Most pagans understood the idea that Christians believed that the pagans were going to suffer and that the Christians believed that the pagans were ignorant and evil. This produced an us versus them mentality. This is exemplified in a report of some martyrs in an amphitheater in Carthage. As the crowd jeered at the Christians that were about to be killed; the soon to be martyrs made signs to the crowd about the their upcoming ordeal, You, us; but God, you.
MacMullen 20). Ironically, the fact that the Christians were so exclusive and secretive might have helped to get some converts. The pagans who saw all these martyrs dying for something that they believed in, must have been curious why. There were some random Christians that would go out and drive out demons but these were seen as fools. And since the Christians were such a reclusive group, the only way the pagan could penetrate the group was by actually become one and learn from there. Most Christians would try to avoid attention as much as possible.
They would not go to any public celebration or marry non-Christians. So pagans had no help from Christians about their doctrine. Most of the people could not learn for themselves from any gospel or apology; three-fourths of the population were illiterate. So all accounts of Christianity that a pagan learned were oral traditions of these magnificent stories of Jesus and his followers; the stories of hope and salvation, and to sacrifice oneself to God. The once pagan can also experience the brotherhood of being a Christian. All of these things must have been very attractive.
To other people though, all the actions of the Christians must have been seen like the actions of a dangerous cult. Their (the Christians) injunctions are like this: Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us to be evils. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly. By the fact that they themselves admit that these people are worthy of the God, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children.
Moreover, we see that those who only display their trickery in the market-places and go about begging would never enter a gathering of intelligent men, nor would they dare to reveal their noble beliefs in their presence; but whenever they see adolescent boys and a crowd of slaves and a company of fools they push themselves in and show off. In private houses also we see wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent master.
But whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some astounding statements as, for example, that they must not pay any attention to their father and school-teacher, but they must obey them; they say that these talk nonsense and have no understanding, and that in reality they neither know nor are able to do anything good, but are taken up with mere empty chatter. But they alone, they say, know the right way to live, and if the children would believe them, they would become happy and make their home happy as well.
And if just as they are speaking they see one of the school-teachers coming, or some intelligent person, or even the father himself, the more cautious of them flee in all directions; but the more reckless urge the children on to rebel. They whisper to them that in the presence of their father and their schoolmasters they do not feel able to explain to the children anything, since they do not want to have anything to do with the silly and obtuse teachers who are totally corrupted and far gone in wickedness and inflict punishment on the children.
But, if they like, they should leave father and their schoolmaster and go along with the women and little children who are playfellows to the wooldressers shop, or to the cobblers or the washerwomans shop, that they may learn perfection. And by saying this they persuade them (qtd. in MacMullen 37). But after taking out the venom of these statements, all it does is provide how the doctrine of Christianity spread to the masses. Some argue that the message of Christianity had nothing to do with the mass conversions; it was all based on ulterior motives and coercion.
Either the people decided to convert out or pure personal gain, and therefore did not truly believe, or early Christians forced conversions based on fear. Doctrines of eternal punishment for those who did not believe could invoke fear into those listening, while the stories of miracles show that the Christian God is a powerful God, and full of vengeance. But neither fear nor greed can sufficiently explain the mass conversions of the first few years of Christianity, before 313 CE. It is possible that some individual conversions could be based on those things, but not all the conversions.
For one thing, in the first few centuries of Christianity, there were no profitable gains to be Christian. Quite the opposite, most Christians were discriminated against and persecuted. It is true that after this time period, during conversion of Constantine that it might have been possible to elevate to a higher social, or monetary level, but there is no evidence that urban populations actually lived better after becoming Christian. But during this time, there were no material incentives, only peace of mind, if that. Conversions out of fear might have more credence, but even that has holes in it.
People would not fear the wrath of a vengeful God, if they do not believe in Him already. The eternal punishments of a god that a pagan does not believe in would cause him no fear, so therefore no conversion. So in some fashion the potential convert would have to already believe their God for fear to work. So fear could not be the primary reason to draw people towards Christianity, quite the contrary, fear would probably draw them away. The fear of a painful death to the lions is more a tangible fear than the fear of an unknown God.
So why even care? Christianity, for good or evil, has dominated the world since the beginning of the Common Era. It influences everything that we can see now, directly, or indirectly. It is curious to think how and why it survived amidst so much adversity, while many other new religions have come and gone. And how, whether through blind faith or coercion, it conquered the Roman Empire and became the powerhouse it is today. From the hills of Nazareth to every corner of the world, Christianity has beaten adversity and conquered.