How Will Christianity Survive in an Increasingly Hostile Culture?
I recently completed a new book by Larry Hurtado entitled Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. Hurtado is a historian and a biblical scholar at the University of Edinburgh. In this book, Hurtado attempts to answer the question: “Why did anyone become a Christian in the first place in the first 300 years after Jesus rose from the dead?” This question is important because in the Roman Empire in the early years of Christianity, Christianity was a significant cultural minority. This was true numerically - most people in the Empire were not Christians. But it was also true in the sense that Christians had no cultural power or prestige. Quite the opposite in fact. Christians were despised and ridiculed with frequency during these years, especially among the cultural elites of the Empire. So, how did the Faith expand so rapidly in such a hostile cultural setting?
Hurtado (and others) have given some main reasons for the expansion of Christianity in a hostile culture. First, Christianity was unabashedly monotheistic. The Roman world was full of “gods” - household gods, village gods, temple gods. But Christianity was unique in its assertion that there is one true God. This was an almost incomprehensible idea from the perspective of Roman citizens. The entire idea of “religion”, defined as a human relating to the divine, stems from Christian theology, which says that God is personal and knowable.
Second, Christian identity was distinct. That is, Christians were called to a unique social project that both offended and attracted non-Christians. For example, Hurtado spends a good deal of time writing about how early Christians rejected the widespread practice of infant exposure. This practice typically involved a person “casting [their] unwanted newborn baby on the a trash-heap site or some abandoned place, the infant left to die or be collected by someone, usually to be reared for slavery.” Another example is seen in the Christian rejection (and revulsion) of the gladiatorial combat games that were common in the Roman world. An identity that was formed by the behavioral demands and social concerns of the one true God was unique among the religions of the day. (As an aside, it doesn’t take much reflection to see how profoundly Christianity has shaped modern social consciousness in virtually every country on the planet).
Third, Christianity offered assurance of eternal life. Every other “religion” offered some version of salvation-through-effort, and therefore could give no real assurance of life after death. But the gospel gave assurance of life because our salvation is based on the work of Jesus, given to us by grace, and not on our own work. This truth gave adherents of the new Christian faith a security, freedom, and joy was that to that point unseen in the world.
I hope that you can see the remarkable parallels between the Roman world in which Christianity first blossomed and our own post-modern Western world. Hurtado’s book has done a great service to us in showing that the very oddness and distinctiveness of Christianity (that sometimes led to great persecution) was a major part of its attractiveness to so many in those days. Tim Keller writes, in a similar vein: “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?” As Christianity continues to lose whatever “cultural power” it once held in America in particular, and as individual Christians are more socially marginalized and seen as odd, I hope that you can be encouraged in the truth that this is not the first time in the history of our faith that a people have undergone such societal pressures. In fact, it is often just such pressure that cause the Way of Jesus to spread rapidly - it offers something unique and compelling, a new way to view God and a new way to view the world. Adherence to the Gospel and the ethic of Jesus may lead us further into minority status, but it will also help cement the beauty and truth of Christianity into the hearts and minds of many who have never experienced the reality of the love of God.