Saturday 6 December 2014

What made Christians different in the Roman Empire? That death was not the end; that they would rise again into a Heaven of Peace and Light

From Byzantium by Judith Herren:

Historians regularly ask why Christianity succeeded, how it won the loyalty of those who previously worshipped many gods, and what factors ensured its permanent presence in the ancient Mediterranean world. 

As an offshoot of Judaism it inherited the conviction that there was only one creator God, which was universalized by preaching to anyone who would listen. But the old cults had satisfied most needs for centuries. Why did the adherents of Apollo, Isis, Zoroaster, Mithras and other established gods adopt Christianity? 

Unlike their contemporaries, the followers of Jesus were confident that death was not the end: they would rise again into a heaven of peace and light. 

This belief motivated them to behave in a correct Christian fashion, avoiding sin and encouraging faith, hope and charity, so that God would judge them worthy of eternal life in the next world. 

It set them apart from the Jews, polytheists and members of other cults that flourished in the early centuries AD. 

It also prompted them to prefer death to denial of their faith, which the Roman authorities found most extraordinary...  the Christians opted for martyrdom rather than give up their belief. 


This passage make the crucial connection between the Christian belief in everlasting life of happiness, and Christian motivation.

Under pressure of persecution, and the corruptions of power and desperation to deal with apostasy and wilful sin; this soaring, inspiring, positive and gloriously joyful vision of Heaven - which ought to be primary for Christians - was soon (and has since been many times) in practice inverted into an emphasis on fear, on avoiding Hell, on escaping torment: an emphasis on being saved from unending horror - rather than being rewarded with everlasting happiness.

Thus Christianity - which was primarily a positive and joyful religion (the word Gospel means good news); has often, in reluctant practice or by wilful corruption, become a negative and misery-avoiding religion. 

Sometimes this negative emphasis is necessary; in some situations and with some people, it is the only thing that works (just as children need to be punished, as well as rewarded) - nonetheless a negative focus must always be regarded as a secondary expedient and temporary measure - and never as the core of the Christian message.


The question of motivation is always crucial; and is a matter widely neglected and denied in the modern world. There is very little interest in what actually does motivate people; and instead a foolish and false assumption that if people 'ought' to be motivated, then they will be motivated.

Indeed, the whole of atheism and Leftism, including mainstream secular Conservatism and shades of libertarianism and the secular Right (including Neoreaction) is plagued by this fundamental unrealism, this neglect of psychological fact.

Thus the primary modern miseries are demotivational and demotivating: despair and nihilism. And the tendency of secular ideologies to accept despair and nihilism as if they were necessary and fundamental realities (which all intelligent and mature individuals ought to believe) - rather than terrible enemies who must be fought and vanquished.


But so much of Christian discourse is in practice de-motivational. There is a profound unrealism about motivation in some Christian discourse, which seems unable to learn from experience. Grossly distorted and inadequate versions of Christianity are held onto by churches, versions which have proven themselves incapable of generating the necessary motivation to be a real faith.

For instance, there has, for several generations, been the idea abroad among many 'mainstream' Christian churches that for Christianity to encourage and respond to the spontaneous human yearning for everlasting life and happiness is a low kind of activity - something to be avoided as akin to exploiting the childish fears and desires of vulnerable people; something equated-with spiritualism, mediums, ouija boards, and contacting dead deceased.

So, in trying to avoid this 'taint' or excess, what is in fact the 'unique selling point' of Christianity - the factor that perhaps primarily caused the faith to sweep the ancient world and displace all other religions - gets down-played, treated as a subject of embarrassment.

Eternal happiness beyond death is not dis-believed, but it is certainly not emphasised; it is not much talked-about. That would be regarded as low-brow, populist, disreputable, 'salesmanship'...


On the other hand, the types of Christianity which have actually been most successful at inspiring strong motivation in the modern world include those which emphasize 'up-front' and in practice the happiness of that eternal life they offer - such as the Mormon church, and also (so far as I can tell) Jehovah's Witnesses.

The hope for an eternal life of happiness is not regarded as something to be mentioned and then set aside; instead it is something which needs to be nurtured, built-up, reinforced - given that such belief requires faith, it ought surely to be a frequent focus of devotional activity, a topic of conversations and sermons and prayer? 

The Mormon church does this, ultimately, through the Temple activities of the most devout members of the church. And, on the whole, it works - the CJCLDS have a achieved a very high level of faith in eternal life among active and Temple-worthy members (as described and documented in The Mormon Culture of Salvation by DJ Davies, 2000).


A strong, solid belief in eternal life is only one aspect of the distinctive appeal and strength of Mormonism, and it is only one aspect of Christianity in general - but it may be the single most important one to emphasize in practice; because such belief can be the underpinning motivation for a changed life, a devout life in face of a hostile culture.

And what is more a positive life; a life which has the proper, primary, joyful focus which is intrinsic, native and spontaneous to Christianity.



George said...

Thank you Bruce, I appreciate you timing posts to help with issues I'm struggling with!

Gary Seven said...


Thank you for this post. Mainstream churches in the US (and UK, at least as viewed from afar, cf the Archbishop of Canterbury) have largely abandoned the core principles of the faith. Is it any wonder they are in decline while Islam is increasing on every content?

Related to your post is the question of why Christianity spread so quickly at that particular time and place. I am intrigued by the hypothesis that early Christians cared for the sick during the Antonine Plague. Before that time of course, the Jewish and Pagan views had been that disease was punishment for sin, and that the sick somehow deserved their plight. Interesting to ponder.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GS - The sociological/ statistical/ fertility-based argument for why Christianity grew rapidly was well made by Rodney Stark; but these invite the further question of why; what motivated Christians to go against the morality of their day and be fertile, care for each other etc.