The shift from paganism to Christianity had a radical effect on the religious world of the West. It was a shift from a world of many gods and many polytheistic religions to the world of one God who was the creator, ruler, and judge of all, and his son who brought eternal life by his death.
Triumph of Christianity
With the triumph of Christianity, we are not talking about an incredibly significant event that came and went, such as bubonic plague, the Great Depression, or the Korean War. These obviously ruined and destroyed many lives and altered human history in specific and tragic ways, but they did not transform the social order for all time, culturally, politically, and economically, to the extent the triumph of Christianity did.
Most of the other religions, at least in the early centuries, didn’t even know there was a struggle for dominance. By the time they found out, it was too late.
Christian and Pagan Gods
The pagan gods were tolerant gods. They simply accepted their mutual existence and did not insist on anyone’s exclusive devotion. The Christian God, on the other hand, not only believed in the worship of only one God who was all powerful and jealous for the worship of all humans, but also was a God who would condemn them forever for failing to give him his due. Also, the Christian God’s son is believed to have brought eternal life by his death.
Unsurprisingly, Christianity came into competition with not just pagan, but all the other religions of the Roman world. There were hundreds and thousands of them; Christianity wanted to stamp them all out. In the end, it succeeded rather spectacularly.
After some centuries, paganism, more or less died in the West with only historically insignificant remnants, very much on the margins. Nothing could have been less expected or more revolutionary.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Primitive Polytheism and the Emotional Cost
Social historians mostly look at the advent of Christianity from the point of view of demographics, statistics, and the massive historical, social and cultural changes it brought with it.
Yet, one should not forget the individual. It may seem to us that the shift to Christianity was logical, sensible, and good. Even if we aren’t Christians ourselves, we might think that the shift to Christianity at least was a step in the right direction, away from the implausible mythologies and bizarre worship practices of primitive polytheism, but we should not be too quick to make those judgments.
Most ancient polytheists were deeply devoted to their religious beliefs and practices, and they formed a core part of their lives, providing them hope in the midst of a desperately capricious and dangerous world.
To move away from what one has held near and dear for all one’s life is monumental and emotionally wrenching. We should always keep this personal and emotional element in our view, or at least in the back of our minds, when we talk about the momentous shifts involved in the triumph of Christianity.
Jesus himself was a Jew, as were his earliest followers. This was when only 5% of the people in the world were Jewish, with the other 95% following one of the innumerable traditional Roman religions, all of which were polytheistic. Judaism was very different from all those religions; in fact, Judaism at that time was very different from Judaism as it’s practiced today.
Christianity started out with a tiny group of 20 people, or followers, who had accompanied Jesus of Nazareth to Jerusalem. The New Testament describes them as those belonging to lower class. They were Aramaic-speaking uneducated Jews from a rural, nondescript part of the empire.
One wonders, how did this tiny group of followers convince others to join them in this faith and leave behind the religious views, beliefs, and practices they had followed their entire lives? One must remember that these polytheistic religions might sound strange to us, but they were common sense to the people who were practicing them. What could then possibly have motivated the conversions?
Establishing a New Religion
It’s equally tricky to imagine that in such a world, how what Jesus said and preached related to what other Jews of his time were teaching. Strangely, it turns out much of what Jesus taught was already being taught by other people. Why then were Jesus’s teachings particularly offensive to the ruling authorities; so much so that they crucified him? And how did his followers establish a new religion founded on faith in him after his death?
Yet, the fact remains that within three centuries, several million people had converted to Christianity. By the end of the 4th century, half the Roman Empire, some 30 million people, was Christian.
Thus, Christianity did triumph. It brought with it momentous shifts, historically, socially and culturally, and took over the Western world in under 400 years.
Common Questions about Christianity and the Defeat of Paganism
Christianity came into competition with not just pagan, but all the other religions of the Roman world. Most of the other religions, at least in the early centuries, didn’t even know there was a struggle for dominance. By the time they found out, it was too late.
In Rome, only 5% were Jewish with the other 95% followed one of the innumerable traditional Roman religions, all of which were polytheistic. Judaism was very different from all those religions and that Judaism was very different from Judaism as it’s practiced today.
Within three centuries, several million people had converted to Christianity. By the end of the 4th century, half the Roman Empire was Christian, that is, some 30 million people.