By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
All religions had an understanding of superhuman divine forces. Pagans, of course, had many gods, Jews had one. Christians sided quite enthusiastically with the Jews. And like Jews, apart from one God, they recognized other divine beings, both good and evil.
Angels and Divine Humans
There was the one God that Christians worshipped, but there were other superhumans. There were angels, some of them more powerful than others. Many also believed, like pagans and Jews, that if a human was taken up to live with God, he had himself become a divine being.
Pagans had this idea that at the bottom of the divine pyramid, there were divine humans. Sometimes they understood that a human being was so special that the person was taken up to the realm of the gods and himself was made divine. That’s true of the founder of Rome, Romulus. According to ancient legend, near the end of his life, Romulus, didn’t actually die. He was taken up to heaven and was made a divine being and became one of the principal gods of Rome.
Divine Beings and the Resurrection of Jesus
In the time of early Christianity, Apollonius of Tyana, a pagan, Pythagorean philosopher was thought to be so holy that he was taken up to live with gods and made a divine being.
And even in Jewish circles, it was understood that some special people, like Elijah, never really died, were taken up, and, in later legends, were understood to become, in some sense divine, either a great angel or something else.
Christians believed that, too. The early Christians believed this had happened uniquely to Jesus himself at his resurrection. God had exalted Jesus to the level of divinity.
When the earliest Christians believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, they did not think this was simply a resuscitation of his corpse. This was not a near death-experience. Jesus was raised from the dead and made a divine being never to die again.
At that point, God made him both Lord and Christ as the book of Acts said.
The Son of God
But over time, Christians started moving backward in their thinking about how the development of Christ occurred. And so, we have people, for example, who ended up saying that Jesus became the son of God, not at his resurrection, but at his baptism.
Soon people began saying that Jesus was the son of God, not at his baptism, but from his birth.
Thus, we have gospels in the New Testament, such as the gospel of Mark, beginning with Jesus being baptized and being declared the son of God. Later gospels, Matthew and Luke, say that he was born of a virgin and became the son of God at that point when he was born.
Eventually, Christians came to think that Christ had always been the son of God, and had always lived with God in heaven, and that he had always been a divine being. And they worshipped him along with God the Father himself.
This made Christianity very different from any other religion in the Roman world. Their main focus of worship was a lower-class peasant who had been crucified by the Romans for crimes against the state.
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Doctrine of the Trinity
No other religion had someone like that as their chief deity. And even though the Christians worshipped both Jesus and God and considered them fully God, both of them were God, they claimed they worshipped one God, not two.
When the Spirit was added to the Godhead, Christians devised the doctrine of the Trinity, where there are three persons. These three persons are all distinct from one another. All three of these are fully God, but there’s only one God. That’s the mystery of the Trinity that became standard Christian thinking: three beings, all God, but only one God.
Common Idea of Divine Realm
Most pagans thought this view of the divine realm was very strange, indeed. Monotheists who believe in three different beings are all God. So, Christians do have in common the idea of a divine realm with all other religions, but they have a very distinctive way of looking at it.
Like pagans and Jews, Christians claimed that their God was extremely powerful. For Christians, in fact, He was all powerful.
The Christian God
The Christian God did not share ultimate power with any other being. Just as important, the Christian God could use his power to help people in need, as was true, of course, in the pagan and Jewish religions.
That, in a sense, was the entire point of worship for Christians as just for everyone else, to acquire the benefits that God could provide humans, so that they would have what they needed, God had to be worshipped. God could provide them with what they could not provide for themselves.
Divinity and Divine Power
There are obviously significant differences between Christian understanding of the divinity and divine power. Christians maintained that their God was the only one who had any real power to do good.
Christians thought that the other pagan gods were either lifeless or powerless. To them, they were just simply statues and had no life, no power; or they maintained that they were demons, evil demons who had deceived the world while bringing suffering upon it.
Hence, the only God was the true God, and no other.
Common Questions about Christianity and the Divine Realm
According to ancient legend, near the end of his life, Romulus, didn’t actually die. He was taken up to heaven and was made a divine being and became one of the principal gods of Rome.
Christians thought that the other pagan gods were either lifeless or powerless. To them, they were just simply statues and had no life, no power.
Eventually, Christians came to think that Christ had always been the son of God, and had always lived with God in heaven, and that he had always been a divine being.