Christianity is unique and different from other religions in many aspects. But two specific features are distinctive to Christianity. It aggressively sought converts and anyone who was converted was expected to give up every other religious commitment. Christianity was both evangelistic and exclusive. These two factors are also the reason behind the triumph of Christianity.
In our Western world today, it is common to see evangelistic religions with missionaries who are Methodist or Mormon or Muslim, and many other things; all seeking converts from among outsiders. In Christianity, the evangelistic impulse goes all the way back to the very beginning. Numerous sources indicate that the very earliest Christians were determined and eager to win converts.
In the gospel Matthew 28, we have Jesus telling his disciples after his resurrection, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them all I have commanded you.”
Or Acts 1:8, where Jesus after his resurrection tells the apostles that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and will empower them, and then they are to be his representatives, his spokespersons, his disciples, his missionaries to Jerusalem and Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Christianity’s Apocalypticism Lead to Evangelism
The original Christians were themselves apocalyptists who believed the world was an evil place that was soon to be destroyed by God, who would then restore the world to a state of perfection where his followers could live a utopian existence forever. The first letter that Paul wrote, is filled with the idea that the end is coming soon, Jesus is soon to return, and there will be destruction and salvation only for those who side with Jesus.
In Paul’s writings, he indicates anyone who is not on the right side of God would be annihilated. The only way to be on God’s right side for these early Christians was through accepting the death and resurrection of Jesus. Anyone who did not become a believer was doomed. Of course, Christians did not want their families, friends, or neighbors to be destroyed. They wanted them to be converted, and so the Christians tried to persuade them.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Contrary Beliefs in Other Religions
This is a message very much unlike anything in the pagan religions; none of them thought that everyone should worship their god and only their god or they’d be destroyed. Why should they? There were lots of gods; all of them deserved to be worshipped. None of them thought that people had to turn to these gods because the world was soon to end.
Most of these pagans and pagan religions were not particularly even concerned about life after death or believed that there was one way to earn divine favor to guarantee salvation, but the Christians did.
From ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ to Convert Thy Neighbor
Contributing to this urge to make converts, even of strangers, is one of the central teachings of the early Christian movement. Followers of Jesus maintained that they were not only to be completely dedicated to God, they were also supposed to love their neighbor. If you love your neighbor, you’re not going to let your neighbor be destroyed. Jesus and his followers acquired the love commandment from the Hebrew Bible, but they expanded its interpretation.
Jesus reinterpreted this meaning of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ to mean love even your enemy. If everyone in the world was doomed to be painfully annihilated when the end came, unless they became followers of Jesus, then of course the only course of action was to convince others to accept this new faith. And so, the religion became evangelistic, eager to win converts.
Exclusivism in Christianity
Closely intertwined with this evangelistic impulse was the second feature that made Christianity unlike all the other religions of the Roman world, its exclusivism, the insistent that it was completely right, and all others were completely wrong. Such a view is simply unknown among the polytheistic religions of antiquity, but more than that it was completely foreign and opposed to them.
Polytheistic religions not only allow, but also encourage the worship of many gods. The acceptance of numerous paths to the divine. You could choose to worship only one God, but no religion insisted you did at all.
Polytheism encouraged polytheists. Unlike Christians, the Jews, as a rule, never tried to enforce their culture and customs on others. This was their heritage. We have no evidence of anything like a sustained Jewish mission in antiquity, an attempt to convert pagans to follow the ways of Judaism.
Christians, unlike everyone else in their world, became evangelistic. They felt they had to convert others. It was a matter of life and death or rather bliss and torture for all time.
Common Questions about Evangelism and Exclusivism in Christianity
Christianity was both evangelistic and exclusive, which set it apart from other religions.
Jesus reinterpreted this meaning of ‘love thy neighbor’ to mean love even your enemy. If everyone in the world was doomed to be painfully annihilated when the end came, unless they became followers of Jesus, then of course the only course of action was to convince others to accept this new faith. And so, the religion became evangelistic, eager to win converts.
The Christian exclusivism insisted that it was completely right, and all others were completely wrong. Such a view is simply unknown among the polytheistic religions of antiquity, but more than that it was completely foreign and opposed to them.