What did the Christians say or do to convince people in the Roman world to abandon all of the religious beliefs and practices and follow this new religion that was widely considered very bizarre? What could motivate the pagans to forsake their heritage, their past, and their gods to become Christian? This is possibly the most pressing question when discussing the triumph of Christianity.
Pagans on the whole were not looking for new religions; they were suspicious of anything new. The religions they already subscribed to were familiar and comforting, and they had been around since time immemorial. There were religions that their families, friends, and neighbors had always practiced.
So, what was the chief reason because of which people throughout the empire abandoned pagan religions to become followers of Jesus.
The older explanation that goes back to the Enlightenment, especially popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that Christianity was simply a superior religion, is not really a persuasive explanation.
According to the older view, as Christianity matured, people came to realize that pagan religions were no longer credible or morally satisfying, and so the world moved on. That may make sense to modern Christian people. Of course, polytheism seems weird to us. But there’s almost no historical evidence that it seemed weird to pagans (93% to 95% of the population at the time), or that anyone who heard of Christianity immediately thought it was innately superior. On the contrary, it was Christianity that seemed strange.
Moreover, archaeological evidence shows conclusively that pagan religions were not on the decline at the time of the rise of Christianity. They were actually thriving. Pagans were happy with their religions. And so, historians had to come up with other explanations.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Social Benefits of Christianity
One of the most popular explanations is that Christianity attracted people into its midst because of its social benefits. The Christian church provided a loving, caring, and beneficent environment, unlike anything known in the pagan world. Unlike the pagan cults, the church helped out its members who were in material or emotional need, and this had serious attractions.
There’s a lot to be said for this view. For one thing, it’s true that Christian churches were unlike anything provided by the pagan cults. The church community saw itself as a family, all brothers and sisters. All were equal, at least in theory: rich and poor, masters and slaves, men and women. They met regularly for fellowship. They worshipped together, prayed together, studied together, ate meals together, and shared their burdens together. They supported one another in every way: spiritually, emotionally, morally, and even financially. Nothing in any of the pagan cults was anything like that.
Problems with the Theory of Social Benefits
Even so, as attractive as this theory is, there are reasons for thinking the social benefits of the Christian community are not what drew pagans in.
For one thing, we don’t have a single ancient source from before the 4th century that ever mentions the benefits of community as a motivation for conversion, and for good reason. The Christian communities were closed off, not open. Unlike today, only Christians could participate in the life of the church. Visitors were not allowed. The church and its services were for members only. Even more than that, when outsiders talked about what was happening in the church services, it was not good.
Christians were widely seen as highly suspect with their secret meetings at night, where brothers and sisters were greeting each other with kisses, and holding love feasts, and eating the body and drinking the blood of the son of God. What were they doing in there? The rumors were rife, and we don’t have any record of anyone thinking this was good company to associate with.
Christianity’s Superior Healthcare
There is one factor that has gained some traction recently. There have been some scholars who have suggested that one key to Christianity’s success is that it had superior healthcare.
One of the most intriguing arguments along this line comes from Rodney Stark, a modern sociologist of religion. Stark points out that the periods of Christian growth prior to Constantine are also known to have been times of epidemic, where large numbers of the population were killed off by plague. Christians claimed that because of their love for one another, they, unlike pagans, would not hide from infection and turn away from the sick, but would nurse their sick back to health as best they could.
Modern studies have shown that even in the absence of medicine, simple nursing improves survival rates for the very ill. And so Stark argues, Christians survived at much higher rates than pagans, and over time this meant that they grew far more quickly. Pagans during epidemics died more often, Christians survived more often. And so, in relationship to the rest of the population, with large swaths of the population dying off, Christianity would have grown. However, it is difficult to confirm this theory, as scholars have found numerous problems with this view.
Common Questions about What Motivated the Pagans to Follow Christianity
One of the most popular explanations for the rise of Christianity is that it attracted people into its midst because of its social benefits. The Christian church provided a loving, caring, beneficent environment, unlike anything known in the pagan world. The church helped out its members who were in material or emotional need, and this had serious attractions.
Unlike today, only Christians could participate in the life of the church in antiquity. The church and its Christians were widely seen as highly suspect with their secret meetings at night, where brothers and sisters were greeting each other with kisses, holding love feasts, and eating the body and drinking the blood of the son of God.
Rodney Stark pointed out that the periods of Christian growth prior to Constantine are also known to have been times of epidemic, where large numbers of the population were killed off by plague. He argued that Christians survived at much higher rates than pagans as they did not turn away from the sick but instead nursed them back to health. Over time, this meant that Christians grew far more quickly.