On the Conversion of Pagans to Christianity
We all know that Europe was once Pagan. Actually, the whole world was Pagan as recently as 2,000 years ago. At that time, the only monotheistic religion in the world was Judaism, centered mainly in The Holy Land of Israel (Palestine) with small Jewish colonies (synagogues) in major cities throughout the Roman Empire. At that time, the world was fairly simple. If you were Jewish, you were a monotheist. If you were not Jewish, you were probably a Pagan polytheist.
What does Paganism actually mean though. The truth might surprise you. There never was and ancient religion called “Paganism.” It just didn’t exist. In fact, the word “pagan” comes from the Latin word “paganus” which, at the time of the Roman Empire, simply meant a villager or townsman. Virtually anyone and everyone could be “paganus” in the Roman sense of the word, even a Christian or Jew, though the word had a more rustic or backwoods sense to it, sort of like how the words “villagers” or “townspeople” do in English today. When using the word “paganus” in the days of the Roman Empire, one would be inclined to think of people in a small urban development rather than a large one. It wasn’t until much later that Christians appropriated the word “paganus” to refer to the various ethnic religions of the people who were neither Christian nor Jewish. These were typically people who lived in small towns, villages or the countryside, so it’s easy to see how this word was appropriated for that purpose. Later, the word “heathen” would take on a similar meaning, though it was more commonly applied to people who held to the Germanic ethnic religions. Though the two words have now come to represent two slightly different things. Heathen is often used to describe the polytheist religions of the Germanic and Celtic peoples of Northern Europe (including Russia), while Pagan is more of a general term used to describe all polytheist religions around the world.
What we consider “Pagan” or “Heathen” by modern definition had no such specific meaning in the ancient world, because at that time, religion was a very ethnically dependent thing. Most people, in antiquity, might only worship one god (the god or goddess of their respective town or tribe), but at the same time they might acknowledge the possible existence of other gods or goddesses, who might be patrons of other towns, villages, tribes or regions. The word that describes this mindset is henothesism. In their minds, who’s to say if one deity favored a particular town or tribe, while another deity favored a different one? So the mind of the ancient pagan may be oriented toward the worship of one particular god or goddess, but at the same time, he may acknowledge the existence of many other gods or goddesses for other people. He just focused his own worship toward one god or godess — that being the one he’s most familiar with. His particular god or goddess would happen to be the one whom he culturally or ethnically identified with. It might be one particular to a certain town or tribe. His people, meaning his country or civilization, would consist of multiple towns, and thus multiple gods and goddesses. This is called a pantheon. Those seeking to unite various people, in a particular region, into a more solidly cohesive ethnicity, would create myths that combined all the local gods and goddesses of the local pantheon. This mythos, or mythology, was fashioned together by the great storytellers of old, and from them the religions of the ancient world gained more elaborate detail. Also through this mythology, the people of one area became acquainted with the deities of other areas.
In major metropolitan cities, like Athens and Rome for example, people from various areas brought their gods with them when they moved into the “big city.” Thus multiple temples were set up by their respective patrons. The common mythology, combined with the availability of many temples, provided the opportunity of metropolitan city-dwellers to experiment in the worship of many different gods and goddesses. Thus, in the big cities, deities might become associated more with certain ideologies, pleasures and vices. One could change his divinity of choice depending on his current mindset, or worship a group of them together, combining various ideologies, worldviews and vices into one’s own unique religious identity. This is how henotheism becomes polytheism — or the worship of multiple gods. We see this in all ancient cultures (Egyptian, Semite, Persian, Indian, Greek/Roman, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, Mayan, etc.), but it is particularly well documented among the Greeks and Romans. Ancient Paganism was never an organized religion per se’, but rather a conglomeration of many different religions, arising from many cultures and ethnicities. The ancient world was very much the epitome of what we call “multiculturalism” today. For everyone to get along, no one ethnic religion could be seen as greater than another, no god or goddess was above another (at least on earth anyway, mythology was a different matter). Everyone’s religious beliefs had to be respected.
However, the larger ancient civilizations quickly discovered that a central government could not be ordered under this system. It simply didn’t work. While such a religious system might be sufficient when societies were relatively small, and localized to specific regions, as soon as they grew beyond the scope of one race of people, who shared a common ethnic-mythology, it became wholly inadequate. One could not order a common set of laws and regulations when everybody had a different take on morality and priorities, based on their various gods, pantheons and mythologies. In other words, the gods of one pantheon might clash with another. The morality of the Greek Zeus is not the same as the morality of the Germanic Odin, nor the same as the morality of the Egyptian Ra. To order a universal society — an empire — there must be a common sense of good and evil, right and wrong, as well as what’s important versus unimportant.
The ancient solution was to circumvent this problem by simply bringing the divine to earth. Regardless of whatever god or goddess a person worships, a god who materializes in the flesh would have to be obeyed no matter what, simply because of his visitation to the abode of men. This is why the Egyptian Pharaohs, Babylonian/Persian Kings, and finally the Roman Caesars, were elevated to the level of divinity. A man could worship whatever assortment of gods or goddesses he wants, but likewise, parallel worship of the state, via the emperor, was not only expected but demanded, sometimes on penalty of death. This was the norm for religious life the ancient world. To worship a god on earth, the king, would be to assure that his laws take precedence to whatever moral code comes from local religions. For a god on earth is surely a more pressing matter than gods in the netherworld.
As a footnote to this, we must talk about the Jews, because they alone were different. Judaism was the world’s first, truly monotheistic and systematic religion. The difference between monotheism and polytheism is that while polytheists (specifically henotheists) may worship only one god or godess while acknowledging others, monotheists worship only one God while denying the existence of all others. In fact, other gods, if not relegated to the realm of complete superstition, were given no more credence than a cult to a lower demon. Within the Holy Land of Israel, polytheism was not even tolerated. Shrines and temples to foreign gods were destroyed. Those who engaged in the worship of foreign gods were threatened with blasphemy, crimes against the state and could be punished accordingly — even with death in the most extreme cases. Outside of the Holy Land, Jews lived in tolerance of their host cultures. While they exclusively kept to monotheism among themselves, they politely accepted that non-Jews would worship whatever god(s) they wanted. Jewish colonies, manifesting in the form of local synagogues, were founded in just about every major city in the Roman Empire. Such colonies were established when young, unmarried and pious Jewish men were sent to a particular city. Each was tasked with finding a local Pagan woman, romancing her and getting her to convert to the worship of his God. Getting a Pagan woman to convert was not that difficult for two reasons. One, the Jewish God was seen to Pagans as just another one of the many gods. Two, Pagans were usually not very pious. If the Jewish God had something to offer, that the Pagan gods did not, (for example the love of a man coming from a culture where wives and mothers are highly respected) then a Pagan woman was happy to give the Jewish God whatever he wanted. Once converted, the Jewish missionary would marry her, and the two would raise Jewish children. After a few families followed this model, a synagogue would be erected in the city. Thus, a Jewish colony was formed. It should be noted that the Kingdom of Israel worked out a treaty with the Roman Empire, wherein Jews would be excluded from Roman emperor-worship, provided they prayed to the Jewish God for the success of Caesar, and made sacrifices for the same in the Jerusalem Temple. The relationship between Rome and the Jews was generally warm in ancient times. This was due to a military alliance, made early on, between Judas Maccabeus and the Roman Republic in 161 BC, during the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. (This revolt is, incidentally, where the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, or the Feast of Dedication, originated.) The alliance was remembered by Julius Caesar (49-44 BC) who recognized Judaism as an official religion within the Roman Empire, giving it the imperial status and privilege Jews enjoyed until this relationship deteriorated during the Roman-Jewish Wars (AD 66-135).
The missionary activity of Christianity, however, was entirely different. Requiring far less physical sacrifices of converts, Pagan men could be brought into the faith just as easily as Pagan women. Circumcision hindered this in Judaism. Thus, the gospel was freely preached to both sexes, and entire households left the gods and goddesses of their ancestors to worship the Jewish God within the Christian religion. The nagging question, however, is why?
Why would an entire continent of people (Europe), consisting of at least three major pantheons, dozens of cults to various deities, and ethno-religious cultures that stretch back thousands of years, just leave it all behind for an Middle Eastern religion, devoted to an exclusive Semitic Deity, framed in the context of Semitic culture and history? In other words, what did Yahweh have to offer that Zeus, Jupiter and Odin didn’t? The same question applies to Pagans of other regions (Egypt, Persia, India, America, etc.), but for the sake of simplicity and familiarity, we’ll focus on Europe here, as the same answer applies as well.
For starters, as I said above, Pagans generally weren’t very pious, even within their own multicultural conglomeration of cults and pantheons. Of course, you could always find a few zealots here and there, but after all is said and done, when you have a population accustomed to switching allegiance to one god over another within a pantheon, based on the mindset or convenience of the time, maintaining any form of pious exclusivity to polytheism is rather hard to achieve. In other words, this is a structural weakness built into polytheism. The multiplicity of deities opens the door to exclusive monotheism eventually, provided said God can provide something of value that’s worth such exclusivity. Paganism is built on an idea of mutual exchange between men and gods. The idea was that if you could provide some kind of sacrifice or devotion that pleased a god (or gods) then he, she or they would be obligated to reciprocate with some kind of favor. In such a system of mutual exchange, when it was perceived that a god didn’t live up to his or her end of the bargain, the pantheon made it easy to simply move on to another divinity. An exclusive God, like Yahweh, was usually avoided by Pagans, unless it was perceived that Yahweh could offer them something that the other gods could not. If what Yahweh was offering seemed like a good proposition, and in exchange all Yahweh required was exclusivity, then he could have it, because Pagans were preconditioned with this exchange mindset anyway. In other words, Pagans weren’t necessarily against the idea of exclusive monotheism to a particular God, if the price was right. “Offer me a pretty sweet deal and we’ll talk.”
The only problem was that, up until Christianity came onto to scene, the only monotheistic religion in existence (the Jewish worship of Yahweh) demanded a pretty steep price without a very big payoff, especially if you’re a man. That’s because if you’re a man, the very first sacrifice Yahweh required was the foreskin of your penis. Once you got over that agonizing ordeal, the rest of one’s life involved the regular sacrifice of farm animals and the personal sacrifice of complex dietary laws. So the Jews weren’t having a whole lot of luck converting the Pagans. The best they could hope for was some of their young men romancing Pagan women, and getting them to convert, since their initial sacrifice (a ceremonial bath) was essentially painless.
Christianity changed all that. The Jewish ceremonial bath for women was extended to men and children in what is called baptism. Circumcision was no longer required. Kosher dietary laws became optional. Suddenly, with the advent of Christianity, the God of the Jews (Yahweh) became easily accessible to the whole population of the Pagan world.
Another reason why European Pagans were willing to convert, fairly easily over time, had a lot to do with conditions in Europe in the centuries following the Roman-Jewish Wars. As the empire showed signs of internal upheaval, division, and ultimately collapse, combined with external wars and deteriorating social conditions in general, it seemed the old gods just weren’t performing as well as they used to. In fact, they didn’t seem to be performing at all. The Jewish God (Yahweh), as approached through Christianity, provided five valuable proposals to a civilization in decline. Not only were these five proposals useful in these dark times, but they also proved to be essential building blocks for the reconstruction of Europe that would follow, into what became (and remains) the greatest civilization in the history of the world. These five proposals were: (1) hope of a better afterlife vastly superior to this life, (2) a stable community to rely on, built on the traditional family, (3) a concept of divinity that agreed with Aristotelian reason and seemed consistent with observations in the natural world, (4) a chance to escape the despair of fate deeply integrated into ancient Paganism, and (5) the flexibility of Christianity in dealing with various ethnicities and cultures. I’ll explore each of these valuable proposals, and more, in greater detail below…
Hope of a Better Afterlife
Anyone who has spent any time reading Pagan mythology will notice a few characteristics. First, the gods are basically viewed as nothing more than powerful beings within the known universe. They are not above time and space, but rather subject to both. Second, the gods have lots of very human weaknesses. Some of them are comical, and most of them are petty. Third, what the gods have to offer humanity in this world is very limited, and in the next world what they have to offer is a bit disappointing. According to Greek and Roman Paganism, all the dead go to Hades, the abode of the dead, and that’s it. According to Norse Paganism, most of the dead go to a similar place, except for valiant warriors who die in combat. They go to Valhalla instead, the great Hall of Odin, for great feasts at night, and war games during the day. Egyptian Paganism offered different levels of Hades in the afterlife, dependent on how wealthy one’s family is, and their willingness to care for one’s remains. The list goes on, but the Christian concept of Heaven and Resurrection was a bit foreign to the Pagan mindset.
The Christian gospel offered three promises in the afterlife. The first was a purging from all attachment to sin in this life. This is what we call Purgatory, and it’s a cleansing of the soul before entering Heaven. The second is Heaven itself, which is a temporary place of peace and joy for departed souls while awaiting the Last Day. The third is the Resurrection, which will occur on the Last Day, when the bodies and souls of all people will be reunited. Those who had been in Heaven will now be given perfect bodies (physical and material) to enjoy for eternity in a new Heaven and a New Earth (effectively a New Universe) that is not subject to the decay and disorder of this present universe. All of this happens under the administration of a loving God, who actually cares about people, and wants to be with them for eternity.
That’s a list of three lofty promises, which most Pagan’s found unbelievable at first, except when they learned that Jesus Christ had already rose from the dead as proof of his claims, and as an advanced deposit of this future resurrection, he already resurrected dozens of people who could testify as well (Matthew 27:52-53).
As the Roman Empire went into decline, and the lives of many people within that empire gradually went from a state of bad to worse, the promise of something better after this life became more and more appealing as the years rolled by. Christianity offered an eschatological package that was far more fantastic and intriguing than anything offered by Paganism.
Theological Depth and Personal Challenge
Christianity offered a level of theological depth unheard of in Pagan pantheons. The concept of one God, beyond time and space, who made all things, and existed before all things, was something many Pagans had not given much thought to. Pagan gods existed within time and space, subject to its laws, and vulnerable to its elements. They were, after all, personifications of nature itself. The idea of a real God, a Creator God, beyond time and space, was a concept toyed with by Greek philosophers, but not put into practical application in the Pagan pantheon. To the average Pagan, the gods were the elements of nature, and the elements of nature were subject to other elements of nature, in constant rivalry. Another layer of depth Christianity offered to the concept of God was that its teaching on monotheism, while absolute, was nuanced. Not only is there only one God, but this one Creator God who exists beyond time and space, is eternally existent in three divine Persons. The second Person of the Trinity is who came to earth in the form of a man — Jesus Christ. This mystery provided a concept of God that human intellects would ponder throughout the ages.
Christianity not only challenged the human mind on the concept of God, but it also inspired personal growth. God the Son, Jesus Christ, instructed his followers to “be perfect” even as God is perfect, a standard impossible to meet by human efforts alone. This encouraged a dependency on God, through Christ, whom they would constantly have to trust in to meet the shortcomings of their fallen human nature. This pushes moral standards ever upward, so that when one moral hurdle is cleared, another higher one is placed. People would spend a lifetime overcoming one moral challenge, so that when it was overcome, and the next generation came along, another higher moral challenge was offered. In the end, not only would this provide ample opportunity for individuals and families to improve themselves, but societies and civilizations as well. It certainly wasn’t perfect, because human beings aren’t perfect, but it did create an impetus to strive for perfection, and that led to a better way of life for everyone.
A Stable Family and Community
As Roman civilization gradually fell apart, there came a greater need for tightly-knit communities and networking. This is necessary not only to survive in an imploding economy, but also necessary to build a new civilization after the old finally collapses. Paganism didn’t have much to offer in way of this, simply because of the way it was structured. Worship of the gods was mechanical, personal, and somewhat private. A pagan would arrive at a temple, make his sacrifices or rituals and then just leave. There isn’t much room for networking and community there.
The Christian church was built on the Jewish model of the synagogue. Every week Jews would gather for prayers and teaching. After this time, people would freely associate, building friendships and relationships. Christian communities were tight-knit, as were Jewish synagogues, which is why they alone survived the fall of the Roman Empire completely intact. Like the Jewish synagogue, the Christian church was built on the traditional family as the “building blocks” of the community. So preservation of the traditional family was seen as top priority for the whole community. The religion itself was heavily structured around that. In Christianity, marriage was raised to the level of a sacrament, called matrimony, which is seen on par with the priesthood and religious vocations.
If you were a Christian (or a Jew) in the age of the collapsing Roman Empire, you would likely never be in want for food or shelter. Your kids would always have food in their bellies, clothes on their backs, and a warm place to stay. Like the Jewish synagogues, Christian churches looked out for one another. They made sure that when one family fell on hard times, other families chipped in to help.
The downside, of course, was occasional persecutions by the imperial government. However, the word “occasional” should be stressed. The Pagan persecution of Christianity was an on-again and off-again affair, usually more “off” then “on.” For the most part, Christians were tolerated (even if just barely), and when persecutions broke out, they were usually short-lived. Roman emperors simply used Christians as scapegoats when their political problems got too big and they needed something to distract the aristocracy. With bad emperors came bad persecutions. But most of the time, Christians flourished in the dying empire. They were never rich, by any stretch of the imagination, as Christian communities were mostly attractive to the poor, but they had enough to get by, and shared all wealth between them. If you were a poor family, during the time of the collapsing Roman Empire, you were most likely a Christian family, because the Church is where poor people went to get food, clothing and shelter.
Reason and Natural Law
Unlike Paganism, which relied heavily on superstition and belief in magic, Christianity appealed heavily to reason and natural law. For this reason, many ancient Pagans regarded Christians as “atheists.” Not only did Christians deny the existence of the gods, but their arguments sounded much like those of the Greek philosophers, whom they also regarded as “atheists.”
To those who were interested in reason, however, the case for Christianity was strong. The Jewish concept of God, put into a universal framework, that could be easily accessed by the Gentile masses, without having to perform any acts of physical mortification (circumcision), drew converts in by the millions. Christianity dispelled the fear and darkness of magic and superstition. Under Christianity, the Jewish God Yahweh, who is the Creator beyond time and space, not only made the universe and everything in it, but loved it so much as to redeem it through his incarnation — Jesus Christ — providing a way for mankind to share in his redemptive process.
The Despair of Fate
Ancient Paganism dealt heavily in fate. Now fate is defined as the development of events beyond a person’s control, regarded as determined by a supernatural power. In other words, human beings have very little control of their destinies. They are subject to fate, and the gods are really in charge of our future. This created a type of caste system, making it difficult for people to break out into higher social classes. It also created a lot of resignation and despair, especially if one was not satisfied with one’s life or behavior. If you fell onto hard times, forcing you to steal, you were a thief, and it was because the gods wanted you to be one. Perhaps you might be able to work yourself out of hard times, but you would always be a thief and you would know it. Thus the gods will see to it that you returned to that state eventually. The same could be said of anything: adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, drunkenness, etc. Little hope was given toward changing one’s lot in life. It was so depressing, actually, that even modern Neo-Pagans just gloss over that aspect of their religious heritage, preferring instead to borrow the Christian worldview on personal destiny.
Christianity offered a different take on things. There is no fate except what we make, and all things are possible in Jesus Christ who strengthens us. While some social castes might be beyond our immediate control (though they can be changed in time), personal sins can be forgiven, and once forgiven the sinner can be changed. Through acts of personal sanctification and piety, a man can be lifted up from the despair of sin and made a new creation, leaving behind his former life forever. It is possible, in Christianity, for one to become an ex-thief, and ex-adulterer, and ex-prostitute, and ex-homosexual, and an ex-drunkard, no longer practicing these things, and no longer held by their power. There is no fate in Christianity, except what we make, and all things are possible in Christ who strengthens us. This creates hope in people, and it gives them a chance to start over.
Unlike Judaism, Christianity did not require the erasure of ethnic cultures. As I explained above, Paganism was not an organized religion per se. It was rather a conglomeration of multiple geographical sects, tied to various ethnicities. In the ancient world, a man’s religion was his ethnic identity and vice versa. Religion was ethnicity, and ethnicity was religion. This is why Judaism, while highly missionary in the ancient world, had such difficulty bringing in new converts, especially men. Converting to Judaism required the total erasure of ones religious-ethnic identity, in exchange for adopting the Jewish religious-ethnic identity. Don’t misunderstand here. Jews were actually well respected in the ancient world, and their monotheist religion, along with its moral expectations, was considered highly virtuous. Still, to admire is one thing, to convert is another. Pagans were content to admire Jews from afar. Converting to Judaism, however, would require a total erasure of their whole religious-ethnic makeup. They would have to give up not only their religious beliefs, but also their ethnic identity, and that includes culture. It’s very similar to how people convert to Islam today. Local culture is virtually erased, in exchange for Arabic culture. For the men in the ancient world, conversion to Judaism was especially harsh, because it required a painful act of physical mutilation, otherwise known as circumcision. For the ancient Pagan, there was really no incentive to become a Jew, but there were a whole lot of disincentives. This is why Jewish missionary activity was relegated to sending out young unmarried men into Pagan regions, for the purpose of converting Pagan maidens to Judaism. There would be no circumcision requirement for them, and they had the incentive of gaining a husband once converted.
In contrast, Christianity would require no cultural erasure, and this was decided early on (Acts 15). Circumcision would not be required of male converts to Christianity, and in addition to that, no Jewish expectations would be required of them. The Apostles would decide what is necessary for Gentile conversion and what is not. This would allow Gentile converts to continue to identify with their ethnic culture, while at the same time become members of the Christian Church. This is what turned Christianity from a Jewish sect into a Catholic (universal) religion. Christianity found its roots and context within Judaism, but grew beyond that into a global religion, consisting of all ethnicities and cultures. Likewise, this allowed many customs, terms, food and dance, once associated with Paganism, to be united with Christianity, just so long as such things did not interfere with Christian doctrine. This is how Christianity, still very Middle Eastern in the Middle East, is also very European in Europe, and very Latin American in Latin America. This is why Germanic Christianity looks a bit different from Mediterranean Christianity, which looks different from Middle Eastern Christianity, which looks different from Latin American Christianity, and so on. Pagans could convert to Christianity and still remain both ethnically and culturally the same people.
Constantine and the Rise of Christian Kings
The rise of Christian kings went a long way toward turning Christianity from a minority cult to a mainstream religion. It began with Emperor Constantine the Great with the Edict of Milan in AD 313. From there Christianity gradually went from a “tolerated” religion to the official religion of the Roman Empire. While it suffered a minor setback with Emperor Julian the Apostate in AD 361 – 363, it quickly rebounded. Paganism was still tolerated, of course, but there was now no political incentive to remain Pagan, and without a political incentive, Paganism would slowly die out.
Henceforth, a major strategy for converting Pagans became the attempted conversion of Pagan kings in Pagan lands. This was to remove any political incentive to remaining Pagan, and lesson the likelihood of a Pagan persecution of Christians in the region. For example, the British Isles had been largely Christianized under the late Roman Empire. However, when the empire collapsed, Germanic Heathens (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) invaded the British isles from the southeast, bringing their Pagan cults with them. British (Celtic) Christians were immediately persecuted by these Germanic Heathens, and a great many of them fled to Wales and Ireland. In response, Pope Gregory the Great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to England for the purpose of converting the Heathen King Æthelberht. His success led to the gradual re-Christianization of England.
What Christianity offered families and communities, in the waning years of the Roman Empire and after, proved to be essential in the centuries to follow. We have learned that like Islam, Paganism and Heathenism needs a political advantage to maintain dominance in the wake of Christianity. Without such a political advantage, it remains a second-class religion. This is because Christianity can offer believers far more than Paganism ever could, and the disparity is so great that modern Neo-Pagans and Neo-Heathens must adopt a Christian worldview on destiny just to remain appealing to modern people. Even in places where Islam has conquered by the sword, Christianity remains a viable sub-culture religion in spite of great persecution. Left on its own, without government favoritism, Christianity remains the dominant religion in the Americas, as well as both Western and Eastern Europe. Christianity not only survived government-enforced atheism, under communism in Eastern Europe, but it has thrived in the wake of communism’s demise. Even though Neo-Paganism and Neo-Heathenism are on the rise in the West, they do not compare to the remnant of Christianity, nor can they compete with the monolith that is Islam. Where Neo-Paganism and Neo-Heathenism flourish now, Islam will dominate tomorrow, if Neo-Pagans and Neo-Heathens do not return to Christianity. For the only thing standing between the West and Islam now, is a healthy and robust Christian society.