How Did Christianity Prevail in Ancient Rome and What Can We Learn from It?

by Sean Mcdowell

What was unique about Christian practices and teachings in the first three centuries of the church? And how did such a minority faith—which was considered irrelevant, extreme, and at odd with the role “religion” is supposed to play in a pagan society—ultimately prevail? In his recent book Destroyer of the gods, New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado focuses on the first of these questions. But his book also has powerful implications for the second.

Hurtado explains how Christianity was viewed by pagans in ancient Rome: “In the eyes of many of that time, early Christianity was odd, bizarre, and in some ways even dangerous. For one thing, it did not fit with what ‘religion’ was for people then. Indicative of this, Roman-era critics designated it as a perverse ‘superstition.’”[1]

Interestingly, this is not too dissimilar from charges that are increasingly being raised against Christians today who refuse to embrace the progressive sexual agenda.

Although Christians in the early church aimed to be good citizens, and to show due respect and care for both their neighbors and the State (as Christians do today), their beliefs in Jesus as the one true God put them at odds with the prevailing culture (as Christian beliefs and practices increasingly do in our secular culture today).

In fact, as Hurtado observes, Christian beliefs were even considered more problematic to Rome than Jewish beliefs. How so? While Jews also refused to honor pagan deities, there is little evidence Roman-era Jews aimed to persuade the masses to abandon their gods. And yet this is exactly what Christians did. In other words, Christians were often allowed to hold Christian beliefs in private, but should expect to sacrifice those beliefs when they enter the public arena. Sound familiar? Chuck Colson saw this coming years ago.

Roman authorities had little problem that Christians worshipped Jesus as God. Their problem, however, was that Christians refused to worship other deities. While Christians considered worshipping pagan deities idolatry, Romans considered such behavior defiance to the state. Jews were often excused since their behavior could be “chalked up” as a matter of national peculiarity. But Christians could not appeal to any such ethnic privilege. As a result of their refusal to worship the pagan deities, Christians experienced popular abuse, intellectual condemnation, and persecution on a local and (eventually) statewide level. And yet, amazingly, Christianity prevailed…

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How Did Christianity Prevail in Ancient Rome and What Can We Learn from It?