For its Bible study, my church is going through Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, with Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung.
We watched the DVD for the lesson last night, and the picture that I got from it was that the Roman Empire during the time of Paul was keeping the peace quite well, in terms of providing services and protecting people in the Empire, and yet there was a lack of spiritual peace. Elites gorged themselves on food and entertained themselves by watching displays of brutality in the arena. There were many who did not feel at peace with the divine, for they felt that they had to climb up to heaven by their own efforts. Moreover, in their eyes, they themselves were the ones who had to deal with sin, either by hiding their sins from Zeus or by making up for their sins. In such an environment, Paul’s message that a loving God took the initiative in dealing with our sin and reconciling us with himself, that salvation and intimacy with God come by accepting God’s grace, and that there is a good afterlife for those who receive God’s gift was counter-cultural, and also refreshing to a number of people. On the DVD that we watched, a variety of scholars were interviewed: Paul Maier, Douglas Moo, and others.
I’m usually hesitant to say that Christianity is superior to other religions, since there are Christian apologists who claim this in arguing that Christianity is divinely-inspired, and I think that they disingenuously exaggerate Christianity’s good points while downplaying or ignoring Christianity’s flaws and also the assets of other religions. (In saying this, I do not have in mind the scholars who were on that DVD, but others.) But I tend to agree with the scholars on the DVD that we watched last night that Christianity was offering something that Roman religion largely lacked. I’m hesitant to say that grace was unheard of in Roman thought, for that would be a pretty sweeping statement. But G. Reale does hold that a belief in grace was unusual in the philosophical schools of the second-fifth centuries C.E., and that there was an emphasis on theurgy, which was the performance of rituals in an attempt to achieve a union with the divine (see here). Philip Schaff says that Christianity’s belief in a blissful afterlife contrasted with the “gloom of paganism, for which the future world was a blank” (see here). And Helmut Koester affirms that there were many who turned to mystery cults so that they could avoid becoming “unconscious shadows after death” (see here). There is debate about whether or not mystery religions influenced Paul. In any case, the rather bleak picture of Roman religion that I saw last night on the DVD appears to be accepted by other scholars.
Does this mean that Christianity was divinely-inspired? I think that a secular explanation can be provided for how Christianity offered a counter-cultural belief-system that contained what Roman religions largely lacked. Christianity inherited a belief in resurrection from Judaism, and, while there were Jews who held that even Gentiles could enter the blissful afterlife, Christianity took that belief further by emphasizing it, and that probably attracted Gentiles. But was early Christianity revolutionary in its conception of grace? I’d tentatively say “yes”. Judaism and (if I’m not mistaken) paganism held that a divine being could forgive people, but early Christianity seems to present God taking a larger, initiating role in people’s salvation; moreover, while early Christianity had rituals, I doubt that they were a way for people to try to climb their way to God, but rather were celebratory acts of what God had already done, through grace. Does Christianity’s revolutionary teaching on grace demonstrate that it was divinely-inspired? Not necessarily, for there was a widespread belief in the ancient world that the flesh (or part of the soul) weighed people down, physically and morally. Human beings without divine inspiration could have taken that belief further by saying that people were so corrupt that they could only be saved from their immoral nature through an act of divine grace.
And yet, I cannot exclude the possibility that God was indeed involved in this entire process. Perhaps there were people who concluded from observation that God delivered people spiritually through an act of grace: they saw changed lives within the Christian movement, and so they concluded that Christianity had the answer to the moral weakness of human beings, and thus that transformation came through an act of divine grace, apart from works or theurgy.
I think that the DVD did a good job in painting a picture of spiritual barrenness. On some level, at least in my case, I think that Christian spirituality offers hope and fills the void that is left by hedonism or entertainment. Does Christianity totally satisfy me, though? Not entirely, but that could be because I do some things wrong, or at least in a manner that isn’t conducive to satisfaction (which is not to say that Christianity is all about personal satisfaction, but many Christians like to advertise that it does satisfy in ways that the “world” does not).