Why the phenomenal spread of Christianity

Why was it that Christianity had this amazing expansion? How shall we account for the fact that, beginning as what to the casual observer must have appeared a small and obscure sect of Judaism, before its first five centuries were out it had become the faith of the Roman state and of the vast majority of the population of that realm and had spread eastward as far as Central Asia and probably India and Ceylon and westward into far away Ireland? Why of all the many faiths which were competing for the allegiance of the Roman Empire, many of them with a much more promising outlook, did it emerge victor? Why, of all the Jewish sects, did it alone move outside the pale of Judaism and attract the millions of many races and cultures which composed the Mediterranean world?

The motives which led non-Christians to embrace the faith were many and varied. We hear of an entire family, headed by the grandfather, who became Christian because they knew of a case of demon possession which was cured by invoking the name of Christ. In the fifth century in one section of Gaul numbers of pagans were converted because, when a plague attacked the herds, the cattle of the Christians escaped or recovered and this was attributed to the use of the sign of the cross. On the other hand, we read of a son of pagan parents, also in Gaul, who later became a distinguished bishop, who was led to the Christian faith by struggling with the question: "What is the purpose of my life?" We are told of a fourth century Roman scholar and teacher of distinction who after prolonged and careful study asked for baptism. We have noted the fashion in which Augustine came through deep religious hunger and a sense of moral impotence.

Augustine also said that he was impressed by the incarnation and the humility of Jesus, both of which he failed to find in the Neoplatonism in which he had sought an answer to his long yearning. Much earlier, in the second century, Justin Martyr, a native of Samaria, who wrote one of the more famous of the apologies for Christianity, and who won his sobriquet by his death for the faith, had sought wisdom through the philosophies of his day and became a convert when he found truth in Christ, Christ in whom the Logos had taken individual human-historical form.

One of the factors to which is attributed the triumph of Christianity is the endorsement of Constantine. But, as we have suggested, the faith was already so strong by the time when Constantine espoused it that it would probably have won without him. Indeed, one of the motives sometimes ascribed to his support is his supposed desire to enlist the cooperation of what had become the strongest element in the Empire, the Christian community.

Another cause was the disintegration of society, especially beginning with the last two decades of the second century, with the weakened opposition of old institutions to Christianity and a loss of nerve which led millions to seek security in religion. But why was it that of all the many religions which were competing and which offered to meet this need it was Christianity which was accepted?

It is clear that the institutions which Christianity possessed in the churches proved an attraction. In spite of the divisions which we are to describe in the next chapter, the Christian churches were the most inclusive and the strongest of all the various associations in the Roman world. They cared for their poor and for those of their number imprisoned for their faith. In times of distress churches would help one another by gifts of money or food. A Christian holding membership in a local unit of the Church would be among friends in whatever city or town he found others of his communion. The only fellowship approaching that of the Christians in solidarity was that of the Jews, and in contrast with the churches, which welcomed all, regardless of race, this was as much racial and cultural as religious. But what was the source of the churches and what gave them their strength?

Christianity was inclusive. More than any of its rivals it appealed to men and women from all races and classes. In contrast with the philosophies, which were primarily for the educated, Christianity had a message for the simple and the ignorant. It also won many of the keenest and most highly trained minds. Membership in the mysteries was expensive and therefore chiefly for the well to do. Christianity was for both rich and poor. Mithraism was only for men. The Gospel was proclaimed to both men and women. Why this inclusiveness? It was not in the parent Judaism.

In a combination of flexibility and uncompromising adherence to its basic convictions Christianity surpassed its rivals. Like the latter and to a much greater extent than Judaism it accommodated itself to the Grsco-Roman world. It availed itself of Greek philosophy to think through its theology. It took over and adapted much from Judaism. In its organization it fitted into the patterns of the Empire. Yet, in striking contrast with the easy-going syncretism of an age in which one religion borrowed what it liked from its neighbours and all except Judaism permitted their adherents to share in the worship of the cults endorsed by the state, Christianity was adamant on what it regarded as basic principles. It held some sins to be unforgivable to Christians, among them any participation in non-Christian worship. As time passed, as we are to see, and the numbers of Christians multiplied, ways were found by the Catholic Church, the largest of the Christian communions, of declaring even the most serious of sins forgiven if there were true repentance, but severe penance was entailed. Some of the Christian groups broke from the Catholic Church in insisting on stricter procedures.

The constancy of the martyrs under torture impressed many non-Christians. As we have seen, by no means all Christians stood up under trial. Many wilted. Yet enough remained firm to give convincing evidence of a power which nerved children, old men, and weak women as well as stalwart youths to hold to their faith under grueling and prolonged torment and to do so without bitterness towards their enemies. One of the apologists was obviously speaking truth when he declared that when reviled, the Christians blessed.

Moreover, Christianity worked the moral transformation which it demanded. Augustine was by no means the first or the only morally defeated individual who found victory in the Gospel. This was so frequent as to be almost normal. The apologists rang the changes on the welcome given by the Christian community to the tarnished, weak dregs of society and on the regenerating vigour of the faith.

It was not only to miracles of moral rebirth to which Christians could point. Pagans were also attracted by the miracles of heating wrought in the name of Christ.

Better than its rivals, Christianity gave to the Graco-Roman world what so many were craving from a religion. To those wishing immortality it pointed to the historic Jesus, risen from the dead, and to the promise that those who believed in him would share with him in glorified, eternal life. To those demanding high morality it offered standards beyond the full attainment of men and the power to grow towards them. To those craving fellowship it presented a community of worship and of mutual aid, with care for the poor, the infirm, and the aged. To those who, distrustful of reason, longed for a faith sanctioned by immemorial antiquity, it pointed to the long record preserved in what it termed the Old Testament, going back to Moses and beyond him and pointing forward to Christ. To those demanding intellectual satisfaction it could present literature prepared by some of the ablest minds of the day.

Whence came these qualities which won for Christianity its astounding victory? Careful and honest investigation can give but one answer, Jesus. It was faith in Jesus and his resurrection which gave birth to the Christian fellowship and which continued to be its inspiration and its common tie. It was the love displayed in Christ which was, ideally and to a marked extent in practice, the bond which held Christians together. The early disciples unite in declaring that it was from the command of Jesus that the Gospel was proclaimed to all, regardless of sex, race, or cultural background. The new life in Christ might express itself in many forms, but its authenticity was to be proved by high, uncompromising moral qualities as set forth by Jesus. Hence the combination of flexibility and inflexibility. As against the mystery religions, those cults which had so much superficial similarity to Christianity, it was partly belief in God, partly a theology, a metaphysic, which gave the latter its advantage, but it was chiefly that as against the mythical figures at the heart of the mysteries, Christians could point to Jesus, an historical fact. Through the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus came the moral transformations which were so marked in the Christian fellowship. The loyalty of the martyrs was to Christ, and his example and the promise of eternal life through him were their sustaining strength. It was through the sign of his cross or by the use of his name that miracles were wrought. It was a true insight, even if exercised in derision, which named the members of the new faith Christians and in the city where non-Jews were first won in large numbers. Without Jesus Christianity would never have been and from him came the distinctive qualities which won it the victory.

We must not end this chapter without calling attention to what should be obvious, that in this victory of Christianity was also something of defeat. The victory had been accompanied by compromise, compromise with the world which had crucified Jesus, compromise often made so half-consciously or unconsciously that it was all the more serious a peril to the Gospel. In later chapters we must return to this more in detail and also to the attempts of Christians to meet the peril.

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Responses

  • inigo
    Why the phenomenal spread of christianity?
    3 years ago
  • JARI
    How did christianity spread from jesus christ, catholic?
    3 months ago

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