How did the tiny and little-known Jesus movement overcome hostilities and persecution within four centuries to become the official religion of the Roman Empire?
Christians, of course, believe that God sovereignly arranged the circumstances of history to allow the gospel to go forth with power and great success. Yet God's providential workings behind the scenes of history do not rule out God's use of social, cultural, and religious factors to fulfill his ultimate ends.
In parts one and two of this series, we briefly examined social and cultural aspects that contributed to Christianity's amazing growth and influence. In this third part, we'll wrap up our list of 10 reasons by reviewing some religious and theological features that helped ignite early Christianity.
6. Courageous Martyrs
While there is debate within scholarly circles regarding just how much persecution Christians received within the Roman Empire, it is widely accepted that the courageous deaths of some of the early Christian martyrs had a positive impact in attracting people to the faith. Knowing that one's death is forthcoming is enough to bring virtually any person to their knees. Yet the apostles' belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus gave them amazing courage in the face of death (see Stephen's story in Acts 7:54–60). If the apostles had reason to doubt the reality of Jesus's resurrection, surely these martyrs wouldn't have risked their lives in this way.
7. Growing Interest in Monotheism
Polytheism abounded in the ancient Greco-Roman world, as is evidenced by ancient Rome's most prominent building, the Pantheon (dedicated to "all gods"). But a growing interest in monotheism coincided with the emergence of Christianity. Monotheism was viewed as religiously different and apparently trendy. The belief in one all-powerful God carried with it both coherence and continuity in contrast to polytheism. Christianity's affirmation of the Triune God reflected a unique kind of monotheism (a unity of nature and diversity of personhood). And there is a case to be made among religious scholars today that monotheism reflects the original form of religion among humankind.1
8. Christianity's Gracious Plan of Salvation
The gospel proclamation that the Savior Jesus Christ had made atonement for sin via Roman crucifixion was extremely appealing to many in the ancient world. The view that salvation is the gift of a loving God who forgives all sins, regardless of race or social status, was very different from what the other religions and philosophies of the time offered. Since many of the initial followers of Christ were slaves in the Roman Empire, these people readily embraced the incredible message that God uniquely cares for the world's poor and disadvantaged people. The Christian teaching that God is love (1 John 4:8) was a magnet to people who had been taught to fear and appease the various gods of the Greco-Roman world.
9. A Universal Faith
The earliest Jewish Christians viewed Jesus Christ as the Jewish Messiah (God's unique "anointed one" or servant) whose coming was foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures (Psalm 22, Isaiah 53). Yet while the Jesus movement was birthed from Old Testament Judaism, the Christian faith did not adopt all of the distinctive cultural practices of Judaism (for example, circumcision, dietary laws, etc.). Thus, a very attractive element of the Christian faith for Gentiles was that it was viewed as a universal religion that was open to all people from all cultural backgrounds. Historic Christianity affirmed that Jews and Gentiles were one through their common faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28). Christianity would go on to become a religion that is affirmed by people throughout the world.
10. The Unique Work of the Apostle Paul
Whether one views the ministry of the Apostle Paul as supernaturally inspired or not, his work in spreading the gospel message of primitive Christianity is truly extraordinary. Paul's three missionary journeys, as described in the book of Acts, served to permanently establish the newfound faith in Asia Minor (the geographic region in the southwestern part of Asia encompassing most of what is presently the nation of Turkey). Paul remains to this day Christianity's greatest missionary as well as the faith's greatest theologian and apologist. The apostle wrote 13 of the New Testament books that help explain how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectations concerning the Messiah. It can be reasonably argued that the Apostle Paul did more to spread Christianity than any other individual in Christian history.
So in light of these 10 reasons, while Christians affirm God's unique providential involvement in the faith's establishment and early success, it is clear that social, cultural, and religious factors also contributed to the rapid spread of Christianity.
See other installments in this series here: part 1, part 2.
For more information on the spread of Christianity, please see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World. I also recommend How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt, The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark, Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities by Lawrence Cunningham and John Reich, and What's So Great about Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza.