As we covered in The Pagan Epoch, when Christ came and his followers took the message to the world, they were taking it to the pagan world, not to peoples who rejected supernatural reality. Some accepted the message, and others rejected it, but those who rejected it did not do so because they disbelieved supernatural agency. As pagans, they already assumed supernatural agency.
The beginning of the Christian epoch of course traces to Christ’s public ministry in the late 20’s A.D., when He proclaimed His deity in a progressively more explicit manner. He was killed because of this claim, but rose from the dead.
Pagan Reception of Christianity
The spread of the message of Christianity was a word-of-mouth endeavor, taken quite intentionally to the Jews, and then to the gentiles. The Jews heard the message through very different ears than the gentiles. They either rejected it as blasphemous, or understood it as the culmination of their history thus far, and accepted it on that basis.
The gentiles heard it as a strange claim that there was but one God, the personal God of the Hebrews, and that He alone should be worshipped. Further, He was a different Being altogether than the demiurge of pagan imagining. Instead He was the very author of all Being, and fully righteous. In fact, His righteousness created such a gap between Himself and man that it was unbridgeable, without a means of redemption offered by God Himself.
This was a sharply different way of thinking about supernatural reality. Rather than lesser deities engaged in human-like behavior, demanding rote following of rites to assure peace with immortals, the former pagans declared fealty to the very creator of all; the uncaused-cause and ultimate reality that their philosophers and their own instincts recognized.
Moreover, this was a personal God, whose eye was on the sparrow, and who knew every hair on their heads. The testimony of those who had seen Jesus following the resurrection was believed, and that meant that converts to the faith of Christianity responded to a deeply-felt recognition of the sacrifice that was made for their redemption. The deep desire of God Himself for communion with man was manifested in this act, and the resurrection was irrefutable proof of a reality beyond the here-and-now, and disproof of the imagined gods who no longer held sway over them. Christianity was truly revolutionary, in a way that we can scarce imagine today.
Christian symbolism of the time indicated the radical nature of this shift. Following the practice of Jews, and in contrast to the practices of pagans, Christians oriented their churches so that they could face east in worship. This was in defiance of the pagan gods for whom temples were oriented to other directions. Catechumens to the early church were directed first to face west, the direction of death and darkness, to bitterly renounce the false pagan gods, and then turn east, the direction of morning and light and Christ’s return, to embrace Him. The word “east” is derived linguistically from “dawn,” or even “resurrection,” and of course refers to a point of the compass. This practice of eastward orientation to show renunciation of pagan gods and to embrace the one true God is reflected in the word attached to Christians’ celebration of the Passover of the Lord’s resurrection: “Easter.”
This is not to say that Christianity caught on instantly among former pagans, however. In fact there was a gradual expansion until such time as it achieved toleration among the wider world, finally becoming accepted generally in lands of the Mediterranean and southern Europe in the early fourth century.
After that the church grew, but with much painful working out of a systematic theology. Christ’s teaching had been by exposition, and example, and miracle-working. It was left to the church, and especially the later-appointed apostle Paul, to continue to think through the theological principles–as well as limited man might—to a systematic theology.
In later years competing ideas were weighed and heresy was identified. The early church became centralized, and through schisms on theological points, became the Eastern Church and the Roman Church claiming authority over eastern and western Europe, respectively, with certain other early-founded churches never reconciled to either.
Purposefulness of History
We often tend to think that Christ came and died and – according to those who believe – was resurrected, and after that there was just a lot of religious turmoil from that day to this. That is not true. If one understanding of Christian belief is true, and others are not, then it was valid to engage in debate concerning it, over time. The same is true now, when atheists contend that their faith is true, and Christians’ is false. What are now cited as abuses by the church, such as what are described as “religious wars” and religious coercion and religious fear of scientific advances, are overstated by polemicists for reasons of ideological persuasion, rather than historical accuracy. The spread of Christianity was not the spread of morally perfect people. It was the spread of understanding of how one is reconciled to God, despite imperfection.
History is meaningful, and it is purposeful. Physicists sometimes puzzle over why time has one direction; why it seems natural to us that it always flows seemingly linearly, without turns or reverses; why we find it hard to imagine God’s perspective, living outside the constraint of time. Time does have an arrow, and it has meaning, too.
One can consider two widely differing philosophical outlooks concerning history. On the one hand are those who hold that history is meaningful, like followers of the monotheistic religions, and certain of the pantheist religions, too. Also included in this group are certain materialists, such as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, who, seizing upon the premise of historical significance found in the philosophy of, for example, Friedrich Hegel, believed that there was a significance to man’s development historically, though they disavowed the existence of any super-nature.
On the other hand are the current materialists who have risen up to claim that the Enlightenment Project of extinguishing superstition should be completed, by extinguishing religion, or excluding stubborn religious believers from the family of rational, civilized mankind. Their view of history, however, requires that it be utterly meaningless, because their materialism holds that all of the developments of history, including evolution of man, are only the result of the sum of all the previous movements of matter and energy, from the beginning of the universe. Countless molecules excited by energy move and exert countless influences on countless other material particles in countless venues, from the drift of plankton in a shallow sea, to the electric pulses of thought recording memory in even the dullest human mind. None of it matters, however. It just is.
History Since the Bible
For Christians, history matters, and we read it dramatically unfolding to reveal the Creator of the universe to us, in the Bible. But then the Bible ends with some teaching to the early church, and some apocalyptic vision that is difficult to understand, until history will unfold further to make its meaning more apparent. The result is that at this date we tend to think that we live at a moment following two thousand years of silence. But that is not true either.
Some study and understanding is appropriate, of what has unfolded since the time the Christ walked among us as a man. The searching after a systematic theology that makes for a comprehensible whole is invaluable, and it has taken a long time. It has also taken place within a context of flawed mankind working through a mix of motivations, ambitions, and appetites. The working out of our relationship to God is especially important now, when His very existence is being repudiated in favor of a philosophy of materialism that is not developed, and is indeed incoherent, yet deludes many.
The development of understanding of God’s character and how He interacts with us and with physical reality is difficult, and it has caused schisms, most notably in the Reformation. But these are important developments, too. There is a direction to these historical developments. In fact, it is ever more important that we understand God’s movements in history, as time marches on. Every day that passes is a day closer to the day of the Lord.
The process of seeking God in history has slowed, however, among large swaths of people-groups that formerly were devotedly seeking Him. Human progress in arts and science and political theory, combined with skepticism concerning anything which does not present to our sense impressions, has shifted our attention from the Creator, to that which is created, especially man himself. Among many who do not disavow God altogether, the historicity of the Christian story, and especially the resurrection, are deemed non-essential, or true only metaphorically. In general, the Christian claims to truth about God’s character and man’s are obscured. There is an erosion in understanding of what “faith” actually is, and of the essential truth claims of Christianity, and of the ways in which they diverge from the increasingly prevalent humanist orthodoxy. This has been an accelerating process over the last 300 or so years.
We mark the Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries as the beginning of a transition from the Christian epoch. The predominant Christian worldview began giving way to a belief that man’s reason alone was the source of understanding. The idea was that one is “enlightened” because he is coming out of the darkness of religious superstition and obscurantism. Over time, Europe heard “the long withdrawing roar” of faith, as in Matthew Arnold’s poem. By the late 19th century various “freethinker” movements had gained in popularity, even in the United States, which still had resurgences of Christian belief and piety, from time to time.
All of that is changing fast. In the 20th century we saw bridle-high carnage more ferocious and more bloody than all the conflicts of prior history combined. Global wars were started and prosecuted on the basis of materialist philosophy. God’s direction concerning morality has ceased to be a primary reference point for right and wrong, or else the holy text containing that direction is misinterpreted to make it align with the drifting moral consensus of societies. Our grasp of that most precious of ideals, love, is slipping.
Christianity has not died out, but it leaves only a remnant in Europe, and Slavic lands, and in the Levant, and in countries of eastern and northern Africa, where it was formerly stronger. In America the traditions of Christianity are relatively strong, but among the larger, more mainstream churches, the faith is a hollowed-out version of genuine Christian belief. A more substantial remnant exists in America than in Europe, but it is still only a remnant. What is happening now is a surge in Christianity among people groups in less developed and less prosperous parts of the world. In those places, the cheerful nihilism of prosperous American and European atheists has not yet taken hold.
There is not a precise moment at which we can say that the Christian epoch ended, and the materialist epoch began. Granted, too, that the materialist epoch is still nascent, and there is substantial overlap, just as there was in the transition from the pagan to the Christian world. We are still in transition from the Christian epoch, much as societies of the first three centuries or so after Christ were in transition from the Pagan epoch.
But if we are to try to pin the rise of the materialist worldview in history, it could reasonably be traced to skeptic “Enlightenment” philosophers like David Hume (1711-1776), among whom, in more significant numbers than previously, there was open questioning of the existence of any reality beyond nature. They stood defiant of Christian passion, beginning the process of deception into a man-centered and irrational worldview that is incoherent, but which nonetheless stumbles forward unerringly on the basis of this one critical feature: that God must be rejected.
One more thing to be said about the end of the Christian epoch, and beginning of the materialist one. We are describing dominant worldviews; not the demise of Christianity. God is in control of history. We have read to the end of the book. God wins.