We’ve been watching a BBC documentary about how Rome became a Holy City. It’s quite a surprising story.
It did not begin with Christianity, but with the Roman monarchy seven and a half centuries before Christ. From the very beginning, Romans, like people world-wide, built temples to their gods who in turn looked after them. As the Roman Empire expanded, the rulers had no problem with adding new gods to the pantheon as long as people were also willing to pay due worship to the Roman gods who were responsible for bestowing such success on Rome and the lands it ruled.
This system of broad tolerance worked well for more than 800 years. But the Christians broke the rules. They wouldn’t offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. At first, this was not much more than an inconvenience to the Roman authorities. Christianity was a lower-class minority religion of little influence. Christians were martyred, but not with any particular focus, and it was not thought that the Roman gods would take offense and withdraw their favour bestowed on Rome for so long.
But gradually, the number of Christians began to increase in worrying numbers, and the authorities began to hunt and kill them in significant numbers. But still the number of Christian converts kept increasing, and began to exercise worrying influence.
One of the chief reasons seems to be that the Christian God was making a better offer than the Roman gods. The Roman Empire was experiencing increasing difficulties from attacking barbarians like the Goths, Burgundians, Franks, and Vandals. The Roman gods seemed to be withdrawing their favour. The Christian God, on the other hand, was offering eternal life. No other God offered this. Health and wealth in this life was no match for an unassailable promise of eternal happiness. As Rome’s troubles increased, so did the converts to Christianity.
In the 4th century, Constantine switched gods. Christian priests and bishops were given civil authority, they were moved into palaces befitting their new social status, and the promise of heaven and hell became part of the law-enforcement strategies of government. Gradually the temples to the old gods of Rome were replaced with Christian churches, and a huge basilica was built to mark the place where St. Peter was martyred. Eventually, the old gods faded from memory altogether.
Nobody shopped around any more for the god making the best offer. There was only the one true God of Christianity.
The belief that a powerful God will look after his followers, however, has never disappeared. Belief in the Christian God survived centuries of personal disease and death. But when the Black Death swept repeatedly through Europe slaying the virtuous and sinners alike, faith in the Christian God was challenged. Eventually, the monolithic authority of Rome was broken.
But not the belief that God looks after his own. Protestants taught that salvation is a gift from God, not something we earn, but something we are given. However, it was possible to tell if one was predestined for salvation, because those predestined to go to heaven were already being taken care of by God. The Chosen had greater wealth, greater status, better health. We could tell who the Great and the Good were.
This sense that God either does – or at least should! – take care of his followers has not died out today. Many people believe that the Apocalypse will descend upon us and sweep away unbelievers. Believers, however, will be saved.
Similarly, for many people, personal tragedy is still a threat to faith. A friend here in England explained his loss of faith to me once. Jesus was supposed to have died for our sins. We are supposed to have been forgiven. But the punishment goes on unabated. His doctor, he said, was a better option than God.
I was taught from an early age that suffering was part of God’s inscrutable plan. “I never promised you a rose garden” was part of the Christian message from the start.
That belief sustained me through some hard times when I was young. But I was mystified by it by the time I was six years old, and I never understood it. I guess a lot of people don’t either.