By Ben Irwin
Within a few generations it became one of fastest growing religions on the planet, spreading to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire–Northern Africa, Israel, Turkey, Germany, England. Its followers worshiped a god who came to earth in human form. According to some legends, he was born of a virgin…in a cave.
He shared a last meal of bread and wine with his followers, before ascending to his father in heaven. He promised eternal life to those who were baptized into his movement. His followers met on Sundays and celebrated his birthday every Dec. 25.
The name of this god was Mithra. His legend predates the birth of Jesus by about 60 years.
Then there was Asclepius, god of medicine and healing. You’ve probably seen his symbol before: a snake wrapped around a pole. Originally, doctors swore by Asclepius when they took the Hippocratic Oath.
Asclepius was known for healing the sick and restoring sight to the blind. He even raised the dead–which made Zeus, king of the gods, so angry that he killed Asclepius, then brought him back to life.
People started worshiping Asclepius some 300 years before Jesus came.
And there’s Dionysus, the god of wine–also born of a virgin. Every year, thousands converged on the city of Pergamum to celebrate the festival of Dionysus, where they reenacted his most famous miracle: turning water into wine.
Now, imagine that you’re one of the first Christians. You travel from city to city, all over the Roman Empire. You tell everyone you meet about this Jesus, born of a virgin, who turned the water into wine. Healed the sick. Gave sight to the blind. Raised the dead. He was killed, buried and rose from the dead.
It wasn’t that people had trouble believing Jesus could do all this stuff. They already had a pantheon full of gods who did the same miracles–and long before Jesus did any of them. That was the problem.
Yet in just a few generations’ time, Jesus’ followers had turned the world upside down.
A couple years ago, I traveled to Turkey and visited ancient shrines to Mithra, Asclepius and Dionysus. Learning their stories triggered a minor crisis of faith. If the stories of Jesus–His birth, His miracles, even His resurrection–are anything but unique, then what do I have left? What is it about my faith that’s so compelling, if not the story?
So I began exploring how the first Christians presented the Gospel–often in the very cities where gods like Mithra, Asclepius and Dionysus were revered. I discovered three things about their message that mattered more than even the stories they told:
1. The idea that God is for us.
“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31, TNIV).
In the Roman world, you just couldn’t count on the gods being for you. They were unpredictable, unreliable.
A God who died and rose again was not unique. But a God who died and rose again because He is for us? Because He loves us? That was almost unheard of.
2. This was such good news, the first Christians just couldn’t keep it to themselves.
Many religions in Jesus’ day were so clandestine, they were known as “mystery cults.” They claimed to possess secret knowledge or divine wisdom–known as the musterion–available only to an elite group of initiates.
Paul uses the same language to describe the Jesus movement. He calls it “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations” (Colossians 1:26, TNIV). But there was one crucial difference: “This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:24, TNIV).
This musterion was for everybody.
3. A gospel that’s truly for everyone will overturn social hierarchies wherever it finds them.
When Paul said everyone, he meant everyone. Many religions had restricted membership. Mithraism, which was popular among Roman soldiers, was for men only. The priests of Asclepius would heal just about anyone (provided they were willing to pay for it), except for pregnant women, that is. (Lots of women died giving birth, so they were considered a liability–one that could tarnish Asclepius’ healing record.) And in temples across the Empire, whenever worshipers gathered to feast (and to participate in, um, other activities), everyone ate according to their social class.
But Paul has the audacity to suggest that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith … there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28, TNIV).
In Christ, social distinctions became not just wrong, but pointless. Everyone had equal worth and dignity in the eyes of God. Is it any wonder Christianity turned the world upside down, while Mithra, Asclepius and Dionysus faded into obscurity?