The Gospel versus Pagan Greek Religion

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man…..Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Heb 2:9, 14-15).

The ancient Greeks’ understanding of the afterlife was grim and miserable.  There was no hope in Hades, the realm of the dead.  The Asphodel Meadows (or Fields of Asphodel) in the underworld was a place where the vast majority of the dead dwell forever and exist as “shades” – incorporeal, miserable, mournful, lost souls; without purpose, rational thought, or emotion.  It was guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus to prevent them from escaping.  So the ancients had no hope for a happy future life.  The dead, both great and insignificant, were confined within the Fields of Asphodel when they died, and all floated around, forever in misery.  Even the formidable Achilles in Greek mythology, one of the mightiest heroes of them all, languished there, according to Homer.

In the forecourt of the palace of the god, Hades, the three judges of the Underworld sat to judge every soul that died and to determine their eternal fate.  If these souls were neither virtuous nor evil, they were returned to the Fields of Asphodel; if evil or impious were sent to Tartarus; or sent to Elysium with the “blameless heroes”.

Elysium, (also known as the Elysian Fields, and the Blessed Isles), was Greek mythology’s equivalent of the biblical heaven; it seems to have been a fairly exclusive club at the beginning and not many mortals managed to get there.  To be sent to Elysium after death, one had to be either related to the gods, or be a great hero.  The majority of Greeks were just like us – neither particularly good nor particularly evil, humanly speaking (this is not the biblical judgment of humanity, of course) – and were thus sent forever to languish in the Fields of Asphodel.

By the first century CE, perhaps in desperation, Greek/Roman religion was beginning to discover new ways of dealing with death and the afterlife, and these new religions and philosophies were becoming hugely popular in the Roman Empire.  The Mystery Religions from the east were attracting many, especially women; and that of Mithras was especially popular with the soldiers.  Philosophies such as those of the Stoics and Epicureans were also popular among certain classes (e.g. Acts 17:16-34) as people were looking for hope and an escape from the dread eternity that lay before them in the bleak region of Hades. 

It’s no wonder that Greek and Roman soldiers were so willing to go to war (although there were obviously other reasons as well); if they distinguished themselves in battle, they at least had a chance to escape the misery of Hades. 

But women had no chance at all, unless they were related to a god; or later, involved with the mystery religions.  So when the apostle Paul preached in the Greek cities all around the Mediterranean, we ought not to be surprised when the gospel met with such success, despite the opposition of the Jews.  When Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Antioch, for example, we’re told: And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath” (Acts 13:42).  And in Thessalonica: And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few (Acts 17:4).  And again, in Berea: “Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few” (Acts 17:12). 

The gospel that Paul preached gave people grounds for hope because it told of resurrection and eternal life and joy with God himself.  It told of a God who had become a true man in order to die for sinners so that they could be reconciled to him and walk with him forever.  What a message of hope for those poor benighted Greeks and Romans, men AND women, who lived in the shadow of the pagan realm of Hades!

This God, Jesus Christ, said to his apostle, John: “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell [hades] and of death” (Rev 1:18).  And this message was spreading all around the Roman world.  And Paul wrote that wonderful passage in 1 Corinthians 15 of resurrection and a blessed afterlife, proving by eye-witnesses that Jesus had himself been raised and become the first fruits of the dead who are to be raised (1 Cor 15:20).

No wonder so many Greeks were drawn to the gospel!  They now saw a different afterlife; they saw into an eternity that was so far removed from the dread-filled view of their own religion that they could see into infinity, and themselves being in the presence of the God who had delivered them from their fear of death; indeed, from death itself; and who destroyed “him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).

They saw a God who had become a man and who came to rescue them.  They were used to the idea of gods and goddesses becoming human, usually in order to consort with humans and seduce, deceive, or force them into sexual relations; far different this God, this Jesus, than the capricious, cruel, gods of their old religion.

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.  And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful (Rev 21:3-5).