The Gospel versus Pagan Greek Religion

“What we do see is Jesus, who for a short while was made subordinate to the angels, crowned now with glory and honour because he had suffered death, so that, by God’s gracious will, he should experience death for all mankind….so that by dying he might break the power of him who had death at his command [Satan], and might liberate those who had been in servitude through fear of death” (Heb 2:9, 14-15 REB).

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 the 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: “….the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath” (Acts 13:42 NRSV).  And in Thessalonica: “Some of them were convinced and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great number of godfearing Gentiles and a good many influential women” (Acts 17:4 REB).  And again, in Berea: “Many of them therefore became believers, and so did a fair number of Gentiles, women of standing as well as men” (Acts 17:12 REB). 

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 KJV).  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 KJV).

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 or force them into sexual relations; far different this God, this Jesus, than the capricious, cruel, gods of their old religion.

 “I hear a loud voice proclaiming from the throne: ‘Now God has his dwelling with mankind!  He will dwell among them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  There shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!” (Rev 21:3-5 REB).