Part One: The World Prepared
Moral Degeneracy in the Empire Not all the world had been prepared in a positive manner. There was also the NEGATIVE SIDE. Christ had told His disciples there would be trouble in the world1 and PERSECUTIONS.2 In this way, as well as the other, conditions had been set in motion which would result in the martyrdom of hundreds and would force converted Christians to be strong in the new way of life brought to them.
The Decline of Roman Morality Riding the crest of the wave, the peoples of Rome soon grew bored with nothing to do. The world was conquered. It was time to ENJOY LIFE.
The upper classes soon began to satiate themselves with the fine things of life — banquetings, travels, slaves to serve them in their villas.
Ironically, as Rome reached the top, simultaneously she began to develop the very characteristics which would later lead to her FALL.
From the conquered nations Romans began to select slaves by the millions. "It is reckoned that in the empire there cannot have been fewer than 60,000,000 slaves."3 These slaves were so numerous, recorded Tacitus, that they had to be numbered and divided according to their nationalities.4
With slavery came an almost total disregard for human life — an influence which was to contribute greatly to the COLLAPSE and FALL of the great empire.
Rome did not finally fall until 476 A.D., but this moral degeneracy set in early.
Even in the days of Pompey Romans had adopted the disgusting practice of preparing for a dinner by taking an emetic. Vitellius set on the table at one banquet 2,000 fishes and 7,000 birds, and in less than eight months spent in feasts a sum that would amount to several millions.5 It soon became the accepted "thing to do" to see who could put on the most lavish spectacle — who could eat the most — who could drink the most.
The Roman writers, Tactius, Seneca, Juvenal, Livy, and others all record a witness against the baseness of the higher classes and the decadence of the times.
Fortunes were squandered on a single banquet. Wine was served only in goblets of gold bedecked with jewels, each worth hundreds of dollars. They feasted on the "delicacies" of the day — brains of peacocks and tongues of nightingales.6
Thus two extremes of life existed in the empire — the abject slaves, regarded as little more than brute beasts, and the cream of Roman society. What middle class there might have been had little, if any, influence on affairs of state and conditions of the world.
As Christianity spread throughout the empire, it affected both extremes of life. Of course, the lower classes accepted the new religion far more readily. It gave them the ANSWERS to the WHYS and WHEREFORES of life and hope in more than a mere temporal existence on earth.
But there were some few members of the higher classes who were called of God who became Christians, even some who later entered the ministry. The apostle Paul records that some from the household of Caesar were members of the true Church of God,7 while Luke records in the book of Acts that King Herod's own foster brother was in the ministry.8 However, the Roman historian, Seutonius, records:
The Christians had filled no large space in the eye of the world. Until the days of Domitian we do not hear of a single noble or distinguished person who had joined their ranks.9 The slaves who did not believe had no power or authority to fight Christianity. The nobles paid no attention, since no one of importance, to speak of, joined the new sect. Once again, we see just how well prepared the empire was.
Family Life Accompanying the wild craze to satiate lusts and desires was a tremendous DECLINE IN FAMILY LIFE.
At one time in the ancient Roman world, THE FAMILY was a very sacred institution. The basis for every society is the home — and the collapse of home life inevitably leads to the collapse of the entire society. Such was the case in Rome.
For scores of years divorce was unknown among the Romans. However, the decay set in even before Rome became a great empire. Some two hundred years before Christ the pattern began.
Dionicius even records and names the first known public divorce because it was such a new and different thing. The man's name was Stp. Carvillus Ruga — the divorce occurred in the year 234 B.C.10
By the Christian era MARRIAGE had come to be regarded with disfavor and distain and the Roman writer, Seneca, states:
Women married in order to be divorced, and were divorced in order to marry; and noble Roman matrons counted the years not by the Consuls, but by their discarded or discarding husbands.11 Certainly this attitude was also one of the PAVING STONES for Christianity. Thousands wanted to get off the "marriage-go-round" and Christianity with the teachings of a strong and STABLE FAMILY LIFE had great appeal to those who sought the answers.
Understanding this background makes clear the many verses in the New Testament on family life. Such chapters as Romans 1, I Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5, I Timothy 5, Titus 2, I Peter 3, and many others show the complete moral degeneracy of the times and THE SOLUTION of family problems through Jesus Christ.
The End Result Unless immediately curtailed, degeneracy breeds only more degeneracy. It didn't take long for Roman society to plunge to the VERY BOTTOM of debauchery and filth. The apostle Paul describes the base depravity and turpitude of Rome:
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were they thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves; Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:12 What an indictment against a nation!
Rome was an empire gone INSANE on the pleasures of carnal lust, vanity, and greed. Yet, to this people the ministers of Jesus Christ carried His message.
And, although we have seen the way was fully prepared, the degeneracy of Rome was to later take its toll on the followers of Christ.
The Roman Games Unable to fulfill their inordinate desires in a normal manner, Rome began to use THE GAMES as a means of ESCAPE.
The games started out innocently enough — acrobatic acts, wild animal performances, wrestling and tournaments of athletic skill.
In time, however, they degenerated into a bloodbath of HUMAN CARNAGE nearly unparalleled in human history.
At first, when the sponsors of the games began to introduce the more gory events, the people winced; but, after the first sights of blood, it became the expected — the demanded MAIN EVENT.
Huge stadiums and arenas were constructed. The Colosseum at Rome still stands today, a half shell to remind visitors of the age that was Rome at her greatest. Erected late in the first century A.D. the Colosseum could seat over 50,000, perhaps even 75,000 properly arranged. It was the site for spectacles the average person today could not bear to watch.
Not far from the Colosseum stood the famed CIRCUS MAXIMUS, the remains of which are also still standing. The circus could seat up to 375,000 cheering, crazed spectators as they watched charioteers and gladiators DIE by the scores and hundreds.
The chariot race in the Hollywood spectacular movie, Ben Hur, can only begin to show what it must have been like.
At the Colosseum or at any number of other arenas throughout the empire, men were armed and forced to fight each other to the death. Other men, prisoners or slaves, were made to fight lions, leopards, elephants, and myriads of other half-starved and crazed animals.
Games were sponsored by politicians to gain votes. Emperors arranged extravaganzas to impress visiting dignitaries. The more time went on, the more degenerate were the games.
It was not long until they stretched out into affairs lasting several days where thousands of men and animals were displayed. The whole society began to fall apart.
And while the shamelessness of the theatre corrupted the purity of all classes from the earliest age, the hearts of the multitude were made hard as the nether millstone with brutal insensibility, by the fury of the circus, the atrocities of the amphitheatre, and the cruel orgies of the games. Augustus, in the document annexed to his will, mentioned that he had exhibited 8,000 gladiators and 3,510 wild beasts.13 And that was only the beginning. By the time of Nero, the games were the MAIN FEATURE of life. Entire fortunes were made or lost in a single day at the games as a result of gambling. The populace was obsessed.
This part of life was also to have great bearing on the Church. Christians were sometimes arrested due to local persecutions, and later they were blamed for the great fire of Rome. The games served as a place where scores, perhaps hundreds, suffered martyrdom.
When writing to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul tells of a time when he had apparently been thrown into a fight at the games, "For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that WE DESPAIRED OF LIFE: But we had the sentence of death in ourselves..."14 In all likelihood Paul thought he and the others accompanying him were as good as dead.
He had written earlier, "If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus..."15 And then wrote to Timothy, "Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me: that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I WAS DELIVERED OUT OF THE MOUTH OF THE LION."16
At least once, perhaps more than once, Paul almost despaired of life, even having to FIGHT BEASTS and lions in the arena.
It was not often that the sadistic crowds allowed a man to leave the games with his life. Even those who fought valiantly were held for another day — the best only lasted a few years.
But by some miracle of God, which Paul does not elaborate on, he was allowed to go free after a narrow escape from death.
The games grew WORSE and WORSE:
Yet in the days of Claudius the number of those thus butchered was so great that the statue of Augustus had to be moved that it might not constantly be covered with a veil (Dion Cass. lx. 13, who in the same chapter mentions a lion that had been trained to devour men). In Claudius' sham sea-fight we are told that the incredible number of 19,000 men fought each other (Tac. Ann. xii. 56). Titus, the "darling of the human race," in one day brought into the theatre 5,000 wild beasts (Suet. Tit. 7), and butchered thousands of Jews in the games at Berytus. In Trajan's games (Dion Cass. lxviii. 15) 11,000 animals and 10,000 men had to fight.17 The moral depravity of this age is nearly BEYOND COMPREHENSION. This was a time when the human mind sank to the very depths of degradation.
Yet, in the plan and purpose of God, the persecution which came upon Christianity did not arise until, as has been stated before, Christ's message had nearly saturated the empire.
And when persecution did set in, although many Christians suffered at the hands of the Romans, the Church continued to grow, and the influence of Christianity continued to spread.
Religion in the Empire As far as the Gentile world was concerned, the final preparation was the presence of innumerable religions which existed in the Roman empire.
Pagan gods by the score were worshipped in as many different forms as there were gods. Any really thinking person could realize they could not all be right.
The apostle Paul capitalized on this aspect of Roman life especially. When first entering the city of Athens in Greece, nearly overwhelmed by its temples, statutes, fountains, and monuments, he was moved to preach on Mar's Hill, "Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, HIM DECLARE I UNTO YOU."18 Paul went on to preach the truth about the ONE, TRUE LIVING GOD in heaven they had never heard about.
As this seventeenth chapter of Acts shows, the empire was ready for Christianity. Hundreds of pagan religions and philosophies had not given the answer to the problems of mankind. But Christ brought the answer — and the apostles carried it to the world.
The people had been prepared in religion:
In the last century and a half of the Republic, a time of political struggle and disaster, of growing skepticism toward the traditional forms of religion, of rapidly increasing wealth and complexity of life, many Romans found refuge in the quietistic teachings of the Epicureans. Some turned to skepticism or to mysticism, though other philosophies had also their adherents. The significant point is that all intellectual Romans had adopted some form of Greek philosophic thought as well as Greek habits of expression.19 Paul encountered these philosophers at Athens as well, "Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? Other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection."20
Further, concerning the people and the times, "For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing."21
The infinite number of religions and philosophies made the appearance of Christianity somewhat a point of curiosity and something to be discussed further rather than something to be cast aside, which would have been the case if only one religion would have prevailed in the empire.
While the religions often capitalized on the base things in life and ran the gamut of degeneracies, nevertheless, they were also a part of the universal preparation that assisted Christianity in its expansion around the world.
Chapter III - Footnotes 1. John 16:33
2. John 15:20
3. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, p. 2, (Le Maistre, Du Pape, i. 283).
4. Tacitus, Annals, iii. 53.
5. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, p. 3.
6. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, p. 3.
7. Philippians 4:21.
8. Acts 13:1.
9. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, p. 33,(Seutonius, Dom. 15).
10. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, p. 5,(Dionisius ii. 25).
11. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, p. 5,(Seneca, De Benef. iii. 6).
12. Romans 1:21-31.
13. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, p. 6.
14. II Corinthians 1:8-9.
15. I Corinthians 15:32.
16. II Timothy 4:17
17. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, p. 6, footnote.
18. Acts 17:22-23.
19. Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 225.
20. Acts 17:17-18.
21. Acts 17:21.