Two other early rivals to Christianity should be considered, the first because of its attractiveness, the second because of its persecuting power. Both are equally operative in the Asian world of today. The first, more a movement and a climate of thought than a coherent religious system, is represented by Gnosticism and the mystery religions. It is also represented by the substratum of magic that underlay all first-century religions, as Taoism underlies modern Chinese popular religion or the bomah (witch doctor) underlies the popular Islam of Malaysia.

If we start at the lowest level of magic, the classical biblical example is at Ephesus, where the triumph of the Gospel meant the burning of many of the famous “Ephesian letters,” the magic spells for which the city was famous. Simon of Samaria and Elymas of Cyprus apparently used this sort of magic in connection with more developed religious systems. In one respect at least, magic corresponded very closely to science in modern times. It was an attempt by man to manipulate and control his natural environment for his own benefit. Of course, we know that it was a false and pseudo-science; but those who used it believed in it implicitly, and it did seem to produce some results, no doubt by demonic power. The fortune-teller of Philippi bore true witness to the mission of Paul and Silas, just as the demon-possessed man in the Gospels bore unwilling but true testimony to the nature of Christ. Christian workers today are sometimes puzzled by the heathen fortune-teller who can actually foretell the future; this problem too was known to the primitive Church.

The belief in magic led to that bondage of fear of the spirit-world that is still prevalent in many lands. To such people, the good news of the resurrection victory of Christ, with its triumph over all the powers of darkness, came as a liberating message. But it is important to understand that magic, as well as being terrifying, was as fascinating as science is today. It professed, at least, to give knowledge of the future, and even to be able to mold that future; it seemed practical, modern, this-worldly. Those of us who strive to present the Gospel to the scientifically minded youth of the great Asian cities today find ourselves faced by similar problems. Christianity does not seem as relevant to them as the atomic reactor. On the other hand, those who work in the villages still face magic, in the old sense, as a rival to Christianity.

The mystery religions as such are not mentioned in the New Testament. It is almost certain, however, that when Paul uses the term “mystery” in his epistles, he is deliberately using the language of one of Christianity’s rivals, and giving it a Christian meaning. Of course, “mystery” to Paul meant the revelation of a previously hidden secret of God, something very different from the meaning of the word in either the Eleusinian Mysteries or any other of the well-known examples. All these mystery religions alike catered to the religious cravings of the common man, unsatisfied by the formalism of state religion and the emptiness of the old mythologies. Indeed, the wilder and more orgiastic of the mystery religions catered to men’s emotional as well as his religious needs, giving worshipers the sort of emotional release that fans nowadays get from an exciting ball game or a Beatles concert. But as far as we know, the mystery religions were not as a rule immoral: instead, they gave men hope of rebirth and salvation, with noble aspirations and ideals. In later days the simple soldier-faith of Mithras, with its clear distinction between right and wrong, was a rival to Christianity in winning the loyalty of the Roman legionnaires. What then was the danger to Christian faith posed by the mystery religions? Perhaps it was similar to the danger in modern non-Christian psychotherapy. Such religions gave men release from tension and psychological relief without touching the deeper problems of salvation and peace with God.

Article continues below

Gnosticism, at the other end of this spectrum, was something very different and far more dangerous. It was many-armed, like the octopus, and like it engulfed its foes. Hinduism and pantheism and theosophy are all Gnosticism in its modern forms. True, today Hinduism has a militant movement in India; but this is as inconsistent with historic Hindu philosophy as the militant Buddhism of Viet Nam is inconsistent with traditional Buddhism. Gnosticism, too, was rarely a persecuting force and claimed few martyrs. Instead it was parasitic on the Christian Church, and continually sucked weak Christians into its maw.

Of all the rivals, Gnosticism was the most attractive; it flattered man’s intellect, and gave its followers the impression that they were superior insiders and that all the rest of mankind were outsiders. It was a philosophy, it was a church, it was mysticism; what more could men ask? It found a place for Zeus, Moses, and Christ, along with a thousand others, as different emanations of the divine. One Roman emperor had statues of all three in his private chapel. Broadmindedness and tolerance and enlightenment were its watchwords, and the proof of this claim was that it took two very different forms. The first was ascetic; this is still one great tradition of our Asian lands—the man who controls, despises, ignores, perhaps even burns, his body. This often kindles natural man’s admiration, or even his emulation; but to despise or ignore the body is not Christian doctrine, and led to the worst excesses of the monastic movement. This wing of Gnosticism was admired by many but followed by few; the other wing was the true danger. Gnosticism was fundamentally amoral; salvation was by intellect alone. Many Gnostics glorified sex in the name of religion, or at least allowed men to give free reign to all their passions, as Baal worship had done in the old days. Liberty became license. Among other sterner Gnostic groups, the body itself was considered an evil and a hindrance; that being so, it did not matter what man did to his body. This sometimes led to the condoning of immorality, as is done in certain theological and ethical circles today. No wonder, in view of the practices of some of these sects, that Christians were accused of every kind of vice, the more so since their doings had to remain secret because of persecution.

Article continues below

We who have seen the glorification of sex both in ancient Hinduism and in modern Hollywood can realize the magnetic power of such an approach to fallen man, especially to young people. True, unabashed sexual license had always been a part of the worship of Aphrodite at Corinth and other places; but normally, Graeco-Roman religion at its worst was only amoral, not immoral. Gnosticism on the other hand glorified and boasted of the very things of which paganism was ashamed. If the Jews saw the Christians as heretics, and the polytheists saw them as atheists (because of their rejection of images), then the Gnostics saw them as killjoys. Christianity was pictured as gloomy, frustrated, unnatural, evil—all the adjectives we hear applied to ourselves today by those who will not accept the biblical revelation of God’s will. How the Church met the Gnostic challenge, we have no time to see in detail; but principally the answer lay in clinging fast to God’s Word and refusing to lower the moral standards that God demands, no matter how attractive the alternatives seemed.

Of all the rivals, the one that claimed the lives of most martyrs was the state religion, and this still remains the greatest danger to many Christians in Asia today. The strange thing is that, while it least partook of the nature of a true religion, it was the most bitterly intolerant. Those who would not burn a pinch of incense to Rome and Caesar were led at once to death. Of course, the Roman emperor was not the first to institute this practice. The Hellenistic kings of the East had long used this method (for it was but a political ruse) to bind into one the heterogeneous peoples whom they ruled. It is doubtful whether, in later days, either ruler or ruled took emperor-worship seriously; the crowds in Acts were only flattering Herod (Luke makes clear the financial motivation again) when they said he was a god, though Herod was punished for accepting this title. Typical was the attitude of the dying Roman emperor who, when asked how he felt, said with dry humor, “I feel that I am becoming a god.” Yet from the time of the Maccabean martyrs to the early Christian Church, Jew and Christian alike steadfastly refused this token worship of the state, which to them was idolatry. This, to the imperial authority, was narrowmindedness, inexplicable stubbornness, lack of patriotism, and, worst of all, open defiance of government edict.

Article continues below

So men and women died for Christ’s sake, but, in the eyes of the government, they died because they were bad citizens; this was a stigma hard to bear. So today many suffer and die, not as Christians, but, in the eyes of their governments, for some other reason that actually stems directly from their Christian obedience. True, in quite early days a man could be put to death simply on the charge of being a Christian; but the acid test as to whether or not he was a Christian, in the eyes of the state, was whether he would sacrifice to Rome and Augustus. In the days of World War II, Japanese Christians faced similar problems in connection with emperor worship; and in other lands, bowing to pictures of rulers or founders of states has exercised the Christian conscience. In all totalitarian states, this clash is bound to occur in some form or another. It often crops up in far less extreme forms in our new states of Southeast Asia.

The tragedy is that the point of difference seemed so small; yet, to the Christian, everything was at stake. It would have been easier to bear if Christianity had been totally opposed to the state as an institution, as some peripheral groups have always held. But the Lord’s word was clear: Caesar’s things to Caesar, and God’s things to God. No man could have gone further than Paul or Peter in preaching civil obedience, and obedience to an autocratic government.

Article continues below

Yet the Book of Revelation shows the dilemma of a Christian, who is bound to cooperate with the state as far as he can in good conscience, but who knows that there will always be a limit to the cooperation when Caesar’s law and God’s law conflict. When does Caesar cease to be the one set in authority by God and become instead the Beast, drunk with the blood of the saints? There is no easy answer, and perhaps not all Christians will answer alike. This Christian intransigence puzzles any government still further: Why, having come so far, cannot Christians come all the way with them? Worse still, what of the Christians who give way under pressure and sacrifice to Caesar, and are then in an agony of remorse? This was a continual problem to the Church in the days of the persecutions that followed the New Testament (and, surprisingly enough, none dealt with it as wisely as Cyrian, a church father not usually found congenial by evangelicals). It is a problem we may have to face in parts of Asia in days to come.

In the West, the problem of the opposition of the state religion to Christianity was solved with the accession of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who turned the tables by making Christianity the state religion. But the Western churches are still suffering from the ill effects of Constantine’s move; and we in the East have never had our Constantine. State religion is a rival to Christianity that we must be prepared to meet increasingly in days ahead, whether our countries are totalitarian states, or guided democracies, or full democracies. The Christian must love his country, true, but he must love God more.

Having seen something of the nature and extent of the rivals to Christianity in the first century, we may take heart when we see that they were not only just as serious as the rivals of our day but also very similar. We may also take heart from the knowledge that Christianity finally triumphed. The Roman Empire is no more, but the Christian Church remains, planted today in every continent. What was the secret of its triumph, the triumph of the Cross? Were there any great principles we may follow today?

The first letter of John was written at a time when the storm of persecution on the one hand and heresy on the other was already breaking on the Church. The aged John says very simply, “Whatever is born of God conquers the world. Our faith, that is the conquest that conquers the world. Who is the world’s conqueror but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4, 5, Moffatt Translation). The quality of Christian faith is the key, for it is a faith in the One who said, “In the world you have trouble, but courage!—I have conquered the world” (John 16:33, Moffatt). In this way, and this way alone, the Christian has “survival value.” This is no automatic process; it is Christians who are conscious of the nature of their faith who will overcome (1 John 2:14, Moffatt: “You are strong, and the word of God remains within you, and you have conquered …”). Faith in the Christ who has already conquered on the Cross, and a readiness to proclaim that faith—these are the two essentials for dark days.

Article continues below

In the Book of Revelation, the experience of the infant Church is summed up as, “They have conquered … by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11, Moffatt). But there is a second part to this verse, one that shows the price: “They had to die for it, but they did not cling to life.” Totality of commitment to Christ is as essential as faith and readiness to witness; a lukewarm church has less to offer than any of the ancient or modern rivals of Christianity, and will go with the winds of change. For many Christians in the first century, this meant martyrdom, as it had for their Lord—that final act of witness by death that seals and completes the witness by life. For some Christians in the twentieth century, especially in totalitarian countries, it may well mean this also. For all of us, it will mean that we hold life, and all that it offers, cheap as compared with the triumph of the Cross throughout the world.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.