The rise of Christianity has captured the imagination of thinkers throughout centuries. By some Christian authors it’s been considered a proof of the miraculous Truth of their beliefs in-and-of itself.
But a more objective historian can easily find more practical reasons for its success, and these ten are the most often mentioned:
1. Decline of paganism within the Empire
It’s hard to track the exact century, let alone a specific date when paganism became outdated in the eyes of the Roman populace.
Roman paganism early on became dependent on the Greek pantheon of gods. These were considered to be anthropomorphized natural and psychological forces, with each god representing a certain aspect of Reality.
However, people were beginning to question the validity of worshiping multiple gods, especially the more educated people like Cicero. Cicero considered these religious myths to be nothing more than fables designed for the masses who lacked the necessary education and intelligence to be philosophers.
Ironically, along with the Greek pantheon, the Roman intelligencia also inherited the sceptical spirit of Socrates, which in turn led to the demise of their belief in pagan deities in general.
Stoicism was by many thinkers a philosophical predecessor of Christianity. The impetus placed on living a moral life, of protecting one’s soul from the impurities of worldly existence and temptations are all found in stoicism which officially began around 301 BC with the teachings of the Greek philosopher Zeno.
But the masses were not as impressed with its purely philosophical teachings and required a more elaborated approach as to “why” one should behave properly. What would be the reward, if any? Stoicism lacked any real answer to that question, except for mental serenity.
Therefore, on its own, the Stoic philosophy could never spread among the uneducated and the poor as easily as Christianity. But once Christianity delivered the same behavioral philosophy imbued with a mystical reward-and-punishment system which was transferred to the afterlife, it became a winning combination.
3. Rampant social inequality
Paganism provided no sense of justice for the poor, and social inequality was treated as a merely practical problem, if even that.
Paganism champions strength, power and life, while Christianity opposes them if they’re achieved through immoral acts. It’s no wonder then why the disinherited masses under imperialistic tyranny would choose Christ over Jupiter.
Unlike the Roman Republic, which had a more justly stratified society in which everyone could find their place in the sun, the Roman Empire was plagued by a larger divide between the rich land owners and the plebs who lived off of bread crumbs.
Christ offered everyone salvation and vengeance against these worldly tyrants and abusers of power. If not in this life, than most certainly in the one to come.
4. An enormous Empire in decline
Many historians argue that the Roman Empire simply became too large. It bordered with fierce Germanic tribes as well as with the Persian Empire. The invasions of Huns and other unpredictable forces could easily surprise the stretched-out forces which had to defend the endless border all around.
The Empire was also impossible to govern without corruption setting in. All the more so when we consider the many lunatics who ended up on the throne and survived only as long as they were able to shower their soldiers with lands and coin.
Furthermore, it was impossible to preserve any unified patriotic sentiment among the vastly different parts of the Empire. As the Roman spirit of conquest waned due to its over-exhaustion in previous centuries, so did their ability to govern the vast regions of the Empire with an iron, but just fist.
5. Apocalyptic barbarian invasions
The decline of the Empire was more apparent than ever when barbarians from the East could no longer be contained on the border.
Germanic warlords and large groups were given lands in the bordering provinces of the Empire. In a few short centuries they became the rulers of the Empire. Their invasions brought about such devastation that many Romans perceived their arrival as a sign of a true apocalypse.
These were the perfect conditions for a religion like Christianity to spread. A religion which placed above everything else the importance of preserving ones soul in this “valley of tears”, because the Judgment Day was just around the corner.
6. Paul of Tarsus
Even if the conditions were ripe for the ascent of Christianity, it wouldn’t have happened without the groundwork done by Paul of Tarsus and other fanatical leaders of the movement.
Paul in particular traveled all across the Empire. He preached the gospel in Athens, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome and many other large cities. His rhetorical skills were unmatched and left many pagans nodding their heads in agreement and spreading the gospel to others.
7. Lack of exoteric religious competitors
On the spiritual plane, the period from 1st to 4th century AD marked the rise of esoteric schools. These rose from the ashes of the remains of Ancient Egyptian cults, especially in Alexandria as it became the leading intellectual center of the Empire.
These ideas were often mixed with Zarathustrianism, Platonism, Judaism and lesser known Oriental teachings. Many esoteric, initiatic schools inspired by these teachings started growing and spreading like weed.
Among Christians there were many Gnostic schools. Gnostics believed that Christianity should be an esoteric movement and that Christ has shown us how to ascend to higher spiritual realms through knowledge (gnosis).
But these powerful teachings were not accessible to the masses. What were they to do, now that the interest in ordinary pagan cults was starting to wane and they lacked a proper alternative?
The early Fathers, such as Augustine of Hippo and Tertullian were against esotericism in general, believing instead that salvation was possible for every member of the Church. The obtainment of knowledge or any special power to gain favor with God wasn’t a requirement. One only needed to abide by the simple teachings of the Church and strive for goodness in their day-to-day life.
This was obviously a more attractive proposition to those wandering outside of esoteric schools and who’d otherwise not be saved from the Eternal Damnation, which again, was perceived to be just around the corner in the most literal sense.
8. Simplicity of the Christian teachings
The Christian message was not easy to follow, but it was certainly easy to understand. Accept the sacraments, become part of the Church, be morally sound and resist the temptations of the Devil.
There was little moral ambiguity, especially in the early Church, before it became so powerful that it was accepted as the only accepted religion in the Empire.
9. Relaxed rules attracted more members
We must remember that Christianity spread among Jews first, and they were highly influenced by Judaism in all its aspects.
Many of these aspects pertaining to everyday conduct were very strict. Participating in any pagan festivities was forbidden. Although it doesn’t sound like a big deal at first, it was actually quite difficult to abide by these rules when every social event was officially a celebration of some deity or another. These groups also forbid their members from engaging in politics or serving in the military, which sometimes brought upon wrath of the general populace.
Paul of Tarsus disagreed with exclusivistic groups when it came to conversions and believed that everyone who is born again in Christ can be a Christian, regardless of their previous identity. He also disagreed with strict rules pertaining to celibacy.
As more members and voices entered the fray, the rules watered down even further, to a point where Christianity became a State religion, serving as a replacement for the Roman paganism of old, with the legions now fighting defending the Empire under the Christian banner.
10. Organizational skills of the early Church
No one has ever denied the organizational power of the Church. Wherever Paul preached, a new community would rise.
The priests and later the bishops held most of the power. As the hierarchy within the Church became more sophisticated and membership grew across the Empire, bishops would hold councils to discuss religious and administrative matters.
Often they would bicker over their individual jurisdiction as the power-grabbing games became a normal part of this organization as basically any other. This signaled the transformation from the pure communities of the early Church to the corporate enterprise it later became, with the various bishops seizing more power in order to exercise more spiritual and worldly authority over less powerful bishops and their subordinates.
However, the interconnection between these administrative centers of power was exactly what preserved Christianity in the aftermath of the collapsing Empire. If the bishops hadn’t created such a powerful bureaucracy, it’s unlikely that the spiritual rulers wouldn’t have succumbed to the fate of the worldly rulers. Instead, it managed to preserve not only the official Christian dogma but also much of the Roman heritage such as the Latin language, philosophical and legal writings and much more.
Christianity was able to spread throughout the Roman Empire for many reasons. It’s simple exoteric teachings attracted the poor and uneducated masses in large numbers, it had fanatical martyrs who were willing to be tortured and to die for the cause and it had the perfect conditions – a crumbling Empire suffering from an infestation of hedonism and moral lethargy. Moral and administrative decline acts as a trigger for new, purifying movements to emerge, and the spread of early Christianity is the perfect example of that fact.