The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Pagans and the Early Christians

We saw in the previous chapter how the early Christians, before the religion came into ascendency under Constantine (c274-337), never showed any tolerance towards the pagan religions; they insulted these religions at any chance they get. When Constantine became the sole Roman Emperor in 323, Christianity was made the official religion of the empire. With full official backing, the early church, no longer satisfied with simply spitting at idols, turned with full force towards the pagan and persecuted them.

After Constantine's death in 337, two of his sons, Constantius (d.361) and Constans (d.350) took over the leadership of the empire. Constans, who ruled the western provinces was, like his father, a Christian. In 341, he decreed that all pagan worship and sacrifices should cease; warning those who persisted with the threat of the death penalty.

When Constans was killed in 350, his brother became the sole emperor of the whole empire three years later. Constantius, also a Christian, was as intolerant as his brother. He decreed that all pagan temples in the empire be closed. He warned that anyone who dared to still offer sacrifices of worship in these temples was to be put to death. Similarly, any governor who refused to carry out this decree was also to be punished.

Although the anti-pagan decrees of Constans and Constantius never seemed to have been enforced, it was a first step towards suppression of paganism. Lay Christians, particularly in the eastern half of the empire, took it upon themselves to destroy and plunder the temples. The decrees, which made worship in the temples illegal, allowed the Christians to do so with legal impunity. [1]

It was not just the Christian emperors and lay Christians who persecuted the pagans. Their theologians and prominent ecclesiastics joined in the orgy of hatred. One such example is St. Ambrose (c339-397), Bishop of Milan. When Gratian (359-383) became Roman emperor in 375, Ambrose, who was one of his educators, persuaded him to further suppress paganism. The emperor willingly obliged: he confiscated the properties of the pagan temples; seized the properties of the vestal virgins and the pagan priests, and removed the statue of the Goddess of Victory from the Roman Senate. [2]

When Gratian delegated the government of the eastern half of the empire to Theodosius (c346-395) in 379, the situation became worse for the pagans. Theodosius prohibited all forms of pagan worship and permitted the temples to be robbed, plundered and destroyed by "monks and other enterprising Christians." [3]

A good example of how the early Christians treated the pagans is the case of the philosopher Hypathia of Alexandria. Hypathia was the daughter of the mathematician Theon. She was certainly one of the most learned individual of her time. She taught and elucidated Greek mathematics and philosophy. She lectured widely in Athens and Alexandria. But her popularity and her intelligence, coupled with her lack of interest in Christianity, irritated the Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril (d.444). Acting in the interest of their patriarch, the Alexandrian monks murdered Hypathia in the year 415. [4] The cruelty of the method of her murder can be seen by the description of it by Gibbon:

On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypathia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics; her flesh was scrapped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts; but the murder of Hypathia has imprinted an indelible strain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria. [5]

It should be mentioned that, for his relentless defence of orthodoxy and, as an obvious corollary, his zealous destruction of heretics and infidels (such as Hypathia), Cyril is considered a saint by the Christian church.

In the year 416, a law was passed to bar pagans from public employment. [6] All this was done to coerce pagans to convert to Christianity. Paganism therefore disappeared from the world for two reasons: the relentless persecution by Christians and the assimilation of pagan ideas into Christianity. [a]

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a.We have seen earlier in our look at the nativity and the resurrection stories of Jesus that pagan myths, liturgies and festivals were incorporated, in a thinly disguised form into Christianity. Many of the pagans who converted to the new religion were rural, unsophisticated and unschooled. They simply carried their old beliefs from their pagan past into their new religion. Apart from their theologies, liturgies and festivals, pagan gods were also incorporated into Christianity. For instance, St. Bacchus, St. Demetrius, St. Dionysius, St. Rusticus and St. Eleutherius were all supposedly Christian martyrs. These five names were actually different designations of the Greek pagan god Dionysius. Similarly St. Onuphrius was actually the Egyptian pagan god, Osiris, whose name, rendered in Coptic, is Onufri. [7]


1.Robertson, History of Christianity: p91-93
2.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p304
Robertson, History of Christianity: p101
3.Ibid: p102
4.Ibid: p116
5.Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: p601
6.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p303
7.Robertson, History of Christianity: p102-103

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