When Christianity Wasn't Considered a Religion


In his terrific book The Prodigal God, Tim Keller explains that, surprisingly, in its earliest days, Christianity wasn’t considered a religion. Religions typically have three defining traits:  sacrifices to appease the gods, temples where these sacrifices are carried out, and priests to offer the sacrifices and serve as intermediaries between the deities and the people. Ironically, since the early Christians in the Roman empire didn’t follow “expected” religious behavior, they were labeled atheists.

Christians’ revolutionary teaching was that sacrifices to the gods are no longer necessary because Jesus himself was the ultimate sacrifice. And neither temples nor priests are needed if you don’t have sacrifices. This ran counter to every concept of religion known in the ancient world. All other Middle Eastern religion had many gods who controlled every single aspect of life:  the weather, fertility, war, pestilence, etc. When bad things happened, it was because the gods were angry and had to be placated.

My wife and I recently had the chance to observe one New World, non-Christian, polytheistic religion. In August, we enjoyed an awesome trip to Peru where we hiked the four-day Inca Trail to the ancient Inca city of Machu Pichu. Like other ancient cultures, the Incas believed in many gods to whom they regularly offered sacrifices. One of their principal deities was Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

After hiking the Inca Trail, we visited the charming Southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, which houses a museum containing the frozen mummy of a 12-year-old girl – dubbed “The Ice Maiden” – who had been sacrificed to the Inca’s gods in the 1450s. The museum provides many sobering details about the Inca’s belief system and rituals surrounding human sacrifice.

Although few, if any, cultures today still practice human sacrifice, many polytheistic concepts linger on. During our Peru excursion, we had the chance to discuss Jesus and our faith with our outstanding and friendly guides. It was a bit surprising to see how influential Pachamama remains today, even among some who identify as Christians. More than once, before our guides started drinking a beverage, if we were outdoors they would pour a few drops on the ground as an “offering” to – or at least an acknowledgment of – Pachamama.

This practice, even among professing Christians, should alert us to how easy it is to mix our faith with superstitious or polytheistic ideas and revert to thinking we have to appease God. Jesus was our sacrifice for sin, once and for all (Hebrew 9:12). He loves us enough to have laid down his life for us (John 5:13), and God works everything – even seeming calamities – together for our good (Romans 8:28). We don’t have to do anything to earn his favor. If we truly grasp this, we should want to live in a way that honors God, not feel like we have to do things to satisfy this wrath.

Here’s a question:  Am I living like the first Roman Christians did, basking in the knowledge that, because of Jesus, I don’t need sacrifices, temples or priests, or am I doing anything today that smacks of returning to a pagan belief that I have to earn God’s favor?