World Religions: Greco-Roman Gods, Horrific Persecution, and Constantine's Rescue

World Religions: Greco-Roman Gods, Horrific Persecution, and Constantine’s Rescue

Last time, we uncovered the history of paganism as told in the Bible. You can read the Book of Acts to learn what happened after Jesus’ Resurrection and how “The Way” spread throughout the Roman Empire. At first, the followers of Jesus experienced persecution from fellow Jews. However, as Paul’s ministry took him further into the Gentiles in the Roman Empire, he encountered the Greek gods.

Deo Volente (God Willing) Love in the First Century

Fascinated with Christian church history, I wrote a novel set in first-century Italy. Hence, I had to do a lot of research on Roman Mythology, which led me to Greek Mythology and their similarities.

Before I get into that, let me explain a dilemma I had. My problem was how to get my born-again Christian, male, lead character to explain the difference between believing in One True God to a Roman girl who believed in the pantheon of gods. In reading the Book of Acts, I came across the Apostle Paul’s encounter with the Greeks in Athens and there it was! Let me set the story.

In Thessalonica, Paul, Timothy, and Silas were attacked by jealous Jews and they escaped to Berea. The jealous Jews heard they were there and the Bereans sent Paul ahead to Athens while Silas and Timothy waited in Berea. We pick up the story in Acts 17:16…

Paul Preaches in Athens

Ruins of the agora in Athens, Greece where Paul encountered many temples to gods. CC by 2.0
Ruins of the Agora in Athens, (CC BY 2.0)

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. 17 He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there.

18 He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”

19 Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. 20 “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” 21 (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)

22 So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.

24 “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26 From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.

27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29 And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone.

30 “God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. 31 For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt, but others said, “We want to hear more about this later.” 33 That ended Paul’s discussion with them, 34 but some joined him and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the council, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Acts 17: 16-34 NLT

Top Greek and Roman Gods

The Romans copied the Greek gods and just renamed them.

Greek GodsRoman GodsGod of What?
ZeusJupiterKing of the Gods
PoseidonNeptuneOceans, Mariners
HermesMercuryThe Messenger
DionysusBacchusWine and Partying

So Many Gods

Zeus for the Greeks, Jupiter for the Romans -- the king of the gods.
Zeus for the Greeks, Jupiter for the Romans — the king of the gods.

The objective of having so many gods was to explain natural phenomena. There was a god for everything and a temple and festival for every god. Ironically, the day Vesuvius erupted was the festival of Vulcanalia in honor of the Roman god Vulcan, the god of fire. No, Spock’s planet had nothing to do with it. (That’s a Star Trek joke.)

During the festival, participants would build a huge bonfire and throw fish into it in gratitude for a year without wildfires that would devastate crops and hope for another fire-free season. They also drank a lot of wine — it was a reason to party!

When Vesuvius erupted in August of 69 AD, I bet they wondered if they had not sacrificed enough or what they could have possibly done to anger Vulcan. Pompeii is a wine-growing region with rich volcanic soil. Hence, Bacchus, the god of wine, partying, and debauchery was their patron god.

Patron gods or patron saints?

Fresco of Bacchus the Roman god of wine next to Mt. Vesuvius.
In this fresco from a house in Pompeii we see Bacchus, the god of wine in front of Vesuvius. Note the serpent.

All this reminded me of the patron saints of the Roman Catholic Religion. I was born in Puerto Rico, raised in New York, then moved back to PR after college where I lived for 8 years. In Puerto Rico, each city, town, and village has a patron saint. Subsequently, each saint has a feast day. Consequently, it gave the people of each town another reason to party.

In the mid-1980s, I toured Italy and stayed in Naples for a few days. The people of Naples live in the shadow of Vesuvius, which hasn’t erupted since the 1940s. In a Catholic Church in Naples, there is a relic — a vial filled with the supposed blood of a saint. It is said that the saint protects Naples from an eruption. Every year, on that saint’s feast day, they carefully bring out the vial and parade it through the streets of Naples with hundreds joining the procession.

Jesus is the only one who came from God. Everyone else is just human.

Related: Who are the Real Saints in the Bible?

More Roman Gods — the Imperial Cult

Besides the pantheon of gods the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, all emperors were also considered “divine”. Hence, they were to be worshiped — living or dead. That’s known as the Imperial Cult. ALL Roman citizens were required to burn incense in honor of Caesar. If a Christian refused, they were tortured and killed. In other words, if a person would not renounce or deny Jesus Christ, they were murdered. Yes, similar to what Islamic terrorists do today. (We’ll get to Islam in a future post.)

As the Christian Church grew — true followers of Jesus Christ — they encountered Increased resistance and persecution from the Romans.

It Started with Nero

Here’s a video that tells the story of Nero’s persecution of the Christians…

  • 62 AD — after the Book of Acts. Paul and Peter were both martyred by Nero in Rome.
  • Nero burned Rome and blamed the Christians.
  • In 70 AD, the Jewish temple, along with all of Jerusalem was destroyed fulfilling the prophecy that Jesus foretold in the Olivet Discourse found in Mark 13, Luke 21, and Matthew 24.

Roman Paganism Threatened by Christianity

  • The Jews were scattered after the war with Romans in Judah.
  • Emperor Hadrian renamed Judah as Syria Palestina. Eventually, it became “Palestine” until 1948.
  • Christians were separate from the Jews. However, it wasn’t until later, that the Roman Catholic Church started the false doctrine of Replacement Theology, which claims that the Old Testament is redundant and the “church” replaces Israel.

Christian Persecution Begins

Since Christianity preached of a One True God — the truth — many pagans stopped worshiping at the temples. Sacrifices as well as contributions went down. Therefore, the Romans felt threatened. Here’s an excerpt from the Voice of the Martyrs app….

“The Great Persecution” began in Rome in A.D. 303 under Diocletian. This was a time period when Diocletian published official edicts against Christianity in an effort to destroy the faith. Among the detailed rulings were the following orders.

  • Christians holding public office were to be put out of office;
  • All accusations against Christians were to be welcomed and received:
  • Christians were to be tortured for their faith;
  • Scriptures were to be confiscated and burned immediately;
  • Church buildings were to be destroyed;
  • A Christian’s civil rights were to be forcefully denied; and
  • Presidents, bishops, and leaders of churches were to be arrested in order to sacrifice to the gods.
From the Voice of the Martyrs app

One of the Early Church Fathers, Eusebius, documented the persecution.

Emperor Constantine to the Rescue!

Enter Constantine. Now, I’ve covered how Constantine, in his attempts to attract pagan Romans to Christianity, introduced pagan rites, rituals, dress, beads, decorations, etc., to the church. He Romanized the church. He also gave Satan a foothold. And remember what happens when you give Satan a foothold — it becomes a stronghold.

Here are some important points…

  1. The Edict of Milan was NOT a conversion of Romans to Christianity.
  2. It was about tolerance — giving Christians freedom to practice their religion without persecution.
  3. Most importantly, you cannot become a Christian by EDICT, or by conquering for that matter. You become a Christian by accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior after repenting of your sins. An edict cannot do that for you — just like sitting in a church won’t save you.
  4. It was the first marriage of church and state — and it stayed that way until the Protestant Reformation. The world “Catholic” means “universal”. It was a compromise.
  5. Pagan beliefs were given Christian identities. The pure church of the New Testament was polluted with paganism and idolatry. Unfortunately, it stayed that way.
  6. Constantine was never really a Christian — or was he? He waited until he was on his deathbed to be baptized in 337 AD. Yet, he didn’t understand the Gospel. All he wanted to do was unite the Roman Empire. Which, nonetheless, fell in 476 — not by being conquered, but by imploding from within.
  7. Was Constantine’s vision of the sign of the cross really from God or from Satan? We really don’t know, but if I remember, I’ll ask Jesus when I see Him.

Furthermore, as the Roman Catholic Church spread throughout Europe, it encountered many other pagan religions. Instead of truly converting them by spreading the True Gospel, it contaminated and adulterated Christianity with evil, demonic practices. We’ll see that in our next post on Druids, Wicca, and the Occult.

James wrote…

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world.

James 4:7-8 NLT

Peter wrote…

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith.

1 Peter 5:8-9 NLT

Paul wrote…

12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

13 Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm.

Ephesians 6:12-13 NLT

How Firm is Your Faith?

If you’re not sure if you’re saved or not, if you truly want to be born again and have the assurance of salvation, receive the Holy Spirit, feel His Shalom — a peace that surpasses all understanding, and get a 1-way, non-stop ticket to Heaven after you die, or that you won’t be left behind at the Rapture, which can happen at any moment, this is what you have to do…

Invite Jesus into Your Heart and Receive the Gift of Grace and the Confident Hope of Eternal Life…

Soli Deo Gloria — To God Alone Be The Glory!

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