Christians, Pagans, and the Good Life

Christianity is increasingly perceived as ir­relevant to human flourishing and happiness. For many, Christian happiness resembles a form of ascetic spirituality irretrievably detached from earthly bliss. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in­veighs, “The Christian denies even the happiest lot on earth: he is sufficiently weak, poor, disinherited to suffer from life in whatever form he meets it. The god on the cross is a curse on life, a signpost to seek redemption from life.”i Likewise, Bertrand Russell ac­cuses Christians of forfeiting this earthly life for the next in his The History of Western Philosophy, writing, “Christianity… in its early form, placed all good in the life beyond the grave.”ii 

Pitted against Christianity’s purported otherworldly yearning, classical paganism appears to many to em­body sensuous vitality and terrestrial mirth. In this view, Dionysus stands as the paragon of good cheer and celebration in contrast to the portentous and apocalyptically-minded apostles. The youthful and joyous songs of nymphs were silenced to make way for the deadening monotony of church bells and hymns. Christianity’s triumph over its contemporary mythologies and philosophies plunged the Roman, and ultimately the Western, world into wan vapidity.

Nevertheless, a brief examination of the dominant religious and philosophical movements that were contemporary to early Christianity suggests that this romanticism toward Western culture’s pagan past is largely unfounded. The ethos of the Roman Empire in those days was, in fact, one of physical abnegation, terrestrial leave-taking, and spiritual disquietude. As G. K. Chesterton says, the pagan world was “dark­ened with incurable despair.”iii In contrast to the three most influential worldviews of the Roman world— Gnosticism, Stoicism, Neoplatonism—Christianity proclaimed that our earthly realm and needs were of tremendous importance to both our humanity and God. Thus, Christianity did not inaugurate an age of mourning but an era of celebration in a time of en­demic spiritual decline.iv 

Of the empire’s innumerable religions and cults, none proved as widespread or as emblematic of the spiritual milieu as Gnosticism.v The Gnostics were a collection of enigmatic syncretists of Christianity and pagan thought, encompassing a vast range of disparate beliefs but united in their belief in salvation through the gnosis—i.e., secret knowledge—and antipathy to­wards the material To the Gnostic, matter was evil, and our earthly dwelling either “a disaster or a big misunderstanding.”vii In contrast, the spiritual realm of the Aeons ruled by the Divine Being was perfect.viii An inferior god called the Demiurge fashioned—out of, at best, ignorance or, at worst, malevolence—the flawed physical world in which human spirits, which are fragments of the divine, became imprisoned in bodily flesh.ix Regardless of the creator’s motives or competence, the Demiurge was universally reviled by the Gnostics as both enemy and jailer of mankind.

As divine spirits trapped in bodily prisons, Gnostics sought to return to the spiritual realm of the Divine Being. In their theology, Jesus, as messenger of the spiritual realm, entered the world to awaken the spir­its to their true selves by imparting secret knowledge. Only through this “self-discovery, self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-salvation”x gained from pos­session of the gnosis could the spirit be saved from its bodily shackles. Gnosticism proved attractive by offer­ing the destitute and elite alike, in a time of great social and economic uncertainty, a deification of the self in which they, as “members of an elite of true spiritual origin, feel out of place in this world [because]… they have forgotten their true selves and become enmeshed in bodies.”xi

As the Gnostic text Hymn of the Pearl asserts, all they required was a reminder of their true identity—and by extension, divine superiority to their neigh­borsxii—to be freed. While some Gnostics were less hostile towards the material world and their neighbors than others, the “dark pessimism does predominate”xiii and where it fades, there persists a “spirit of nostalgia… a passionate longing for something far away and long ago,”xiv usually a mark of present misery.xv The mate­rial cosmos was only a transitory experiencexvi to the Gnostic who would find release from tedium after death.xvii Thus, the Gnostic loathed his earthly exis­tence and yearned for spiritual escape.

Spiritual withdrawal from the world did not remain reserved to the religious. Spiritual ennui also perme­ated the philosophical schools of the intellectual elite.xviii Stoicism, a school that enjoyed popularity among the ranks of respected teachers and public officials, scorned earthly goods and held that happiness lay in virtue alone. Unlike the Gnostics, they held that ev­erything that existed was material, even God, who, for them, was the immanent and impersonal Logos that ensouls the Cosmos.xix

For the Stoics, all things sought self-preservation (okeiosis) or the fulfillment of one’s nature. Since man’s nature is fundamentally rational, his purpose was to heed the Logos or God by developing virtue.xx Not surprisingly, Stoics were respected as some of the most virtuous and selfless citizens of the empire, especially in contrast to their Epicurean rivals who shunned pub­lic life. Nevertheless, the Stoic life exacted a staggering cost: the renunciation of the passions. According to the Stoic philosophy, any kind of loss in this world, no matter how great, ought not trouble a person in the slightest. Since happiness was found in virtue alone, only that which affects the Stoic’s rational nature constituted good and evil. All external goods—family, friendship, food, health, wealth, disease, pain, death—were deemed “indifferents” (adiophora) and by exten­sion, utterly irrelevant to happiness:xxi

Indeed, if wisdom [i.e. virtue] and wealth were both desirable, the combination of both would be more desirable than wisdom alone; but that is not the case that, if both are de­serving of approbation, the combination is worth more than wisdom alone on its own. For we judge health deserving of a certain degree of approbation but do not place it among goods, and we consider that there is no degree of approbation so great that it can be preferred to virtue. This the Peripatetics do not hold, for they must say that an action which is both virtuous and without pain is more desirable than the same action accom­panied by pain. We [Stoics] think otherwise.xxii

Yet if all external goods were to be regarded as ir­relevant to happiness, why is it that we cherish and fear them? The Stoic would answer that our emotions and desires are at fault and exist as no more than exces­sive impulses or faulty value judgments of the mind.xxiii,xxiv Emblematic of the Stoic way of life is the Sage, who has become fully attuned to the cosmic Logos. The Sage achieves apatheia, a state of freedom from all emotional disturbances, and in doing so becomes wholly self-sufficient and detached from worldly inter­ferences.xxv Hence, Epictetus, in the Enchiridion, de­clares, “If [something] concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.”xxvi Thus, the Stoic yearned to become imperturbable and indifferent to all earthly blessings.

Another popular philosophy in the early first cen­tury, Neoplatonism was “the last and the boldest at­tempt of the Hellenic mind to solve the riddle of the world and existence.”xxvii Like the Gnostics, they be­lieved in a spiritual realm beyond the senses, for them the realm of Ideas consisting of threefold principle: the One, Mind, and Soul. At the center of their com­plex metaphysical infrastructure stands the unknow­able and ineffable One from which all things emanate and derive their existence through contemplation.xxix The Intelligence (Nous), also identified as God or the Demiurge, immediately follows the

Unlike the Gnostics, the influential Neoplatonist Plotinus held the Demiurge with reverence rather than contempt, in fact scorning the Gnostics for their detestation of the divinity and its workmanship.xxxi Emanating from the Intelligence is the Soul, which is capable of actualizing its own thoughts through exten­sion and thereby gave rise to our corporeal existence. xxxii According to the Neoplatonist theory, our souls were corrupted after ensouling matter, a bare substra­tum and the absence of being.xxxiii Again in contrast to the Gnostics, Plotinus praised and esteemed the physi­cal world as the beautiful handiwork and reflection of the spiritual;xxxiv,xxxv nevertheless, Neoplatonism agreed with Gnosticism that matter was unmistakably evil. Even Plotinus, despite his fondness for the physical world, was “driven to take refuge in Gnostic dualism and Gnostic hatred of things material,”xxxvi declaring that “matter remains a ‘corpse adorned’ (I.4.5.18), a corpse that has never known the breath of life (III.4.I.7).”xxxvii Thus, the Neoplatonists saw this world as a facade and shadow of the divine realm alloyed by its union with matter.

Salvation then for the Neoplatonists lay in unob­structed union with the One, a goal made difficult by our status as earthly creatures. The tragedy of our incarnation was the resultant struggle to contemplate true reality—that is, the world of Forms and the One. Unlike the Intelligence and the disembodied Soul, which can directly contemplate the One, the em­bodied soul mistakes the material world for its home and struggles to recall the highest level of reality.xxxviii Plotinus therefore urges his followers to flee from “this world’s ways and things”xxxix and turn to contemplation of the One through virtue and philosophical medita­tion. Sihler writes that the Neoplatonist held that “[t]he highest life of the soul is a kind of spiritual or meta­physical hermitage or withdrawal from this world, and so from men and action, in order to view the One.”xl Only then can we rediscover the One, at which point the Neoplatonist, like the Stoic Sage, achieves com­plete imperturbability and tranquility. In the words of Kenney, “This is ‘the end of the journey,’ to be alone with the alone.”xli

In order to appreciate the radical nature of the Christian faith, one must examine it in relation to these pagan contemporaries. Contrary to modern conceptions, it was Christianity’s pagan counterparts that embraced otherworldliness, shunning the world and its blessings in their pursuit of the good life. True, at times certain Christian thinkers have held positions that resembled pagan beliefs; nevertheless, Christianity has never fully renounced the goodness of the mate­rial realm. Against the pagan creed of resignation, the Bible resolutely affirmed that the good life was rooted in earthly existence, in creation, for the Genesis nar­rative begins with the bold proclamation that “God created the heavens and earth… and He saw that it was good.”xlii The early Christians believed that our hu­manity as embodied creatures was glorified, as humans are both bearers of the imago Dei and the crowning act of creation. In fact, even the naming of Adam, the first man, serves as an exaltation of man’s terrestrial na­ture for his name derives from the Hebrew adamah, which means “earth.” Christians saw God’s provisions for Adam and Eve in vocation, food, and sexuality as a profound affirmation of their terrestrial existence and goodness.xliii This theme of creation’s goodness echoes throughout Scripture, and in particular in two aspects of Christian belief: instructions for worship and the Incarnation.

Christian worship—which is integral to a Christian conception of the good life—is intimately tied to creation. Christians believed that in the Torah, God commanded the Israelites to celebrate and worship Him through earthly goods such as food and wine. Deuteronomy, for instance, provides a beautiful por­trait of fellowship with God through creation:

Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the first­born of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always. (Deuteronomy 14:22-23)xliv

Throughout the Old Testament, God repeated­ly affirms the value of earthly goods by blessing the Israelites with creation’s bounty: the yearly harvest, new wine, rain to nourish the land, rich feasts in cel­ebration of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. God then invites man to His presence to worship and cel­ebrate through His terrestrial provisions. This imagery carries over even to the final scene of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament canon, in the wed­ding banquet of Christ and the marriage of Heaven and Earth. Consequently, the Russian Orthodox theo­logian Alexander Schmemann observes that “worship has nothing to do with turning from this profane world to another sacred world,”xlv in marked contrast to the Gnostics and Neoplatonists. To the contrary, “worship depends on this world”xlvi for “it is this world (and not any ‘other world’), it is this life (and not any ‘other life’) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by transform­ing them into communion with God that man was meant to be.”xlvii There is nothing otherworldly about Christian worship. For the Christian, a deep awe and affinity for creation pervades his devotion to God.

The Incarnation, the climax of the biblical narrative, reiterates this theme of creation’s goodness. Christians believed that Christ, “being the very nature God… was found in the appearance of a man.”xlviii To the Gnostics and Neoplatonists who believed that the body was evil and the divine was immaterial, the gospel of God com­ing down as a man appeared nothing less than scandal­ous and blasphemous. To the Stoic who saw material deprivation as nothing, the cross was “foolishness,” for it, ironically, affirms earthly goods. To the Stoic, a sac­rifice is really no sacrifice at all because there is no value lost in making a sacrifice. For the Christian, “much is lost and there is great pain because of the value of the things sacrificed.”xlix The philosopher Charles Taylor writes,

The Stoic sage is willing to give up some “pre­ferred” thing, e.g., health, freedom, or life, because he sees it genuinely as without value since only the whole order of events which, as it happens, includes its negation or loss, is of value. The Christian martyr, in giving up health, freedom, or life, doesn’t declare them to be of no value. On the contrary, the act would lose its sense if they were not of great worth. To say that greater love hath no man that this, that a man give up his life for his friends, implies that life is a great good. The sentence would lose its point in reference to someone who renounced life from a sense of detach­ment; it presupposes he is giving up something.l

Thus, contrary to Nietzsche’s portrayal, Jesus’ death on the cross can be viewed not only as a testament of unfathomable love from the divine but also as the affirmation of life. For this reason, Christians hailed the Incarnation as the decisive turning point in his­tory when God began His restoration of creation. The salvation brought by Christ “promises not liberation from, but glorification of, material creation.”li True, the world was fallen and tarnished by evil—but it was not irredeemable. Whereas the Gnostics and Neoplatonists saw this world as a temporary and regrettable way station in their pilgrimage to the spiritual realm, Christians saw earth, in some sense, as their perma­nent home. Furthermore, Scripture does not speak of an eschatological and a final disembodied existence for the faithful but rather a new life in resurrected bodies in a renewed creation, in which heaven comes down to earth.lii Our actions on earth, therefore, genuinely mat­ter since the earth is not ephemeral, later to be com­mitted to the flames. It is here to stay, destined to be renewed by God and the works of his servants.liii

Christianity, thus, entered history with a message of hope and joy. The church boldly proclaimed the goodness of the world and the beginnings of its rec­lamation through the Incarnation at a time when its pagan contemporaries eagerly sought to sever their connection to the world. David Bentley Hart writes,

[T]he Christianity of the early centuries did not invade a world of noonday joy, vitality, mirth, and cheerful earthiness, and darken it with malicious slanders of the senses or chill it with a severe and bloodless otherworldliness. Rather, it entered into a twilit world of pervasive spir­itual despondency and religious yearning, not as a cult of cosmic renunciation… but as a reli­gion of glad tidings, of new life, and that in all abundance. It was pagan society that had be­come ever more otherworldly and joyless, ever wearier of the burden of itself… It was pagan society that seemed unable to conceive of any spiritual aspiration higher than escape… [I]t was obliged to proclaim, far more radically than any other ancient system of thought, the incorruptible goodness of the world, the origi­nal and ultimate beauty of all things, inas­much as it understood this world to be the di­rect Creation of the omnipotent God of love.liv

Similarly, Chesterton writes, “Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian”lv because he sees the Gospel and bibli­cal narrative as unashamedly life-embracing. The early Church found shalom and happiness in God and His blessing of the earthly life. It was the Church who preached that our life here was weighed down not with shame, but with glory. Blessed was the Christian for he saw that the divine bids us neither to depart from nor forsake our terrestrial home to experience the full life but enters into our world and our history to restore richly—For He has already done it once.

i. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) 542-43.
ii. Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1945) 251.
iii. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009) 236.
iv. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) 134-143.
v. Although it is true that Gnosticism was not strictly pagan, it is nevertheless clear that its Greco-Roman philosophical heritage led to it bearing much semblance to the pagan ethos despite borrowing Christian elements.
vi. Ibid. 134-136.
vii. Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 248.
viii. Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009) 120.
ix. Skarsaune 246.
x. McGrath 117.
xi. William C. Placher, A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983) 46.
xii. Hart 140. Gnostics regarded their non-Gnostic peers as “soulless brutes for whom death is simply dissolution” or “subjects of the demiurge,” neither of which amounting to much before the Gnostic God (e.g. in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth).
xiii.  A.H. Armstrong, “Dualism: Platonic, Gnostic, and Christian.” Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, ed. Richard T. Wallis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992) 46.
xiv. Ibid.
xv. Ibid.
xvi. Skarsaune 246.
xvii. Armstrong 46.
xviii. Hart 142-143.
xix. David Naugle, “Stoic and Christian Conceptions of Happiness,” 6-11.
xx. Malcolm Schofield, “Stoic Ethics.” The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics, ed. Brad Inwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 243-244.
xxi. Naugle 9-12.
xxii. Cicero quoted in R.W. Sharples, Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1996) 100-101.
xxiii. Brad Inwood, “Stoicism.” Routledge History of Philosophy, Volume II, From Aristotle to Augustine, ed. David Furley (London: Routledge, 1999) 245-246.
xxiv. This is not to say that Stoics were completely without feeling. Nevertheless, all “good” passions were limited to virtue.
xxv. Naugle 15.
xxvi. Epictetus quoted in Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) 366.
xxvii. E.G. Sihler, From Augustus to Augustine: Essays & Studies Dealing with the Contact and Conflict of Classic Paganism and Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923) 151.
xxviii. Eyjólfur K. Emilsson, “Neo-Platonism.” Routledge History of Philosophy, Volume II, From Aristotle to Augustine, ed. David Furley (London: Routledge, 1999) 363.
xxix. Edward Moore, “Plotinus.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last updated May 12, 2008.
xxx. Emilsson 366-367.
xxxi. Plotinus, Plotinus, with an English Translation by A.H. Armstrong, Volume 2 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966) 221.
xxxii. Moore.
xxxiii. Denis O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil.” The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 172-187.
xxxiv. Hart 143.
xxxv. Armstrong 47. This should not, however, be taken as the only Neoplatonist response. Others would say something along the lines of “How poor, trivial and inadequate a thing the image is compared with the original.”
xxxvi. Charles Elsee, Neoplatonism in Relation to Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908) 57.
xxxvii. O’Brien 183.
xxxviii. Moore.
xxxix. Theaetetus 176b.
xl. Sihler 147.
xli. John Peter Kenney, The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading The Confessions (New York: Routledge, 2005) 46.
xlii. Genesis 1:1, 25.
xliii. Naugle 25.
xliv. Deuteronomy 14:22-23.
xlv. Alexander Schmemann, qtd in Naugle 28.
xlvi. Ibid.
xlvii. Ibid.
xlviii. Philippians 2:6,8.
xlix. Naugle 29.
l. Charles Taylor, qtd in Naugle 29.
li. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) 151.
lii. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008) 104-106, 122.
liii. Ibid 208-209.
liv. Hart, Atheist Delusions, 143-144.
lv. Chesterton 238.


Suiwen Liang is from Memphis, Tenessee. He is a Chemistry and Philosophy double major.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,