The writings of the apostle Peter might have first been penned nearly 2,000 years ago, but as time passes, they become more and more relevant to believers seeking to serve Christ. For in many ways, our society is beginning to mirror the culture in which early believers lived.
The apostle Peter urged his audience to rigorously discipline their values and practices. Greco-Roman culture contrasted sharply with his description of Christian discipleship. For example, Greco-Roman society was honeycombed by polytheism (worship of many gods). The Romans even encouraged their citizens to worship multiple gods, as long as people recognized the supremacy of Rome and its central deities. The absence of hope, as well as fear of demons, death, and judgment, marked Greco-Roman culture. So one issue that made the gospel attractive was its promise of refuge from a pervasive fear of spiritual enemies.
Also, from a Christian standpoint, Greco-Roman society was morally rudderless. This was evident in Greco-Roman sexuality practices and entertainment. Laws placed few restraints upon sexual expression. Greeks saw human sexuality as only a pleasurable art. The Romans viewed it as that part of humanity where the animal still resided and did not consider the idea that sexual intercourse should express a sacred bond of love between husband and wife. Between the ready availability of prostitutes and the presence of slaves in many households, sex was in plentiful supply.
Roman entertainment also depicted their lack of value for life and morals. The Roman Coliseum evidenced an expanding thirst for violence as the games degenerated into pointless massacre and the crowds became immune to cruelty and bloodshed. Claudius (A.D. 41-54) required that mortally wounded combatants remove their helmets so he and the crowd could better watch death's agony.
Against this pagan backdrop, Peter called for Christians to conform to an entirely different way of life.
Darkened passion, ignorance, and futility marked the old way. An imperishable hope, confidence in God, and holiness characterize the new. The Greco-Roman gods required strict attention to religious ritual, but they did not require strict moral conduct.
How unlike the holy God! The contrast between the promiscuity of many Greco-Roman deities and the holy discipline required of God's children was unmistakable. No God like Him could be found among the Greco-Roman deities. Ransomed from futile ways, God's children were now to express and share in His very nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Peter had no illusion about reconciling the kingdom of God with a pagan world. Neither should we. That doesn't mean we should ignore or discount honorable conduct by those who are not Christians—many people display commendable efforts to lift the human spirit. But it does require us to vigilantly examine our social environment. Rigorous attention and discipline, as guided by the Holy Spirit, are as imperative today as they were in the first century.
The Western world is experiencing a "resurgent paganism" similar in many ways to the New Testament Greco-Roman context. As the light of morality and Christian practices dims, more and more people steer their lives by values and ideas that are "pagan" by first century standards. One of the greatest dangers Christians face today is that of subtly absorbing "pagan" values. Escaping this danger requires us to pursue the kind of alert and disciplined life in Christ that Peter urged.
Let's identify three prominent characteristics of "resurgent paganism."
- The first is moral relativism. Society's belief in moral norms that apply to everyone is decaying. Our shared Judeo-Christian moral fabric is fraying. This erosion has been described as a "fragmented moral universe." No divine center is generally recognized as grounding morality. Our crumbling foundations are often replaced by the belief that "right" and "wrong" depend upon individual preferences. Morality is "relative" to a person's social and temporal context. Its content can change from one circumstance and person to another.
Pop culture, advertising, and news and entertainment media regularly invite us to embrace moral relativism. The invitation is sometimes subtle, sometimes bold. Moral relativism contradicts the revealed character and will of God. Like acid, it will eat through a mind and life not disciplined by the Holy Spirit. Peter assures us that God has given us "everything needed for life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3, NRSV).
The second characteristic of "resurgent paganism" is the idolatry of human sexuality. Billions of advertising dollars and an entertainment industry that knows no satisfaction drive the worship of sexuality. More and more ways are sought to exploit human sexuality. We are witnessing a revival of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexual rapture. Her temple in Corinth once housed perhaps hundreds of sacred prostitutes who "ministered" a steady stream of worshipers. Aphrodite's "temples" are now prevalent in society. This feature of "resurgent paganism" measures the value of everything by how well it exploits sex. The standard applies to people, toothpaste, clothing, corrective lenses, and automobiles.
- A third characteristic of "resurgent paganism" is that a person "is" what he "owns." The more a person "owns" the more of a "person" he or she is. Contrary to what Jesus said, we measure humans as quantitative, not qualitative. For example, advertising tries to convince us that people who wear certain labels are valued more highly. Cable news programming commits endless hours to tracking the careless behavior of a wealthy starlet. Judging by the airtime given, she is more of a person than a faithful schoolteacher or dedicated foster parents.
So, across the centuries the Apostle Peter now speaks to us in a period of resurgent paganism: "Prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1:13). Our unfailing resource is the power of God that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Holiness Today, Mar/Apr 2009