Christianity Versus Ancient Paganism
Christianity proved to be revolutionary to the ancient world partly because it affirmed the creation and the material order as being (originally) holy, just, and good. The material order was not–at least to Christians–a lower order of being.
(Christianity) 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 direction creation of the omnipotent God of love.
Far from preaching a gospel of liberation from the flesh, moreover, Christianity’s chief proclamation was the real resurrection of Christ, in body and soul, and the redemption this proclamation offered consisted in an ultimate transfiguration of the flesh and the glorification of the entirety of creation (as Paul says in the eighth chapter of Romans).
Christianity, uniquely, rejected the pagan morphology of salvation, and hence even the church’s ascetic practices were inspired by motives and expectations unknown to pagan thought. When Christians undertook to discipline the appetites of the body through austerities and renunciations, it was not because they sought release from the “prison” or “tomb” of the body–as did those who belonged to other ascetical traditions–but because they regarded the body as God’s good creature, the proper home of the soul, a worthy temple of the Holy Spirit, requiring sanctification only so as to be restored to its true dignity as a vessel of divine glory and raised to participation in the Kingdom of God.
And the Kingdom itself was understood to be this world renewed, perhaps broken in order to be knit aright again, but the one creation of the one true God, set free at last from bondage to death. Robin Lane Fox is quite correct to note that, among the authors of the second century, “it is the Christians who are the most confident and assured”, and that the “magnificent optimism” of Irenaeus of Lyon and the almost innocent cheerfulness of Justin Martyr stand out as distinctively and unmistakably Christian characteristics. Even Christian funerals took the form of triumphal processions and communal celebrations of the overthrow of death.
Whatever else Christianity brought into the late antique world, the principal gift it offered to pagan culture was a liberation from spiritual anxiety, from the desperation born of a hopeless longing for escape, from the sadness of having to forsake all love of the world absolutely to find salvation, from a morbid terror of the body, and from the fear that the cosmic powers on high might prevent the spirit from reaching its heavenly home. As Paul had assured the Roman Christians, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor power, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other thing created, shall have the power to separate us from the love of God which is Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39). . . . (T)he “new thing” that the gospel imparted to the world in which it was born and grew was . . . a deep and imperturbable joy. [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 144f.]