What is a god?

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

We’re taking a break from the shenanigans of modern day apologists and digging into the roots of modern apologetics, just to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. So far, Justin has proven to be something of a liberal, appealing to Caesar not to condemn people just because they belong to a certain ethnic or religious group, and urging him to investigate the actual conduct of the accused, and only punish them if they’ve truly done wrong.

Ironically, one of the chief “wrongs” Christians were accused of was atheism, and Justin has an interesting defense.

Justin’s first defense sounds a bit like the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Justice requires that you inquire into the life both of him who confesses and of him who denies, that by his deeds it may be apparent what kind of man each is. For as some who have been taught by the Master, Christ, not to deny Him, …so in all probability do those who lead wicked lives give occasion to those who … accuse all the Christians of impiety and wickedness. And this also is not right. For of philosophy, too, some assume the name and the garb who do nothing worthy of their profession; and … are yet all called by the one name of philosophers. And of these some taught atheism; and the poets who have flourished among you raise a laugh out of the uncleanness of Jupiter with his own children. And … you bestow prizes and honours upon those who euphoniously insult the gods.

It sounds a bit like he’s saying that those who behave wickedly are not true Christians, and therefore Caesar should not condemn all Christians for the actions of a few. We hear the same sort of argument to this day, with one important difference: Justin is referring to actual legal condemnation, where being a Christian could result in being imprisoned and having your property confiscated. In this specific case, I’m on Justin’s side: say what you like about Christians being hypocrites, you still have no right to impose criminal penalties on one person just because of the crimes committed by another person of the same religion. This applies whether the victim is Christian or Muslim or Hindu or whatever. (But as far as judging the religion itself, I think it’s perfectly fair to apply Jesus’ dictum, “By their fruits you shall know them.”)

Justin, as I mentioned last time, was a devotee of the philosophies of Socrates and Plato prior to becoming a Christian, and frequently appeals to these philosophers as a standard of wisdom that Caesar will presumably aspire to. In Chapter 5, he uses Socrates as an example of a famous atheist who disproved the gods by his philosophies, and yet he wraps this example in a most amazing superstition, as though one argument were just as rational as the other.

For the truth shall be spoken; since of old these evil demons, effecting apparitions of themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys, and showed such fearful sights to men, … and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods… And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that “he was introducing new divinities;” and in our case they display a similar activity.

Now, where Justin got the idea that Socrates was ever accused of “introducing new divinities,” I don’t know. Perhaps his Christian-colored goggles are giving him a distorted perspective on the teachings and history of his former hero, or perhaps he’s referring to some quote I don’t know about, but that phrase struck me as odd. Whatever the reason for it, though, it’s nowhere near as bizarre as his main point, which is that the Greek gods are all actually real. They’re not real gods, but they are real spiritual beings, who are just pretending to be gods in order to impress and enslave men.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Once you understand why you do not believe in everyone else’s god, you’ll know why I don’t believe in yours.” That’s a great saying, and it would be a great argument, except that believers have some really terrible reasons for rejecting the gods of others. Jupiter and Apollo and Diana and all the other gods worshipped by the Romans are, to Justin, real beings. They’re just imposters, pretending to be gods when they’re really just demons.

Believe it or not, this is actually biblical. Justin isn’t inventing this idea on his own; it comes from I Corinthians 10:20, where Paul writes, “No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons.” It’s just a snippet, but that’s all Justin needs to reconcile Christian atheism (with respect to other people’s gods) and Christian monotheism (with respect to his own). The Greek and Roman gods aren’t Real Gods™, they’re just demons.

Mind you, demons haven’t always had the bad reputation they do today in Christian circles. In ancient times, a demon was just a powerful supernatural spirit. Some were good, some were bad, most were largely indifferent unless you could entice them to work in your favor somehow. And of course, some were more powerful than others, which led to some interesting developments in the evolution of religion. People started claiming to have ongoing relationships with some of these spirits, and started using these supposed relationships to dictate their relationships with other people. If my spirit is stronger than your spirit, then you’d better go along with what I say, because if it comes to a fight, my spirit will give me the victory over you and your spirit.

To establish dominance, therefore, it’s important that I establish the dominance of the spirit who is on my side. Hence the new status for my spirit: not just demon, but god. Has anything really changed? No, the demon is still a demon, but by calling him a god, I’ve put him up in a higher league than everyone else’s demon. At least until they promote their demons to gods! Then what do I do? Well, either I fight to show that my god can beat up your god, or else I wise up and invent monotheism, and promote my god to Creator Of All. Now my god is king of the hill; you can’t say your god is also the Creator of Everything because my god created your god, so there’s at least one thing your god didn’t create.

That’s the problem with Justin’s argument here. In declaring that Roman gods are not Real Gods, but are “only” demons, he’s playing the one-upmanship game of spirits. Whoever makes the biggest boast wins. Nowadays, demons are no longer as popular as they once were, except among the more backwards and superstitious branches of Christianity. Demons are, after all, merely an irrational and superstitious animism, once used to explain things like disease and weather and crop cycles and so on. Apart from the behaviors of people who believe in demons, there is no demonic influence on the real world, and as we’ve come to understand the real causes for disease and so on, the idea of demons has become more and more irrelevant. And God Himself is just another demon who somehow worked His way to the top, in the minds of men.

Nor does Justin have any appeal here to reason or observation to support his assumption that demons exist and that they impersonate “real” gods. Modern apologists will tell you that we should regard Christianity as true and Greco-Roman mythology as false because Greco-Roman mythology is full of legends. And they’ll tell you all about how legends form, and why we should conclude that none of these myths really ever happened. And yet here’s Justin, in the second century, telling us that those stories were all true, and were caused by demons showing up in the real world to deceive men.

What this tells us is that Justin Martyr, one of the earliest and most influential of the Christian apologists, had a faith that was based at least in part on an inability to tell the difference between myth and fact. It’s a common problem: St. Clement used the phoenix as an example of the resurrection, as though it were a real bird. And yet, he and Justin both meet all the criteria that modern apologists often use to argue that, say, St. Luke should be accepted as a reliable historian even when he tells us things that seem incredible by modern standards: he mentions real people and real places, and describes at least some real events that can be verified independently. Yet we see that early Christian leaders lack the ability to distinguish between fact and fable, and report them both as equally factual. And on the basis of such testimony, Christians today believe that Jesus really healed the sick, walked on water, and rose from the dead.

Justin closes Chapter 5 with some remarks that seem to flirt with Gnosticism, referring to Jesus not as God incarnate, but as Reason incarnate.

For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ; and in obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue.

So according to Justin, Jesus was Reason, or the Logos, an important (but not fully divine) character in Gnosticism. Prior to his incarnation as Jesus, the Logos inspired Socrates to denounce the “demons” of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Then, in order to preach the same gospel to the barbarians (i.e. the non-Romans), Reason became incarnate and took the name Jesus. Not a point of view you’ll hear expounded from many Baptist pulpits these days.

Ironically, Justin’s closing jab at the demons is to accuse them of behaving in ways that compare poorly with “men desirous of virtue.” Far from being models of how men should behave, the gods all too often act in ways that don’t even live up to uninspired human standards of decency. What’s ironic is that Justin condemns these gods, but overlooks his own God’s record, Who has authorized genocides, mass divorces, slavery, and so on.


5 Responses to “What is a god?”

  1. Cafeeine Says:

    In Socrates’ trial he was accused of introducing new divinities, that is where Justin got it.

  2. g Says:

    Both Plato’s and Xenophon’s “Apologies” have Socrates accused of “introducing new gods” and responding to that charge. I think those are the nearest things we have to primary sources; I don’t know whether Justin might have had anything else.

    (In Plato’s account, Socrates gets his accuser Meletus tied up in knots by inducing him to accuse Socrates simultaneously of believing in no gods at all and of believing in non-standard gods. It’s a little reminiscent of the way that some Christians accuse atheists of treating evolution as a religion, worshipping science, having “faith” in materialism, etc.)

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Ok, I’d never heard that part of the story before. I’d heard that he was accused of atheism, but not the “introducing new gods” bit. Thanks all.

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    It makes sense to me that Hellenized Jews could see the possibilities of that Socrates self-sacrifice story to redeem their own faith.

    Short hop from the spiritual ‘logos’ influencing Socrates to ‘spiritually’ defeat his opponents’ gods, to an embodiment of ‘logos’, preaching truth to his people who cannot understand the shift from tribal god to GOD, necessitating the ‘final sacrifice’ and ‘final victory’.

    Seems Justin understood that. Christians today, not at all.

  5. Len Says:

    In this specific case, I’m on Justin’s side: say what you like about Christians being hypocrites, you still have no right to impose criminal penalties on one person just because of the crimes committed by another person of the same religion.

    Imposing penalties on someone (all of mankind) for something someone else (Adam and Eve) did is the cornerstone of Christianity.

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