Term gen. used to designate religious system or rites outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Derivation of the word heathen uncertain; scope of its meaning variously defined. Of special interest to Christians is the heathenism that prevailed in the Roman Empire in the 1st cents. AD There were gods many and lords many (1 Co 8:5), temples and shrines, cults and worships, including an imperial cult (see Persecution of Christians, 1), in bewildering confusion. The world was losing confidence in its gods. Xenophanes* scoffed at man-made gods. Aristophanes (ca. 448ca. 380 BC; Gk. playright) ridiculed them in his comedies. Epicurus relegated them to a state of innocuous irrelevance. Stoics (see Stoicism) reduced them to pantheistic abstraction. Lucretius* proclaimed a gospel of irreligion. The carpenter in Horace (658 BC; Roman poet and satirist) deliberates whether he should make a rude log into a bench or a god (Satire, 1, viii). Pliny* the Elder is openly atheistic. Yet heathenism had not spent its force. The religion of the cultured classes did not reflect the religion of the masses, nor were all the cultured irreligious. There was much ambivalence among the most advanced thinkers; in deference to tradition or to the beliefs of the masses, they observed, and even championed, superstitious rites and ceremonies that they inwardly despised. There was some superstition even among the most cultivated and enlightened. But neither heathenism nor philosophy satisfied the soul. It remained for Christ* Jesus to bring life and immortality to light (2 Ti 1:10). See also Pagan.
Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
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