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Author Traces Christianity's Path From 'Forbidden Religion' To A 'Triumph'

Mar 20, 2018
Originally published on March 23, 2018 11:15 am

For years, religion scholar Bart Ehrman wanted to write a book about the early spread of Christianity, but he shied away from it because the topic seemed too big.

Eventually, Ehrman decided that the massive scope is what made the project so compelling: "The entire history of the West was transformed by the fact that Christianity took over the Roman Empire and then became the dominant religious and political and cultural force in our civilization," he says.

Ehrman's new book, The Triumph Of Christianity, chronicles the rise of Christianity as well as the subsequent demise of paganism. But despite the title, Ehrman asserts that his book doesn't carry a judgment concerning the spread of Christianity.

"I'm not claiming that it was a great thing that Christianity won; I'm also not saying it was a bad thing," he says. "I'm dealing with it merely as a historian, and I'm saying that Christianity did win, and I point out that this triumph did have obvious good sides and obvious bad sides."


Interview Highlights

On why conversion was so important to Christians

It's one of the things that made Christianity quite distinct in the ancient world. It had to do with the nature of the Christian religion. Christians from the very beginning believed that it was Jesus' death and resurrection that could make a person right with God and that if a person was not right with God, they would pay an eternal penalty. There would literally be hell to pay if somebody didn't convert. And so Christians believed that their religion was the only right religion and that people had to practice their religion or else they would go to hell.

Moreover, Christians maintained that they were to follow Jesus' teachings of love. You're to love your neighbor as yourself. Well, if your neighbor is going to go to hell by not believing what you believe, and you love this person, then you need to make them see the error of their ways and convert them to your faith. And so that's what Christians were doing from the very beginning: Trying to convert others so that they could join the church and avoid the terrors of hell.

On how conversions to Christianity were largely voluntary in the religion's first centuries of existence

I think early in Christianity it was always voluntary. People were simply deciding that the Christian God was the one to be worshipped rather than the traditional pagan gods, and for several centuries it went on like that. We don't actually have records of forcible conversions in the sense that Christians were wielding the sword and forcing pagans to convert. We don't have that kind of thing.

By the end of the 4th century, we do have some Christian intolerance of other religions that was manifest on the political level, where pagan religions became illegal to practice. At that point you ... don't have forced conversions to Christianity; what you do have is enforced illegal religions, so the pagan religions became illegal to practice at one point.

On why there weren't more Jewish converts

Christianity started out as a group of Jesus-followers, who were all Jewish as he was, who agreed with his teachings, which were Jewish teachings. They believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures. They were Jewish.

But this message that they had — that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah after his death — simply didn't take among the Jews. Most Jews absolutely rejected the message, and they didn't think it was simply wrong — they thought it was somewhat ludicrous. Jews who were expecting a Messiah had a variety of understandings of what that Messiah might be, but the various understandings of the Messiah was that the Messiah was going to be a powerful figure who would destroy the enemies of the people of God and set up Israel as a sovereign state in its promised land. He was going to be a powerful warrior political figure.

Jesus, on the other hand, was a crucified criminal who is executed for crimes against the state. To call Jesus the Messiah struck most Jews as completely crazy. ... So most Jews simply didn't accept the Christian message, and early on at least, were quite opposed to it.

On paganism

The term "pagan" when used by a historian is not a derogatory term. There's nothing negative about it. The term pagan is simply used by historians to refer to anybody who followed any of the traditional religions of antiquity, all of which were polytheistic.

These religions were quite diverse. There were hundreds, thousands of pagan religions and in some ways it's really not fair to lump them all together and call them a thing, so that paganism in a sense is something that we've constructed out of everything that wasn't either Jewish or Christian. ...

They emphasized practices rather than beliefs, so what mattered were saying prayers and performing sacrifices, and the gods were worshipped not because of an afterlife, but because of what the gods could provide in this life. The gods can control the weather, they can make sure the crops grow and that the livestocks multiply. They can heal the sick. They can take care of people by providing them with things that people can't provide for themselves. And so all of these various religions are doing this in a variety of ways, worshipping a variety of gods, but they do seem to have these common features.

On why pagans converted to Christianity

Why would somebody give up religious practices that had been going on in their family for generations, millennia, in order to follow a new religion? The answer seems to be that the Christians were meeting the pagans on their own grounds. The reason pagans were worshipping their gods is because the gods could provide them with things that they could not provide for themselves. It was all about divine power. We can't control if it rains. We can't control if the livestock reproduce. We can't control what happens when we get sick. We can't make ourselves well, but the gods can.

What the Christians argued was that the Christian God was more powerful than any other god, that this God was active in the world. He not only brought salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, he continues to act in the lives of his followers. He heals the sick. He casts out demons. He raises the dead. This God is very active and he is more powerful than any of the others, and so it came to be a competition between the gods, where the Christians were trying to convince people that their God was the superior one.

Phyllis Myers and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Bart Ehrman, is one of America's most widely read scholars of early Christianity and the New Testament. His books, such as "Misquoting Jesus" and "How Jesus Became God," challenge a lot of beliefs and common wisdom. He was an evangelical Christian as a teenager and young man, but after his continuing exposure to religion scholarship at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he received his Ph.D., his beliefs were challenged. He wrestled with his doubts and eventually turned away from practicing Christianity to studying and teaching its history.

Ehrman is a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His new book, "The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World," is about how Christianity, which began with just a few followers, became the religion of the Roman Empire and led to the Christianization of the West, which means Ehrman also writes about the end of paganism and how pagan religions compared with early Christianity. In the book's introduction, he emphasizes that he's not celebrating the rise and eventual domination of Christianity, nor is he trying to claim it was bad. His aim is to write history.

Bart Ehrman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

BART EHRMAN: Well, thanks for having me.

GROSS: So your book on how Christianity spread through the world begins with how you started to feel doubt about your faith when you were in college. Why start your book there, with your personal doubt when you were a young man?

EHRMAN: Yeah. I debated how to start the book. And it occurred to me that in the ancient world when Christianity was taking over the religious scene, it was destroying the other religions in its wake. And people rarely think about what that meant for the people who supported these other religions. They were seeing their religion evaporate in front of their eyes.

And I realized that I had had a similar experience, that my religion had evaporated before my eyes and had been destroyed, not by an opposing religion but by my studies, by my scholarship. And I remembered the kind of anxiety and the frustration that I felt when that was happening, and it made me think, well, that's actually probably similar to what other people were feeling in the ancient world.

GROSS: But in the ancient world, a lot of pagans converted to Christianity. So they were substituting one belief system for another, whereas you had to live with perpetual doubt.

EHRMAN: Well, that's right. And they were substituting one thing for another. But in another sense, I was, too. I was turning to a more secular way of understanding the world rather than a religious way of understanding the world. So I certainly still have beliefs. They're just not the same Christian beliefs that I had when I was a young man.

GROSS: So why did you want to write a book about how Christianity spread from a small group to millions and millions of followers around the world?

EHRMAN: I've wanted to write this book for years and years, and I've always been reluctant to do it because it's such a big topic. It involves so many different things. I decided to do it because I was convinced, and still am convinced, that the triumph of Christianity was the most significant cultural transformation the Western world has ever seen. The entire history of the West was transformed by the fact that Christianity took over the Roman Empire and then became the dominant religious and political and cultural force in our civilization. And so it's such a big issue that I decided I really wanted to write about it.

GROSS: Is the story that you're telling one of voluntary conversion, or forcible conversion, or both?

EHRMAN: I think early in Christianity, it was always voluntary. People were simply deciding that the Christian God was the one to be worshiped rather than the traditional pagan gods. And for several centuries, it went on like that. We don't actually have records of forcible conversions in the sense that Christians were wielding the sword and forcing pagans to convert. We don't have that kind of thing.

By the end of the fourth century, we do have some Christian intolerance of other religions that was manifest on the political level where pagan religions became illegal to practice. And at that point, you start getting some - you don't have forced conversions to Christianity, but what you do have is enforced illegal religions. So the pagan religions became illegal to practice at one point.

GROSS: So is Christianity the first religion of conversion?

EHRMAN: That's an interesting question. In pagan religions, in the Roman world or anywhere else in the world, there really wasn't such a thing as conversion. When we think of conversion, we think of somebody turning from one set of religious practices and beliefs to another. There were certainly people in the Roman world who adopted new religions, but since everybody was a polytheist except for the Jews, adopting a new religion never meant giving up the old religion. It meant simply adding on a new god or goddess to be worshipped.

And so pagans never converted to another pagan religion. They simply added on a religion. The only thing like conversion could be found in Judaism, where if you decided to become Jewish, you would have to convert and give up your pagan religions. But there was very little evangelism among Jews. Jews didn't go out trying to win converts because most Jews simply didn't care whether you were Jewish or not. They simply wanted to be Jewish.

GROSS: Why was conversion so important to Christians? And it's remained important.

EHRMAN: You're right. It always has been, and it's one of the things that made Christianity quite distinct in the ancient world. It had to do with the nature of the Christian religion. Christians from the very beginning believed that it was Jesus' death and resurrection that could make a person right with God, and that if a person was not right with God, they would pay an eternal penalty. There would literally be hell to pay if somebody didn't convert.

And so Christians believed that their religion was the only right religion and that people had to practice their religion, or else they would go to hell. Moreover, Christians maintained that they were to follow Jesus' teachings of love. You were to love your neighbor as yourself. Well, if your neighbor's going to go to hell by not believing what you believe and you love this person, then you need to make them see the error of their ways and convert them to your faith. And so that's what Christians were doing from the very beginning, trying to convert others so that they could join the church and avoid the terrors of hell.

GROSS: What was the impulse to convert others all as benevolent as you're describing?

EHRMAN: Well, the other thing about the Christians is they thought they had the right understanding of salvation, but they were very insistent that they alone were right. People who are convinced that they have a corner of the truth naturally try to convince other people to agree with them. And so Christians had a kind of vested interest in promoting their own point of view because they thought they were right, and if more people agreed that they're right then that convinces them that they really are right. And so there certainly were some ulterior motives in the Christian mission.

GROSS: So Jesus was born Jewish, but it mostly wasn't Jews who were converted to Christianity. It was the pagans. Why weren't there more Jewish converts?

EHRMAN: This is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. Christianity started out as a group of Jesus followers who were all Jewish, as he was, who agreed with his teachings, which were Jewish teachings. They believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures. They were Jewish. But this message that they had, that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, after his death simply didn't take among the Jews.

Most Jews absolutely rejected the message, and they didn't think it was simply wrong. They thought it was somewhat ludicrous. Jews who were expecting a Messiah had a variety of understanding of what that Messiah might be, but the various understandings of the Messiah was that the Messiah was going to be a powerful figure who would destroy the enemies of the people of God and set up Israel as a sovereign state in its Promised Land. He was going to be a powerful warrior-political figure.

Jesus, on the other hand, was a crucified criminal who was executed for crimes against the state. To call Jesus the Messiah struck most Jews as completely crazy. He's a crucified criminal. He's just the opposite of what the Messiah is supposed to be. And so most Jews simply didn't accept the Christian message and, early on, at least, were quite opposed to it.

GROSS: So it was largely pagans who Christians tried to convert in the early centuries after Christ. What ties pagans together? When we say pagan now, what do we mean?

EHRMAN: Right. So the first thing to stress is that the term pagan, when used by an historian, is not a derogatory term. There's nothing negative about it. The term pagan is simply used by historians to refer to anybody who followed any of the traditional religions of antiquity, all of which were polytheistic. These religions were quite diverse. There were hundreds, thousands of pagan religions.

And it's - in some ways, it's really not fair to lump them all together and call them a thing so that paganism, in a sense, is something that we've constructed out of everything that wasn't either Jewish or Christian. But there were some features that were shared by the various hundreds and thousands of religions in the Roman world. They were all polytheistic, worshiping many different gods. They emphasized practices rather than beliefs.

And so what mattered were saying prayers and performing sacrifices. And the gods were worshipped not because of an afterlife but because of what the gods could provide in this life. The gods can control the weather. They can make sure the crops grow and that the livestocks multiply. They can heal the sick. They can take care of people by providing them with things that people can't provide for themselves. And so all of these various religions are doing this in a variety of ways, worshipping a variety of gods, but they do seem to have these common features.

GROSS: So you write, you know, basically that the common wisdom is that Christianity spread through the Roman Empire and the Western world because Emperor Constantine converted, that he was the first Christian emperor. But you don't think that really explains it. So what was the role of Constantine in spreading Christianity?

EHRMAN: Well, Constantine is extremely important, and I actually begin my book with a chapter on Constantine's conversion in part because it's important but also in part because it's traditionally said, as you were saying, that - it's traditionally said that Constantine's conversion is what made the difference, that it was Constantine's conversion that led to the Christianization of the Roman Empire. And that's what I myself thought for years and years and years. I taught that. But as I did my research on the book, I realized that it was completely wrong.

At the rate Christianity was growing at the time, it almost certainly would have taken over the Empire anyway. The reason Constantine's conversion is important is because he was the emperor of the entire empire, and he became a Christian. And he became a Christian at a time when the empire was trying to wipe out Christianity. There was a major persecution going on. Constantine converted in the middle of this persecution, and he then went ahead and made Christianity a licit religion. So it was no longer illegal to be a Christian. And one of the things that did is it turned Christianity from being a persecuted minority to being the religion of most favored status so that elites could then join the faith without any fear of reprisal.

And so this - it did make a big difference. But my contention in the book is that because Christianity was growing so rapidly at a certain rate, if Constantine had not converted, probably one of the emperors after him would have, possibly one of his sons, for example. So it's not that his conversion changed everything. It's that his conversion made Christianity an acceptable and even a favored religion.

GROSS: So Constantine eventually signs a pact with another emperor, Licinius, and you describe it as the first government document in the Western world to recognize the principle of freedom of belief. So what was this document, the Edict of Milan?

EHRMAN: The Edict of Milan - yes. So Constantine converted in 312 CE, and in the next year, he met with his co-emperor, Licinius, to discuss a number of different issues about how to divide up the empire and how to conduct their affairs. But one of the things that comes out of this meeting in Milan was Constantine insisted on issuing an edict that would - that is called the Edict of Tolerance that allowed freedom of religion.

So a person could be a Christian. A person could be a Jew. A person could be any kind of pagan, and there would be no governmental interference. This was unique in the ancient world. There was - there had never been anything like it because there never was any understanding before this that there should be a separation of church and state. The state supported religion, and so of course the state had an interest in religion.

But Constantine and Licinius passed this Edict of Milan saying that in fact a person can be any religion they want. They can practice any religion they want, and so there is to be no persecution on religious grounds.

GROSS: And Licinius was a pagan Emperor, right?

EHRMAN: That's right. Licinius was a pagan and remained a pagan throughout his life. And...

GROSS: So you had a pagan emperor and a co-emperor who was Christian.

EHRMAN: That's right. And they both agree that there are not going to be any persecutions. The way Constantine later becomes the sole Emperor is that he accused Licinius of starting to persecute the Christians again against the Edict of Milan, and he went after him and took him out of power. And then he became the sole Emperor.

GROSS: So Constantine's son was the first emperor - the first Roman emperor to order the destruction of pagan temples. That's obviously a really important step. What did that mean?

EHRMAN: Well, it's a huge step. So Constantine died in 337, and his - he had three sons who became co-emperors for a while. But two of them ended up getting killed, and so Constantius II, his son, became the sole emperor. And contrary to the Edict of Milan, he started persecuting pagans. He made it illegal for pagans to practice their religion.

The problem was that in the ancient world, it was very, very hard - in fact impossible - to enforce legislation. So what it means is that in some places, under Constantius II, paganism was made illegal. And in other places, it was still OK to practice it. But this started the process by which Christian emperors began to try to squelch all of the traditional religions - all the traditional pagan religions.

GROSS: And you're right that Theodosius, who followed - correct me if I'm wrong here - who followed Constantine's son as the emperor was the first to legislate Christianity as the one legitimate religion.

EHRMAN: That's right.

GROSS: And he ordered the end of pagan practices.

EHRMAN: He did. So this is at the end of the fourth century. This is another common misunderstanding that people have. People often say that Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, and that's not true at all. Constantine made it a legal religion, and he favored Christianity. But he certainly did not make it the official religion.

It's not until you get to Theodosius at the end of the fourth century that you have legislation coming out that makes it illegal to practice pagan religions. Temples are closed down. Sacrifices are outlawed. You simply can't practice pagan religions any longer. At this point, Christianity is about half of the empire. And so Theodosius is now avidly trying to make it the only religion of the empire.

GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk more about how Christianity spread in the early centuries after Christ's death. My guest is religion scholar Bart Ehrman. His new book is called "The Triumph Of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Ehrman, the author of several bestselling books about the history of Christianity. His new book is called "The Triumph Of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World." And Ehrman is professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

So you write that the first great missionary was Paul. So what is his importance as a missionary and in setting the tone for other missionaries?

EHRMAN: The interesting thing about Paul is that he started out as an opponent of Christianity. He himself says in one of his letters that he was violently opposed to the church and was trying to destroy it. But then he had some kind of revelatory experience where - what he says is that he actually saw Jesus alive. This would have been two or three years after Jesus' death. And this convinced him that Jesus had been raised from the dead, which of course is what Jesus' followers had been saying all along. Right after Jesus' death, his followers came to believe that he was raised from the dead. Paul came to believe it two or three years later.

Paul ended up going then on a mission to convert other people. The significance of Paul as a missionary is somewhat different from what people often say. Many people today say that Paul is the one who started Christianity, which is absolutely not true. Paul was persecuting the Christians before he himself converted. So Christianity existed before. There were people saying that Jesus died and was raised from the dead and that was the basis for salvation.

The reason Paul was significant was because Paul saw unlike anyone else did that Jesus' death and resurrection was the only thing that made people right with God, which meant that keeping the Jewish law did not have any bearing on a person's standing before God, that in fact the Jewish law was irrelevant to salvation. The reason that matters is it meant that a person could convert to Christianity without first becoming a Jew.

And so a pagan didn't have to adopt the practices of Judaism. A pagan man didn't have to be circumcised. Men and women didn't have to keep kosher or observe the Sabbath or keep the festivals - so that this then became not a Jewish sect but a worldwide religion. And Paul went out then to convert pagans, and this started the gentile faction within Christianity, which very soon took over the entire religion.

GROSS: I didn't realize that pagans were expected to convert to Judaism before becoming Christian.

EHRMAN: Yes, well, the earliest followers of Jesus were quite insistent that this was the true understanding of Judaism, that Jesus gave the correct interpretation of Judaism and that he was the Jewish Messiah and that as the Messiah, he had died for sins and that somebody had to follow Jesus in order to be right with God. But following Jesus meant doing what Jesus did, which was getting circumcised and observing the Jewish law and keeping Jewish customs. And so the earliest Christians were all Jews. And if anybody converted to Christianity, they too had to become Jewish.

GROSS: My guest is Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "The Triumph Of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World." After we take a short break, we'll talk about how pagans converted to Christianity, and we'll talk about how Bart Ehrman stopped believing in God. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bart Ehrman, a scholar of early Christianity and the New Testament. He's also a bestselling author. His new book is about how Christianity, which began with just a few followers, became the religion of the Roman Empire, leading to the Christianization of the West. It's titled "The Triumph Of Christianity." Ehrman is a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

In talking about how Christianity spread in the early centuries after Jesus, let's talk about the role of personal conversion, of convincing pagans to become Christians. What were some of the major reasons in the pagan world that were used to try to convince pagans to believe in Jesus as the son of God?

EHRMAN: My sense is that a lot of people think that the reason pagans converted was because paganism itself was dying and that there was, you know - nobody really could believe these myths anymore, and people were kind of lackadaisical in their practices and that Christianity came in and sort of filled the vacuum that was created when Paganism was dying. That appears not to be true. Paganism was thriving when Christianity was spreading in the second and third centuries. It tended to be a highly religious time.

And so the question is, why were pagans who were avidly practicing their own religion - why would they convert to a new religion? The reason it matters is because Christians were saying that if you follow our religion, you can't practice any of the others. This was completely unlike anything in pagan religions because in pagan religions, if you start worshipping a new god, you simply start worshipping that God, and you continue to worship your old ones. Christians were saying, no, if you worship our God, you cannot worship any others. So why would somebody do that?

Why would somebody give up religious practices that had been going on in their family for generations, millennia, in order to worship - to follow a new religion? The answer seems to be that the Christians were meeting the pagans on their own grounds. The reason pagans were worshipping their gods is because the gods could provide them with things that they could not provide for themselves. It was all about divine power. We can't control if it rains. We can't control if the livestock reproduce. We can't control what happens when we get sick. We can't make ourselves well. But the gods can.

What the Christians argued was that the Christian God was more powerful than any other god, that this god was active in the world. He not only brought salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. He continues to act in the lives of his followers. He heals the sick. He casts out demons. He raises the dead. This god is very active, and he's more powerful than any of the others. And so it came to be a competition between the gods where the Christians were trying to convince people that their god was the superior one.

GROSS: And what was the role of miracles in that competition?

EHRMAN: Since religion was all about divine power, miracles are where you see a god's power manifest. And so you find this already in the New Testament. Whenever people convert, it's because they've seen miracles. This begins right at the beginning of the Christian mission as found in the Book of Acts in the New Testament. In Acts Chapter 2, there's a great miracle. The Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus. They start speaking in foreign tongues that they don't know. These - the bystanders see this happening, and they're amazed. And suddenly you get 4,000 people who convert. And then the Apostle Peter does a miracle. He heals a lame person by the Temple in Jerusalem. And everybody sees this. And he preaches to the crowd, and thousands more people convert.

And so you get all of these conversions based on miracles. And as you read the Christian sources through the first, second, third, fourth centuries, what they all say is that miracles are what making people convert as outsiders see that the Christian God can do miracles better than their own gods.

GROSS: So I think I'm interpreting this correctly. One of the things you say about Christianity when it becomes, like, the official religion of the Roman Empire is that it opens the door to public policies and to institutions to tend to the poor, to the weak and to the sick but - because before that, it was understood that, you know, the victor gets to enslave the losers. And like, there was no - nothing wrong with that (laughter). That was...

EHRMAN: Well, that's...

GROSS: That was fine.

EHRMAN: Yeah, no. Well, that's - yeah, it's because in the ancient world - widespread throughout the ancient world was an ideology of dominance. The idea is that the powerful are supposed to dominate the weak. And so that's why there is no ethical problem with a stronger nation, a stronger empire destroying another empire and literally killing off people and enslaving those who are left because it's all about the stronger dominating the weaker. That's why it's fine to have slavery. Masters are to dominate their slaves. Men are to dominate their women. And this was the widespread ideology on every level.

When Christianity took over, Christianity had a different ideology. Christianity had an ideology of love. Now, I'm not saying that all Christians were loving (laughter) or that Christians didn't believe in domination because a lot of Christians certainly did. But at least what they preached from the pulpit was that people are equal and that people are to be treated as equals and that the poor and the outcast and the oppressed are to be cared for by society. And so when Christianity takes over, you start getting public institutions that help the poor, that take care of the sick. You start getting ideas of health care, for example, where the sick are to be tended to with public resources. And so that's all a product of Christianity.

GROSS: So the title of your book "The Triumph Of Christianity" - I can see that so easily being totally misinterpreted as like, yep, Christianity won 'cause Christianity is right. That's not at all what you mean.

EHRMAN: No, it's not (laughter).

GROSS: Were you worried about the ambiguity - you're talking about how Christianity spread, not how it triumphed and is therefore triumphant and great and the one best thing. Do you know what I'm saying?

EHRMAN: I know exactly what you're saying 'cause a number of my scholar friends really asked me if I wanted to call it that. And I'll tell you why I did call it that. It's because looking at it from a historical point of view, it's absolutely true. Christianity won. Christianity saw itself in competition with the traditional religions of Rome, and they wanted to defeat the traditional religions of Rome. And they did. They did win.

What I say in the book is that even though I'm calling it "The Triumph Of Christianity," I'm not writing the book in a triumphalist mode. In other words, I'm not claiming that it was a great thing that Christianity won. I'm also not saying it was a bad thing. In terms of the value, the moral judgments about whether it was great or not, I leave that to other people. I'm dealing merely as a historian, and I'm saying that Christianity did win. And I point out that this triumph had - did have obvious good sides and obvious bad sides.

I mean, the bad sides are some of the intolerance that I've been talking about in this interview about how Christians were forcing their views on others. And it led to the destruction of much of pagan culture. This is a real loss. I mean, we lost masses of artwork and literature and philosophy and the mass of things we lost.

On the other hand, the Western world gained a lot. You can't write the history of the West in terms of high culture, whether you're talking about music or art or literature - I mean, all of the artists and the musicians and the authors that we just cherish and love - they're inexplicable apart from Christianity. And so the world would have been a very different place if Christianity had not won, and it's hard to know whether it would have been better or worse. But it certainly would have been different. But so the ultimate point is that Christianity did win, and so that's why I call it the triumph.

GROSS: OK, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more. If you're just joining us, my guest is religion scholar Bart Ehrman. He's the author of the new book "The Triumph Of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS' "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is religion scholar and bestselling author Bart Ehrman. His new book is called "The Triumph Of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World." He's a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

OK, so you were born again as a young man. You were an evangelical Christian before abandoning the faith to become a scholar after being beset by doubts of various forms. And, you know, you've said on our show that one of the major reasons why you left the faith was it seemed inadequate to explain the suffering that you saw, you know, around you and in the larger world. And it just - you couldn't reconcile how if Jesus was the son of God and if Jesus brought a message of, you know, goodwill and love, like, exactly why is there so much suffering? And surely that's a question that everybody, the faithful and the secular, contend with. Was there, like, a turning point moment?

EHRMAN: Right, so there was a turning point, but it came at the end of a very long struggle. When I became a born-again Christian, I was convinced that my faith needed to be rooted completely on the Bible. I thought of the Bible as the inerrant word of God with no mistakes of any kind whatsoever. And my first movement away from that was my scholarship, where I learned Greek and started reading the New Testament in the original Greek. Then I learned Hebrew and started reading the Old Testament in Hebrew.

I started realizing that in fact the Bible's a very human book. There are contradictions in it and discrepancies and historical mistakes and all sorts of problems. And this led me away from being a completely committed evangelical Christian to being a fairly liberal Christian, which I was for a number of years. I didn't think the Bible was inerrant. I thought that God spoke through the Bible. I still believed in God. I still thought that Christ in some way reflected God and that I wanted to be a follower of Jesus' teachings. And so I considered myself still a Christian. For, you know, probably 10 or 15 years I was in that kind of situation.

It really was the problem of suffering that ended up making me leave the faith because whatever kind of Christianity I had, either a fundamentalist Christianity or a more liberal form of Christianity, I believed that God answered prayer and that God was active in the world and that God in somehow - somehow had revealed himself through Christ. And so this was an act of God in the world. But when I thought more and more and more about the problem of suffering, I came to think, you know, I really just don't think that God is active in the world.

If God answers my prayers - you know, if I get this job because I prayed for it or, you know, even if I've, you know, found this parking space because God has, you know, intervened for me, well, why is it that there's a child that starves to death every seven seconds in our world? This is a child who also prays to God. I mean, if God can get me a job, why can't God get this person food? Is it that I'm so much better than this person that God really cares about me but not about this person - and not just this one person but all day every day throughout the entire world. And I simply got to a point where I didn't believe it anymore. I just didn't think that there's a God who's active in this world. And so at that point, I decide I just don't believe it.

GROSS: Do you find any comfort in the stories in the New Testament even though you're no longer a believer?

EHRMAN: This may seem strange, but I absolutely love the Bible. I read it all the time. I study it all the time. It's what I do for a living. But it's also - this is a book that I resonate with. I don't believe in the miracles. I don't think Jesus was raised from the dead. I don't think he himself performed these miracles. I don't believe in the supernatural elements of it. But I absolutely resonate with the Bible, and I think that it's core message is something that I want to live by.

I sometimes actually call myself a Christian agnostic because even though I don't believe in God, I don't believe that Christ is the son of God, I do believe that the life of love that is preached in the New Testament is a life that we all ought to try to replicate. And I try in my own life to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus not because he was the only great ethical teacher in the world, but it's because he's the one who's in my tradition. And I think that he got it right, that a life of love is the life that all of us should strive for.

GROSS: In the beginning of your book about the spread of Christianity - and it's a historical book - you write a little personally about your own struggle with doubt when you were in college and starting to transition from an evangelical Christian to a liberal Christian and then to becoming secular.

And you quote a poem by Matthew Arnold, who you describe as the - you describe him as the great poet of doubt of his time. And this is a poem called "Dover Beach." It's a famous poem that is basically about the time of his honeymoon in 1851. And I want you to read the excerpt that you quote on page 3 of your book and just to tell us first why this poem is so important to you personally.

EHRMAN: When I started studying English literature, I was at Wheaton College, which was an evangelical liberal arts school. And I had been a conservative evangelical Christian at this point for - I don't know - five or six years and had been committed to my faith. When I started reading English literature (laughter) - when I started reading something other than the Bible, I was really taken in by the Victorian authors because in the Victorian age, people are starting to wrestle with problems that have risen not only in biblical criticism but also in the development of science and the theory of evolution and all sorts of other things that are creating doubt for the Victorians.

And a number of Victorians of course held onto their faith even while having experiences of doubt. And what I really appreciated about Matthew Arnold is that he seemed to take his doubt far more seriously than others and realized that he simply couldn't subscribe to traditional religion because it was no longer - it simply didn't make sense in the modern world.

And so in Dover - the poem "Dover Beach" is about the loss of faith in the modern world. And he ends his poem with these very, very powerful lines. (Reading) Ah, love, let us be true to one another for the world which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams so various, so beautiful, so new hath really neither joy nor love nor light nor certitude nor peace nor help for pain. And we are here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight where ignorant armies clash by night.

When I first read this, I was just floored by someone who realizes that in the world there is struggle and there is pain and there is ignorance - ignorant armies clashing by night, fighting to the death, not knowing what they're doing or why they're doing it - that the world itself doesn't provide us with the kind of peace and hope that we need. But, ah, love, let us be true to one another. It is our love for one another that can bring us through this world and can give us hope.

GROSS: And that last line - where ignorant armies clash by night - Norman Mailer's book "Armies Of The Night" comes from that. The movie - the Fritz Lang movie "Clash By Night" comes from that line. And that's a movie adapted by - from a Clifford Odets play. I mean, that line has a lot of resonance (laughter) for people.

EHRMAN: It certainly does.

GROSS: Yeah.

EHRMAN: This is - yeah, this is obvious. I mean, it's - you know, it's one of the most famous poems of the Victorian age, and this - the final line (laughter) is just - it just captures it. It captures it all.

GROSS: Your next book is going to be about the invention of the afterlife. Why is that your next subject?

EHRMAN: Well, you know, I got into it a little bit in this book because Christians of course were using their doctrines of heaven and hell in order to convert people. And I got really interested in this question of where the ideas of heaven and hell came from. The reason it's interesting is because you don't have the doctrines of heaven and hell in the entire Old Testament anywhere. And it's not what Jesus preached. So if it's not what was in the Old Testament, if it's not Jesus' teachings, where'd it come from?

It's an important question because Christians from the early centuries until now have been convinced that if you die, your soul is going to go to one place or another. And for many people, that's why they're religious. (Laughter) My students here at Chapel Hill - you know, we're in the Bible Belt here, and a lot of my students are committed Christians. But the ones who are especially committed - many of them are committed because they want to avoid the fires of hell. Or as, you know, as you might put it, their religion is a kind of fire insurance. They're trying to protect themselves from the ravages of fire.

And so if that's the case but it's not really the original Christian message, where did it come from? So it's really important for people's religion, and culturally it's really important. But it's not from the New Testament or the Old Testament. So my book is about how it came about that people started thinking this.

GROSS: It's not in the New Testament.

EHRMAN: Well, yeah, it kind of depends on how you interpret some passages in the New Testament. There's only really one passage that is a parable - a parable that seems to presuppose a heaven and a hell. It's the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, where the poor man goes to Abraham's bosom and is doing just fine, but the rich man is in - is being tormented in flames. And so in that parable, you get some image of heaven and hell.

But it's actually not what Christians tend to think of heaven and hell when you actually take apart the story, and probably it's not something that Jesus actually preached. It's something that came about some decades after his death.

GROSS: My guest is Bart Ehrman, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and author of the new book "The Triumph Of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World." This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bart Ehrman, a scholar of early Christianity. His new book is called "The Triumph Of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World."

I want to ask you a political question that's really more of a religious question, I guess. We're living in a very unusual time in American politics. Our vice president is an evangelical Christian, and a lot of his views seem to come out of that faith. At the same time, the actual president, you know, allegedly has had an affair with a former centerfold and a former porn star. So what do you make of that - do you know what I mean? - like, of the time that we're living in, with two such contradictory figures working as president and vice president and with evangelical Christians, apparently many of them, supporting the president in spite of evidence that he's lived his life in ways that really are the antithesis of what is preached by evangelical Christians?

EHRMAN: Right. It's a really big, big problem. I think it's one of the real ironies of modern American culture. For years, evangelical Christians prided themselves on being the moral majority, and issues of personal character were said to be paramount. We now have a leader of this nation who not only has affairs with porn stars and others, he's been accused by 19 people of sexual harassment and with completely believable stories. He lies openly and regularly.

There seems to be nothing moral about his life. It just seems to me that evangelicals have lost any credibility if they in fact want to say that it doesn't matter what a person's character is. For many of us, secular and religious, personal character does matter. And I think that evangelicals at least ought to be consistent on this point and recognize that the nation's being led by somebody who's not moral at all.

GROSS: Why do you think that many evangelicals are willing to overlook President Trump's personal behavior?

EHRMAN: I think this is one of the other great ironies in the evangelical community today, that the kind of social and political issues that they are most passionately supportive of are issues that are not found in the Bible and are not issues that Jesus himself talked about, issues - of course, I mean, we all know them - from abortion to gun control. And so evangelicals tend to support leaders that have the right social agenda.

And the irony is that the right social agenda may have to do with abortion and gun control, but it doesn't appear to have anything to do with the poor and the needy, and the outcast and the oppressed. The sorts of things that Jesus emphasized in his teachings have simply been swept under the carpet, and other issues have become the most important political issues of the day for evangelicals. And you would think that the evangelicals would be more interested in supporting the ethics of the Bible, but instead, they have other social issues that they're most concerned about. And if there's a candidate who supports those particular social issues then they see that candidate as a great gift from God.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

EHRMAN: Well, thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it very much.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman is a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His new book is called, "The Triumph Of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept The World." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic Roy Wood Jr. He became a correspondent on "The Daily Show" when Trevor Noah took over. He also hosts the Comedy Central series "This Is Not Happening," and last year he had a stand-up special. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.