Tom Holland, the TV and radio historian and author of the prize-winning Rubicon, says he had the completely wrong idea about Christianity.
Holland realised that his false ideas about God had been cultivated in him by the works of Edward Gibbon and other writers of the Enlightenment.
He now sees Christianity as a revolutionary idea which has changed the world, and calls it the “principal reason” behind many of our most deeply-held values.
Central to the changes in his thinking were the Apostle Paul’s words: “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
In his article for the New Statesman, Holland wrote: “Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans.
“The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive.”
“In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.”
Holland writes that he had a Christian upbringing and attended Sunday school, but eventually turned his back on Christianity, preferring to explore his fascination with dinosaurs and ancient empires.
He was drawn into what he saw as the glamour of the Greek and Roman gods, preferring their ideology of egoism to biblical values.
“If they were vain, selfish and cruel, that only served to endow them with the allure of rock stars”, he explained.
Value of life
But eventually he came to realise that these societies invariably promoted cruelty and dominance.
He highlighted the Spartan practice of murderous eugenics, and Caesar’s slaughter and enslavement of the Gauls.
“It was not just the extremes of callousness I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or weak might have any intrinsic value”, he said.
Holland concluded that countries once part of Christendom “continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents”.
He calls it the “principal reason” that such societies take for granted that “it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering”.