This is the fourth article in a series. Each article is my musing with Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The articles are a little looser in nature than my others. I strived to keep them as musings. The middle part of this piece reads like a mental riff. Find the other pieces at the link above.
“Gibbon is anti-Christian!”
“I heard Gibbon blames the decline and fall on the Christians!”
“The Decline and Fall is an anti-Christian work!”
As of this writing, I’ve finished The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. After reading three thousand-plus pages, I discovered that my pastor levels far harsher criticisms against the Christians and Christian institutions than Gibbon leveled.
But here’s a hot take, as the kids say.
After finishing the work, and after learning a ton from my pastor (a man with an extensive theological background; his sermons hold an impossibly high standard in teaching and insight), I believe Christians should proudly take credit for causing the fall of the Roman Empire. Instead of seeking acceptance, as the current Pope would wish, it’s time to claim, “Yes. It had to fall. We made it fall.”
That claim I’m suggesting for Christians, we’ll get to later.
Before I read Gibbon’s work, and right when I got into it, I kept hearing two opinions. The first: It was poor values that caused the fall! Insert pet theory here. The second: it’s anti-Christian/Gibbon blames the Christians. I’ve addressed the first, elsewhere. This piece addresses the Christian bit.
When I started the work, I somewhat believed I was going to read three thousand-plus pages of Gibbon blaming Christians for the fall. Coincidentally, around the time I began Gibbon’s work, my friends and owners of Starting Strength Denver (who are also esteemed Good Word members) where I train, told me to check out their church. At the time you could say I was a church free agent. I was returning to Christianity but grumbled at the culture I came across. And they shared the gripes I had with most Churches and sermons; that many had gone woke; that the big box churches in the area were like Ted Talks; and, that most lacked intellectual, theological, philosophical, and telling-it-like-it-is rigor. I went to their church. I was blown away. The pastor, Jeff, delivers sermons akin to a Ph.D. level theology lecture. The first sermon I attended, Jeff detailed a period I had just read in Gibbon. A later sermon, he disparaged the early Christians who abused their faith to gain stations of power for selfish interests. Gibbon lays this exact criticism. When I read Gibbon, I never expected to hear much about him or the Roman Empire in my day-to-day. Except for possibly hearing Niall Ferguson or Victor Davis Hanson mention Gibbon and his work on their podcasts. My pastor, however, detailed the Roman era. He detailed the early Christianity that Gibbon had mentioned. Jeff’s sermons provided a rich and insightful background to Gibbon. This unexpected boon also imparted context to the anti-Christian claims surrounding Gibbon.
And with that, it’s time to answer the big question.
Is It Anti-Christian?
False. Distinctly false. Utterly false. False.
To those who have leveled that criticism, even to Orson Welles who famously wrote how Gibbon blames the Christians for the fall: What book are you reading?
I believe those who level this accusation didn’t read the book. Or they read maybe the first three hundred pages of the first volume, and then the last few pages of the last volume, and from there they make this claim. The claim reveals intellectual torpor.
As I read, I kept looking for this big takedown or the big blame on Christianity and I never saw it. Gibbon criticizes the Christians, sure. Gibbon castigates certain Christian figures, absolutely. Gibbon debates certain Christian doctrines, often. But among his penetrating arguments, I never once believed, felt, or arrived at — he blames the Christians. In fact, often, it’s clear he holds deep respect, admiration, and reverence for Christianity. He reveres St. Augustine. He knows his bible inside and out. He hails Christianity for helping usher in the Western world.
Edward Gibbon is an Enlightenment Thinker. The Enlightenment occurred from 1680 to 1790. Most people loosely know the Enlightenment as the Founding Fathers, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. Most people misconstrue it as a worship of rationalism and science. Those characterizations have truth but miss much. The Enlightenment pushed scientific inquiry and reasoned argument. The latter is often overlooked or accused as a form of pejorative rationalism. Gibbon is a man of his time and culture. Gibbon is a deist. His culture is Protestant England alongside a resurgence of deism. Gibbon, like others of his time, questioned certain religious practices of various religious denominations. He respects religion and its moral precepts. And Gibbon admires Christianity and Jesus Christ (as do many Enlightenment figures).
So why the anti-Christian accusation?
Gibbon questions portions of Christianity; he questions the deity of Christ; he questions certain miracles; he questions the virtues and actions of certain saints and martyrs. He aims his harshest criticism at Catholicism. I can sympathize with the argument that he’s anti-Catholic. He depicts parts of Catholicism, with its martyrs and saints, as mirroring the superstitions of pagan religions. He does depict some of the Catholic leaders as power-hungry and conniving. For instance, certain Roman figures and church leaders depicted saints as deities. And Gibbon argues that this deification stemmed from certain church leaders vying for political influence and power. He argues this behavior contradicted Catholic teachings and Christian tenets. Yet soon after Gibbon criticizes, he hails the non-conniving corners. Gibbon depicts how Christianity tempered the most violent and abhorrent parts of Barbarian culture. And he shows how Christianity bestowed morals and science to the Barbarian culture.
But posterity focuses on Gibbon’s criticisms and scrutiny of Christianity. One possible explanation: knee-jerk defensiveness. Within any religion, or belief system, or with anything people like, cherish, admire, and so on, resides a knee-jerk reaction to any question, criticism, or scrutiny. And inside of a religion, you’re apt to find people who believe any critical question of their religion equates the questioner as anti that religion. This reaction betrays psychological underpinnings: shallow understanding, blind belief, insecurity, fanaticism, guardedness, and who knows what else. It’s a similar reaction we find within political beliefs. For instance, let’s say you’re a Republican and you dislike Donald Trump. The MAGA base will call you a squish, a RINO, a NeoCon, a Biden lover, a woke Democrat, and various other pejoratives. The same happens to certain religious people. If you raise any question or criticism, that ipso facto means you’re a heathen, a sinner, an apostate.
Another reason, Gibbon’s harsh Catholic criticisms. Those criticisms fall under three categories: Machiavellian behaviors, hyperbolic writings, and oppressive persecutions.
The Machiavellian criticism arises from Gibbon seeing the Catholic church gain power. Then assert power via hardball Roman politics versus adhering to the tenets of Catholic faith. Gibbon depicts power grabs, corruption, superstition, and violence. But to focus solely on this cherry-picks and leaves out the whole. Gibbon reveals the other side. He argues early Christianity lacked a needed institution. Without that institution, Christianity was chaotic. Gibbon details how the early Catholic church built that needed institution. The early Catholics created rules, government, politics, hierarchies, and fiscal resources. Furthermore, Gibbon hypothesizes that Catholicism played a huge hand in Christianity’s survival. That theologians may argue. Regardless, Gibbon hails Catholicism as building a much needed institution. He later shows how the Catholic monasteries preserved the ideas and science needed to give rise to the West. Gibbon is even-handed. He criticizes, he questions, his deist worldview exists between the lines, but to say he is wholly anti-Catholic lacks depth.
As for the hyperbolic writing, Gibbon scrutinizes certain writings from priests and church leaders. Gibbon looks primarily at military writings. The writings where some monks made it sound as if a saint opened the heavens, killed millions of enemies, and not one Christian died. On the flip side, some priests make it sound as if billions of Christians died horrifically at the hand of pagans on one day. That hyperbole Gibbon scrutinizes.
The last thing Gibbon laments is the violent persecution. He feels and believes that persecution severely counters the Christian faith. In short, when Christians gained power, the awful persecutions they faced, they then aimed at others.
On the whole, Gibbon takes an even-handed approach. He can get a little sarcastic with the Christian doctrines, yet I never find him solely blaming the Christians or hating the Christians. In the end, I believe he gets the anti-Christian accusation from either someone who didn’t read the work in full or someone who rejects any critical question of Christianity. Or someone being manipulative; someone extracting a sliver of an argument from Gibbon, ignoring all other factors, and morphing that sliver into a sweeping argument and pawning it off as a deep because it “originated” from a big classic work. Someone being manipulative, I intuit is the most common reason for the anti-Christian claims.
Did Christianity Cause The Fall?
Gibbon does not say it, but I will: I argue that the fall occurred before the decline.
Gibbon does say, however, that it was shocking how the empire didn’t implode under its weight well before its peak.
My fall before the decline thesis stems from reflection (and with some backing from Escape from Rome by Walter Scheidel). Gibbon’s decline and fall thesis works chronologically. He details a slow steady decline beginning with Augustus, and the fall happening somewhere around 500 AD.
Why the fall before the decline?
That topic has its books, essays, and debates. The quick answer, nothing in human history has ever existed like the Roman Empire, before or after. It truly was an outlier of an empire. The most apt comparison, and no, this is not a dig at Italians, is the Roman Empire resembled the Italian Mafia. The Sopranos is a decent look at how the government, style, and culture of the Roman Empire flourished. The Roman Empire was a predatory plunder, extract, make alliance, and then conquer new territories system. How that system expanded and maintained itself for as long as it did, incredible. The fall happened when the warlord Augustus declared himself the Emperor. The Empire went from an oligarchy to a monarchy, and that, in a far too short of an argument leaving out much, is when the empire fell. That means the empire fell before Christianity could have a hand in it. Though, Christianity certainly had a hand in stopping the Roman Empire from returning.
Let’s use Gibbon’s chronological framework of decline and fall.
Using Gibbon’s historical lens and arguments, Christianity was a solvent in the decline and fall — not the sole cause. Posterity proves this true.
But first, let’s address the pet theory prospectors. Pet theory prospectors pursue one factor at the expense of a robust argument, it’s their fool’s gold. The prospectors either extract a tiny factor or inject a desired pseudo-factor, and surround either with either folksy complexity (domino effect contingencies/correlations) or a desired vision (a revisionist lens that shoehorns the idea into fashionable mores). Also, many prospectors enjoy adding a seductive conspiracy theory flair to the pet theory. The conspiracy intrigue and mystique seduces the impressionable. Gibbon falls victim to pet theory prospectors.
Let’s make it clear.
Gibbon criticizes Christianity. He says it explicitly had a hand in the fall. But he does not blame the whole decline and fall on the Christians or Christianity. Numerous factors led to the decline and fall. And numerous factors of Christianity attributed itself to being a solvent in the decline and fall. Christianity being a solvent in the fall does not equate, “therefore Gibbon is anti-Christian.”
Let’s put Gibbon’s argument into context.
Jesus was revered during his life, yet he was not as known, or, shall we say, as famous as a figure like Seneca. Before Jesus and Christianity, the Romans were largely pagan polytheists. The Roman Empire, and its gods and traditions, emulated ancient Greece with Zeus, Achilles, and so on. The Sun God, or a variation thereof, played a central role among various pagan beliefs. But various other gods existed, and to each, people worshipped or celebrated that god. For instance, before heading off to war, soldiers prayed, feasted, and sacrificed (real or symbolic) to their god of victory. These religious mores existed for a long time. Some mores lost the faith element. But the custom of the celebration, say for the God of Agriculture, many citizens viewed as a beneficial tradition for community reasons. In other words, people believed there was no such thing as a farming God, but having the town come together for a day of celebration helped keep the community bonds strong.
 Seneca and Jesus were alive at the same time.
Yet those pagan religions exalted the Roman Empire state as the most important. The deities were of the Roman Empire and were for the Roman Empire. Emperors and Empresses, after they passed, if they were deemed good, were then seen as a God.
Christianity’s core tenets clashed with the imperial state of Rome. As Jesus said in Matthew 22:21, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That marks a distinct separation, a key clash between the Roman Empire and Christian values. After Jesus died, it took time for Christianity to gain footing culturally and institutionally. Gibbon argues that Christianity and the early Christian church were at their purist for about forty days after the death of Christ. Then division happened. Factions occurred. And those factions still exist. Gibbon shows that the early factions first turned confusing over hair-splitting metaphysical debates, and then they turned violent and sanguinary. To the hair-splitting debates, these were of a metaphysical form. I’ll summarize the early big three groups. And note, this is a loose summary, not summa theologica.
- This metaphysical belief is the cornerstone of Catholicism (along with some others). And that is, the Trinity: God is the son, the holy spirit, and the Father. In imperfectly stated words, Jesus Christ is the son of God, is a God, and is the Holy Spirit. All are God, but each is not the other.
- A group believed Jesus appeared first as an apparition on the banks of a river and then took the shape of a man. This group rejects the Virgin Mary story entirely. This group faded out after a few decades.
- Another group also rejected the Virgin Mary story, yet believed Jesus was a man, and born to Mary and Joseph (with Joseph as the biological father). From here, the group splits. Some believed Jesus was a demigod. As in, God chose him to be his son. And other hair-splitting arguments believed Jesus was deified, or chosen to be a deity before he was born.
I should mention a fourth group. This group believed Jesus was not a deity. That he was a man. Yet it splits again. One split believed Jesus was so close to God’s teachings that he was chosen by God. Whereas the other split believed Jesus knew or lived the message of God so close that he was a kind of sage, or being higher than a prophet.
Internal discord plagued these groups. They fought each other, violently. They each saw the other as evil. These groups shaped and developed for around a hundred years before they found much footing with other people. But by the time they gained some footing, they were still fighting each other (and those fights still occur today, and can still get bloody).
Take all that and put it into the atmosphere of Rome. You have a discordant group of pagans, but those pagans still celebrate the traditions of the Empire. Then the Christians arise, yet not as a cohesive. They are plagued with sanguinary discord and trifling metaphysical divisions. Then, the Neo-Platonists emerged in the 3rd Century AD and injected themselves into Christianity. This group descended from Plato. And while it might be too reductive, a simple way to describe them, they were mystics. Or perhaps, superstitious is the better term. This group, more or less, were thinkers than a school of thought. The mystic bit comes from their beliefs on souls and the world’s soul. They believed evil didn’t exist, but that evil was a shadow. Stay with me. The short of it is, this group began fomenting internal discord and divisions. This group splits, and one split preaches how martyrdom is a fast way to heaven. They said the world of flesh is limbo or hell, and if you commit a crime in the name of Jesus or Christianity, are sentenced to death, you will get sent to heaven instantly. This group lined themselves up to get slaughtered. And it was a sizable number. They would commit a crime, or claim they did, and then hope to get killed in order to leave this world and enter utopia. That came across as distasteful and crazy to many people.
The pagans were not squeaky clean. Some were still sacrificing animals, and some marginal groups, quite possibly, sacrificing virgins or children. Some of the Sun God worshippers enacted bizarre rituals and dances that quickly descended into sensual hedonism.
By the time Christians moved from fringe group to sizable group, Roman society, especially when Commodus took over, started feeling the effects of discord. In particular, patriotism began waning. Instead of fighting for Rome, it was fighting for a certain figure. Arts, culture, and literature, foundered in the name of not wanting to do difficult things.
Rome was plagued by discord, chaos, violence, depravity, and a foundering of civic values and civic tastes. Then, the Christians, a discordant and internally violent group, started calling anything from the pagan era as evil. Some groups accused the lessons of Aristotle or of the Stoics as demonic. That Aristotle preached the word of Satan. Yet, this confused people, since the lessons of Aristotle or the Stoics resembled many of the lessons and moral precepts of Christianity. Then fanatical Christians wished to remove all statues and books, most anything in fact, pre-dating Christ, seeing it as evil or unholy.
Early Christians faced abhorrent and appalling persecution. Yet, when they gained positions of power, they persecuted the pagans using the same violent and abhorrent tactics once used against them. It became a battle of persecution. You had a discordant group of pagans persecuting a discordant group of Christians. Then you had a discordant group of Christians persecuting a discordant group of pagans. This oscillating battle of persecution destabilized communities and destabilized traditions. When the Christians became the de facto power, the discord remained. The Trinity sects faced off against the Arian sects. Arianism rejects the divinity of Christ but says the Son of God was created by the Father. The violence between these two groups lasted for centuries (the battle still exists today).
Gibbon details how the Catholic Church when it developed an institutional framework and a political structure, that gave Christianity the footing it needed to survive. And when the Catholic church found its footing, paganism began dying out. This, as Gibbon details, created a vacuum. It created a vacuum in the political and militaristic sphere. The previous emperors and generals used pagan deities to galvanize soldiers or citizens. It worked like a tactic. If soldier moral sunk, use a deity to stoke courage. If the crops were bad, use a deity to pacify the farmers. This deity galvanization had ingrained itself into Roman culture. Gibbon argues that some in the Catholic church recognized this deity galvanization tactic. And that some church leaders abused the tactic for their interests.
A feature of Gibbon’s writing, binary analysis. Simply put, he shows two sides of the coin. And Gibbon surrounded Christianity with binary analysis. Returning to the saint as deity tactic, on one side, Gibbon shows how the tactic was abused. How Catholic leaders pushed superstition or would use the claim of a vision when they wanted certain ends met. As in, trying to use a vision to push a political agenda. Or claim a saint as a deity who would accompany a legion of soldiers on a mission and ensure they would win. Gibbon noticed if the legion of men had won that the Church would write a hyperbolic essay saying the Saint opened up the heavens and destroyed the others without a life lost. On the flip side, if the legion lost, the Church leaders would write a hyperbolic essay, putting the death toll astronomically higher than possible. As in, if 30,000 men died, the Church leaders would say 600,000 men died, and exaggerate gruesome deaths at the hands of pagans, and layer in that it happened because there wasn’t enough belief in the saint or church — aka Catholic Guilt (if you were raised Irish Catholic like I was, then you know exactly what I mean). But then Gibbon reveals the other side. Gibbon argues how the use of saints, bordering on deification but not quite, helped spread Christian values. He sees it as a stabilizing factor. He sees it as a potent method. He references Augustine as a savvy religious leader who understood the Christian way of taking up a fight. Gibbon doesn’t say these men or leaders lied, but they knew politics, they knew tact, and they could be Machiavellian in a positive way. That Gibbon admires and hails as good. Gibbon details this religious statesmanship as needed to create Christian institutions. And later, Gibbon hails this statesmanship as having a hand in saving and preserving literacy and science.
His binary analysis is overlooked. Yes, Gibbon does lean more on the negative side. He uses his signature tongue-in-cheek twists and eye-wink sarcasm. At times, he will get harsh on Catholics. But posterity seems to focus only on that negative side and ignore the other. Gibbon does tip the scale in one direction but it’s not fully tipped. Ignoring the other side of his binary analysis, and whoever is doing the ignoring is either intellectually dishonest or an ignoramus.
My Take; My Closing
I’ll leave you with a different take.
I’m a Christian. And since returning to Christianity, I noticed issues within Christianity. I noticed the Ted Talk sermons. I noticed the Vatican going woke, and turning obsequious to the Progressive Enlightenment. I noticed Unitarians looking like their code isn’t Christianity, but that it’s whatever Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez tweets at a given moment. I noticed the moralizing dorks who wish to judge others, but not allow judgment on their virtues. I noticed the lame sermons by priests or the self-righteous “I had a vision” near healer talk. I noticed the pastors on Father’s Day obsequiously saying, “While today is for Dads, we wouldn’t be anywhere without strong women, and maybe today, we need to sit back as men and let women show us the way!” But those things do not define Christianity. Those are issues found in some areas of Christian culture. And my pastor calls that out and does so far harsher than Gibbon. And a key issue my pastor calls out is the underlying desire, and that desire’s various flavors, of Christians seeking fashionable cultural acceptance. When I finished Gibbon, I noticed some Christians decry Gibbon as anti-Christian. Others just want to say defensively, “We didn’t cause the fall!” Both rub at being accused of causing the decline and fall.
I have a different tack. And my pastor wielded influence over this tack. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but truth resides in it.
I’m proud the Christians played a part in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was an oppressive, militaristic state. It was brutal, depraved, and often ignorant. Sure, noble people existed, and the Empire bestowed posterity with benefits. But the biggest gift to posterity was its fall. It had to fall. Its fall led to the rise of the West. It led to higher standards of living. What Aristotle, the Stoics, and Jesus spoke for, came to life after the fall of the empire. But Aristotle couldn’t get it done. The Stoics couldn’t get it done. Jesus and his followers got it done. They helped topple the brutal and ignorant Roman Empire. A better world emerged after the fall. When someone says, “I heard Gibbon blamed it on the Christians.” The right reply is, “He did. He recognized that only the Christians could get it done and give rise to the West.”
Is it the worst thing for Christians to lay claim to the fall of a depraved empire?