Ancient nature religions, long thought dead by many, are reemerging across Western nations. Why is this happening? And what does it portend?
What is driving this global trend? Where is it leading? What does it mean to you?
The twenty-first century has witnessed remarkable historic events—the rise of Russia after the demise of the USSR, the resurgence of militant Islam, the rise of China, the fragmenting of the European Union, and ever-deepening divisions in the United States. However, one of the most surprising events has been the reemergence of ancient pagan ideas and traditions in Western nations once considered “Christian.”
As part of this global trend, Iceland has constructed its first temple in over 1,000 years to worship the old Nordic gods Thor and Odin. In England, thousands gather at Stonehenge on the summer solstice to greet the rising sun—as ancient pagans once did. In Edinburgh, Scotland, performers painted as red devils entertain crowds to celebrate the ancient Celtic Fire Festivals of Beltane and Samhain, while many gather at ancient U.K. sites to burn a wicker man—as Druids once did. In America, thousands travel to Burning Man festivals catering to uninhibited behavior resembling old pagan practices.
In Greece, Hellenists are promoting the worship of the ancient deities Zeus, Apollo, and Athena, while at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, children write prayers to Aphrodite or Venus, the Greco-Roman goddess of love and lust—and patron goddess of prostitutes. In Eastern Europe, people celebrate ancient fertility rites by dancing around and jumping over fires, customs from a pre-Christian past. In Russia, church leaders note with concern the growing interest in pagan traditions. In America, the fastest-growing religion is witchcraft, and statues promoting satanism appear on public grounds. The U.S. Air Force Academy has even constructed a pagan chapel.
Why should the return of paganism matter to progressive Western nations today, where tolerance, acceptance, and diversity are promoted and celebrated? Is there a largely unrecognized significance to the dramatic changes taking place? Are we ignoring important lessons of history? If so, what consequences await us in the days ahead? Why should you be concerned?
To grasp the significance of what is happening, we need to understand the ideas and practices that permeated the pagan world, and how they differ from those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The term pagan was initially used to describe anyone who did not believe in the God of the Bible or follow biblical guidelines. The thoroughly pagan Greco-Roman world—given to idol worship and adopting gods and practices of other religions as if they were interchangeable—provides one ancient example. Such concepts and practices were totally at odds with biblically influenced religion. The Greeks and Romans were a mix of polytheists who worshiped many gods and goddesses, pantheists who believed that “god” was everywhere in nature, and what we now call atheists, worshiping no god at all. Such pagans had no knowledge of the God of the Bible (cf. Acts 17:23). The idea of one true, personal God was generally foreign to them.
In Greco-Roman paganism, there were few fixed creeds. Truth was relative—there was little comprehension of absolute right and wrong, and no real concept of sin, guilt, or judgment. Each person decided his or her own path through life. Pagans focused primarily on earthly life, gratifying physical desires, and pursuing personal happiness. While deceptively appealing and subtle in some of its errors, it does not take much research to see that the whole of the pagan approach is utterly alien to what the Bible reveals.
Unlike the God of Scripture, the gods of the Greek pantheon, for example, were promiscuous. Myths abound with tales of their lust, envy, murder, and other gruesome deeds. Open sexuality and debauchery characterized many pagan ceremonies—especially the spring and midsummer fertility festivals. The worship of Aphrodite involved visits to temple prostitutes that generated revenue for the temple, which the Bible also condemns (Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 23:17). In Greco-Roman society, fornication, homosexuality, and the sexual abuse of children—advocated by Plato and practiced by the Spartans—were common and accepted. Art that we would term pornography was everywhere. The Roman baths, inns, and taverns were locations for gratifying any kind of physical desire. One reason pagans saw biblical religion as a threat was that they feared the Bible’s teachings about sex would “turn the lights out on that merry dance” (Steven Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City, p. xiii).
The Bible teaches that children are a gift from God (Psalm 127:3–5) and that they are precious in His sight (Matthew 19:13–15). However, in the ancient pagan world, infanticide was common. Aristotle advocated killing children for population control and to eliminate malformed infants. History records the case of a Roman citizen advising his wife that if she had a child while he was away, she should keep it if it were a boy but kill it if it were a girl (Ken Spiro, WorldPerfect, pp. 6–7). The pagans of ancient Canaan and Carthage burned babies alive as sacrifices to the god Baal, hoping to receive, in return, rain or safe voyages—a practice the Scriptures clearly condemn (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 18:10). The Bible also states that human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27) and not to kill each other (Exodus 20:13). Yet, in the pagan world, human life had little value. Not only killing in battle, the Romans also killed for entertainment on a massive scale, and thousands of people died as crowds cheered in arenas scattered across the empire.
Why is an understanding of ancient pagan ideas and traditions relevant to us today?
In recent years, there has been a growing realization that the spread of Christian ideas in the West and general respect for the Bible did not eliminate paganism. Many ancient ideas simply went underground and have begun to reemerge in today’s more favorable climate. For the last several centuries, Europe and America have become increasingly secular as pre-Christian ideas and traditions have gained acceptance. Today, the Western nations, once considered “Christian,” appear to be in the midst of a “pagan revival,” as noted in a December 2018 New York Times article titled “The Return of Paganism.” Many concepts viewed as “progressive” in our modern society are actually part of the reemergence of pagan ideas that stand in total contrast to the teachings of biblical Christianity—and those ideas have consequences.
Commonly accepted ideas today—that God does not exist, that the Bible is not divinely inspired, that all religions are equally valid, that absolute values of right and wrong do not exist, and that there is no such thing as sin—were all expounded by ancient pagan philosophers. Just as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, pornography, and infanticide were condoned and widely practiced in the ancient pagan world, these activities are increasingly common and even celebrated today. The “secular humanism” that dominates modern society is, in many instances, a thinly disguised “neo-paganism” asserting itself in our twenty-first century culture. In fact, a Google search for “modern paganism” or “contemporary paganism” demonstrates a startling level of interest in bringing ancient, pagan practices back into prominence. But how could the anti-Christian values and ideas of paganism displace Judeo-Christian values that have seemed so firmly woven into the culture of Western civilization for so long?
The fertile ground for the decline of Christian influence and the return of paganism was actually prepared during the early centuries of Christianity. As the Church grew and spread throughout the Mediterranean world, it encountered many pagan ideas and practices that some did not discard, but rather adopted and absorbed into their doctrine. These customs were popular, and apostate church leaders reasoned that incorporating them would make it easier for pagans to convert to this new religion. The biblical Sabbath observed by Jesus, the apostles, and early Christians (Luke 4:16; Acts 13:14, 42–44; 17:1–2) was abandoned in favor of Sunday, a day already acknowledged by pagans who, like Emperor Constantine, worshipped the sun. The popular winter festival of the Saturnalia—a time of gambling, merry-making, and social role-reversal—was renamed “Christmas” and observed as Jesus’ birthday, despite the total lack of biblical support for the major deviation from original Christian practice that the festival represented. (See Gerald E. Weston’s article “Does Christmas Matter?,” on page 18 of this issue.) The pagan springtime fertility festivals with eggs, rabbits, and sexually-oriented activities honoring Aphrodite and Ishtar (“the queen of heaven”) were adopted by increasingly apostate leaders and named “Easter” under the guise of remembering Jesus’ resurrection—even though the Scriptures condemn these practices (see, for example, Jeremiah 7:18; 44:18–23; Ezekiel 8:15–18). It is unsurprising that some Christians begin to question their faith when they look into the origins of these major holidays.
The historical evidence is undeniable: Professing Christians who claimed to follow the teachings of Jesus borrowed many ideas and customs from the pagan world, something the Bible clearly warned against (Deuteronomy 12:29–32; 16:21–22; 18:9–12). Historian Will Durant has stated, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it… [The] Greek mysteries passed down into the impressive mystery of the Mass… From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity… the adoration of the Mother and Child… From Phrygia came the worship of the Great Mother… Christianity was the last great creation of the ancient pagan world” (Caesar and Christ, p. 595). Others have documented that many non-Scriptural practices of modern, mainstream Christianity—crosses, crucifixes, church steeples, shrines, clerical vestments, relics, Sunday worship, and even the title Pontifex Maximus—were “lifted directly out of pagan culture in the post-apostolic period” (Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity?, p. 6).
While many assume the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s restored true, biblical Christianity, this is simply not true. Although some non-biblical practices were eliminated or weakened—such as indulgences, confession to a priest, praying to saints, rosaries, the ideas of purgatory and transubstantiation, and the role of the pope—many other doctrines of pagan origin were retained. Although the Reformation severed Protestantism from the ecclesiastical control of the Roman church over doctrine and practice, the new emphasis on religious freedom “opened the doors to wider dissent and to irreligion as well” (Harold Lindsell, The New Paganism, p. 42). The irreligious fruits of the Reformation emerged in the centuries that followed.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that emerged in Europe in the 1700s, and it played a pivotal role in reviving ancient pagan ideas that continue to shape our modern world. Critical thinkers of the Enlightenment resented the corruption, extravagance, and oppressiveness of the Roman church, and they were driven by the winds of change the Reformation generated. Over the years that followed, critics launched unremitting attacks on Christianity, the Bible, and God. Their weapons included the rediscovery and popularization of pagan Greco-Roman writings and the misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misuse of discoveries in the natural world.
Like their ancient pagan predecessors, the “neo-pagans” of the Enlightenment focused on the natural world, and they rejected the idea of one supernatural God who intervenes in human affairs. Enamored with human reason, they mocked the idea that the Bible is a divinely inspired book containing accurate history and universally applicable moral laws. The rise of so-called “higher criticism” in Western academia generated claims that many books of the Bible were spurious, that miracles are impossible, that Jesus was not the divine Son of God—just an itinerant preacher in Palestine—and that His resurrection was staged, invented, or imagined.
This anti-Christian perspective was aided by scientific discoveries and theories that appeared to contradict a religious worldview—partially due to unfounded (and unbiblical) superstitions that had become associated with “Christianity.” Copernicus had already demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun and not the reverse. Medical advances revealed that diseases were not always caused by curses from God, but by germs—and seemed to be preventable through new medical practices. These and other discoveries all fell in the realm of the natural world that the pagan philosophers focused on, and appeared to some to paint God and the Bible as unnecessary products of human imagination. Within an atmosphere of eagerness to reject the supernatural, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution—which claimed to explain the living world without appealing to a Creator—found a ready audience.
Such cultural changes during and after the Enlightenment produced a momentous shift in the worldview of Western nations that had functioned on a Judeo-Christian foundation for the better part of a millennium. The spirit of the age presumed that human reason could replace biblical revelation as a guide to truth, that the scientific method was more trustworthy than Scripture, and that a secular approach to life would lead to happiness and a better world. These anti-Christian ideas were gifts of the Enlightenment that have infiltrated our universities and shaped the troubled world in which we live—where paganism has returned as biblical religion has declined. However, as Yale historian Peter Gay has noted, the critics, skeptics, and reformers of the Enlightenment “were modern pagans” whose paganism was “directed against their Christian inheritance” in an effort to create a world free of moral restraints (The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, pp. xi, 8).
We need to ask several important questions. What is the real significance of the modern revival of ancient pagan ideas and traditions? What is driving this historic shift? Why is it happening today in the Western world? Where is it leading?
In recent decades, numerous observers have recognized that we are slipping backward into the equivalent of a pre-Christian past. Historian Jacques Barzun noted that, over the last 500 years, “the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere,” and that secular ideas and practices—largely stemming from the Enlightenment period—“are bringing about its demise” (From Dawn to Decadence, p. xv). British journalist Ferdinand Mount has observed that “the society that is now emerging bears an astonishing resemblance… almost eerily so, to the ways in which the Greeks and Romans lived,” emphasizing physical pleasures, gratuitous violence, unlimited sexual freedoms, multiple gods, and no sense of guilt (Full Circle, p. 1). While some have resisted these “progressive” changes, our secular Western societies as a whole continue to jettison biblical values and absorb thoroughly pagan ones—clearly heading down a dangerous path.
Nearly 80 years ago, social critic T. S. Eliot noted that the future of Western societies would be determined by a contest between Christianity and what he called “modern paganism” (Pagans & Christians in the City, p. 8). A generation later, theologian Carl F. H. Henry warned that neo-pagans were threatening “to undermine the foundations of Western civilization” and that the already visible result of their ideas was “moral and intellectual decay paralleled only by Pompeii and Sodom” (The Twilight of a Great Civilization, p. ix). Today, numerous scholars recognize that there is a powerful religious element to the “culture war” being waged within Western civilization, as essentially pagan and godless ideas come into conflict with long-held Judeo-Christian values and biblical concepts.
The Bible reveals that the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:3–4) is Satan the devil—an entity most modern pagans do not believe even exists. This is unsurprising, as Scripture also reveals that Satan has deceived “the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). He is the demonic “author” of the spiritual confusion and carnal attitudes driving the return of paganism and corrupting the Bible-influenced foundations of Western civilization. The creatively destructive leaders of the Enlightenment and their modern disciples are Satan’s unwitting accomplices (see 2 Corinthians 11:3–4, 13–15).
Few realize that the dramatic cultural shift we are witnessing was actually predicted nearly 3,000 years ago in the Bible. The rise of Western civilization was not an accident. God anciently revealed His laws, religion, and way of life to the ancient Israelites (Exodus 20) so they could be a light and example to the world (Deuteronomy 4:6–8). The Israelites entered into a covenant with God that promised blessings for obedience and serious consequences for disobedience (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28)—consequences that included going into captivity for turning away from Him. Following their Assyrian captivity, the northern Israelite tribes migrated into northwest Europe and America, where God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants were fulfilled in the rise of several Western nations (see Genesis 12:1–3 and our free resource The United States and Great Britain in Prophecy). Satan’s current activities especially target these modern Israelite nations.
Moses thundered numerous warnings to the ancient Israelites about the consequences of forgetting God and turning to other gods (Deuteronomy 6:14; 7:16; 8:18–19; 12:29–32), and recorded a sobering prophecy about what would happen to the modern Israelite nations as they approached the end of the age. He was inspired to warn, “For I know that after my death you will become utterly corrupt, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you. And evil will befall you in the latter days, because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 31:29). Jeremiah also warned that “the time of Jacob’s trouble” would come upon Jacob’s descendants—modern-day Israelite nations—“in the latter days” because of their embrace of ideas and behaviors that God condemns (Jeremiah 30:1–25). With the resurgence of outright and unmasked paganism in many Western nations, these ancient prophecies are coming true today.
Seeing how anti-Christian ideas and practices are spreading throughout the Western world today, it appears that many have failed to learn the lessons of history. We are repeating the mistakes of the ancient Israelites—despite the examples God recorded in the Bible for our benefit at the end of the age (1 Corinthians 10:1–11). While our modern nations may not repent of turning away from God, you can learn from these examples and avoid the coming consequences—if you recognize and avoid the ideas and practices rooted in the modern return of paganism and begin sincerely seeking the God and way of life presented in the pages of Scripture.