The Atheistic Origins of Polytheism Part 4

A Modern Use of Eusebius’s Argument

While the church today does not battle classical paganism, Eusebius’s argument still holds much value for the church. It touches on the matter of the origins of religion. In this discussion, there are two basic philosophies. On the one hand, according to atheistic evolutionary thought, primitive people believed in some sort of animism and an afterlife, then they moved toshamanism, then ancestor worship, and finally the gods. Later in the development of man, the henotheistic and monotheistic religions came about. On the other hand, it is often proposed by creationists that originally there was monotheism which devolved through polytheism to animism. Eventually, through the rebellion of man, atheism rose as a predominate religious position.

Eusebius’s view, however, fits more with the former philosophy than the latter. While Eusebius did not use terms such as animism, he did note that man first worshipped the stars, which is animism in its essence. Not only does he draw this support from history, as developed above, but also from Deuteronomy 32:8:

When the Most High divided the nations, when he distributed the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.

He interprets this verse as meaning that God divided up the nations among the angels in heaven. But it was difficult for men to worship the angels because they were invisible. And so, Eusebius adds,

The angel-guardians and shepherds of the other races allowed them, inasmuch as they were not able with their mind to see the invisible, nor to ascend so high through their own weakness, to worship things seen in the heavens, the sun and moon and stars.

Thus, religion began with animism. After this stage, as developed already in this paper, men began to worship the ancestors. And after these men were worshipped, these men became gods in the minds of their followers.

Therefore, if Eusebius is correct, then it is not true that monotheism devolved into animism, because man did not gradually devolve from monotheism through polytheism to animism, rather man leaped right into animism.

However, there are some aspects of the monotheistic-devolution theory that are true. There were people who followed the true God, that is, the Hebrews. They were chosen from all the earth and they had the light of God freeing them from pagan superstition. But not all who saw this light followed God fully. And as the history of the nation of Israel shows, they devolved away from a true understanding of God into the polytheistic error.

Although the animistic-evolution view fits the data better, it does not follow that in everything the modern-atheist is correct. For, it cannot explain how man is ingrained in his nature to be religious, as some of their own studies suggests. By that model, everyone should view the world mechanistically and materially. But instead, people by nature ask questions like “who made this?” and “what is the purpose of that?” These are only questions that can be explained by a theistic worldview.

Further, Eusebius’s argument explains why man started with animism in his religion and why he still asks these questions. The answer is spiritual blindness. As Eusebius put it, these religions “arise from regions below out of long daemoniacal delusion, and are deserving of ridicule, or rather of shame, and yet more of pity for those who are still blinded” (p. 67). This blindness prevents man from seeing the light of the true religion. But at the same time, he still has the image of God in him, and so he knows to ask questions about the purposes and design of life. Yet, while he bears the image of God in his being, he cannot see Him whose image he bears but rather constructs for himself gods from what he does see—stars, animals and man. Only to those who are shown the light of the Gospel can flee from such blindness.

Conclusion

Returning to Eusebius’s main point, polytheism was truly atheism: an attempt to run from God, not to find Him.This is exactly what Paul concluded in Romans 1:21-23:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

That state would be the lot of every man, if it were not for the kind and gracious work of Christ, who redeemed the sinner, washed him from the filth of the world, and opened his eyes by the Holy Spirit. And as Eusebius humbly praised God for delivering him from such a state, so too Christians in modern day should humbly praise God for the wonderful redemption that every believer receives.

 

Selected Bibliography

Culotta, Elizabeth. “On the Origin of Religion.” Science326, no. 5954 (2009): 784–787.

Ferrar, W. J. The Proof of the Gospel Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea. Vol. 1. Translations of Christian Literature: Greek Texts 1. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920.

Gifford, E. H., trans. Ευσεβιου Του Παμφιλου: Ευαγγελικης Προπαρασκευης Λογοι ΙΕ. Vol. 1. 2 vols. New York: Oxonii e Typographico Academico, 1903.

———, trans. Ευσεβιου Του Παμφιλου: Ευαγγελικης Προπαρασκευης Λογοι ΙΕ. Vol. 2. 2 vols. New York: Oxonii e Typographico Academico, 1903.

Heiser, Michael. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.

Henning, Charles L. “On the Origin of Religion.” American Anthropologist 11, no. 12 (1898): 373–82.

Laird, Benjamin. “Eusebius of Caesarea.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Lightfoot, J. B. “Eusebius of Caesarea.” Edited by Henry Wace and William Piercy. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography: And Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principle Sects and Heresies. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

Peoples, Hervey C., Pavel Duda, and Frank W. Marlowe. “Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion.” Human Nature 27 (2016): 261–82.

Porphyry. Against the Christians, n.d.

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