I spent a few hours at the British Museum two days ago. Primarily, I was looking for ancient images of gods, goddesses, angels, demons, and monsters among the numerous collected pieces from Babylon, Assyria, Greece, Cyprus, Rome, and Celtic Europe.
I had never really thought about how much imaginations and perhaps experiences were common in the ancient world, at least when our ancestors turned their thoughts to the supernatural. They seemed to see related images in their minds’ eyes.
Monstrous deities, as well as monsters assembled from various parts of different animals, were incarnated by ancient peoples in terracotta, bronze, and various types of stone. Winged human-like figures were fairly common — people have been imagining something like angels outside of, and in some cases long before, Jewish and Christian cultures represented angelic beings in art and literature.
Sometimes, ancient people would wear amulets to protect themselves from a certain demon or evil god. Sometimes, they would wear an image of the same grotesque creature they were seeking to deflect.
There seems to have been many gods, goddesses, and demons for some ancients cultures to remember; imagine trying to keep up with the god for good crops and the demon that attacks childbirth and the goddess of protected travel and so on.
Into this grotesque and horrific situation of beliefs and practices, Jesus enters human history. This is why the Christian believes that “people living in darkness have seen a great light” (Matthew 4.16). The true God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14). Instead of a grotesque, unseen beast that must be bribed with sacrifices and spells, the God who was born into human history was fully human as well as fully divine.
Even though Jesus’ ministry largely addressed the Jewish beliefs and practices of his day, we know from his dealings with the Samaritan woman (John 4), and from the statement made by the Roman soldier at the crucifixion (Matthew 27.54), and later from the testimony and writings of Paul, that salvation was from the Jews but not exclusively for the Jews. Jesus was offering freedom and peace to those bound to fierce, vicious, grotesque gods outside of the Jewish heritage.
Instead of living in fear and attempting to placate gods through sacrifices and spells and amulets, ancient peoples now had the possibility of peace with God through faith in a sacrificial, atoning, redemptive death — a God who said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11.30). Granted, the believers in this new faith struggled to spread the message, but a new era had dawned. “People living in darkness [had] seen a great light.”