Recently I was asked to present a Sunday evening public address to the title: “The Jews – Against All Odds”. Although I had spoken many times before on the subject of the Jews, it made me think afresh as to how incredibly unlikely from a human standpoint the survival of God’s people down through history has been. Their survival was indeed “against all odds”; and it made me think of how many other “against all odds” events in biblical history had occurred which would be of interest to consider. Such events not only show us the power of God outworking in human affairs but also serve to strengthen our faith.

There are no doubt many events we could consider but in this series we will look at just a few to illustrate the point.

Christianity Supplants Paganism

As a start, take the incredible circumstances that led up to the overthrow of paganism as the official religion in the Roman Empire. The sixth seal in Revelation 6 describes dramatic events of the first great earthquake of Revelation, the beginning of the overthrow of paganism in the empire.

From a human standpoint this would have seemed a most unlikely event. Prior to the events outlined in the sixth seal, the Emperor Diocletian followed by his successor, Galerius, unleashed over a ten-year period (303–311 AD) such a violent persecution of Christians that it seemed that Christianity would be wiped out. Such a violent persecution is graphically outlined in the words of the fifth seal of Revelation 6:9–11: ”And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony they held; And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given to every one of them; and it was said to them; that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled”.

Diocletian initiated his wave of persecution on the 23 February, 303 AD, which was the day of the Feast of Terminalia. On this feast day sacrifices and offerings were made to the Roman god Terminus – the god who protected boundary markers and limits.

Ancient boundary stone altars have been found with the words: “Yield no ground,” inscribed on them. This signified how Terminus, as their god, was expected to protect the boundaries of properties. So for Diocletian, the 23 February (which also happened to be the last day of the ancient Roman calendar), was a fitting day to unleash his violent persecution to send a clear message to the Christians and society in general that he was to yield to the Christians no longer – they had reached a boundary and would be stopped at all costs. So defeat of these pagan forces would seem to be “against all odds”!

In 312 AD, Constantine, one of the four emperors vying for sole rulership of the Empire, was on his way from Gaul to Rome to confront Maxentius (another of the four), when he is reported to have seen a remarkable vision in the sky of the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion with these words above: “In this conquer”. Constantine was already favourably disposed towards the Christians and he took this vision as a sign from the God of the Christians that he was to conquer and be victorious in the name of Christ. So he marched on to Rome, and in a remarkable victory the same year, defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge over the River Tiber. These events are described in Revelation 6:12–14: “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, … And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places”.

A year later, in 313 AD, Constantine, now emperor in the West in association with the Eastern emperor Licinius, proclaimed the famous Edict of Milan in which Christianity was legalised as one of the official religions of the empire, and brought an end to the persecution of Christians.

So dramatic was the change in the fortunes of the ‘Christians’ (most of whom, sadly, were by now no longer ‘true’) that the established Church (a forerunner of the Papacy) saw this time as if the Kingdom of God had at last arrived, and the man Constantine was likened to Christ himself reigning on earth. Revelation 6:15–17 describes thus the scene: “And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every freeman, hid themselves in the dens and the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?”

The language of verses 15 and 16 is taken from Isaiah 2:17–21 which unquestionably refers to the chaos preceding Christ’s Kingdom. In 380 AD Christianity became the official religion of the empire, and Paganism was ousted. So in the space of less than 80 years, Christianity had gone from being a violently persecuted religion to the only official religion of the empire! Such an event was clearly “against all odds”.