Some years ago I spent six hours on the Greek island of Delos walking its streets and climbing among the various sanctuaries and temples dedicated to the ancient Gods of the Greco-Roman world. Delos, a tiny island 5 kilometers by 1300 meters, began as a religious center dedicated to the Ionian God Apollo. Its influence in the Greek Cycladic islands endured from the seventh to the first century BCE. The devout of many faiths from all over the civilized world came to build holy shrines on Delos, and for six hundred years worshiped their gods there. But now the site consists of crumbled ruins, whose white marble remains glisten as so many skeletons in the burning Greek sun. Apollo, Asclepius, Dionysus, Isis, Aphrodite, and the many other Gods of their generation survived into the Roman period, but to my knowledge today there is not a single active temple dedicated to the worship of these Gods, whose power captured the imagination of the people of the ancient Mediterranean world.
One modern response is to say that they were not real Gods—meaning, I suppose, that they never existed at all. I can just imagine, however, the response of the hundreds of thousands who believed in them, and through the years made their holy pilgrimages to Delos—just as today modern Christians, Jews, and Moslems make pilgrimages to the holy shrines of their faiths. The ancient believers came, offered prayers and sacrifices, and left inscriptions throughout the ancient world attesting to the power of these Gods and their influence in the daily lives of the believers. They would be shocked at the idea that Asclepius and Apollo are not "real." Nevertheless today their sanctuaries are silent and these Gods considered historical artifacts. What do modern believers in God say about the silent sanctuaries of Delos? Should they assume that these ancient Gods were simply products of the over-active imaginations of a primitive and superstitious people who lived during a naïve age?
If such popular and influential Gods can so completely pass out of fashion, or be so easily dismissed as never existing, what should one think about one's own God? Is my faith really that different from these ancient faiths, whose Gods were credited with as much power and influence in the ancient world as the Gods of current faiths enjoy in the modern world?
If there is no completely satisfying answer to these questions, they at least remind us of the character of faith: faith is not demonstrable proof; it is only the evidence of a deeply held hope. God's existence cannot be quantitatively proven—at least not in a modern scientific test-tube sense. And that knowledge should make us all a little less arrogant in our own religious beliefs, and just a little more tolerant of the beliefs of others. It also raises the issue as to whether or not the demise of the Greek Gods was the beginning of the twilight of all the Gods.*
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*An earlier version of this essay appears in Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009, 51-52.