Question: "What were the mystery religions?"
Answer: Mystery religions were part of a diverse religious movement that surfaced during the first century and died out by the end of the fifth century. These cult religions involved the worship of pagan deities from Greece, Anatolia, Egypt, Persia, and Syria.
Mystery religions were so named because they consisted of strictly secret cults characterized by elaborate initiation rituals and religious ceremonies known only to those formally admitted to the group. Due to their secrecy, information about mystery religions is fragmented and somewhat difficult to decipher.
The most well-known mystery religions to emerge were the Greek cults of Demeter, Eleusinian, and Dionysus; the Phrygian cult of Cybele (the Magna Mater, or Great Mother of the gods) and Attis; the Syrian cult of Adonis; the Egyptian cults of Isis and Osiris; and the Persian cult of Mithras.
While each mystery religion was separate and distinct based on cultural influences and the myths surrounding each cult, they shared a set of commonalities. The predominant trait of each was the practice of sacred rites, called mysteries. In these secretive rituals, cultic worship of the mythological god or goddess was reenacted. Partakers committed sacrilege if they divulged what happened during these ceremonies.
Other notable common points of the mystery religions were that new members joined by choice and not by birth; membership rituals included cleansings, baptisms, and sacrifices; and salvation or redemption was a focus. Most mystery religions included a deity figure who died and came back to life, had an eschatological emphasis, and used symbolism extensively.
Mystery religions were on the rise during the same period of history that the Christian church emerged and developed. In some respects, these cults shared traits in common with Christianity. As a result, a number of historians and scholars have argued that Christianity borrowed from the mystery religions or that the mystery religions influenced Christianity; however, a strong case can be made that the opposite is true—that the mystery religions borrowed from Christianity to add to their mythologies. Besides, the similarities between Christianity and the mystery religions are merely superficial.
The mystery religions were syncretistic, which means followers could incorporate beliefs from other religions into their own set of views. This disregard for correct doctrine is a key difference between mystery religions and Christianity. Christianity acknowledges only one way to God (John 14:6) and places utmost importance on right doctrine (1 Timothy 1:1–11). There is no room for merging beliefs with other religions.
While participating in secret rituals, devotees of mystery religions sought emotional experiences and often worked themselves into altered states of consciousness, which they believed to be an elevated realm of reality. Christians, on the other hand, are committed to knowing and living according to the truth of God’s Word (John 17:17; Ephesians 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:15; Colossians 1:5; James 1:18). They practice self-control, not self-indulgence (2 Timothy 1:7).
Adherents of mystery religions often took a vow of secrecy and silence, emphasizing inward worship in private groups. There are no secret beliefs or rituals in Christianity. Followers of Jesus Christ are called to evangelize and take the good news of the gospel into all the world: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18–20).
Throughout all the ages, people have eagerly sought after religious experiences, while Satan has worked to deceive them (2 Corinthians 4:4). The mystery religions were merely the counterfeit of that age for the one true faith: “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:5–6).