History shows that early Christians throughout the Roman Empire were persecuted for practicing their religion. The power struggle between Maxentius and Constantine the Great at their battle at Milivan Bridge in 312 AD changed that.
According to reports from the time, the Chi-Rho that symbolizes Jesus Christ appeared in the sky before Constantine and he heard a voice declare, “In this sign, conquer.” Taking that as a sign from providence, Constantine won the battle and became the emperor of Rome.
As emperor of Rome, he declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, though he himself never converted until his deathbed in 337 AD.
Constantine was no fool and he realized that changing people’s minds to join a religion they once persecuted would not be easy. He decided that tangible objects related to the life of Christ would convince people to convert. He sent his mother, the 80-year-old Empress Helena, to the Holy Land in 326 AD to gather relics with links to Christ.
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According to church traditions, Helena found many relics including pieces of the True Cross, the Holy Lance, the nails used for the crucifixion, The Holy Tunic worn by Christ during his trial, and many others.
A thriving trade in relics sprang up and any church worth attending had to have its own relics. The current list of Christian relics includes the crown of thorns, a vial containing drops of Christ’s blood, the head of John the Baptist, the veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, the finger of the Apostle Thomas and my personal favorite, the holy foreskin.
Needless to say, many unscrupulous charlatans counterfeited relics and passed them off as real for a healthy profit, a practice that continues to this day. Theologian John Calvin once commented that there were enough pieces of the true cross to fill a ship. Undeterred, the trade in relics continued and the gullible faithful dutifully paid homage and tributes to the churches housing these relics.
Fast-forward 1,700 years.
Religious-themed parks and attractions have supplanted the quaint idea of holy relics and two of the most famous, the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter, are located in Kentucky. I have never attended either, but I do have a question: What exactly is the point of them?
People who do not ascribe to religious beliefs will not be converted even if they go to the sites. If anything they will laugh at the naïve tomfoolery. The Creation Museum shows tyrannosaurus rex living peaceably beside people, ostensibly because before the great flood all animals were herbivorous. Yeah, well I have never seen a cow with eight-inch pointy canine teeth.
The ark replica is not made of gopher wood, is not lined with pitch and was built by hundreds of workers using power tools. There is no biblical basis to account for the majestic prow.
Most believers will not have their faith bolstered by attending these sites because they are only the results of human imagination. Still, many will be glad to shell out beaucoup bucks for a stick one cubit long, about 18 inches. Unless UK begins reporting the heights of its basketball team in cubits, I am not sure of the utility of having a cubit stick.
True Christians who are secure in their faith know that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The only reason to build and operate these attractions is simple: to make money. When these projects were proposed and submitted to the government for tax incentives, the public was assured that they would generate hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars, but recent reports have found little evidence of either.
I am a devout Presbyterian who tries to follow the teachings of Christ, and I have just one question for the purveyors of these Biblical attractions: If Jesus Christ returned tomorrow, where would he spend his time: helping the sick, dying and impoverished or rummaging through some money-grubbing tourist trap that cynically preys on people’s faith to make a profit?
Roger Guffey of Lexington teaches math. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.