Tom Holland and the Liberating Power of Christianity
January 25, 2022

Have you heard of Tom Holland? Not the young Tom Holland of Spiderman fame. No doubt you’ve heard of him. I’m referring to the middle age Oxford-trained historian who recently wrote Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. (Both Hollands are British, so you’ll be forgiven for confusing them.) The latter Holland’s recent book is a remarkable account of how the Christian story has liberated the Western world. Without overstating it, Holland’s book is one of the top ten most influential books I’ve read. (That might be overstating it. Top fifteen.) But as much as I love Holland’s account of the Christian story, I love his personal story even more.

Holland was raised by a devout Anglican mother and an atheistic father. He went to church dutifully with his mother and learned the Bible’s stories. But at church, he always found himself more captivated by the Bible’s great imperial powers—the Persians, the Babylonians, the Romans—more so than Jesus and his lowly band of disciples. The visceral power of empire fascinated him, much the same way he was fascinated by dinosaurs and great white sharks.

When Holland was in grade school, he was a precociously thoughtful child; at the age of twelve he read Herodotus’ The Histories, a fifth-century B.C. account of the then known world (which he later went on to translate into English from the Greek), and at sixteen he read Edward Gibbons’ famous (and expansive) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbons (for those who don’t know) was an aristocratic eighteenth-century liberal historian who saw Christianity as a sort of grey breath that ushered in an age of superstition, neutering the best of western culture. The glory days of the west were rooted in Rome and Greece, Gibbons argued, not the religion started by the humble Jewish man whom Rome had nailed to a cross. The seeds of doubts planted by Holland’s father bore fruit, and the last vestiges of his mother’s faith fell away.

Holland eventually went to Oxford to study for his PhD in history. But amidst the academic tedium, and the tedium of being poor, he realized he was a good enough writer make a living without a PhD. And so he dropped out of Oxford and began writing historical novels. (He later went back and finished his PhD.) And yet even after dropping out of his program, his love of history remained. As he came into his thirties, Holland began writing histories of the Greco-Roman world— the Persian invasion of Greece, the fall of the Roman republic, the rise of the house of Cesar, the beginning of the Roman Empire; and so forth.1 In all of it, he found himself fascinated by the complete “otherness” and power of the Greco-Roman world. For Holland, Rome and Greece—like the tyrannosaurus rex and great white shark—were apex predators worthy of fascination.

Yet they were also terrifying. The more Holland delved into the classical world, the more he became glad he didn’t have to live there. Great white sharks are fun to watch on TV, but not to swim with. Not that everything in the classical world was all rapine and pillaging, but the eugenics of the Spartans, the slavery of the Romans, the routine slaughter of the gladiatorial games, the exposure of unwanted infants (most especially girls), the rapacious subjection of women, the public crucifixions and torture of criminals—like a horror movie, all of it was unsettling and terrifying, even if fascinating.

As he entered mid-life, Holland became increasingly aware of the vastly different moral assumptions that governed his the modern western world and the ancient Greco-Roman world. Where the Roman world brutalized and oppressed the weak, the contemporary western world deferred to and cared for the weak. Not perfectly, of course; but at least in ideal. No one in ancient Rome played the victim card, because victims were not admired, only despised. In the Greco-Roman world, might made right. Power was for the self-protection and self-promotion of the powerful. Generosity was only extended with a view to reciprocity.

Then came #metoo, and the moral assumptions between the ancient and modern worlds became even more stark. If all the best things about the western world were truly the fruit of antiquity, why Holland wondered, was he as a man so immediately sympathetic with the assaulted women of the #Metoo movement? His concern for marginalized and assaulted women was decidedly not Greco-Roman. In the ancient world, the sexual predation by powerful men on vulnerable women was an assumed norm, a given. Women and slaves who were unprotected by powerful men were simply for the taking. No one even bothered looking away, because none of it really mattered.

How, Holland wondered, did the Roman world in which power was the rightful preserve of the powerful, to be used in service of the self as much as one had the power to get away with, become the modern world in which human beings—even vulnerable women—had dignity, and in which power was to be used (in principle, even if not in practice) to protect the weak and vulnerable and oppressed? The tyranny of the strong over the weak still happens, to be sure. But the strong must now mask their tyranny and oppression—hide it behind closed doors, lie about it, recast it in a benign light.

Holland’s quest to answer this question resulted in Dominion. Throughout his work Holland attempts to answer a singular question about power—how did the totalizing and draconian power of the Greco-Roman world become the liberating and redeeming power of the modern western world? Holland walks his reader through more than twenty-five hundred years of western history—from Athens in the fifth century B.C. to the present day. And his answer—unexpected for one of Holland’s liberal atheistic orientation (unexpected even to himself, he admits)—is Jesus on the cross. Christianity, Holland writes, began a “revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on the cross.”2

Only because of Jesus on the cross, Holland argues, has victimhood come to be seen as something that must be respected and, where possible, rectified. So successful was Jesus’s cruciform vision of power, that in our day, the “victim card”—a card which had absolutely no currency in the Greco-Roman world—has become the ultimate trump card. The old Greco-Roman order “rooted in the assumption that any man in a position of power had the right to exploit his inferior….had ended. [St] Paul’s instance that the body of every human being was a holy vessel had triumphed.”3 The brokenness of Jesus’s body on behalf of the victimized had paved the way for the marginalized and the oppressed to be treated with dignity and honor.

In an interview with N. T. Wright, Holland likens the theology and life of the apostle Paul to a depth charge dropped beneath the turbulent sea of the Greco-Roman culture. The immediate explosion was not felt immediately; but the ripple effects utterly transformed the western world over the course of the next eleven centuries.

I can’t do his book justice in a short review. I encourage you to read his careful and compelling account of how Christianity has overturned the Greco–Roman conceptions of power that governed the ancient western world. Holland does not naively insist that contemporary western culture always embraces a Christian use of power; much that we see today runs contrary to Jesus’ vision of power. But he rightly points out that western culture universally embraces Jesus’ ideal of power—namely, that power is to be deployed in service of the weak and vulnerable. Or again, that power should be used to take the vulnerable off of crosses, rather than put them there.

But this isn’t a book review. This is an author review.

Holland has now come to see Christianity as the story of power willingly spent on behalf of the vulnerable; strength deployed to protect the weak. The story of the strong choosing to play the victim on behalf of the oppressed, to spare them from ignominy and shame. He has come to see it is a story about how Christ’s sacrificial dominion, mediated through the Church’s sacrificial dominion, has liberated, and is liberating, the western world.

So where does that leave Holland? In process.

As early as 2016, he had already admitted to being wrong about Christianity. He hadn’t become a believer in Christ, per se, but he had become a believer in the necessity of Christianity. Far from seeing Christianity as a grey breath, he had come to see Christianity as the fount of all that was good and laudable in the western world—the sanctity of individual life, respect for women, racial equality, fairness, care for the poor, and—most significantly—protection for the victims of oppression. What many secular historians naively granted to the Enlightenment, Holland had come to see as the true gifts of Christianity.

By the time he had published Dominion, he had moved further still. In an October 2020 podcast he told interviewer Glen Scrivener that he had lost faith in the secular liberal project (check out minute 59:00). This loss of faith opened up a sort of “existential abyss” for him. At the time of the podcast, Holland hadn’t become convinced of the literal truth of the Bible’s stories; but stories can be true, he said, even if not literally true. He had become sufficiently convinced of the power of the Bible’s stories to surrender to the them as true. In the end, he decided to bracket off the question about the literal truth of the stories, and to simply embrace them.

He began going to church again. How often I don’t know, but at least often enough to be disappointed in the Church of England’s response to COVID. Just pallid echoes of public health announcements, he lamented, when he had been hoping for open air services rooted in the Church’s cultural and theological inheritance. Yet not every service was a pallid echo. He wrote of one such experience.

R. S. Thomas, in one of his poems, writes of how once, “in the darkness that was about / his hearers, a preacher caught fire / and burned steadily before them / with a strange light.” That was how it seemed to me. The preacher was the Revd Anna-Claar Thomasson-Rosingh. Everything she said that early morning seemed lit by a pentecostal fire.

The readings had been on the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, and her preaching on it was visionary, scholarly, emotional all at once… My eyes were opened that morning as they had not previously been to this great tradition of Christian preaching—a tradition that has always been particularly fundamental to Protestant Christianity.

I had been reading a lot about the Spirit and the experience of grace. That morning I felt that something had descended on me—like a fire, like the dove.

I trust and pray the Lord continues to descend on Holland, like a fire, like a dove. Like the scholar of Mark 12, I think that he is not far from the kingdom of God. And aren’t we all, to varying degrees, pushing through our doubts, striving to stay faithful to the Christian community, living as though the Bible were true? I don’t know where Holland’s spiritual journey will end. God knows, of course. But I pray for him. And whatever comes of the western world, I thank God that he has used an honest atheist—who is perhaps no longer an atheist—to remind his people about the liberating power of Christianity.

Gerald Hiestand is the Senior Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, and co-founder of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He writes (occasionally) at

  1. See his Rubicon: The Triumph and the Tragedy of the Roman Republic; Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West; and Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Cesar. ↩︎
  2. Holland, Dominion, 525. ↩︎
  3. Holland, Dominion, 263. ↩︎
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