We are examining reasons that 18th century historian Edward Gibbon gives for the impressive and somewhat surprising spread of the Christian faith through the Roman Empire in its first 3 centuries.
His first suggestion is quite simply the passion of the early generations of followers of Christ. They were zealous. They were unapologetically on a mission to bring the message of the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
A Secure Salvation
His second suggestion lies in the fact that these Christians believed that their salvation was absolutely secure. They did not fear that they would lose their forgiveness, or that they could somehow be ‘unsaved’ after coming to Christ. They were not striving to secure their salvation. Rather, they believed they were already eternally saved by the work that Jesus did for them on the cross. This belief in their security in Christ enabled them to persevere in the face of difficulties, displacement, hostility and numerous threats to their lives.
Their security in God made them courageous. Just as the persecution in connection with Stephen (Acts 7) had the opposite effect of silencing the church, so later persecutions caused the church to multiply and grow. This seemingly unshakable faith enabled them not only to endure but even to triumph in the face of severe persecution.
Historian A.M. Renwick writes:
‘The Christians refused to conform to many accepted customs. They would have nothing to do with idolatry, and condemned the public games where gladiators fought in mortal combat to make sport for the spectators…
They refused public office and certain public duties such as the burning of incense to the gods, or the pouring of libations…The result was that they were regarded as a morose and intolerable people. Matters came to a crisis when, in 64 A.D., the emperor Nero accused the Christians of setting fire to the city of Rome.
The public feeling against them was such that they were universally reviled. Even a writer of the eminence of Tacitus, who disliked Nero intensely, writes of Christianity as a ‘most mischievous superstition’. He accuses them of ‘abominations’, and declares that ‘they were put to death as enemies of mankind’.
The cruelties perpetrated at Rome in the Neronic persecution were unspeakable, and a vast number of Christians perished. Some were wrapped in the skins of wild beasts so that they would be more savagely attacked by dogs. Some were crucified; others were placed in barrels of pitch, or smeared with pitch and set on fire, and these living torches were used by Nero to illuminate his gardens as he drove about, enjoying the dreadful spectacle.’ (i)
Nevertheless the good news continued to spread. What was intended to silence the followers of Jesus, seemed to have the opposite effect, and multitudes were won by their gracious example, by the miracles that accompanied them and by the message itself.
Next time we’ll look at the example of the zeal and assurance one of the great Christian leaders of the 2nd century, Polycarp.
i Renwick, The Story of the Church (Leicester: IVP) p.17
© 2008 Lex Loizides