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Dying to be Faithful
Persecution brought out the best and worst in the early Christians.
"Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—only let me get to Jesus Christ!"
Hardly the stuff of Sunday morning conversation in the 21st century. Ignatius, a bishop in Antioch, wrote these words in a letter to the Roman church in the early second century. He had been arrested for being a Christian and knew that a grisly death probably lay before him. Yet he looked forward to it almost joyfully. Why?
Ignatius and many other believers in his time were dealing with dilemmas most American Christians will never have to face: "Should I go to the local executioner and volunteer to die for my faith, or should I try to avoid being arrested at all costs? Is it okay to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods just once, if it means staying alive? Does martyrdom bring me closer to the sufferings of Christ? Are martyrs more special than the rest of us?" Questions like these shaped early Christianity.
The unpopular crowd
Despite what many people imagine, the early church was not constantly on the run from wild beasts, torture chambers, and fiery deaths. For the first three centuries of itsÂ existence, Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. But at first it was only a tiny sect, hardly worth the notice of the emperors.
This began to change with the emperor Nero. In A.D. 64, a fire destroyed 10 of the 14 city wards in Rome. Though Nero probably wasn't playing the fiddle at the time, as the legend goes, he was unspeakably cruel and perhaps even insane. To deflect public suspicion that he had ordered the fire to be set, Nero blamed the Christians.
The historian Tacitus (who called Christianity a "deadly superstition") said Nero had believers killed in a kind of circus in his public gardens: "Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to flames. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed." The apostles Peter and Paul probably died during this time.
Fortunately, torturing Christians for amusement wasn't the usual practice among Roman authorities. Persecution happened from time to time in various places, but there were also periods of relative peace and toleration. Some officials tried to make sure Christians were treated fairly.
But the suspicions Nero aroused damaged the Christians' reputation. Public hostility towards Christians grew. Rumors spread about their secret practices. They were seen as superstitious, anti-social, and disloyal to the emperor. They undermined Roman society, in which pagan religion played a crucial role. They became scapegoats. The early Christian writer Tertullian complained, "If the Tiber floods the city, or the Nile refuses to rise, or the sky withholds its rains, if there is an earthquake, famine, or pestilence, at once the cry is raised: 'Christians to the lions!'"
Bearing the name
Around the year 155, persecution broke out against the Christians in Smyrna in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Believers were being fed to the wild beasts in the arena and burned alive. The crowd began to call for the Christians' leader, so the authorities brought in Polycarp.
Polycarp had been a disciple of the apostle John and was a revered elderly leader of the church. The proconsul pled with him: "Curse Christ and I will release you." Polycarp's reply is classic: "Eighty-six years I have served Him. He has never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?"
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