"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 its 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 ...

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