A howling mob filled the arena. A small group of atheists cowered in terror while animals prowled the arena’s sandy floor. After circling their prey on padded feet, the hungry animals pounced. The deafening roar of the crowd drowned out the victims’ screams.
After the beasts had finished their grisly work, the unsatisfied crowd called for more. In a bloodthirsty frenzy the people shrieked, “Down with the atheists!” A search party formed and went in search of more members of the local chapter. The crowd wanted more blood, and more blood they would have.
The group found one of the elderly leaders at a nearby farm and took him to the arena. A proconsul presiding over the gruesome scene begged the old man to renounce his beliefs. “Say ‘Away with the atheists,’” he pleaded, “and you may go!” The man was popular, and no one wanted to make him a martyr. The old man looked squarely at the crowds and cried, “Away with the atheists!” The crowd, sensing the insult, screamed even louder. With the proconsul begging the man to swear loyalty to the state in order to save himself, the grey-headed man accepted his fate, saying only one thing:
I am a Christian.
In the earliest days of the church, Christians were seen as atheists because they did not recognize the Roman pantheon of gods. Non-Christians saw them as secretive and untrustworthy, an opinion reflected by Roman sources. In his Annals, Tacitus calls Christianity a “pernicious superstition.” According to popular knowledge at the time, Christians practiced a variety of nefarious deeds, including cannibalism and incest. Because they refused to participate in the cult of the emperor, they were seen as disloyal to the state.
The persecution of Christians came early and often in the centuries following Christ’s death. Both Roman and Jewish authorities viewed Christianity as little more than a sect within Judaism at first. Since Roman law permitted the free exercise of the Jewish faith, Christianity enjoyed the same freedom. When it became apparent that Christianity was more than just a peculiar brand of Judaism, the machinery of violence rumbled to life.
Under Nero (AD 37-68) being a Christian may have been a capital offense. The Roman writer Tacitus recounts that Nero killed Christians in a variety of ways, from dressing them in animal skins to be ripped apart by dogs to using them as human torches to illuminate his gardens at night. Although Nero's persecutions took place in the city of Rome, it is still horrifying testimony to the contempt with which believers were viewed.
The picture of Christianity’s illegality is much clearer under later emperors. Trajan believed Christians could be executed, though should be freed if they recanted their belief in Christ. Hadrian (117-138) afforded Christians protection from mob accusation, but the faithful still fell victim to mob violence. Antonius Pius (138-161) alludes to continuing mob violence against Christians in Greece and Asia Minor, which continued even under emperors who were relatively friendly toward Christianity. Diocletian (284-305) presided over one of the greatest periods of persecution. Roman forces looted churches and burned their scriptures. The emperor imprisoned high-ranking church leaders, though any Christian expected execution if captured.
In time the situation reversed itself. Galerius (305-311) issued the Edict of Toleration in 311, making it possible for Christians to live out their faith free from persecution. Constantine (312-337) made Christianity a legal religion in the Edict of Milan in 313. For the first time, Christians could breathe freely and worship God without fear of reprisal. Sadly, it did not remain that way.
The warnings from Jesus about impending persecution (Matt. 10:16-23) have cast a prophetic pall over Christian history. He knew that His followers would be persecuted for their faith, and that truth has remained constant. From Muslim and Mongol invasions in the medieval period to violence in the modern world, Christianity has been under attack at every turn.
Those hostile to the Bible are not only condemn Christianity, but persecute it. Believers can expect discrimination both in the workplace and in their community. While Christianity is illegal in the far reaches of the globe, Christians should be aware that Christianity is being criminalized right now. In 2003, a Swedish minister served jail time for criticizing homosexuality. In America, cases include: a man being fired for displaying Bible verses in his workspace, a judge ordering a woman not to teach her daughter anything considered “homophobic,” and a U.S. District judge issuing a court order forbidding students any religious expression at their high school, even if kept private. Preaching from the Bible is already considered hate speech in many countries. The United States is getting ever closer to doing the same.
Examples like the ones above are horrifying, but true. Christianity isn’t officially a crime – yet. For now we still have the freedom to live out our faith. It’s our job to make sure it stays that way.