Suspicious Outsiders

The year was AD 197, and things were not going well for Christians. It had been a turbulent few years in Roman political life, with each of the two previous emperors holding the position for less than three months before meeting an untimely end. Pertinax was assassinated by his own bodyguards, and his successor, Didius Julianus, was executed as part of a military coup after only sixty-six days in office. Septimius Severus was now in charge, determined to restore order. Promises of “order” always spelled doom for Christians, whom, since the days of Nero, Romans often blamed for civil unrest or natural disaster. Tertullian, a former pagan turned Christian philosopher, consoled himself with gallows humor: “If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once: ‘The Christians to the lion!’ What, all of them to one lion?”

Over the course of almost two centuries, Christians had grown accustomed to playing the role of scapegoats. For Christians of Tertullian’s generation, there was every reason to believe it would always be like this. But then, roughly one hundred years later, everything changed. In the fall of 312, a young general by the name of Constantine saw a cross in the clouds before a critical battle against a rival claimant to the throne. When the dust finally settled, he was the sole emperor of the Roman Empire, and he credited his victory, improbably, to the God of the Christians. By 325, Christians found themselves in the VIP section of the imperial palace, being guarded by the same soldiers who had been hunting them down just decades before. The early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea describes the scene:

Not one of the bishops was wanting at the imperial banquet, the circumstances of which were splendid beyond description. Detachments of the body-guard and other troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of these the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the imperial apartments, in which some were the emperor’s own companions at the table, while others reclined on couches arranged on either side. One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth, and a dream rather than reality.

Eusebius couldn’t believe his eyes. He had to be dreaming. The Kingdom had come.

Or had it? “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17, esv). It sounded so simple when Peter put it like that, but what did it mean now that Christians had a share of power and privilege? Peter’s command, it seems, was difficult to follow when things were going badly, but it would prove even more difficult when things were going well, creating unforeseen challenges. One way to tell the story of Christianity is to tell a story of changing fortunes. What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ faithfully in a world of changing political fortunes as the social status of Christians waxes and wanes? Christian faith has always been a precarious business.

What did Romans think about Christians? The answer is anticlimactic: pretty much nothing. If they regarded them at all, ordinary Romans regarded early Christians with a kind of bemused curiosity. “For almost a century Christianity went unnoticed by most men and women in the Roman Empire,” writes Robert Louis Wilken. “Non-Christians [saw] the Christian community as a tiny, peculiar, antisocial, irreligious sect, drawing its adherents from the lower strata of society.” A Roman graffito dating to the early third century depicts a man standing at the foot of a cross on which there hangs a pathetic figure, bare bottom exposed, with the head of a jackass. The inscription reads alexamenos worships his god. Basically, reputable Roman writers saw Christianity as a religion for losers and lunatics—fodder for graffiti artists, maybe, but not anything worth taking seriously.

The next century would show just how wrong that calculation was. By the mid-100s, Christians simply could no longer be ignored. Their communities were springing up everywhere, remarkably stubborn and resilient. Suddenly, Roman statesmen like Pliny the Younger started to see Christians as a political problem to be solved. Philosophers and intellectuals like Galen, Celsus, and Porphyry wrote long treatises aimed at discrediting Christian belief. Eventually, Christians became the object of widespread suspicion. The historian Tacitus, for example, notes in passing that Christians everywhere were “hated for their abominations” and for promoting a “deadly and dangerous superstition.” The most paradoxical charge levied against Christians is that they were atheists—and in a sense, they were.

What can we learn from our earliest brothers and sisters? As strange as it sounds, perhaps the most important lesson is about being the right kind of “atheists.” These Christians refused to bow down before the gods of Rome, who were above all gods of cruel power and violence. This “Christian atheism” took shape in all kinds of behaviors which subverted Roman religious and civic life: Christians refused to offer ritual sacrifices to the emperor; they rejected any attempt to dispose of human life, including infant exposure, abandonment, or abortion; they rejected the blood-sport spectacles, gladiatorial combat and chariot racing, which fueled the Roman economy; they rejected the abuse and degradation—sexual and economic—of women, children, slaves, and the poor, which was commonplace in Roman culture.

In the process, they transformed the moral fabric of Western civilization by “destroying the gods” of Roman paganism. The names of these gods have changed, but the gods themselves haven’t gone anywhere. No one today worships Mars or Venus or Ceres—but they do worship National Security, Health and Wellness, and Economic Productivity.

Christians in the West increasingly find themselves cast in the same role as Roman Christians: suspicious outsiders. Can we follow the path they marked out for us? Can we unmask the gods of our age—and when we do, can we find the courage to be atheists?

Excerpted from Kingdom and Country: Following Jesus in the Land that You Love edited by Angie Ward. Copyright ©2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. 

Angie Ward
Angie Ward

Angie Ward is a leadership teacher and writer with over 30 years of ministry experience in church, parachurch, nonprofit and educational contexts.