Although Judaism held the same belief in monotheism, the Jews tended to keep their religion to themselves and generally did not attempt to witness to their religion or spread it in the way that Christians did. Because of this fact, the Romans knew much more about the beliefs of Christianity and began to take issue with what they saw as Christian rejection of the Roman deities. Additionally, many did not like the fact that Christianity condemned a number of their socially acceptable behaviors.
So the Christians became known as intolerant of other gods and were soon being accused of being “atheists” along with a number of false accusations. The situation was so widespread that in AD 176-7 the Christian thinker Athenagoras (A.D. 133-190) wrote an explanation or “apology” on the matter that he addressed to the Emperor at the time, Marcus Aurelius.
This work was called the Plea for the Christians and combats the three most common charges against Christians: atheism, incest and cannibalism. The accusation of cannibalism was, of course, a misunderstanding of the Christian idea of eating the “flesh” and “blood” of the Son of God (partaking of the bread and wine – Luke 22:19-20) in the Lord’s Supper. The charge of incest was based on the common Christian practice of referring to all people – including husbands and wives – as “brother” or “sister,” and, as we have seen, the idea that the Christians were atheists was the result of the “intolerant” Christian belief on monotheism.
In an interesting turn of events, as history has progressed to the day in which we live, Christianity is being increasingly viewed as intolerant. This is not only because of its rejection of many socially accepted behaviors, but also because the Christian Faith teaches of Jesus Christ that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In today’s inclusive and politically correct world, such an idea seems as bizarre to many modern people as it was to the ancient Romans, and the response is frequently the same – “If you don’t accept my god, you are intolerant and I won’t accept you or your God.”
In ancient Rome the charge of Christian intolerance soon led to intolerance against Christians, and our own time is no different. We see increasing intolerance regarding the Christian rejection of ungodly behavior just as the early Christians did, and we too can take to heart the words of Peter regarding those who are offended by that “intolerance”: “They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you” (1 Peter 4:4).
Perhaps the similarities between the situation at the time of early Christianity and where our own culture is leaning should not surprise us. Paul spoke of the same factors affecting early Christians and believers today: “… everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). In these words we see that persecution involves the world’s response to both Christians’ moral choices (“live a godly life”) and their theological ones (“in Christ Jesus”), as both are seen as evidence of intolerance by those opposed to Christianity, and both become the grounds for persecution.
For many Christians intense persecution at the hands of other religions is already here, of course, and we are reminded again of Peter’s words: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Peter was simply reminding his hearers of the words of Jesus himself:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
History does, indeed, repeat itself. But as the persecution of Christians becomes more common again – essentially for the same reasons – let us be encouraged to also repeat the outcome of that persecution. Peter tells us: “…if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:16 ESV). We can glorify God in this context by our good works despite the accusations and persecution we endure, and it is by demonstrating God in us that we best disprove the charges of intolerance and godlessness. Athenagoras understood that well – as he shows in his rebuttal of the charge of Christian atheism:
“…if [Christians] are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds [they] exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves …” (Plea for the Christians, Chapter 11).