When the emperor Nero blamed Christians for starting the fire that destroyed much of Rome in AD 64, persecution became official policy for the first time. Though it remained sporadic, many early Christians never knew when they might be forced to pay the ultimate price for their faith.
Pictures of such Christians facing lions in the Colosseum or being burnt at the stake are familiar to many of us. Those who lost their lives in this way are venerated as martyrs, a term that originally meant witnesses but that is now reserved for those who died for their beliefs. To be sure, some of the stories told about the early martyrs have been exaggerated. (We need not believe the legend of Dionysius, for example, which says he was put to death in Paris but managed to walk ten miles or so with his severed head!)
Nevertheless, there were certainly many people who went to their deaths because they refused to renounce their devotion to Christ. Why was this? The church father Tertullian (c. 155–c. 220) offers a fascinating window into early Christian martyrdom — and how God used it to build his church.
Jesus’s Unique Death
The idea that someone might be put to death for his or her beliefs was not entirely unknown in the ancient world, but such deaths were uncommon and generally disapproved of. The classic case is that of Socrates, the Athenian philosopher who was executed in 399 BC by his fellow citizens because they thought he was an atheist who was leading young people astray. The scandal caused by that injustice was so great that nothing like it ever happened again in Athens.
Though some have compared Jesus to Socrates, the early Christians saw him differently. They knew Jesus had suffered because Jewish leaders had accused him of blasphemy, and the Roman authorities in Palestine were too cowardly to resist their calls for the death sentence. Jesus was no mere philosopher. He didn’t die as a victim in the cause of free speech. His death was a sacrifice that God had foreordained as the fulfillment of his promise to the Jews that he would save them from their sins. The men who condemned him were certainly guilty of shedding innocent blood, but they were also unwitting agents of a divine plan that they did not understand (Acts 4:24–28).
Jesus died to pay the price for our sins, but he did not stay in the grave. Three days later, he rose again from the dead — and forty days after that, he ascended into heaven. He was a victim of human injustice, but subsequent events revealed him as the Savior of the world, and it was that salvation that his disciples proclaimed.
The disciples of Jesus were unpopular, particularly with the Jewish establishment, which thought they were destroying Judaism by claiming that Old Testament sacrifices were no longer valid. Many of the earliest Christians were arrested and subjected to severe beatings. Some even lost their lives at the hands of their Jewish persecutors (Acts 7:58–60; 12:1–2), though these occurrences were rare. And then, after fire consumed Rome, persecution became a matter of imperial policy.
Curiously, neither the Christians nor their persecutors could explain what the crimes were. Christians were typically model subjects of the Roman Empire and did nothing to offend anyone beyond refusing to worship the pagan gods. The Romans disapproved of that, of course, but Jews did not worship the gods either, nor did many of the philosophers who regarded all religion as superstition, and nobody tried to put them to death.
Educated Christians did not hesitate to write defenses of their faith in which they pointed out how wrong it was for pagans to persecute them. Among them was Tertullian, a North African convert to Christianity. Tertullian, who seems to have escaped execution, wrote a number of books in which he expounded his faith to unbelievers and encouraged martyrs to stand firm as witnesses to Christ, even regarding their martyrdom as proof that what they believed was true.
Tertullian was the first Christian to write specifically about martyrdom and persecution, though there is no sign that he suffered either himself. He wrote a couple of short books to other Christians who were facing martyrdom themselves or who were tempted to run away from persecution and save their lives. In To the Martyrs and On Flight in Persecution, he told them to stand firm and sacrifice themselves for the spiritual truth that they cherished more than life itself. As he put it, Jesus had died for them, so it was a privilege to be able to die for him. It was also a sign to unbelievers that Christians meant business. Just as Jesus came back from the dead, so too they would rise again to a higher life with him in heaven.
Tertullian’s most important treatment of the subject, however, was in his Apology, a lengthy argument addressed to the pagans who were putting Christians to death. Many pagans were blaming Christians for causing earthquakes and floods, an absurd charge that was easy to refute. Natural disasters had been occurring long before the coming of Christ, so how could his followers be responsible for them? On the contrary, Christians prayed for the welfare of all people, and when disasters occurred, it was they who helped the victims, not the pagans.
“The witness of the martyrs bore fruit that they did not live to see.”
Moreover, people who saw Christians going to their deaths, often praying and singing as they went, were moved by their courage and tempted to examine their beliefs more carefully, which was the exact opposite of what the persecutors wanted. In fact, it was often the martyrs’ witness that persuaded others to believe in Christ. The world was against them, but Christians had nothing to fear, and they demonstrated their faith by being willing to die for it.
‘I Will Build My Church’
Tertullian was grieved by the injustice inflicted on his fellow believers, but he was able to see beyond the horrors of persecution to the purposes of God that lay behind it. As he explained to his pagan contemporaries, the more they persecuted Christians, the more their blood bore witness to the truth of their faith. As modern writers have paraphrased his words, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Many people who saw what was happening were not indifferent to the wrongdoing they witnessed. The martyrs who went to their deaths willingly, often joyfully singing hymns, were sending a more powerful message to bystanders than even the Christian preachers they may have heard. That believers acted this way led many to think there must be something to this faith. Imperceptibly and incrementally, the church began to grow. One by one, people who were hostile or indifferent began to ask questions and, as they got answers, became convinced of the truth of what they were seeing and being told.
“Like the martyrs of old, we walk by faith, knowing that death in this world is but the gateway to eternal life.”
Tertullian did not hesitate to remind his readers of the legendary heroes of early Rome, who had stood up against the city’s enemies and rescued it from destruction. Centuries later, their devotion had produced a worldwide empire. The church, he was convinced, would one day achieve such a worldwide scope. Though he did not live to see it, he was not wrong. Suffering and martyrdom were not sought by Christians, but God used such persecution to build his church. The witness of the martyrs bore fruit that they did not live to see.
As Christians today, we naturally do not want to suffer for our faith any more than they did, but we can see from their example that our sufferings have a purpose in the mind of God that will be revealed in his good time, to the honor and glory of his holy name. Like the martyrs of old, we walk by faith, knowing that death in this world is but the gateway to eternal life in the world to come.