In God’s story of redemption there are moments of bright light and others of deep darkness.
The Roman Empire, it may surprise you to learn, was an early defender of the church. It was to Rome that Paul turned to for protection from the Jews who sought to kill him. (Acts 25:1-12)
The Romans, in fact, preferred to not get involved in the theological disagreements between Jews and Christians. (Acts 18:14-15) This policy continued unabated until June 18, A.D. 64, when the great fire of Rome broke out. (As a quick note, as we move further into church history, I found Justo Gonzalez’s book, The Story of Christianity, to be invaluable in my research and I highly recommend it if you would like further reading.)
Rome was generally religiously tolerant. They had learned from Alexander the Great that the best way to conquer people was to let them keep their gods. Rome wanted to make all of her subjects believe that, even though their gods had different names, they were the same ones already being worshiped in Rome – a practice known as syncretism. And if a god was not represented in Rome already, they could be easily added to the Pantheon – literally the place for “all gods.” Rome understood that as long as people did not have to betray their deepest held beliefs in the process, they were pretty easy to conquer. The only religious affirmation the Romans required was for everyone to worship the emperor.
Romans saw Christians, however, as unbending religious fanatics who insisted their God alone should be worshiped. This made Christians pretty unpopular. They were considered unpatriotic because Christians refused to participate in some standard pillars of Roman life, including attending theater and sporting events, and serving in the army because these were so intertwined with pagan worship Christians felt the need to abstain. They were even labeled as atheists because they worshiped an invisible God. And perhaps the most surprising accusation against them was that they would hold cannibalistic, incestuous orgies at their worship services. This rumor grew because they held “love feasts” (what the early church called the Lord’s Supper) with their “brothers and sisters”, where they would dine on the “flesh and blood” of their Lord. All to say, Christians were not respected in Roman life.
The good-will of your neighbors became very important.
On the night of June 18, A.D. 64, a great fire broke out in Rome. Emperor Nero had been in power for 10 years at this point, and the Roman citizens had been noticing his increasingly erratic behavior, fueled by his dreams of grandeur and lust for pleasure. Rumors began circulating that he had gone mad. When the fire broke out Nero tried to fight it, but to no avail. It burned for six days and seven nights, ravaging 10 of the 14 sections of the city.
Immediately theories circulated that it was set by Nero himself, either to rebuild the city according to his liking, or even more fancifully, that he set it as inspiration to write an epic poem of the event. It was soon clear to Nero that the rumors weren’t going away, so he decided to find someone to blame. Two of the sections of the city that had not burned contained a high proportion of Christians. Roman historian, Tacitus, put it this way, “Therefore, in order to destroy this rumor, Nero blamed the Christians, who are hated for their abominations, and punished them with refined cruelty.” How did he punish them? Tacitus continued, “Before killing the Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire early in the night, so that they might illumine it.” Ghastly.
It is also believed that both Peter and Paul were killed during the Neronian persecution. It is not hard to see why many think the “Number of the Beast” (666) in the Book of Revelation refers to “Nero Caesar.” Though horrific, the Neronian persecution remained confined within the city of Rome and stayed that way for almost 30 years after Nero’s death. But this was not the end of Roman persecutions; quite the opposite.
The next wave of persecution happened under Emperor Domitian. Domitian wanted Rome to return to its glory days. This meant an empire-wide restoration of the old Roman traditions. As you can imagine, this was problematic for Christians, who abstained from staples of Roman culture. Historians believe this is why Domitian began persecuting Christians once more.
The two locations of Domitian’s persecutions were Rome itself and Asia Minor.
Thus, it is believed that the Book of Revelation was written right before persecution broke out there, as it is addressed “to the seven churches in Asia (Minor)” (Revelation 1:4) about “the hour of trial that is coming” (Revelation 3:10) and “the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1). It also refers to Rome as “the great prostitute. . . drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs” (Revelation 17:1, 6). Quite a different picture of Rome from the time of the Apostle Paul.
Persecution of Christians continued into the 2nd, 3rd and even 4th Centuries. It became Roman policy not to seek Christians out. But if they were accused of being Christians, they would be brought before the court and told to burn incense to the image of the emperor while confessing that “Caesar is Lord.” However, Christians refused do this because, as they put it, “Jesus is Lord.” They were put to death, sometimes ironically, in the Coliseum they refused to attend.
So during this time Christian found themselves in a catch-22: their religion was illegal, but the state would not seek them out, but if they were accused they must be brought before the court, where they were forced to worship the emperor as a god. And if they refused, they were put to death – not for blasphemy, but for contempt of court. The good-will of your neighbors became very important.
You would think that after hundreds of years of Roman persecution the church would shrivel and die. But, of course, this was not the case. As Tertullian noted, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” If you were a Christian in A.D. 300, you, your parents, your grandparents, and every Christian you had ever met had lived under the assumption that your religion was illegal and at any moment you could be killed for it. But from this dark place something utterly unthinkable was about to happen, which we will look shortly. But first we have to look at a lingering question in our next episode.