To Love So As to Die: The Witness of the Early Church

There was something very strange about the new religion that had cropped up in Rome.

Religion was about power. Everyone knew that. The gods had it; people wanted it. Caesar, as pontifex maximus, performed the office on behalf of the State, assuring the gods’ support of the Empire. An individual could make an offering to Jupiter or Juno or another member of the pantheon to gain that deity’s assistance in worldly affairs.

Religion was also about personal piety. If devotion to the official pantheon wasn’t enough—if, say, personal salvation sounded appealing—then one could turn to a mystery cult: the Eleusinian Mysteries, worship of Isis, Cybele, Mithras, or many others; variety enough to satisfy every taste.

Or, if one didn’t really believe in any of it, one could just go through the motions. Rome didn’t mind. Rome was tolerant.

So what was it with these odd people who wouldn’t acknowledge the official pantheon, who wouldn’t even go through the motions, but propounded a religion of a single, exclusive God—a God, moreover, whom they identified with a crucified, resurrected Jewish carpenter?

These Christians were, of course, “atheists.” Not because they didn’t believe in a deity, but because they didn’t believe in the gods of Rome—and people could believe anything else they wanted, as long as they acknowledged the gods of Rome. Surely that wasn’t so hard.

To make matters worse, the Christians were traitors. In Rome, Caesar was Lord, honored as a deity himself, the symbol of Roman unity. To refuse to offer incense to the Emperor was evidence of disloyalty. Why risk it? Only the Jews had gotten away with that, and only for a while; then their rebelliousness had provoked the Empire to crush them, destroy their temple, and disperse them throughout the world.

The Christians were breaking with the spiritual patrimony of Rome, introducing something that was foreign, “un-Roman,” disruptive to the established social order. Even though a gradual disenchantment with the pagan gods had been percolating though the educated classes, and the idea of one God was beginning to seem more appealing, it would take time for the strangeness of Christianity to become more familiar.

So how was Rome to deal with these followers of a new religion? There was no consensus. Some emperors were tolerant, while others felt it best to eliminate them. The Roman intelligentsia— Tacitus, Celsus, Porphyry, Marcus Aurelius—derided Christians as superstitious, intellectual and philosophical lightweights. The populace followed the lead of the emperor. Periods of calm alternated with times of fierce persecution.

The earliest followers of Christ were few; many (but not all) were poor. They were scattered throughout the cities of the Empire, and they were regarded as atheistic, traitorous, superstitious scapegoats. How could they possibly prevail against the might of pagan Rome? While the Fathers would eventually provide intellectual and philosophical underpinnings for the nascent Christian faith, this wouldn’t occur until later. From the beginning, the answer was one that Jesus Himself had given. Love. Agape. A concept radical and revolutionary.

A religion based on love. Who had ever heard of anything so strange, so bizarre, so contrary to reason? And yet, it was appealing.

The appeal lay first in the person of Jesus Christ Himself, in both the love He showed and the love He inspired in His followers for Him.

The injunction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37) was not a command issued by a domineering, capricious deity eager for the adulation of humans. It was a response to “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” (1 Jn 3:1). That love was shown in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (Jn 14:9). The love of the Father flowed through the Son to His human children.

The gods and goddesses of Rome might lust, but they didn’t love—certainly not humanity, a mere plaything for their sport. Nobody would die for the gods of Rome.

And yet the Christians were willing to die rather than deny their Christ.

“I have served him for eighty years, and He has never done me wrong,” said the aged Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna when brought to trial and urged to curse Christ. “How can I then blaspheme against my king and my savior?”

Another was Perpetua, who, despite being the mother of a newborn child—which she commended to the care of her mother and her brother—refused to recant, and whose example astonished and converted many pagans.

Polycarp and Perpetua were only two among uncounted thousands whose love for Christ enabled them to stand firm during times of persecution.

“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus commanded. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples” (Jn 13:35). The early Christians took this to heart. In the words of Professor John Ferguson, they showed this

in the witness of community (koinonia), in a fellowship which took in Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, and whose solid practicality in their care for the needy won the admiration even of Lucian. “How these Christians love one another!” was a respectful affirmation.1

But Christian love was not limited to other Christians. Christ also said “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Mt 22:39). The early Christians took the message of the Beatitudes and the Good Samaritan and put them into action, as illustrated in the famous story of St. Martin of Tours, who, while a soldier, cut his military cloak in two in order to give half to a freezing beggar. And it was Christians who, contrary to Roman practice, rescued and adopted children abandoned and left to die. The love of the early Christians was not a theoretical, but a practical one—and one that was unique to its time.

The hardest was yet to come: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).

The early Christians were up to this formidable challenge as well, as shown by the story of St. Sabinus (whether factually accurate or a fifth or sixth century tale): St. Sabinus had his hands cut off after refusing to sacrifice to Jupiter. Despite this, he healed the eyes of the Roman governor, Venustian, who had condemned him, repaying evil with good (and, in the process, securing Venustian’s conversion).

The love shown by these first followers of Christ was so extreme, so attractive, so revolutionary, that it became impossible to ignore or, for many, to resist. It epitomized what St. Paul had written to the Galatians of “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). This is how the pagan world was converted—and it is how our modern, secular, and pagan society needs to be re-converted.

“I am absolutely convinced,” wrote missionary physician Wilfred Grenfell one hundred years ago, “that to follow Christ is the best way and if that way does not attract everyone to it the fault is ours, who claim to be trying to walk it.”2

With the Lord’s grace, let us, like the martyrs of the early Church, shine the light of God’s love into our darkening world. 1

The Religions of the Roman Empire, 1970, Cornell University Press, p.126.

2 Wilfred Grenfell, The Attractive Way, 1913, The Pilgrim Press, p.3.