Christians Under Attack: Persecution & Martyrdom Through the Centuries

FROM ITS ONSET THE Christian message impacted culture and society, and culture and society impacted Christianity. Sometimes culture—to include the governing authorities—pushed back with much force, often oppressive and violent in nature. Not surprisingly, Jewish religious leaders, having publicly rejected Christ and His message by betraying Him to the Roman Empire for torture and crucifixion, also pushed back violently against the early Christian church. In fact, the earliest persecution of Christians came from the Jews.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. No sooner had the Gospel reached the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter, modify or nullify it. Simon Magus founded the Gnostics. Although this was essentially a separate belief system, it began to infiltrate the Christian church. Gnostics believed in a great god that is good and perfect, but impersonal and unknowable. They thought the creator of the universe was actually a lesser deity—a cheap knock-off of the “one true God”—who wanted to create a flawless material universe but botched the job. Instead of having a utopia, we ended up with a world infected with pain, misery, and intellectual and spiritual blindness. The Gnostics did not believe man’s dilemma was based on the Fall. Instead, when this lesser deity created man, he accidentally imbued humanity with a spark of the “true” God’s spirit, making man an inherently good soul trapped in the confines of an evil, material body.

EARLY PERSECUTION

The early Christians were initially persecuted at the hands of Jewish leaders. These principles saw Christianity not as a “new religion,” but a sect within Judaism—a new heresy going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics. Fearing these apostates could once more bring the wrath of God upon the nation of Israel, Jewish leaders began persecuting Christians on a regular basis. Frankly, the Sadducees became jealous of the apostles as they performed healings and other signs and wonders. People began believing that Jesus was the Messiah. The Sadducees arrested the apostles and threw them into jail where they were severely beaten and told never to preach in the name of Jesus again.

King Herod arrested many early Christians on behalf of the Jewish leaders. Roman authorities systematically persecuted and murdered Christians beginning in 64 A.D. Paul and Peter were martyred in 65 A.D. by Emperor Nero. Roman general Titus (later Emperor) destroyed the temple at Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Emperor Domitian (younger brother of Titus) waged a campaign of persecution against Jews and Christians from 81 to 96 A.D. Polycarp was martyred in 155 A.D. Christians suffered widespread persecution under various emperors through 303 A.D.

The first wave of mass persecution began under Nero in A.D. 67. Nero was the sixth emperor of Rome and is remembered as the one who set Rome aflame and then blamed the Christians for the deaths and destruction caused by the fire. He had Christians sewn up in skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs. Others were dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate the grounds. Remarkably, rather than diminish the spirit of Christianity, this persecution increased the devotion and commitment to Christianity.

A second wave of persecution occurred under Domitian circa A.D. 81. Any negative events that happened—famine, pestilence, earthquakes, drought—Domitian blamed on Christians and put them to death. A third outbreak of persecution occurred under Trajan in A.D. 108. During this wave, Christians were beaten, beheaded, and devoured by wild beasts. Nearly ten thousand were put to death. The fourth cycle of persecution took place under Marcus Aurelius Antoninas in A.D. 162, followed by a fifth wave credited to Severus in A.D. 192. Christians were burned at the stake, doused in hot tar, beheaded, placed in boiling water, and ravaged by wild beasts.

The sixth upsurge of persecution took place under Maximus in A.D. 235. At this time, numerous Christians were slain without trial and buried indiscriminately in heaps (mass graves), sometimes fifty or sixty cast into a pit together. The seventh surge of persecution happened under Decius in A.D. 249. At this time, the principle person martyred was Fabian, the bishop of Rome, who was beheaded on January 20, A.D. 250. The eighth wave of persecution occurred under Valerian in A.D. 257. The ninth wave of persecution occurred under Aurelian in A.D. 274 when Felix, bishop of Rome was martyred. A tenth flood of persecution took place under Diocletian in A.D. 303, commonly called the Era of the Martyr’s. The manner of persecutions included horrific methods such as racks, scourges, swords, daggers, crosses, poisons, and famine.

MARTYRDOM TIMELINE

Stephen was the first known martyr. He was stoned to death in 36 A.D. for preaching the Gospel. Stephen’s death sparked a rash of persecutions against all who professed belief in Christ as the Messiah.

The fate of the Apostles and close disciples followed in succession.

  • James the Great, the elder brother of John the Apostle, was beheaded in A.D. 44.
  • James the Lesser, the brother of Jesus, served the church in Jerusalem and wrote the book of James. He suffered martyrdom in 44 A.D. at the age of ninety-four by beheading and stoning at the hands of the Jews.
  • Philip, who served in Upper Asia, was scourged in Phrygia, thrown into prison and later crucified in A.D. 54.
  • Matthew the tax collector served the Lord in Parthia and Ethiopia where he was slain with an axe-like cutting blade in the city of Nadabah in A.D. 60.
  • Andrew, the brother of Peter, preached the gospel throughout Asia. He was crucified on a cross at Edessa in 60 A.D.
  • Peter was martyred by Nero in 64 A.D. He was crucified with his head down and his feet up, because he thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus Christ.
  • Simon the Zealot, who spread the Gospel throughout Africa and Britain, was crucified in 65 A.D.
  • Paul was subjected to persecution numerous times during his ministry, including scourging, stoning, and, finally, beheaded by Nero in 67 A.D.
  • Mark was martyred in 68 A.D. in Alexandria when his persecutors placed a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead.
  • Jude, the brother of James, commonly called Thaddeus, was crucified at Edessa in A.D. 72.
  • Bartholomew preached in several countries and translated the Gospel of Matthew into the language of India. He was cruelly beaten and crucified in 100 A.D.
  • Thomas, who seems to have riled the pagan priests with his preaching, was martyred in 72 A.D. by having a spear thrust into his abdomen.
  • Matthias, the man who was chosen to replace Judas as an apostle, was stoned and beheaded at Jerusalem in 80 A.D.
  • Luke was reported to have been hanged from an olive tree by the idolatrous priests of Greece in 84 A.D.

MODERN-DAY PERSECUTION

Persecution of Christians actually began at the dawn of Christianity and has persisted in various forms ever since. Stoning, burning at the stake, imprisonment, family estrangement, beheading, crucifixion, scourging, being dragged to the death, drowning, and more. History is stained with the blood of martyrs and is augmented by the testimony of those who’ve endured hardship for their faith in Jesus Christ.

Despite this being the 21st century, which should suggest we ought to be well beyond religious bigotry and cultural xenophobia, modern-day Christian persecution is still prevalent. The Bible says that Jesus has called believers out from among the world. We’re told in John 15:19, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” When Jesus sent His disciples into the world to preach the Gospel, He knew they would be attacked and persecuted for witnessing and sharing Jesus. In Mathew 10:16, Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Anti-Christian discrimination occurs in a variety of contexts throughout our culture, from the public sector to the private sector, in mainstream media and in Hollywood, in the public education system and in our universities. Often discrimination comes from activist judges misinterpreting the law (the hostility toward Christian religious freedom infects our judiciary as much as other aspects of society); other times it comes from entities misapplying the law. It also comes from what today is referred to as political correctness. Discrimination against Christians mostly stems from a hostility toward Christianity itself, and from rampant misinformation about what the First Amendment actually means regarding so-called “separation of church and state.”

Unfortunately, anti-Christian discrimination in America is becoming more blatant and more widespread every day. The cultural assumptions of our society can actually cause adverse impact in how the law is applied; culture is moving against public expression of Christian beliefs. To complicate matters, secularism and moral relativism have driven a wedge between Christian belief and public expression. Forces are at work whose sole intent is to outlaw the voicing of Christian beliefs in any public forum.

Christian expression is treated as profanity and worse in many public schools and certain federal courts across the nation. According to an article by Michael Gryboski on Christianpost.com, dated October 12, 2018, a middle school in Virginia has banned songs mentioning Jesus from its annual Christmas concert as part of an effort to be more sensitive toward the increasingly diverse population of its student body. The critical language of the First Amendment relative to religion—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—has been misinterpreted and misquoted in recent years. It is now being argued by many that the First Amendment grants freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. More troublesome than that, it’s now being argued by liberals and atheists that American citizens have a First Amendment right to freedom from Christianity. All other religions are tolerated in the interest of pluralism and inclusion.

David Limbaugh, in his seminal book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, states the following:

Ideally, the schools should strive for neutrality on matters of religion—at least in expressing a preference for one over the other. But, in reality, our children are often being inculcated with values and attitudes that conflict with or are hostile to Christianity… There has been a systematic sweeping away of all things Christian from our public schools, combined with a sweeping in of secularism (p. 4).

THE MEDIA AND HOLLYWOOD

Mainstream media and Hollywood play very major roles in bias against Christians and Christianity in our modern culture. We’re told that it is unthinkable to ridicule (almost any) political, religious, cultural, or ethnic group, yet liberals routinely disparage Christians and anything related to Christianity.  This anti-Christian proclivity typically manifests itself in unflattering portrayals of Christians in Hollywood films and television shows. Additionally, liberal news outlets tend to demonize Christian conservatives. Christians are presented as bigoted, narrow-minded, unreasonable, old-fashioned, exclusionary, and elitist. Remarkably, while the media are usually very careful not to offend or slight other religions—lately, especially Islam—Christianity receives far less deference.

OPEN DOORS USA

Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Unfortunately, Christian torture remains an issue for believers throughout the world, including the risk of imprisonment, loss of home and assets, physical torture, beheading, rape and even death as a result of their faith. Trends show that countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are intensifying persecution against Christians. It would seem the most vulnerable are Christian women , who often face double persecution—based on faith and gender. Every day there are new reports of Christians who face threats, unjust imprisonment, harassment, beatings and even loss of family or life because of their profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Some Alarming Statistics

Every month:

  • 255 Christians are killed
  • 104 are abducted
  • 180 Christian women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage
  • 66 churches are attacked
  • 160 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned

Every year, Open Doors USA releases the World Watch List—a global indicator of countries where human and religious rights are being violated, and those countries most vulnerable to societal unrest and destabilization. This is the 26thyear of the Watch List and it remains the only annual in-depth survey to rank the 50 most difficult countries in which to be a Christian. Today, 215 million Christians experience high levels of persecution in the countries on the World Watch List—essentially one in twelve Christians worldwide. North Korea is ranked #1 for the 17th consecutive year as the most dangerous country for Christians. During the 2018 World Watch List reporting period 3,066 Christians were killed, 1,252 were abducted, 1,020 were raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches were attacked. Islamic oppression fuels Christian persecution in 8 of the top 10 countries on the Watch List.

SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER

We have come to the point where the church sees liberalism and moral relativism for the threats they truly are. But where does that leave us? It seems that modern polarization into left and right—within both religion and politics—has been with us since after the period of the Enlightenment. It’s no secret that modernism and Protestant liberalism were shaken to their very foundation following the two world wars. The resulting postmodernism did nothing whatsoever to solve our dilemma. Christians wanted to share with the world their conviction that the Gospel was the answer to this quandary—that it was the absolute truth everyone had been looking for.

We are told in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NKJV). The Word of Christ is not merely a matter of doctrine; it is a way of authenticating life; it is morally regenerative spiritual power obtained through belief in Christ as the Messiah. It is life itself. This is why apologetics is vital. We are to preach the Good News to all nations. First Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (NIV) [Italics mine].

Changing someone’s mind isn’t the only goal of apologetics. In fact, that’s unlikely to happen in the heat of the moment. Instead, we should think of any apologetic encounter as planting a seed that will come to fruition later. Or, even more, perhaps we’re simply helping prepare the soil so that someone else can do the planting. I don’t mean to imply that God cannot do big things when we practice apologetics. Just remember this: We often don’t get to see firsthand the unfolding of those big moments.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the idea of apologetics—the concepts and arguments. Apologetics, however, is actually a means to an end. It is a tool for helping us defend the Gospel, but it is not about getting defensive. Sometimes, talking about morality and religion can really get some people going—even to the point where you find it tough to get a word in edgewise. But allowing your skeptical friend to share their ideas or experiences is a key part of effectively navigating spiritual conversations. Unfortunately, some of us can get rather defensive and feel pressured to take on the weight of explaining the entirety of the Christian worldview when confronted with one simple objection to the faith.

Love the people you come into contact with. Ask questions and genuinely listen. Be gentle and humble.

Be like Jesus.

References

Limbaugh, D. (2004). Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

OpenDoors USA. (n.d.) Christian Persecution. Retrieved from: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/