Hated for His Name
JESUS CHRIST unquestionably brought the greatest message of peace, joy and human contentment ever introduced to the ears of men. However, he nowhere promised his followers favor with this world or even humane treatment from it. Plainly telling them what to expect, he pointed out: “Then people will deliver you up to tribulation and will kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations on account of my name.”—Matt. 24:9, NW.
By the year (A.D.) 64 Christianity was prominent throughout much of the Roman Empire, including the capital city Rome itself. Their individual characteristics, form of worship and steadfast refusal to compromise thereon had made the Christians sure targets of hostility and ridicule. That year, the tenth in the reign of Emperor Nero, Rome was swept by a conflagration so great it is yet the object of poetry and legend. When the fire had subsided, the great slum areas of the proud capital lay in either part or total ruin. Nero’s subsequent bounties for the homeless and energetic rebuilding program could not subdue the growing suspicion that he was the incendiary of his own capital. Looking for a handy scapegoat to divert attention, the harried emperor hastened to publicly pin the blame on the unpopular Christians. Thus began an era of ten major persecutions against Christians by various emperors of Rome over a period of nearly three hundred years.
THE TEN PERSECUTIONS
Nero saw to it that the first of these terrible persecutions set the pace for the rest. At once he caused Christians to be rounded up, summarily condemned and put to death in the most barbaric manner conceivable. Some were thrown to the fierce beasts in the public arena, others were sewed in animal skins and left to the fury of wild dogs, many were crucified, and still others were garbed in combustible materials and ignited to become human torches lighting the gardens of Nero by night. It was in this persecution that the apostle Paul was martyred.
Brief respite followed the death of Nero, but by the latter years of the first century the second great persecution, under Emperor Domitian, flared up. It is said that in the year 95 alone some 40,000 suffered martyrdom. Like Nero, Domitian is found of demented traits. Earlier he had slain his own brother and a number of Roman senators. One of his decrees commanded the death of all of the lineage of David. In this ruler’s persecution a number of prominent Christians suffered, including, according to Blanchard in his Book of Martyrs, the Timothy to whom Paul wrote two canonical letters. Also, it was in this period that John, last living of the twelve apostles, was exiled to the isle of Patmos, from where he recorded the inspired Bible book of Revelation about A.D. 96.
After Domitian the brief thirteen-month reign of Nerva provided a refreshing bridge into the third great period of trial by Roman fury. In Emperor Trajan’s reign hate kindled the fires anew.
A Christian widow, refusing to sacrifice to the emperor, was hung by the hair and then drowned in a river. Phocus, a Christian overseer, was thrown first into a hot limekiln, then into a scalding bath until he died. Another, Ignatius of Antioch, was scourged by fire, had his flesh torn by red-hot pincers and was finally ripped to pieces by wild beasts. Trajan’s successor, Adrian, persisted in this till his death A.D. 138, when he was succeeded by the relenting Antoninus Pius.
But again peace could be only temporary. Came the year 162 and the fourth wave of attrition, under the strong pagan Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Under this ruler Christians, regardless of sex, were subjected to the most inhuman treatment to that date. Noted members of the Christian church like Polycarp and Justin went steadfastly into death. Added horrors like the red-hot torture chairs failed to destroy the Christian faith.
The fifth persecution was largely a local affair, breaking out spasmodically in various parts of the empire where existing laws against the Christians were irregularly enforced. The emperor, Severus, invoked no new mischief by law, evidently due to his affection for the Christian doctor who had cured him of a dangerous ailment.
A.D. 235 the sixth oppression fell upon the Christians during the reign of Emperor Maximinus. This time numberless Christian victims were slain without any trial whatsoever and their bodies were often piled in heaps without so much as a decent burial. It is said that this persecution stemmed from Maximinus’ great hatred for his predecessor, Alexander, who had sheltered the Christians. Under Decius, A.D. 249, the seventh persecution was inaugurated. This assault spread throughout the empire, spared neither age nor sex, and contrived to introduce torture unique to all that had gone before it.
CHRISTIANS ENDURE AND WIN
A young Christian man in Asia on receiving the demand to sacrifice to Venus, replies stoutly: “I am astonished you should sacrifice to an infamous woman, whose debaucheries your own historians record, and whose life consisted of such actions as your laws would punish. No, I shall offer the true God the acceptable sacrifice of praises and prayers.” For this he is broken on the wheel, then beheaded. Julian, native of Cilicia, is bound in a bag with serpents and cast into the sea. Two former heathen priests, converted to Christianity, make many converts, suffer arrest during this persecution and, refusing to renounce their faith, are burned alive. The noted presbyter, Origen, is seized and imprisoned and only the death of Decius prevents his execution. War with the Goths diverts the attention of the successor, Gallus; but afterward, when plagues strike the empire, universal sacrifices to the gods of Rome are ordered. This causes more Christian slaughter, this time at the hands of local mobs and magistrates.
Still no rest! In April, 257, under Emperor Valerian, an eighth persecution opened. This wave added untold martyrs to the list as well as more fiendish tortures. This onslaught was leveled chiefly against the overseers and responsible ones in the Christian church, the design being to break up the ranks by destroying the leadership. Foremost among those victimized at this time was Cyprian, overseer of Carthage. Respected as well as he was known by the local Roman officials, he was not tortured to force a recantation, and the most painless death at their disposal, beheading, was provided him.
A.D. 274 Emperor Aurelian proclaimed a ninth persecution. It flared briefly, but quickly died with the slaying of the emperor at the hands of his own domestics.
Diocletian assumed the crown A.D. 284. At first he seemed friendly to the Christians, but in the year 303 he gave in to persuasion and opened the tenth persecution, probably the most ferocious of all. Suffocation by smoke, forcible drinking of melted lead, mass drownings and burnings, breaking on the rack of men and women alike ran the empire with blood. In a single month 17,000 were slain. In the province of Egypt alone, 144,000 such professed Christians died by violence in the course of this persecution, in addition to another 700,000 who died as a result of fatigues encountered in banishment or under enforced public works.
Diocletian’s abdication in 305 left the empire divided among six emperors. Constantine murdered his way to supremacy in the west and ceased the persecutions, with the aim of forming a fusion religion between Christian and pagan, thus strengthening the unity of his people.
What was typified by these ten persecutions by no means ended with them. The Devil’s vicious assaults by violence against Christianity continued through the Dark Ages, the Reformation and right into the present days. Only the hand of the persecutor, not the basic reasons for persecuting, has changed. To find what those issues were and are, hear how those early Christian stalwarts gave firm answers to questions still asked by modern-day “Caesars”.
PAYING TO GOD AND TO CAESAR
When pressed by the Roman proconsul to deny Christianity or, finally, to at least “persuade the people” so that the government could release him without losing face, the aged overseer, Polycarp, replied:
“To you I felt myself bound to render an account, for our religion teaches us to treat the [civil powers] with becoming reverence, as far as is consistent with our salvation. But as for those without, I consider them undeserving of any defense from me.” The mob then denounced him as “the enemy of our gods”, betraying religious prejudice as their base motives.
In the year 200, two Christians before the proconsul Saturninus upheld their faith, to which the official stated: “We too are pious, and we swear by the genius of the emperor, our Lord, and we pray for his welfare, which you must also do.” One answered: “I know of no genius of the ruler of this earth, but I serve my God in heaven, whom no man hath ever seen, nor can see. I have never stolen anything from any man; I pay scrupulously all the taxes and tributes which are due from me, for I acknowledge the emperor as my ruler, but I can worship only my Lord, the King of kings, the Lord of all nations.”
The Christian stand of complete separateness from the world and its systems stood out in refusal of military service as in the case of the young Christian Maximilian, who protested that he had taken the badge of Christ and could not as well accept that of the world. Again, there is the instance of the centurion Marcellus, who, already a soldier, as a Christian refused to worship the idols and the state, thus publicly threw aside his insignia and suffered death.
It must be noted that even the harsh, totalitarian government of ancient Rome saw fit to cover its persecutions with false charges against the victims, as if it quailed at killing them openly for no other reason than “their religion”. Summarizing the many excuses such as ‘insulting the gods of Rome’, ‘renouncing the emperor,’ ‘noncompliance with military duty,’ etc., the edict closing the tenth persecution in 311 declared by way of justification that the oppressions had been used to cause Christians to return to ‘the old traditional religion of their fathers’ and thus end the following of their ‘own devices’.
OVERCOMERS FOR A NEW WORLD
Everything was done to paint the Christians in an unfavorable light. Though falsely charged with burning Rome in Nero’s day, Tacitus informs us, they were then convicted more for the charge of ‘hating the human race’. True, they were outspoken, openly proclaiming the coming destruction of the godless world system. Their materially-minded enemies called them ‘gloomy and austere’, and charged that they sought to bring about an immediate fulfillment of their prophecies through seditious overthrow of the authorities. The government was far more anxious that they should recant than that they should suffer, possibly because of the blight these innocent lives cast upon Roman history. Even when convicted, Christians still held the choice of life (by compromise) or death in their own hands. For every imaginable evil, be it earthquake, plague or flood, Christians were sure to receive the blame from the superstitious Romans who fancied these to be sure tokens of the anger of their gods over the very existence of the Christians. But for all of this, it is noteworthy that many pagans, even officers in the army, were converted to Christianity by the unwavering faith of the Christians while enduring the cruelest torture.
Fighting opposition, they kept going forward; their worship banned, they continued their assemblies, though often in the recesses of underground cemeteries, the catacombs. Just as true of pre-Christian witnesses of Jehovah God described by Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, so were these faithful ones ‘ . . . stoned . . . sawn asunder . . . slaughtered with the sword . . . in want, in tribulation, under ill-treatment; and the world was not worthy of them. . . .’—Hebrews 11:37, 38, NW.
And is it the same today? The experiences of Jehovah’s witnesses would seem to prove it so. In the same manner as with Christians of the first few centuries they have been falsely labeled as seditionists, Nazis, communists, capitalist American spies, and generally ‘haters of everything’, depending upon where they happen to be and whatever will make them the most readily unpopular. But the facts prove their accusers the haters and their acts simply a fulfillment of part of Jesus’ great prophecy for these last days: “You will be hated by all the nations on account of my name.”
Before and during World War II, these faithful Christian witnesses endured mobs, beatings and imprisonment in democratic lands; and unflinchingly faced the headsman’s axe, gallows and torture chambers of Nazi concentration camps. Since the war they have been banned, scourged and killed in communist countries and have seen violence in supposedly “free” lands, such as Greece, mount to the point of pushing them before the firing squad. It cannot be different while we are under the same system of things that murdered Christ Jesus and vainly tried to drive his early followers from the face of the earth.
Still, this ill-treatment does not deter men of good will from assembling with the only truly joyful people on earth, who glory not in persecution but in the vindication of their God. True to their God and their own experience, they point seekers of peace and joy not to the old system of things. They proclaim Jehovah God’s new world!