What do your non-Christian friends and family think of your faith? How do they see you? Does that response differ at all from how they felt just five or ten years ago?
It’s hard to dispute that American culture is growing more hostile to Christianity. One proper response is to recognize that it’s normal: Jesus told us that in this world we would have trouble (Jn. 16:33). And countless brothers and sisters around the world and throughout history have experienced not just a cultural tide turning against them, but even floods of opposition and persecution.
Yet what is normal for most Christians certainly doesn’t feel normal to us. Given how the ground is shifting underfoot, I’d suggest that Robert Louis Wilken’s book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them can shed a little light on our situation.
As we hear increasingly heated censures of the sharper edges of our beliefs and practice, it’s worth listening to what some astute pagan observers thought about Christianity in its early days. How do ancient critiques stack up to today’s challenges to the faith?
Ancient Critiques of a Strange New Faith
Published almost 30 years ago, Wilken’s book asks, “How did Christianity . . . look to the outsider before it became the established religion of western Europe and Byzantium?” (xi) For answers, Wilken turns to five pagan observers of Christianity whose comments on this strange new faith ranged from offhand remarks to full-scale attacks: Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor; Galen, a physician and philosopher; Celsus, a philosopher who wrote a book-length critique of Christianity; Porphyry, “the most learned and astute” early critic of Christianity; and Julian, Roman emperor from AD 361 to 363, known to Christian history as “the Apostate” because he abandoned Christianity for a wholehearted embrace of Roman religion.
These ancient critiques of Christianity are remarkable: both for appearing so consistently in the works Wilken surveys and also for their relevance today. I’ll unpack three of them.
Hung Up on Exclusivity
Romans were just as hung up on the exclusivity of Christianity as anyone has been since. For instance, here’s how Porphyry balked at John 14:6:
If Christ says he is the way, the grace, and the truth, and claims that only in himself can believing souls find a way to God, what did the people who lived in the many centuries before Christ do? What became of the innumerable souls, who can in no way be faulted, if he in whom they were supposed to believe had not yet appeared among humankind? . . . Why did he who is called the Savior hide himself for so many ages? (162)
As Celsus put it, “Is it only now after such a long age that God has remembered to judge the human race? Did he not care before?” (103. And, “But they alone, they say, know the right way to live” .)
The Romans were a thoroughly religious people, so they were affronted when Christians claimed that their God, revealed in the man Jesus, is the only true object of worship. Wilken writes,
The Christians were seen as religious fanatics, self-righteous outsiders, arrogant innovators, who thought that only their beliefs were true. . . . How presumptuous, thought the Romans, that the Christians considered themselves alone religious. As a Roman official aptly remarked at the trial of the Scillitan martyrs, “We too are a religious people.” (62)
It should not surprise today when many are offended by the gospel’s claims. Its sharp edges slice all the way to the heart of human pride, and that hurts. But only in hurting will the gospel heal.
Moses vs. Jesus vs. Paul
These pagan observers of Christianity were highly skilled at playing one biblical voice against another:
Why, asks Celsus, did God “give contradictory laws to this man from Nazareth, his son”? Jesus taught many different things than Moses taught. “Who is wrong? Moses or Jesus? Or when the Father sent Jesus had he forgotten what commands he gave to Moses? Or did he condemn his own laws and change his mind, and send his messenger for quite the opposite purposes?” (7.18). (115)
Julian similarly charged that nowhere does God “announce to the Hebrews a second law besides that which was established. Nowhere does it occur, not even a revision of the established law” (192).
The Romans, however, didn’t just pit Jesus against Moses; they also pitted Jesus against Paul and the other apostles. Wilken summarizes and cites Porphyry’s strangely familiar reconstruction:
There is one God whom all men worship, and Jesus, like other pious men, worshiped this God and taught others to venerate him. By his teaching Jesus directed men’s attention to the one God, but his disciples fell into error and taught men to worship Jesus. “Thus Hecate said that he (Jesus) was a most devout man, and that his soul, like the souls of the other devout men, was endowed after death with the immortality it deserved; and that Christians in their ignorance worship this soul.” (153)
So we can see that tired old “Jesus vs. Paul” mantras were old and tired long before 19th-century liberal theologians gave them a boost.
In order to explain the faith to outsiders, we need to know how to put together our Bibles. Today one of the most common objections to Christianity has to be, “Why do you think homosexuality is a sin when you dispense with so much of the Old Testament law?” From then to now the questions and the motives behind these objections have changed, but our response should be the same. Church leaders must master the sprawling covenantal narrative of Scripture and train rank-and-file believers to do the same.
‘Hatred of Mankind’
A third relevant theme is Christians’ “antisocial tendencies”: the historian Tacitus, for example, wrote that Christians were killed for their “hatred of mankind” (49). In a society where religion and public life tightly interlocked, to stand apart from religious observance was to threaten the common good (48-67). Thus Minucius Felix leveled a specifically religious charge when he chided, “You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror from our sacred games” (66).
This is one area where our situation differs sharply from the early Christians’, yet we’re catching up. Church and state may be separated, but that doesn’t mean America has no state religion. We may not have gladiatorial games, but we sacrifice more than our share of innocent lives.
Of course, much of America’s public discourse borrows capital from Christianity, but that won’t stop anyone from using concepts like “love” to paint Christians as “haters of mankind.” When the unclean spirit returns, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order.
We’ve Been Here Before—And So Has He
Reflecting on a louse creeping in a well-to-do lady’s bonnet during church, the Scottish bard Robert Burns famously wrote, “And would some Power the small gift give us/To see ourselves as others see us!” Or he would have, were he writing in English instead of his native Scots.
What today’s non-Christians see in Christianity is much worse than lice. Take all our hypocrisy and scandals off the table, and just consider what non-Christians see in our beliefs, and in our lives when the two match. Our culture’s “yuck factor” used to align fairly well with Christian morals, but now Christianity itself is becoming an object of revulsion.
Understanding cultural opposition, whether ancient or modern, is only a small step toward a faithful response. But I hope this survey of ancient critiques of the faith will in some small measure help us keep cool as the temperature rises.
We’ve been here before. More importantly, there’s one who has been here before any of us. Not only that, he’s here with us. And he’s not going anywhere.