The latest shrill to emerge is a meme from atheist Michael Sherlock and makes the claim "Christianity did not become a major religion by the quality of its truth, but by the quantity of its violence." Really? I mean, really?? Is Sherlock such a poor detective of history that he can do no investigating at all? There are three areas where this meme goes horribly wrong, each of which is actually a feather in the cap of Christianity. Therefore I'd like to look at all three. I'll begin with the first, Christianity's growth during its first centuries.
Early Christianity—The Blood of the MartyrsThe first substantial growth of Christianity comes in the first three centuries after Jesus' crucifixion. From a band of a few dozen disciples on the day of Pentecost to the Diocletian persecution ending in AD 311, Christianity grew exponentially. Much of this growth was in spite of heavy persecution of Christians by the Jews and later the Romans as Christians expanded across the Roman Empire. Roman historian Tacitus writes that Nero is famous for having Christians covered in animal skins and set before wild beasts or rolled in pitch and set aflame to light his evening chariot rides.1
During the Diocletian persecution, Eusebius reports upside down crucifixion, being burned alive, Christians having each limb fastened to bent branches and then releasing the branches and tearing the Christians to pieces.2 In between, Christians faced many difficulties throughout the empire and martyrdom was commonplace, yet the believers continued to add to their ranks. This dichotomy was so evident it caused the church father Tertullian to famously state:
Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer; for but very lately, in condemning a Christian woman to the leno rather than to the leo3 you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.4Christianity had grown so much during its times of pain and death that just two years after the Diocletian persecution, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan and gave Christianity protected status and the right to worship God as they saw fit.5
So, Christianity in its formative years did grow during violent times. Unlike what the meme implies, though, the violence was against the Christians themselves. But perhaps such an elementary deduction has eluded Sherlock. Perhaps he had only trained his spyglass on the time after Christianity was established as a world religion. Tomorrow, I'll look at the spread of Christianity from the fifth through the 19th centuries.
2. Eusebius. Church History (Book VIII, Chapters 7 and 8). New Advent Web site. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250108.htm Accessed 6/5/2014.
3. This is a pun in Latin. Leno would be a pimp. Tertullian is saying the Romans testify to Christian virtuousness because they inflict a greater punishment in forcing Christians to be prostitutes rather than feeding them to lions.
4. Tertullian. Apology. Chapter 50. New Advent Web site. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm Accessed 6/5/2014.
5. Wright, David F."313 The Edict of Milan." Christianity Today. Issue 28, 1990. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1990/issue28/2809.html Accessed 6/5/2014