Historians have long marveled at-and theorized about the amazing speed with which Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire despite brutal persecution. I asked Woodbridge to assess the comments made by atheist-turned-Christian Patrick Glynn:
Part of the reason for Christianity's rapid spread, historians have remarked, was simply that the early Christians were such nice people. The very kindness of the Christians and their service to the poor and downtrodden attracted new adherents. "Christians astounded the ancients with their charity," as one historian has put it. 13
Woodbridge nodded in response. "Yes, I think Glynn's reference to the rapid spread of Christianity is accurate," he said. "Tertullian writes at the end of the second century, 'We are but of yesterday and yet we already fill your cities, island, your palace, senate and forum, we have left to you only your temples.' So in a hundred and fifty years, Christianity spread very, very quickly.
"One explanation of its rapid spread, as Glynn indicated, is that many Christians were not just taking care of their own, but they were caring for neighbors, the poor, and widows, the hurting, and they were basically very loving. They showed compassion toward children, who were often treated very callously by the Romans and Greeks at birth, especially baby girls. The lifestyle of Christians matched their teachings, so that many early Christians were not afraid to say, 'Imitate us as we imitate Christ."'
Having said that, Woodbridge added a bit sheepishly: "Unfortunately, in contemporary evangelicalism sometimes people say, 'Don't look at us, look at Christ,' because we are worried what people will find if our own lives are scrutinized. That wasn't true of many of these early Christians-there was consistency between their beliefs and behavior."
Woodbridge pulled out a piece of paper. "We can also gain some insights into why Christianity grew so quickly from a few early non-Christians," he said, reading aloud the observations of Lucian, a second-century Greek satirist and critic of Christianity:
These misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.14
"He's confirming the fact that Christians treated each other as brothers and freely shared their possessions wit] each other. Add to that another important factor to which he alludes: Christians believed that to die is to be with Christ. Justin Martyr, in the First Apology, says: 'You can kill us, but you can't hurt us." 15 Most of us think killing is a big-time hurt, but from their point of view, being killed doesn't matter too much. As Paul said, 'To live is Christ and to die is gain.'i6 "So when you take into consideration the early Christians' fearless devotion to the faith; their willingness to testify through their own martyrdom to the truth of Christ their humble and compassionate lifestyle; their care for each other and the helpless and hurting and disenfranchised in the community; their commitment to prayer; and their empowerment by the Holy Spirit, you can begin to understand why the faith spread so rapidly."
"Ultimately," I asked, "was it a good or bad thing for Christianity that it was adopted as the state religion of the Romans?"
"On one hand, it was very nice to have the persecutions cease, so that was a good thing," Woodbridge said with a smile. "But as the church became closely related to the state, then the church began to use the state as a persecuting agency, and that became a very bad thing. Also, worldliness swept into the church."
"The rumor was abroad that Constantine promised if you became a Christian, you'd get a beautiful robe and pieces of gold. Well, those aren't very good reasons to become a Christian. So the door was opened wide to persons who may have professed Christianity, but who didn't really embrace Jesus."
"In other words, cultural Christians rather than authentic followers of Jesus?"
"Exactly," he said.
With the groundwork concerning early Christianity having been established, I turned the page in my list of questions and began to focus on the five major blots on Christian history that troubled me the most when I was a skeptic-the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, exploitation by missionaries, and anti-Semitism. Unquestionably, it was an unsavory and unholy litany.
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