Today, July 19, marks a dark day in Christian history. On this date in A.D. 64, the Great Fire of Rome left two-thirds of the Eternal City in ashes. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the fire was sparked in a part of town concentrated with flammable goods, quickly spread by high winds, and burned over the course of the next week and a half. This was the stuff of nightmares.
According to Tacitus:
“The blaze in its fury ran first through the level portions of the city, then rising to the hills, while it again devastated every place below them; it outstripped all preventive measures, so rapid was the mischief and so completely at its mercy the city, with those narrow winding passages and irregular streets which characterized old Rome. “
He went on to describe screaming women, helpless children, and panicked crowds, trampling everything before them.
The end of the blaze was not the end of the terror. On the throne at the time was Emperor Nero, a man notorious for his immorality and hatred of Christians. Suspicious by the way Nero refashioned the charred city into his own image, as well as by rumors that he “fiddled while Rome burned,” many Romans began to wonder if he had started the fire himself.
To forestall the whispers, Nero blamed the Christians. And why not? Christians were weird. They talked about eating flesh and drinking blood. They called their husbands “brother” and their wives “sister.” They denied the gods, like atheists. They thought a dead man had come back to life and was going to return one day in glory and, most pertinently, in vengeance.
Up to this point, believers had mostly been left alone by Roman authorities, but Nero found they were easy to pick on. In the days that followed, the Apostles Peter and Paul met their fates, along with an unknown but great number of other Christians.
If this was the first time Christians took heat for a public disaster, it certainly would not be the last. Christians have found themselves an unpopular minority in many cultural settings and have been consistently blamed for various disasters in various societies. A century and a half after Nero’s attacks, Tertullian, a North African Christian writer, morbidly quipped, “If the Tiber rises too high, or the Nile too low, the remedy is always feeding Christians to the lions.” In 410, pagan writers suggested that the sacking of Rome by German tribes would not have happened had Rome not abandoned her gods for a supposedly immoral Christianity. That accusation led Augustine of Hippo to respond with his magnum opus, The City of God.
One of the most important works in the history of Western civilization, The City of God is still read, centuries later, by pastors, philosophers, and historians alike. In it, Augustine provided a thoroughgoing defense to a shallow trope leveled against Christians. He offered a litany of natural and military disasters and gross moral failings from Rome’s supposedly purer and pagan past. With these examples, he undid the critique that Christians had somehow made life worse. If anything, in fact, the influence of biblical ideals had made things better.
Christians today face analogous accusations. We aren’t being cast to the lions (at least not here in the West, anyway), but there’s a clear and growing undercurrent of hostility toward Christians that often resembles the tropes used in ancient days. Christians have been blamed for the prevalence of poverty, natural disasters due to climate change, the degradation of science and technology, and all kinds of social and political oppression.
Our reply can be much the same as Augustine’s. Oppression, poverty, military, and natural disasters are the common lot of humanity. They are common in times and places where the Gospel has never gone. However, in those places where Christianity has gone there are hospitals, universities, technological innovation, freedom, and an unusual insistence on human dignity.
Recently, the good that Christianity brought to the world has been described in books like Dominion by the (as yet!) non-Christian historian, Tom Holland, and the newer The Air We Breathe, by Anglican evangelist Glen Scrivener. These works remind us how bad the world was before Christ came, and how much of what we think of as good and valuable has come, not despite Christianity, but because of it. Any Christian who faces an unfair accusation today should read these books and be encouraged. Christianity is just as true and good today, as it was then.
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