Celsus “just can’t stand Christians.”
So, writes James O’Donnell (Pagans, 101) as he describes the vicious opposition to Christians in the earliest centuries, particularly from the second-century critic Celsus.
A few weeks ago, I began a short, three-part blog series about what people in the ancient world thought of Christians. In the prior post, we explored how Celsus viewed Christians as ignorant, uneducated simpletons.
In other words, one of the main problems with Christians was intellectual in nature.
But Celsus is by no means finished. In this post, we will see that he thinks that Christians also have a behavioral problem. Their actions are rude, anti-social, and morally repugnant.
So, what did Christians do that caused such irritation in Celsus? In short, Celsus thought Christians were bad citizens. Job number one for any Roman citizen was to participate in the public, corporate worship of the Roman gods.
And it was precisely this that Christians refused to do. After all, they were monotheists. They worshiped Jesus and him alone.
Why was worshiping the Roman gods so important? Because it was the gods who gave victory in war, rain for crops, and prosperity to the state. To neglect the gods was to put the welfare of Rome at risk.
Thus, Christians were viewed as insubordinate to the state.
But, Celsus’ complaint is not just political. It is also social. The refusal to worship the gods was seen as anti-social and downright rude. Instead of joining with their fellow Romans, Christians slinked off to their private, secret meetings where they did who knows what.
Such behavior was suspicious. In the mind of Celsus, it showed that Christians were an “obscure and secret society” (8.49) that threatened the stability of the Empire. Christians “suffer from the disease of sedition” (8.49).
As a result, the insults towards Christians rolled easily off of Celsus’ tongue. Christians were like ants or bats swarming out of their nests; like worms crawling out of a hole; like frogs croaking in a marsh (4.23). Christians were a menace.
What then should be done with these Christians? Celsus’ answer is chilling:
If they refuse to render due service to the gods. . . let them not come to manhood, or marry wives, or have children, or indeed take any share in the affairs of life; but let them depart hence with all speed, and leave no posterity behind them, that such a race may become extinct from the face of the earth (8.55)
Translation: get rid of them. Or, at a minimum, don’t let them participate in the normal parts of society.
In many ways, little has changed for two-thousands years. In our modern cultural climate, Christians are still seen as a threat to the stability of society because they won’t publicly and corporately bow down to the cultural gods.
And make no mistake, the culture always demands that Christians do this publicly. Everyone has to conform. Or else.
But, the lesson from the early church is clear. We will not be accepted as citizens of this earthly Kingdom. But, that is a reason to be even more thankful that Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).