It causes one to consider his own Christian walk when you read early church history and see how the pagans viewed our Christian brothers and sisters. Most of the time their opinions are based on how Christians endured persecution, even unto death and remained faithful to Jesus. Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 AD) , the first Christian historian, in his Church History relates the following incident where Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) wrote the Council of Asia concerning the Christians they were persecuting. Note his observations about the Christians.
“The Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antonines Augustus, Armenius, pontifex maximus, holding tribunician power for the fifteenth time, consul the third time, to the Council of Asia, greeting. I know that the gods are also concerned that such men as these should not go undetected, for they would be far more likely to punish those who will not worship them than you are. But you hound them into trouble by accusing them of atheism and thereby add to their resolve to choose apparent death rather than life for the sake of their own god. They, then, become the conquerors when they sacrifice their lives rather than obey your commands. As to the earthquakes that have happened— and are happening— you lose heart whenever they occur and provide a painful comparison between our character and theirs. They repose greater trust in their god, whereas you neglect yours and the worship of the Immortal. But when the Christians worship him, you harass and persecute them to death. On behalf of such people many of the former provincial governors wrote our divine father, and he replied that they were not to be troubled unless they appeared to be plotting against the Roman government. Many have reported about them to me also, and I have replied in accordance with my father’s opinion. But if anyone persists in taking action against one of these people [as a Christian], the accused shall be acquitted of the charge even if it is clear that he is one, and the accuser shall be liable to penalty. Published at Ephesus in the Council of Asia.” (Emphasis and footnotes added)
The Christians were called atheists by the pagans because they would not worship the pagan gods and the Roman emperors.
They were evidently living out Paul’s teaching on persecution. He encouraged the saints in Philippians 1: 28 – 29 to be “in no way alarmed by your opponents — which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake….” He wrote in Romans 8:37 “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.”
By being willing to die instead of worship the Emperor and false gods, their great faith in God, the Father, and Jesus Christ was manifested to the pagans. The historical records contain incidences of people being converted while viewing the patience of the saints, as they were being tormented, fed to the wild animals or suffering other forms of gruesome death. Others stepped up and confessed their faith in Jesus Christ and consequently were made to join the Christians in their suffering.
Many of our Christian brothers and sisters in Communist China, Nigeria, Islamic nations and other countries are going through similar persecution TODAY. NOW. May grace be multiplied to them and the comfort of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31) be with them. Please remember them in your prayers.