Christianity spread rapidly from A. D. 30 until the fourth century, when it was legalized. The sudden and rapid rise of Christianity during this time period is one of the most amazing events in all of human history. In less than two centuries after the death of Christ, Tertullian could already say, “We are but of yesterday, and yet we have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market places, the very camps, tribes, companies palace, senate, and forum. We have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.”1A decade earlier, Clement of Alexandria had written, “The whole world, along with Athens and Greece, has already become the domain of the Word.”2
To be sure, other religions have sometimes spread rapidly—such as Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries. However, Islam spread quickly through use of the sword. Most of its converts did not convert willingly. In contrast, before the year 325, the rise of Christianity was entirely without the use of the sword. No one was forced to convert to Christianity during this time period. In fact, the Roman Empire used every means available to it to prevent Christianity from spreading. Yet, Christianity spread so fast that it eventually conquered the Roman Empire itself—without the use of the sword.
Reasons for the Rise of Christianity
Secular historians conjecture various reasons for Christianity’s rapid rise. However, the believer realizes the reason for the swift spread of Christianity was that God’s Spirit was behind it. As Jesus said, “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). Because Christianity is the truth and its spread was often backed by supernatural power, neither Judaism nor pagan religions could successfully stop it.
Although secular historians are not normally going to acknowledge the primary reason for Christianity’s rapid rise, there are several reasons that even they acknowledge. Three of these causes for the speedy growth of Christianity that historians recognize are: (1) the contrast between the teachings of Christianity and that of the pagan religions, (2) the admirable lifestyle of the Christians, and (3) the willingness of Christians to die for their faith.
As the church historian Philip Schaff wrote, “Christianity rises far above all other religions in the theory and practice of virtue and piety. It sets forth the highest standard of love to God and to man. …The wisest men of Greece and Rome sanctioned slavery, polygamy, concubinage, oppression, revenge, infanticide; or they belied their purer maxims by their conduction.”3 The teachings of the pagan priests and even the pagan philosophers paled in contrast to the teachings of Jesus. It was not difficult for even unlearned Romans to see the foolishness of worshipping statues and images. Furthermore, as taught in mythology, the Greek and Roman gods were no better than the vilest of humans. The God of Christianity was quite different.
Even though the Romans often lived immoral lives, they valued many of the qualities that Christians lived out: honesty, faithfulness in marriage, kindness and love to neighbors, and trustworthiness. As Schaff wrote, “Deeds speak louder than words. The finest systems of moral philosophy have not been able to regenerate and conquer the world.” 4 One of the Christian apologists declared to the Romans, “We don’t speak great things, we live them!” 5 At no other time in the history of Christianity did love so characterize the entire church as it did in the first three centuries. And Roman society took note. Tertullian reported that the Romans would exclaim, “See how they love one another!” 6
Justin Martyr sketched Christian love this way: “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.” 7 Christianity rose rapidly because of this notable contrast between the lives of Christians and those of pagans.
A third reason for the rapid rise of Christianity was the readiness of Christians to die for their faith when necessity arose. The very fact that Christians were willing to suffer un-speakable horrors and to die rather than disown their God was, next to their lifestyle, their single most effective evangelistic tool. Few, if any, Romans would die for their gods. There had to be some substance to Christianity if it meant so much to those who practiced it. In fact, the Greek word for “witness” is martyr.
As Tertullian famously wrote, “The more often we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow. The blood of Christians is seed. ...For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines?” 8
© Scroll Publishing Co. Article written by David Bercot. David Bercot’s personal homepage is at www.davidbercot.com.
1Tertullian, Apology. Quoted in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 138.
2Clement of Alexandria Miscellanies. Quoted in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 138.
3Philip Schaff History of the Christian Church. Vol. 1, p. 433.
4Philip Schaff History of the Christian Church. Vol. 1, p. 433.
5Mark Minucius Felix, quoted in We Don’t Speak Great Things, We Live Them, p. 65.
6Tertullian, quoted in Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 27.
7Justin Martyr, quoted in Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 27.
8Tertullian Apology. Quoted in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 138.