“Atheists in Turkey” – from “Sorted” chapter 2

PolycarpThe world they set out to change in that first century was multi-faith and multi-racial with a newly-developed global communications system. Sound familiar? The citizens of that world had, for the first time, got used to the idea that they could talk to each other in a trade language (Greek). To allow themselves access to any territory in Europe, the Romans had just built a continental network of roads, many of which are still used today (you can tell they never made it to Ireland – we had to wait another 2000 years to get some straight roads!).

The Romans liked their religion to be tolerant so, like the Greeks, they took on a whole range of gods, some nasty, some nice. You could pick and mix the ones with which you resonated best. Everyone would be tolerant of your choice – unless you chose to claim exclusively that your god was the only one – which is what the Christians did when they proclaimed that Jesus was It. Mind you, they had the resurrection to back them up. So the Romans called the Christians ‘atheists’ (!) which, for them, meant that you wouldn’t tolerate the range of gods.

By the second century Christians were being persecuted wholesale for their loyalty to Christ. When Polycarp, a great church leader from Smyrna (Izmir in modern Turkey), was brought to the arena to be burned they gave him one last chance to deny Christ. His response was, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”[3] When you consider the persecution unleashed on the early believers, it is amazing that the Church got into the second century and even more amazing that she got out of it.

You will be glad to hear that God has not been caught on the hop by our cosmopolitan world. Nor has he left us in the lurch as to how we should conduct our life and witness in a pluralist world. Indeed the remarkable thing is that the first century era into which God spoke bears such similarities to our world now.

[1] Acts 17:6

[2] Colossians 1:6

[3] C. Richardson Early Christian Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 152


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