ATHENAGORAS’ PLEA FOR THE CHRISTIANS
To the Emperor Marcus Aurelius,
Throughout your Empire, people worship all manner of gods and goddesses in all manner of ways. You grant this freedom on pragmatic grounds, believing it to be preferable for people to fear deities and, therefore, avoid wrong-doing as opposed to being atheists with no moral compass. Why, then, are Christians not granted this same freedom? What is the case against Christianity? On what grounds are we persecuted? A label (“Christian”) is not a crime. Nor should an accusation be a conviction. They accuse us of atheism, incest and cannibalism. Let’s investigate these charges!
It is absurd to call us atheists since we believe in the uncreated Creator. This monotheism is, in fact, much in line with the best words of your poets and thoughts of your philosophers. Even in polytheism, there has to be a unifying principle. The only difference is that the best among you have arrived at God’s unity by reason and we by revelation. How can we deny what’s been made known? And what’s been made known to us is that God is one in unity and three in distinction (Father, Son & Spirit). How can such a belief be called atheism? And what issue could one take with our brand of theism? Does one object that we are too loving (we love even our enemies)?
The real reason we are charged with atheism is that we don’t make sacrifices to the gods of our accusers. Nor do we make sacrifices to the One True God. Why would we? God is in no NEED of sacrifices. God is neither hungry for meat nor thirsty for blood. We respond to God’s goodness by giving our lives rather than trying to appease God through death. So it is true that we don’t believe in the same God (or gods) as our accusers (not that they even agree with each other about the gods), but this is not a matter of shame! In regards to such gods as they believe in, shouldn’t we ALL be atheists? Such gods were created by Orpheus and Homer and Hesiod. What good is a god that was created by humans and acts like humans? “God” must be the source of creation, not part of it.
At this point you may object to my argument by pointing out that there does seem to be power connected to the worship of these gods. I do not deny it. God created angels, gifted them with authority and freedom, and does not force them to use either wisely. Some angels chose to rebel against God, created false gods (using the names of ancients) and religions, and prop said religions up with shows of power in order to keep the blood flowing (via sacrifices). Thus, when there IS power connected to Greek mythology, it is the power of demons.
What of the charges that we, Christians, are incestuous? Vice has always resorted to slander in its attempt to defeat virtue. Truth be told, we Christians live lives more virtuous than their gods and it seems absurd that we would have to defend our chastity against the charges of our persecutors whose sexual ethic could only be called sickening. But to clear the matter up…we are accused of being incestuous because we call each other family and greet one another with a kiss. That is all.
Finally, on the charge of cannibalism, is anyone actually willing to testify to having seen such a thing among us? How could we eat someone if we refuse to kill anyone? We can’t even stomach seeing someone put to death justly, let alone desire to put the flesh of a human in our stomachs! Those who believe in resurrection would never make their body a tomb for another! [this accusation likely was connected to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper].
You are a learned and wise man, Emperor. Our presence in the Empire benefits you. Let us live.