Travelogue: Persevering in the Christian Life

There was another reason for this. In some places in the Roman Empire, the Christians could meet, but in others, they were not able to assemble. Especially in Rome, they took to meeting in the catacombs, where Rome buried their dead.

Said Dr. Nichols, “Rome suffered from what I believe we suffer from culturally: We think we’re going to live forever. And so we move our elderly out of our sight, don’t we? We sort of remove them from society so that we are not reminded of our frailty and our mortality. And we’d just as soon not talk about taxes, we don’t want to talk about death, either.”

So Rome would put their dead underground, out of sight and out of mind. The only ones who would go down there would be the slaves, and the Christians did so. We know they were down there because they left behind art. The first Christian art is in these catacombs, such as rudimentary paintings of a woman sitting at a well; a table with twelve seated at it, a prominent figure in the middle; one handing out pieces of bread with one hand, and another handing out fish. The catacomb art depicts early Christians scenes from the New Testament.

An early representation of Apostle Paul, in the Catacomb of Domitilla.
An early representation of Apostle Paul, in the Catacomb of Domitilla.

Can you picture the scene? You’ve been above ground, persecuted, in the minority, marginalized in Roman society, driven underground, and it’s the Lord’s Day, and you gather in the catacombs to worship, and somebody has started a fire. You gather around the fire, breaking bread, enjoying the preaching of the Word, fellowship of one another and you sing, O Gladsome Light. An unfortunate consequence of meeting in the catacombs, coupled with the idea of the sacrament of the Lord’s table, is that the Romans believed that the early Christians were cannibals.

The Romans also thought the Christians were committing incest because Christians would speak of “loving their brother and sister.” And then the most ironic charge of them all: The early Christians were accused of being “atheists” because they denied the gods of the state, and they refused to worship the emperor. For these things, the Christians were a threat to Roman society and were considered illegal.

It was decided that Polycarp needed to be arrested. The prisons were so full of Christians that it caused a crime spree throughout most of the empire. Officials were tasked with arresting Christians. They were so busy tracking them down, criminals were literally getting away with murder. Persecution was empire-wide, but it tended to be sporadic, and hinged upon the particular proconsul or regional authority.

“The moment the arrest warrant was issued for Polycarp, he didn’t march right into the proconsul’s office and turn himself over,” Dr. Nichols recounted. “In fact, he tried to evade them. He went into hiding. He was hiding through a series of farmhouses as this group of Roman soldiers was dispatched to go get him. They were one step behind him, hot on the trail of Polycarp, and they finally catch up with him in the back room building of some farmhouse, behind some pile of feed for the animals. And there he is, Public Enemy Number One, 86-year-old man, Polycarp. ‘Before you arrest me, could you help me up?'”

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883

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church history, justification, perseverance, Reformation, systematic theology, travelogue