Gladiator Games, Abortion, and the Early Church (Athenagoras)

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      Just over a week ago I highlighted a section from Athenagoras (an early Christian apologist from the end of the 2nd century AD) in which he defended Christian morality since many were accusing Christians of immorality.  Specifically, Athenagoras said Christian sexual ethics were much better than those of non-Christians, since Christians upheld purity in marriage and avoided homosexuality.  You can read the article here.

In the same context, Athenagoras also explained how Christians detested all sorts of cruelty, abuse, and bloodshed.   Apparently some had accused Christians of being murderers and cannibals because of the Lord’s Supper (eating/drinking the body/blood of Jesus), so Athenagoras refuted the accusation as completely untrue.  The truth is, he said, that Christians are against brutality and murder:

“[Which Roman citizen] does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you?  But we [Christians], deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles.  How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?

In other words, since Christians renounced things like the brutal gladiator games, how can someone accuse them of being murderers?  [As a convicting side note, although Christians aren’t murders today, we typically no longer “abjure” watching the spectacles of brutality and death like our Christian forefathers did.]  Athenagoras goes on:

“And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder?  For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.”

Athenagoras is arguing that since Christians were against abortion and exposing a child (letting it die soon after birth), how can one accuse them of murder?  Christians in the early church believed a fetus in the womb and newborn children were created by God and under his care, so they would never kill them.  The were against murder, not for it (think of the 6th commandment)!

In a brilliant way, Athenagoras turns the tables on the accusers: Christians are not the ones who are murderers, since they detest gladiator games, brutality, abortion, and the exposing of children.  The non-Christians do those things, but not Christians – therefore no one can accuse Christians of being immoral murderers.

The entire apology by Athenagoras is worth reading: A Plea for the Christians.  The above quotes were taken from paragraph/chapter 35.

shane lems
hammond, wi

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