On March 5, 2009 two women, Marzieh Esmaeilabad and Maryam Rustampoor, were arrested by Iranian security forces in Tehran and thrown into the notorious Evin prison for the crime of being Christian in a Muslim country. They were detained, tried, threatened and mistreated. They were repeatedly ordered to deny Jesus and were threatened with death if they did not. They refused to deny Him, and somehow found great joy in their resolve.
Only after considerable international pressure were the women released from prison, eventually making their way to the U.S. They were persecuted in captivity for 259 days. All merely for the crime of believing in Jesus.
It is estimated that as many as 7,000 Christians were martyred for their faith in 2015 alone. Most were murdered by Muslims who believe that Islam condones persecution. Others, however, were murdered by Hindus or communists or socialists or just renegades. Seven thousand murders is a substantial number, but it masks the true numbers of Christians who face harassment and mistreatment worldwide—there are millions.
And their story is legion: for nearly twenty centuries Christians have often faced opposition, and in many places outright persecution. And it’s not just in Muslim or communist nations. Even here in our own nation, American progressives are breathing threats against Christians who won’t get on with the Left’s social agenda. So if you are a Christian professor at a university, a Christian executive at a large corporation, a Christian performer, or a Christian wedding planner, you know that you must parse your views very carefully in today’s America. Your career is on the line. When the previous administration refused to enforce the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and when left-leaning churches actively oppose state versions of the RFRA, you know that a storm is brewing against Christians even here in America.
In a sense we should consider it a compliment that the world hates authentic forms of Christianity. After all, our Master was crucified, and many of our founders were harassed and murdered. So, it is probably unavoidable that authentic forms of Christianity are going to be opposed wherever they go. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” Jesus advises (John 15:18).
But still the question remains. Why does the world hate Christians with such fervor?
Author Peter Hitchens, the Christian brother of famed atheist Christopher Hitchens, was once interviewed on Australian television. He took the opportunity to explain the all-or-nothing presumptions of the Christian faith:
“The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead. You can’t really leave it there …. Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”
Real Christianity is a threat to every other belief in the world because it claims to hold the one and only truth. It unambiguously states that all other religions, all other gods, and all other ideologies are false. Indeed, it declares that these all lead to damnation. It affirms that life and truth and beauty and goodness are found only in Jesus. And it demands that you take a position; it does not allow for neutrality.
Rightly preached, the Gospel is a sword. It divides the world into two groups of people: sinners saved by Jesus, and sinners judged by Him. In authentic Christianity there is no middle ground–Jesus is a winner-take-all God.
So, in a sense, the Christian faith begs for persecution, because in its authentic forms it challenges every other belief in the world.
But this is not bad news. On the contrary. Jesus came to give us Good News. The Good News of the Gospel is that it rescues us from the false promises of every other religion or ideology or politic. It shows us with brilliant clarity what is good. It leads us to live lives of love, of rightness, of beauty. It saves us from our sin, from our sickness, and from ourselves. In short, Christ sets us free from all forms of pretension so that we can live in Him the lives we were designed to live. In a world full of lies and mistakes, the Message of Jesus is the best news ever.
Compromised forms of Christianity face little resistance. After all, who wants to execute Santa Claus? But the clear and bold proclamation of the apostolic faith challenges every other view in the world and forces people to choose whom they will serve. So Paul is right: those who live God-like lives will suffer persecution. But because of who Jesus is, we face the world with joy.
Post Script: Maryam and Marzieh presented their stories live at North Boulevard’s School of Christian Thought on Monday night, March 20, 2017. The event was extraordinary.