His name was Polycarp, and he was a disciple of the apostle John. He later became the pastor of the church at Smyrna. When he was very old, the vicious persecutions of Christians in Smyrna turned on him. He was arrested and told to deny Christ. He refused. He was brought into the stadium to be killed before the audience of unbelievers.
The governor looked down on him and said – “Consider your age, and be sensible. Swear and say, ‘Down with the atheists'”. Polycarp looked at the pagan audience in the stadium, and said, “Down with the atheists.” The governor said, “Swear, reproach Christ, and I will release you.” Polycarp answered, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?”
Polycarp’s dialogue with the governor requires a bit of commentary to be understood. When the governor told Polycarp to say “Down with the atheists”, he meant for Polycarp to renounce Christianity. Atheist was a pejorative term that pagans threw at Christians. To a polytheistic society awash in gods, goddesses, temples, and all their paraphernalia, Christianity seemed, at first glance, a religion of denial. They denied these gods existed, and denied the reality behind the statues and figurines. To pagans, the Christians were unbelievers, deniers of their gods. They were atheists, not in the modern sense of the term, as materialists or naturalists, but as those who refused belief in the gods.
Of course, to Christians, the real atheists were those who denied the existence of the one true and living God: the triune God of Scripture. To fail to believe in Him is to fail to believe in the only God who exists. Pagans were the true atheists. Polycarp’s response was dripping in irony. He repeated the precise words required of him, but everyone understood that he meant the opposite of what they intended him to declare. Pagans called Christians atheists. Christians denied the charge and called the pagans atheists.
Perhaps something similar is happening today with the word hate. Unbelievers are very free with the word haters. Christians, particularly those of the conservative kind are said to be haters. Why? They do not endorse homosexual marriage. They do not recognise transgender pronouns. They do not accept Islam as a road to reconciliation with God. They hold to the Bible as God’s Word. This makes them purveyors of hate, people without tolerance, acceptance, and affirmation.
Christians would deny that charge, as we have done in this series. We would explain our understanding of love, hate, and tolerance. We would affirm that we pose no physical threat to those who differ with us, nor are we disturbers of the peace. Conversely, we might counter the slander with a question: who are the real haters? If people vandalise our businesses, make false allegations about Christians being elected into high office, pour vitriol of the most unsavoury kind upon us in print and in person, and attempt to limit the exercise of free speech among Christians, should we call these people tolerant of Christianity? Should we say they are open and affirming of our beliefs? Should we say they practice inclusivity when it comes to Christianity? No, we will say, at least among ourselves, that they appear to hate what we believe and stand for.
And there the impasse will remain. I doubt that Polycarp convinced pagans to stop calling him an atheist while they remained pagans. He understood their blinded condition and simply taught who were the true atheists and the true worshippers.
I doubt we will convince the rabid left that Christians are not haters, while they remain committed to their radical notions. Best to recognise their blinded condition, and keep teaching who truly loves, and who is practising real malice.
Perhaps one day, if you are a Christian, you will be called by some authority and told to say, “I renounce all bigoted, intolerant and hateful forms of speech and religion.” With Polycarp, wave your hand at the assembled unbelievers and say, “I renounce all bigoted, intolerant and hateful forms of speech and religion.”