Geaux Therefore

“Swear by the genius of our lord the emperor”: False Worship and Persecution of Christians

By Rex Butler

This is the fifth in a series of articles written to examine early Christian martyr stories and to compare them with contemporary accounts of persecution according to content, themes, players, and actions. Widespread global persecution in the past one hundred years is the continuation of persecution that began during the early centuries of the church.

            Toward the end of the first century, Emperor Domitian sent out a decree that all in his empire should worship him as “God the Lord.” Residents of the empire were ordered to come to the public square, burn a pinch of incense, and speak the words Caesar kurios, “Caesar is lord.” This act of devotion seemed little enough in light of the emperor’s divine power and benevolence toward his subjects. And refusal could result in imprisonment, confiscation of property, banishment, and even death. Christians, however, did refuse. They confessed a higher allegiance: Iesous kurios, “Jesus is Lord,” recalling Paul’s admonition, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). 

            In western Asia Minor, known today as Turkey, emperor worship was embraced, so Domitian’s edict was strictly enforced. In 17 AD, a powerful earthquake destroyed many of the cities in that area, including Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Smyrna. Because Emperor Tiberius paid for the reconstruction of these cities out of imperial funds, the citizens were grateful to the emperor and quite ready to worship anyone who occupied the imperial throne. And any resident who refused to worship the emperor was severely punished.

            The persecution under Domitian is the background to the Book of Revelation and can be seen behind the letters to the seven churches. To the church in Smyrna, Jesus dictated this message: “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:9-10). This period of Christian suffering ended with Domitian’s death in 96, but the demand for false worship of emperors continued to be a source of persecution for Christians throughout the coming centuries.

The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs

In 180, twelve Christians from the rural town of Scillium, North Africa, were brought to trial in Carthage. The court records are preserved in The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, the earliest record of Christianity in North Africa, appropriately so, since the North African Church became known as the “Church of the Martyrs.” During the trial, the proconsul interrogated the accused, whose leader was Speratus. The crux of the proceeding was the proconsul’s insistence that the Christians “swear … by the genius of our lord the emperor.” Speratus replied: “I do not recognize the empire of this world. Rather, I serve that God whom no man has seen, nor can see, with these eyes.”

The imperial cult was a religion built around the worship of the Roman emperor, the cement that held together the loyalty of the citizens of the far-flung empire. The various religions of the numerous peoples of the empire were tolerated as long as the worship of the emperor was observed. This observance consisted primarily of offerings and prayers to the genius, or the divine spirit, that indwelt and empowered the emperor to rule with the gods’ favor.

For Christians, although they were willing to obey the emperor in civil matters, such religious devotion was impossible. To further complicate the situation, the Latin concept of genius was expressed by the Greek word daimon, or “demon.” Therefore, whenever and wherever the false imperial worship was enforced, Christians were persecuted, as seen in the martyrdom of the Scillitan men and women. When each one confessed, “I am a Christian,” and refused to worship the emperor, they were sentenced to immediate beheading. They gave thanks to God, for “Today we are martyrs in heaven!”

False Worship and Persecution in North Korea

Ancient Rome is not the only place where false worship of national rulers is demanded and Christians are persecuted. North Korea is described as “the most militantly atheistic country in the world” and “one of the world’s very worst religious persecutors.” This absolute dictatorship was formed in the aftermath of the 1948 division of the Korean peninsula under the rule of Kim Il-Sung, a former Soviet army officer. After Kim-Il Sung died in July 1994, power passed to his son Kim Jong-Il, who died in December 2011, and then to his grandson Kim Jong-Un. When Kim Il-Sung took power, he followed the Communist atheistic ideology and attempted to eliminate all religious belief. In place of Buddhist, Christian, and other faiths, Kim Il-Sung established an alternative religion, a personality cult built around himself and his son, Kim Jong-Il. North Koreans were taught to consider these men as “infallible, godlike beings and progenitors of the Korean race.” Since the beginning of Communist rule, “Christians have been nearly annihilated over the past fifty years and continue to suffer horrifying persecution at the regime’s hand” (Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea, Persecuted, 52-4).

Although little documentation exists about the full extent of religious persecution, a few testimonies have been recorded. These two interviewees reported conditions in North Korea that resemble somewhat the situation that faced the Scillitan Christians in their North African trial.

INTERVIEWEE 10: Hanging pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the wall is an obligation. The purpose of hanging the pictures is to worship Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. There is a ritual done before the pictures. [We] worship Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader who saved us from death and emancipated us from slavery….

INTERVIEWEE 37: When a person is caught carrying the Bible, he will be punished severely because he has brought an external influence to North Korea. A person caught carrying a Bible is doomed. When a person is caught [worshipping], he will be sent to kwanliso [prison camp] … and the whole family may disappear (Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea, Persecuted, 54).

Communist atheistic governments, like North Korea, have attempted to eradicate religion, but in its place, they have exalted human godlike dictators, who, like the Roman emperors of the early Christian centuries, demand worship and threaten disobedience with suffering and death. In both ancient Rome and modern North Korea, many faithful believers make the confession: “I am a Christian.”

Dr. Rex Butler is a professor of church history and patristics and currently occupies the John T. Westbrook Chair of Church History.