The Premise Accepted by St Justin Martyr and His Opponents Which is Denied by Modernity

The Premise Accepted by St Justin Martyr and His Opponents Which is Denied by Modernity September 24, 2010

Since Christians willingly died instead of denounce their faith, some pagan critics asked whether or not Christians should just kill themselves off. That is, if they valued the world so little, and believed they would gain eternal glory, why wait? St Justin Martyr, in the fourth chapter of his Second Apology, responded:

But lest some one say to us, “Go then all of you and kill yourselves, and pass even now to God, and do not trouble us,” I will tell you why we do not so, but why, when examined, we fearlessly confess. We have been taught that God did not make the world aimlessly, but for the sake of the human race; and we have before stated that He takes pleasure in those who imitate His properties, and is displeased with those that embrace what is worthless either in word or deed. If, then, we all kill ourselves we shall become the cause, as far as in us lies, why no one should be born, or instructed in the divine doctrines, or even why the human race should not exist; and we shall, if we so act, be ourselves acting in opposition to the will of God. But when we are examined, we make no denial, because we are not conscious of any evil, but count it impious not to speak the truth in all things, which also we know is pleasing to God, and because we are also now very desirous to deliver you from an unjust prejudice.[1]

Looking into St Justin’s reasons, we find he gives three answers, yet underpinning them is a premise which the ancients accepted with him. The first is that our proper place is actually in this world. We were made for it, and it was made for us. To try to remove ourselves from it would be to go against our nature, our purpose in the world. The second is that Christians have a role in the world, that is, to help educate it, to bring to it the divine mysteries God has revealed to us. If we were no longer here, the world would not have the graces given to it through Christ, which ultimately would lead to its own destruction. Finally, suicide is itself “worthless” in deed, and so despised by God. All three of these answers, however, are tied together with the Christian belief that we should follow the will of God, and not work against it. This was something which could be appreciated in the ancient world; humans, while given freedom to act in the world, were known to be the “property” of the gods. To kill oneself would, in that way, deny the gods their rights over you. The Christians, though they have only one God, agreed, and it is for this reason talk of “the will of God” could be had. It must not be seen as a kind of voluntarism; as we have seen, St Justin points out that there is a purpose in mind for what God wills for us.

This commonly shared understanding of the human condition has been denied by the modern secular world. Even those who claim the Christian faith live out their lives as of their lives are their own. People keep pushing for individual liberty, where no one has any authority to dictate to anyone else what they can or cannot do. In a world where the gods are denied, society crumbles apart. Everything becomes a matter of attaining one’s desires the way one thinks best. There might be some sort of social contract, where people willingly deny themselves some activity because such agreements ultimately protect themselves from undue harm, however, it is quite clear such social contracts are fragile, and when someone wants out of them, because they feel them to be too restrictive, they start investigating the authority of these contracts, and find that they can be as easily broken as created.

Perhaps no better way to see how things have changed from the ancient to the modern world is the understanding we give to property. When one understands oneself as being the possession of the gods, the value one places on one’s own goods changes. What one has is, ultimately, not one’s own but owned by the gods as well. Christianity early on took up the concept of stewardship, where God gives goods to people, whereupon they are expected to use them according to God’s will. They are free to enjoy them as long as they enjoy them under the dictates of the moral law, a moral law which, as Jesus said, was centered upon love for God and love for one’s neighbor. Yet, in the secular world, where the rights of the gods have been rejected, the moral claim is also ignored. It is sad, but not surprising, to find Christians accepting this view. They push it, indeed, as a means to justify their rejection of the requirements the common good places upon people. Though the common good can only be justified pragmatically by the secular state, explaining why those who find no good for themselves will reject it, it is sad for Christians to follow through with this ideology, because for the Christian, working for the common good remains a moral imperative. The Christian who ignores it has just demonstrated that they do not believe in God’s claims over society. Some might call such people treacherous thieves.

[1] Saint Justin Martyr, Second Apology in ANF(1):189-90.
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