Persecution is alive and well in the modern world. For Christians in Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and other places around the world, persecution is a very real and present danger.
When I hear Christians in the west talk about persecution, though, I'm struck by how often I hear something like the following:
No one has ever stopped the church through persecution. Indeed, whenever the world persecutes the church, it just grows even more. Look at the early church. The Romans tried to persecute it out of existence, yet it spread the gospel throughout the entire empire. And, more recently, the church in China blossomed during the twentieth century despite tremendous persecution.
Unlike the lazy and complacent Christianity that develops in "safe" countries, persecution fosters a robust Christianity, confident of its faith and bold in its proclamation. The church thrives under persecution.
And I understand where that sentiment is coming from. Christians are optimists. In general, we have a deep and abiding sense that God is in control and that he'll make sure everything works out his people in the end. Thus, even when we hear that things are going badly for Christians in some part of the world, we're comforted by the fact that God is still at work and that he can do amazing things in even the most difficult circumstances.
So we take a theological conviction (God is in control), combine it with some historical examples (the church in China), and come up with a pretty impressive conclusion (the church thrives under persecution). But there's one little problem: it's not true. Or, at least, it's not true as it is usually stated. Here's why.
1. A Faulty Argument
The logic of the argument just doesn't work. To see this, let's try a different form of the same argument:
• God is in control.
• God made Abraham and Solomon wealthy (in material possessions owned during this life)
• God makes his people wealthy (in material possessions owned during this life)
Now the problem should be pretty easy to see. The third point does not follow from the first two, both of which are true. God may well have other purposes that would lead him to allow some of his people to remain poor. So we can't just assume that he will act in precisely the same way at all times and with all people.
The same applies to our argument. Assuming for a moment that the church does thrive under persecution at times (more on that in a moment), we can't simply draw the conclusion that it will always do so. Our theological optimism would like us to believe that this is true. But what we'd like to be true and what actually is true aren't always the same.
2. A Selective History
The main reason the argument seems to work is that we're most familiar with those instances where the church appears to have thrived under persecution. And that makes sense. We like to tell those stories. Who wants to talk about when things went badly? That's no fun.
So we forget about the church in North Africa That was once the thriving heartland of Christianity, but after the Muslim invasions, the church slowly receded into the background before fading entirely. And we fail to talk about Asia Minor (especially after the 14th century) and Japan (after Christianity was outlawed in the 17th century), other instances where persecution had disastrous consequences for the church.