Why did early Christians love their enemies?

Perhaps in part due to the popularity and success of non-violent liberators like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi, we often assume that early Christian directives regarding love for enemies were motivated primarily by evangelistic concerns. That is, early Christians believed that some of their persecutors would reconsider their actions when confronted with unexpected Christian generosity. Christians would win over their tormentors through acts of kindness as such acts would sting the conscience of their offenders. Through love Christians would prod evildoers toward repentance and ultimately conversion. 

In light of the prevalence of this reading it is worth asking whether early Christians really understood their enemies in this way, as potential converts, ready to be won over by love.   

Sermon on the mount

Matthew 5:38-48 would seem to be the seminal text for the Christian understanding of enemy-love. Here Jesus outlines a radically non-violent approach to oppression. He first addresses various cases in which a person might be taken advantage of. 

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who asks from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

In each case Jesus advises heightened voluntary vulnerability. Why?

  • Jesus’ saying about cheeks likely derives from the servant song in Isaiah 50. The servant goes out of his way to accommodate the blows of his enemies: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (50:6). But the servant goes on to celebrate God’s eventual justice: Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up... Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled! This is what you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment” (50:9-11, cf. Lamentations 3:25-66). 
  • The sayings on coats/cloaks and giving/lending can be viewed as commentary on Psalm 37:21-22, a psalm alluded to and quoted throughout the sermon on the mount: The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving; for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off.” These verses, along with the rest of the psalm, encourage the righteous to patiently wait upon God for vengeance and reward. 

The_Taking_of_Christ-Caravaggio_(c.1602)If the scriptural subtexts are any indication then, Jesus believed non-violence, and even active acceptance of mistreatment, would secure eschatological rather than evangelistic victory. Jesus and his followers trusted that God would soon punish their persecutors and exalt the abused: Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. (Psalm 37:1-3).

Jesus continues: 

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The reasoning for enemy-love expressed here is twofold. First, the more difficult the venture, the greater the reward (cf. 1 Peter 3:9). Those who take the narrow path of loving their enemies as well as their friends will receive greater compensation than the person who loves only his friends.

Second, as is evident from nature, God is often gracious towards those who reject him. To love an enemy is therefore to be God-like, to be a child of God. 

At no point then does Matthew 5:38-48 suggest Christians might convert their enemies through acts of kindness. Other, more eschatological, rationales are given instead.


Paul echoes Jesus’ teachings concerning violence on a couple of occasions (cf. 1 Thess 5:15, Romans 12:17). Only in Romans 12:14-21, however, does he explain why Christians ought to do good to their enemies. 

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The Apostle begins with a pragmatic note: “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” As a suspect religious group, Christians were to avoid retaliation in order to escape the notice of the pagan authorities.

Paul proceeds to justify Christian non-violence on the grounds that vengeance is God’s prerogative. He quotes Deuteronomy 32:35: Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly.” Here, as elsewhere, Paul seems to be implying that the day of the Lord’s vengeance lies close at hand (cf. Romans 13:11, 1 Cor 7:29, Philippians 4:5). Christians will very soon be vindicated before their enemies and therefore need not fret the injustice done to them (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12). 

Paul then adds to this argument by quoting from Proverbs 25:21-22, a text which contrasts the reward coming upon the gracious faithful with the chastisement that awaits the oppressor. 

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For in so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.

We can at this point notice a telling trend: early Christian teachings regarding the treatment of enemies often drew upon Biblical passages that characterize God as a swift avenger of the righteous. These texts were seamlessly appropriated by early Christians who enjoyed an apocalyptic fervor, the conviction that the present evil age was about to come to a dramatic end. God was about to overturn the whole pagan world order, replacing it with the kingdom of God; and so, if Jesus’ statement that “all who take up the sword [against pagan empire] die by the sword [of pagan empire]” is to be taken seriously, patiently awaiting upon the impending judgement of God was the only viable option for the churches. Only through non-violence would live to inherit the age to come.

It is therefore my view that Christian charity towards enemies was predicated upon the belief that God would soon administer retribution.  

So what did Christians think of their enemies?

If not as potential converts, how did early Christians view their opponents?

Based on the witness of the New Testament, Christians tended to have a fatalistic outlook on their enemies. Those who hindered the spread of the gospel and persecuted Christians were often characterized as demonic figures (cf. Acts 13:10, 1 John 3:8, 1 Timothy 4:1, Revelation 13:6-7). This was reflected in Jesus’ own rhetoric: he calls the Jews who subvert him “children of the Devil” (John 8:44) and agents of the evil one (Matthew 13:38). 

Christians also used animal imagery to describe their opponents and competitors. They are likened to “ravenous wolves” in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), dogs who return to their vomit (2 Peter 2:22, Revelation 22:15, Philippians 3:2), dogs and pigs that trample what is holy (Matthew 7:6), and a brood of vipers: “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matthew 12:34). 

As satanic offspring and hedonistic animals, such people were not thought capable of repentance. They were controlled (and perhaps directed) by appetites opposed to God and the truth (cf. Mark 4:10-12, 2 Thess 2:11). They would therefore only be overcome by the judgement of God. 

In sum, there is little evidence to suggest early Christians expected their good deeds would sway the hearts and minds of their persecutors.  But there are, in fact, very good reasons to reject such an opinion in favor of a view that gives imminent apocalypticism the place it deserves in New Testament interpretation.


Appendix #1: what about the conversion of Paul?

We do have one Biblical example of a persecutor converting to the faith. Still, Paul was not so much impressed by the enemy-love of his opponents as by the strength of their alleged-Messiah. His conversion was induced by a powerful vision of the risen Jesus, not by the charity his opponents showed him. 

Appendix #2: 1 Peter 2:12

1 Peter 2:12 is sometimes appealed to as an example of conversion brought upon by gracious behavior despite mistreatment. 

Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you [now] as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes on the day of visitation. 

Unfortunately for such appeals, Peter is not referring to conversion to Christianity in the present age. Instead, Peter is contrasting the false-testimony leveled against believers by evildoers in this age with the true-testimony those evildoers will deliver on the day of judgement. On that day, such scoffers will have no choice but to bear witness to the honorable deeds of believers and in so doing glorify God. 

6 thoughts on “Why did early Christians love their enemies?

  1. Your post does a great job of highlighting the apocalyptic theme of vindication that is, as you point out, often overlooked in the NT. BUT, I do have to give some pushback, since I see evangelistic efforts side-by-side with the vindication theme in the NT (they’re not mutually-exclusive: there’s an invitation to repent in light of the imminent Parousia, but for those who reject the invitation, judgment’s a-comin!).

    I especially find an evangelistic optimism in 1 Peter (it was the subject of my master’s thesis). In 2:21-25, Peter links the believers’ missional duty to the paradigm set by Christ — whose honorable endurance of suffering redeemed them, implying that their embodiment of the gospel could have the same effect on their enemies. Then in 3:2-3, Peter explicitly states a hope for evangelistic success among hostile, unbelieving men via their Christian wives’ honorable behavior: “so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live when they observe your pure, reverent lives.” And regarding Peter’s confidence that believers’ slanderers will “glorify God in the day of visitation,” that same Greek term “glorify” elsewhere in the NT is tied to repentance (Rev 16:9).

    On a more fundamental level, even if we don’t see too many explicit statements about evangelizing one’s enemies in the NT, it’s implicit in the fact that believers participate in Christ as his body. Therefore, they share his mission (including enemy-love). They’re to imitate Christ who loved his enemies enough to die for them and who preached the gospel to them. Paul, especially, teaches that being in Christ is the ontological basis and motivation for mission, for being “ambassadors for Christ,” pleading for his enemies to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20-21). And Paul tells his congregations to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 11:1). This is the thesis of Michael J. Gorman’s books, especially “Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission.” You might need to read that and see how it might challenge your thesis here. Anyway, long comment, but evangelism (even of enemies) is such a fundamental part of the mission of God and of the church, so I thought it worthwhile to engage. Keep up the hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the engagement, Derek. Your insights are helpful.

      I think you make a good case for 1 Peter 2:21-25, one that I will have to think about more. I am hesitant to say decisively though that those who “returned to the shepherd” did so on account of Christ’s refusal to return abuse for abuse—as if Christ’s abusers are the sheep themselves. It seems to me that the more direct reason the sheep have returned is because “he himself bore [the sheep’s] sins.” Peter here has the idea of God’s election in mind, not the idea of Christ’s kindness winning over his abusers. The argument is that the redeemed sheep should emulate Christ’s tolerance of abuse, entrusting themselves to the one who judges justly, not that they were themselves converted by such tolerance.

      There is definitely the sense in 1 Peter 3:2-3 that a believer’s behavior can bring about repentance, particularly through “reverence” and “purity.”

      In response to your larger critique, I would say that perhaps repentance/belief are preceded by conversion. That is, one recognizes the love of Christ only after he/she has been enabled to by God. It is ultimately not Christ’s tolerance of enemies that draws one to God, but rather God’s election. It was only after God revealed to Paul that Jesus was Messiah that Paul came to recognize Jesus’ death as a sacrifice made on behalf of his enemies.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree that, with regard to 1 Peter 2:21-25, Christ’s sheep aren’t identical to his abusers. But I do see an implied parallel between their redemption by Christ and the potential to possibly win over their abusers through their godly emulation of Christ’s example. But I also see Peter as a realist – nowhere does he get overly confident that their virtue will certainly convert their enemies. It’s only implied (besides in 3:2-3, where he still hedges with a “maybe it’ll work”).

        Regarding election, I personally don’t hold to a deterministic or unconditional view of God’s election, and I absolutely think the NT rules out the idea that regeneration/conversion precedes repentance /belief. I plan to write a great deal about that soon, but obviously the history of Christian theology shows how extensive and hotly-debated those issues are, so I’m happy for now to just say: you may be right but I personally don’t see it the same way.

        So lest we devolve into an entire Calvinist/Arminian discussion in a comment thread, I’ll just say thanks so much for hearing me out and interacting!

        Liked by 1 person

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