Sometime in the second century, a Christian apologist (now anonymous) wrote a brief letter, addressed to someone named Diognetus, answering his questions about Christianity. This short letter is one of my favorite writings from the early church. Whoever this second-century apologist was, he has all the best things from Justin Martyr, and almost sounds like Athanasius in places. Though he never names Jesus Christ, he still manages to proclaim a clear and undistorted account of the gospel.
A few years ago I published a comic book version of Diognetus, for which I made my own translation. Here is the text of that translation. My version is shortened, paraphrased, streamlined, and even censored—I omitted a few icky bits. But this version is a brisk read that gets the main ideas across.
My dear Diognetus,
I see that you are sincerely eager to learn about the religion of the Christians. You have asked me very clear and careful questions about it.
What god do they trust? How does their worship of this god help them all disregard the world and despise death? Why do they sneer at the so-called ‘gods’ of the greeks? What is the nature of this love they have for each other? And finally, why is it that this new race, or new way of life, has come into being in our time and not earlier?
I’m glad you’re so eager to find out, and now I ask for two things from God, who gives us power both to speak and to listen: May I speak in such a way that you will get some good out of what I say, and may you be enabled to listen so well that I won’t go away disappointed.
Come on then, and clear away any prejudices that clutter your mind. Throw off any habit of thought that’s leading you into error, and make a fresh start. You have to become a new person if you want to hear a new story.
Don’t just see with your eyes, but also with your understanding: what are these things you call gods? What are they made of? Stone, bronze, wood, silver, iron and clay! The stuff we make roads, pots and pans, and toilets out of!
They’re deaf and blind! They have no souls, no sense, no power to move! They rust and rot or get stolen! You call these things gods; you serve them; you bow down to them. And in the end, you become no better than they are.
Is this the reason you hate the Christians — because they refuse to take these things for gods? I could go on all day about why Christians refuse to be enslaved to such ‘gods’ as these, but if you don’t see the point of what I’ve already said, then it won’t help to say any more.
Christians are no different from everyone else in nationality, speech, or customs. They don’t live in special Christian cities of their own, use a special language or adopt a peculiar way of life. Wherever they happen to live, they follow local customs regarding clothes, food and such.
Still, somehow their way of life reveals a culture, a sense of belonging, that is marvelous and –as everyone admits– unusual.
They’re good citizens, wherever they live. But somehow they’re not fully at home anywhere. They do their duties like citizens but suffer hardships like aliens. Just like anyone, they get married and have kids –but they don’t abandon their babies. They’re glad to share their food –but not their beds and their wives. They live on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the public laws and even excel them in their private lives.
They love everyone but are persecuted by everyone.
They are put to death yet are more alive than ever.
They lack all things and yet in all things they abound.
They are maligned and yet are vindicated.
They are cursed and yet they bless.
They do good yet are punished with the wicked.
And when they are punished they rejoice as if they were getting more out of life.
In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. Just as the soul is locked up in the body and yet holds the body together, Christians are held in the world as in a prison, yet it is they who hold the world together. Just as the immortal soul dwells in a mortal tent, Christians are passing through temporary things, but their eyes are fixed on immortality in heaven. Just as the soul is distributed in every member of the body, Christians are scattered in every city in the world. Just as the soul lives in the body and yet is not part of the body, Christians live in the world but are not of the world. Just as the soul is imporved when it goes without food or drink, the number of Christians increases the more they are persecuted.
This is the assignment God has given them, and they are not at liberty to desert this post.
What is the message that’s been committed to them? It’s not some earthly discovery. They aren’t in the business of dispensing merely human mysteries.
The almighty creator of the universe, the invisible God himself, reached down from heaven to plant among them the seed of truth, the holy word that is more than human minds can comprehend. And he made it take firm root in their hearts.
Instead of just sending a servant –an angel of some kind– he sent the very creator of the cosmos, the one through whom he created everything; the one whose awesome command controls the elements of reality;the maker and sustainer of the sun, moon, and stars; the earth and sky and sea. This is who he sent!
And he didn’t send him –as might be humanly supposed– to tyrranize and terrorize. Certainly not! He came in gentleness and humility. He sent him as a king sending a son. He sent him as God, he sent him for humanity’s sake. He sent him to be a savior, using persuasion instead of brute force –because coercive violence is not characteristic of God. He acted like someone inviting you in, not chasing you down; like a lover, not a judge.
Now later on, he will send him as a judge, and then it’ll be “Katy, bar the door!”
The Christians are thrown to wild animals and told to deny their lord, and yet they refuse. The more you punish them the more they increase. Does that look like human accomplishment to you? No; these things are the power of God, they are signs of his coming.
Now before God’s coming, who had any idea what he was like? The Greek philosophers? Ha! One group of them said that God was fire –what they call God is where they’re likely to go. Another group said God was water, and so on. Well, let’s just let everything be God, why don’t we? What nonsense! Sheer quackery!
God revealed himself. Apart from that, no one has ever seen him or known him. He revealed himself by means of faith, and that’s the only way it’s possible to see God. As it turns out, God is not only a friend of humanity, he’s also merciful! God always was and always will be kind and good, calm and true. Only God is that good.
Now it might seem like God didn’t care much about us bfore he sent his son –like the question you asked me, “Why did he wait so long?” Well, the point is that now we all know what God and his son knew from the beginning: God has shared his blessings with us all at once and let us see things we could never have expected.
After all, what did we do with all that “free time” before God’s coming? We chased after whims and lusts and got tossed around with no control. That was not part of God’s plan! But it served pretty well to get us ready for the present era of holiness.
And now that we’ve seen God’s goodness and grace: it’s incredible! Instead of hating us and rejecting us and remembering our sins, he was compassionate and patient, and took our sins on himself! I mean, since we proved that we were unable to enter the kingdom of God on our own power, now it’s time to enter the kingdom by the power of God!
What a sweet, unexpected turn of events! What we couldn’t do, the savior did for us; and now we know that God is our guardian, father, teacher, adviser and doctor. He wants us to see him as our mind, light, honor, glory, strength and life, and not to worry about what we wear nad eat.
He gave us his own son for our redemption. He gave the holy one for those who were sinful, the innocent for the wicked. What else but his righteousness could have buried our sin? Who else could have justified us?
If you want to have this faith, you can. The first thing you need is knowledge of the Father. God loved people, and created the world for their sake. He gave them their minds. He made them in his own image. He sent his only son to them, and promised them the kingdom of heaven, which he’ll give to those who love him. When you understand this what kind of joy do you think you’ll have? How much will you love the one who first loved you so much?
And when you love him, you will be an imitator of his goodness. Don’t be surprised that a human can imitate God: it’s possible because it’s God’s will.
There’s no real happiness in dominating your neighbors, in wanting to have more than weaker people, in being rich and able to boss your inferiors around. That’s not the way to imitate God! Those things are totally alien to God’s greatness.
You are an imitator of God when you take on your own shoulders the burden of your neighbor, when you choose to use your advantages to help another who is underprivileged, when you take what you have received from God and give to those who are in need. When you do this, you become like God to those who you help.
When you have faith, you will see that God is in heaven and you are earth. And you will begin to speak of the mysteries of God, and you’ll know real life from real death.