What Would Justin Martyr Do?

Last December, Netflix released The First Temptation of Christ, a film that depicts Jesus as gay. The tagline reads, “Jesus, who’s hitting the big 3-0, brings a surprise guest to meet the family.”[1] The surprise guest is Orlando, Jesus’ partner, who returns home with Jesus from the desert only to be greeted by a surprise birthday party thrown by Jesus’ family. The rest of the film explores the growing tensions surrounding Jesus’ sexuality, his relationship with God and Joseph, and his own faith and powers.[2]

Not surprisingly, the film has angered many people. The First Temptation was produced by Porta dos Fundos, a Brazilian film company, and released on Netflix in Brazil. Brazil is almost 65% Roman Catholic, while an additional 20% of Brazilians follow some version of Christianity.[3] On Christmas Eve, at least four masked assailants launched Molotov cocktails at the production house for Porta dos Fundos, and later released a video taking credit for the attack (the production house was empty at the time; no one was injured and the firebombs did little damage to the building).[4]

More lawful responses to the film involve two online petitions to remove the film from Netflix.[5] Online comments include denunciation of the film as blasphemous, accompanied by threats to cancel one’s Netflix subscription. The opposition to the film has seen some success: on January 8, a Brazilian judge ordered Netflix to remove the film[6] (at the time of writing, the film is still available on Netflix USA). 

The film’s production raises the question of how Christians should best respond to attacks on their faith. Christianity has long faced its cultured despisers, including during the earliest years of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In those days, many base rumors circulated concerning the Christians: they were incestuous and cannibalistic.[7] Furthermore, cultural elites such as Celsus sought to refute Christianity on intellectual grounds.[8] Church historian Justo Gonzalez notes, “Such arguments, and many others like them, could not be set aside by a mere denial. It was necessary to offer solid refutation.”[9]

While online petitions and threats of cancellation have short-term gains (the removal of the film), they do not constitute a robust and engaging defense of the faith. Instead, they belong to the category of “mere denial.” It is not wrong to exercise one’s rights (though such rights would have been foreign to the early Roman Christians), but perhaps the Christian’s engagement of error should rise above the level of denunciation and frustration (1 Pet 3:15).

In this respect, one of the earliest defenders of the faith, Justin Martyr, offers Christians solid guidance. Three strategies in particular stand out. First, in Justin’s “First Apology,” he addresses the very people in authority who unjustly hate and abuse the Christians.[10] He calls his writing an “Apology,” a defense, one that engages with the people who misunderstand the faith.[11]

The story has often been told of Rosario Butterfield’s conversion that began with a “kind and inquiring letter” from Pastor Ken Smith.[12] After Butterfield published a critique of the Promise Keepers in a local newspaper, she received so much mail in response that she kept two boxes on her desk, one for hate mail and one for fan mail. But when Pastor Smith’s letter arrived, she didn’t know which box to file it in because it asked thoughtful questions that challenged her to explore her presuppositions, an exploration that ultimately resulted in her conversion. Like Justin, Pastor Smith humbly addressed the person who opposed Christianity.

When films appear that challenge the biblical portrait of Jesus, instead of venting to other Christians online, one could write a summary of the gospel material for unbelievers that highlights the emphases of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps even invite a non-Christian friend to read through Mark’s Gospel with you.[13] Like Justin, take time to address “readers on the outside.”[14]

Second, Justin appeals to ideas that non-Christians accept in order to establish a base for justifying Christianity. Historical and theological studies have given much attention to Justin’s doctrine of the Logos, namely, that God first sowed his knowledge among the Greek philosophers as preparation for Christianity.[15] Without affirming all that Justin claims there, apologists often seek to establish some point of contact between Christian truths and non-Christian reasoning. Throughout Justin’s First Apology, he highlights Christian ideas that pagans already accept, and argues that if they accept such ideas, they should be willing to consider more of what Christianity claims.


For example, when Christians are called atheists for refusing to worship the pagan gods, Justin notes that Socrates was accused of the same: “When Socrates, therefore, by dint of true reason, diligently applied himself to bring these hidden works of darkness to light, and to rescue mankind from the impositions of devils, then these very devils struck in with men of the same black spirit and delight in mischief, to get Socrates taken off for an ungodly wicked fellow and an introducer of new demons.”[16] When Christians speak of a coming judgment, Justin notes, “Plato and we are both alike agreed as to a future judgment, but differ about the judges—Rhadamanthus and Minos are his judges, Christ ours.”[17] Other philosophers speak of a destruction and renovation of the natural world, analogous to the Christian doctrine of the final judgment and new creation.[18] Justin therefore essentially asks, If we teach some of the same things as your teachers but with more proof and virtue, why are Christians unjustly hated more than others?[19]

To relate this strategy to The First Temptation, during Jesus’ birthday party Orlando performs a song to the tune of Jingle Bells. The lyrics include this line: “God is very good; he created the world in seven days, and sometime after that he drowned his kids.” The implication is that a good Creator God would not drown the world’s inhabitants in judgment. Orlando correctly identifies God as a good Creator, but suggests that divine goodness excludes divine punishment.

But on what basis does Orlando (and the script-writers) claim that worldwide judgment is immoral and unbecoming of a good God? How do we denounce biblical revelation on the one hand (judgment) while claiming a moral high ground on the other (an idea of goodness)? Non-believers often make statements that reveal a desire to believe in a good God, but stumble over other revealed doctrines. Christians should press these tensions as a starting point to justify biblical revelation as the moral standard that allows humans to make any moral judgment about what is good.[20]

Finally, the bulk of Justin’s apologetic centers on Jesus Christ. Several chapters overview the teachings of Jesus, and more than twenty survey the many prophecies that Jesus fulfilled in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand.[21] Justin’s goal is to demonstrate the truth of Christianity by appealing to fulfilled prophecy.

The takeaway for modern believers is that any defense of Christianity should focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Justin was not afraid to denounce the immoral values of a world that did not know God, and neither should Christians. But he did not do so without continuous reference to the Son of God who lived, died and rose again to save sinners from their sin. Whatever ideas may arise in the culture that challenge the truths of Christianity, seek to respond to them by humbly appealing to the people who actually hold those beliefs, looking for ways in which they may be borrowing from the Christian worldview, and answering them with the beauty and merits of Jesus Christ.

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[1] Rodrigo Van Der Put, dir., The First Temptation of Christ, Porta dos Fundos, 2019, https://www.netflix.com/title/81078397.

[2] Greg Wheeler, “The First Temptation of Christ—Netflix Film Review,” The Review Geek, December 3, 2019, https://www.thereviewgeek.com/thefirsttemptation-filmreview/.

[3] Gregory Sousa, “The Major Religions of Brazil,” last modified August 7, 2018, WorldAtlas, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/religious-beliefs-in-brazil.html.

[4] Ernesto Londoño and Letícia Casado, “In Brazil, Firebombs Seek to Terrorize Makers of Film Portraying Jesus as Gay,” The New York Times, December 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/26/world/americas/brazil-gay-jesus-netflix-movie.html.

[5] Nic Williams, “Remove blasphemous film The First Temptation of Christ from Netflix NOW!” Change.org, accessed January 29, 2020, https://www.change.org/p/netflix-remove-blasphemous-film-the-first-temptation-of-christ-from-netflix-now, and CitizenGo, “Ask Netflix to cancel film Depicting Jesus as a homosexual!” accessed January 29, 2020, CitizenGo.org, https://www.citizengo.org/node/175927. The total number of signers as of January 29, 2020 was 1,724,804.

[6] The Associated Press, “Brazil Judge Orders Netflix to remove film with gay Jesus,” The Associated Press, January 8, 2020, https://apnews.com/eca41cd7a079c709b2e0f86a147ca6ac.

[7] Justo González, The Story of Christianity: Complete in One Volume, The Early Church to the Present Day (Peabody, MA: Prince, 2006), 50.

[8] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 50–52.

[9] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 52.

[10] John Kaye, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1912), 1, Openlibrary.org, available at: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL14007954M/The_first_apology_of_Justin_Martyr_addressed_to_the_Emperor_Antoninus_Pius, accessed January 29, 2020. Justin specifically addresses, “the Emperor Titus Aelius Adrianus Antonius Pius Augustus Caesar,” Caesar’s sons, and the “sacred Senate.”

[11] Kaye, First Apology of Justin Martyr, 2.

[12] This citation and the following summary taken from Rosario Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith (Pittsburg, PA: Crown & Covenant, 2012), 8.

[13] See the strategies articulated in David Helm, One to One Bible Reading: A Simple Guide for Every Christian (Kingsford, NSW, Australia: Matthias Media, 2011).

[14] The quote is taken from Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600), vol. 1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 143, who notes, “the writings of the apologists, even those of Justin, were addressed to readers on the outside.”

[15] See, e.g., Erwin Goodenough, The Theology of Justin Martyr (Jena, Germany: Verlag Frommannsche Buchhandlung, 1923), and Marian Hillar, From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagorus to Tertullian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), Ch. 5: “Justin Martyr and the Logos.”

[16] Kaye, First Apology of Justin Martyr, 7.

[17] Kaye, First Apology of Justin Martyr, 10.

[18] Kaye, First Apology of Justin Martyr, 28.

[19] Kaye, First Apology of Justin Martyr, 28, records the exact quote as, “If, then, we hold some opinions near of kin to the poets and philosophers in greatest repute among you, and others of a diviners strain, and for above out of their sight, and have demonstration on our side into the bargain, why are we to be thus unjustly hated, and to stand distinguished in misery above the rest of mankind?”

[20] A good example of this is Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin, 2008).

[21] Kaye, First Apology of Justin Martyr, 19–25, and 38–67, respectively.

Richard Winston is the pastor of Roebuck Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Roebuck, SC. You can reach him at richard@roebuckpca.com.

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