With communist Russia on the west and China in the east officially atheistic, with Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos now in unfriendly totalitarian hands, with self-perpetuating regimes in India, South Korea, and other lands repressing criticism of restrictive government policies, Christians in Asia are bracing for suffering, persecution, imprisonment, and even martyrdom in the decades ahead.

The fourth theological consultation of the Asian Theological Association, held recently in Hong Kong, put the subject of suffering centrally on its agenda. It considered the special ways in which Christians may maintain a witness in a hostile environment where churches are officially closed and worship services are forbidden.

Modern Western churches tend to approach religious suffering as an intolerable prospect in a civilization enlightened to the right of religious freedom. But the early Christians knew they were called to suffer for Christ (John 15:18–20). They knew that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). And they knew that the Old Testament ideal of the Kingdom of God and of messianic hope centers in the expectation of the Suffering Servant, who by suffering for the many secures for them the removal of divine wrath. Jesus included suffering and persecution among the signs of his return (Matt. 24:9). Living in a world openly at odds with the purposes of God, first-century Christians expected persecution or suffering in some form: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 2:13; cf. 1 Pet. 4:12; 5:9). Jesus’ disciples are to be fortified by his example of suffering (1 Pet. 4:1, 13). Herod’s determination to kill the Christ child was a harbinger of political hostility, and the stoning of Stephen a harbinger of religious hostility, to followers of the Christ. As pre-Christian leaders suffered for their messianic faith (Heb. 11:36–38), so Christians even in the Middle Ages and later had to contend with persecution carried out by professing Christians.

Even some modern nations that signed the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights are guilty of flagrant violations of the religious-liberty clause. Three Muslim nations—Mauritania, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia—have never admitted missionaries, and Libya, Iraq, and Syria now prohibit them, as does Buddhist Burma. In other Muslim lands, legal restrictions hinder conversion to Christianity; religious liberty is essentially viewed as the right of the non-Muslim to become a Muslim. Muslims view those of their number who become Christians as infidels worthy of death, and deprive them of property. Family relationships are terminated with the inflammatory cry that “Islam is in danger.” In Afghanistan, Muslims drove a convert to Christianity out of the country and leveled a new evangelical church in Kabul. Examples of imprisonment of Christians can be found where Islam dominates the socio-political scene, as in Indonesia.

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The fate of Christians in some Communist countries recalls Jesus’ warnings of political hostility. Jesus prophesied that his followers would be hated by nations for his name’s sake. Solzhenitzyn’s writings have lifted a curtain on the extent of Russian religious repression and intolerance. Some Christians have languished for fifteen years in Chinese prisons and labor camps, with no prospect of release until they will deny their Lord. In Eastern Europe, Communists deny Christians the opportunities of university education, and atheistic party members ban them from professional and managerial positions because they resist the ruling philosophy.

Not only Communist lands but anti-Communist ones like South Korea regard any and all criticism of the ruling regime as politically subversive. Government agents entrench themselves within religious communities and institutions. Paul spoke of divisive and false teachers who would appear within the Church even as Jesus warned of those who would penetrate the circle of faith and betray the brethren.

Some Third World nations are reacting against Christianity as they recoil against colonialism, which treated national cultural values with contempt, and against technology, which uproots the established culture. In some African countries, tribal movements like the fanatical Mau Mau have ruthlessly persecuted Christians; in others, missionaries and national workers have become victims of politically hungry tribal leaders.

Saphir Athyal, president of Union Biblical Seminary in Yeotmal, India, stresses that Christians have no call to suffer on false charges. The early Christians defended their honor against Roman readiness to execute them for cannibalism through misrepresentations of their “eating the body and drinking the blood” at the Lord’s supper. Today revolutionaries, particularly Marxists, perpetuate the slander that Christians are other-worldly and disinterested in the human social predicament because they do not share the Communist ideology.

The attention of the worldwide body of believers should be fixed on those who bear pain and suffering for Christ’s cause. We who do not suffer for our faith may well ask ourselves why not. A church with no thought for suffering is easily lulled into a false sense of security, and it is prone to think it is innately armed to cope with all hostile forces apart from the power of the Spirit of God.

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We are called, moreover, to pray for those who suffer, that their faith may remain strong, and to pray that rulers will be just. We are called to prick the conscience of a wicked world that readily acquiesces in the oppression of Christians. Christians living in the so-called Free World should fully publicize the wrongs done to believers by intolerant regimes. At the same time they should maintain a discreet public silence about the ways in which an underground church carries forward its witness, lest they needlessly impair its cause.

Faith to withstand suffering and persecution will spring from a knowledge of Scripture, which guards us from misreading hardship as a sign that God has abandoned his own. Since fidelity to Christ amid suffering is a test of true discipleship, fair-weather Christians have yet to demonstrate their “faithfulness to the end” (cf. Mark 4:17; 1 Pet. 4:12; Rev. 3:10). The New Testament term for “witness” is also the term for “martyr.”

But a firm knowledge of Scripture will also keep us from viewing Christian experience within a framework of the sovereignty of Satan and his hosts. The New Testament makes it very clear that Christ’s Kingdom is invincible, that even wicked oppression by hostile rulers whose doom is sure will be turned to the providential good of believers, and that history’s only inevitability is that the Word of God must be fulfilled.

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