Decisive Moments: The Conversion of Constantine

11 March 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

When we think of the rulers of the Roman Empire we usually think of those  famous for their treachery, debauchery, and persecution.  Emperors like Caligula, Nero, and Domitian loom large.  What might have happened if any of those men had become Christians?  That could make for an interesting alternate history.  Meanwhile, in actual history, there was a pivotal moment when a Roman emperor did become a Christian.  Nothing was the same afterwards. 

Last time we heard about the tragic and bloody fall of Jerusalem.  Following that “decisive moment” the church continued to expand into all corners of the Roman Empire and beyond.  There was no stopping the gospel message and it appears to have soon reached even places like China and India. 

But as the church grew, it drew the attention of the Roman authorities and not in a good way.  Throughout the first two centuries, Christians faced persecution to varying degrees of intensity from Roman emperors.  Starting in 303, Diocletian issued four decrees concerning the persecution of Christians.  First, he prohibited church assemblies and destroyed church buildings.  Second, he ordered the arrest of all Christian pastors.  Third, he offered freedom to these pastors if they would worship him as a god.  Finally, he demanded that all citizens worship him.  The penalty for failing to do so would be prison or death.  It was the early church father Tertullian who said that “the blood of the martyrs is seed.”  Certainly the Diocletian persecutions proved the truth of that – the Christian church just continued to grow despite, or maybe even because of, the Empire’s repression. 

During Diocletian’s reign, in 293, he reorganized the Roman Empire as a tetrarchy.  It would be divided into four regions, ruled over by four men, co-emperors.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  However, after Diocletian’s abdication in 305, things didn’t go so well.  By 312, there was open war between the western Roman Empire and Italy.  Constantine was the emperor of the western Empire and Maxentius ruled in Rome over Italy.  Constantine and Maxentius were brother-in-laws, since Constantine was married to Maxentius’ sister Fausta.  But there was no family bond and the two men hated each other.  This hatred spilled over into war in 312. 

Constantine first successfully attacked northern Italy and then made his down the boot towards Rome.  On October 27, 312, the two armies were preparing for battle at the Milvian Bridge, a crossing over the Tiber River, near Rome.  On that evening, Constantine allegedly saw a cross above the sun and the Latin words “In hoc signo vinces” – “You shall conquer in this sign.”  Constantine reported that Christ appeared to him in a dream and told him to use that sign of the cross to conquer.  Different plausible explanations are offered by scholars.  Perhaps it was a meteorological phenomenon known as a sun-dog.  Perhaps Constantine made the whole thing up.  And maybe it really happened just as Constantine said.  We can’t be 100% sure of any of these explanations or any other alternatives either.  All we know is that Constantine seems to have been convinced by what he claims to have seen.          

The next day Constantine led his troops into battle at the Milvian Bridge.  According to the historian Lactantius, the emperor ordered his troops to mark their shields with a monogram made up of the Greek letters chi and rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek.  Where does the cross fit in?  Apparently with the Greek letter chi which looks like an X.  The army of Constantine bore this symbol (known as the labarum) into combat and claimed total victory over Maxentius.   With the conquest of Rome, Constantine obtained control of the entire western Roman Empire including Italy.

This event was a watershed for Constantine.  He began identifying as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus Christ.  There are many questions about the sincerity of his confession.  It’s certainly surprising that he delayed baptism till the end of his life.  I won’t speculate one way or another since I don’t think it’s helpful.  One thing is sure:  with his conversion (genuine or not) persecution of Christians finally stopped.

In February of 313, the so-called Edict of Milan was issued by Constantine and his colleague Licinius.  In part this Edict read (according to the version found in Eusebius):

…we have decreed the following ordinance, as our will, with a salutary and most correct intention, that no freedom at all shall be refused to Christians, to follow or to keep their observances or worship.  But that to each one power be granted to devote his mind to that worship which he may think adapted to himself.

The Edict of Milan established religious liberty.  This was one step along the way to the Roman Empire having Christianity as the state religion.  Moreover, with Emperor Constantine identifying himself as a Christian, it began to be socially and politically helpful for everyone to do the same.

Constantine is often considered the pioneer of Christendom.  Christendom is this notion that one’s whole world (or the greater part of it) is under Christian influence and is Christian.  Christendom no longer exists, but it certainly did 500 years ago.  One of the key elements of Christendom is Christianity as either an official or de facto state religion.  When that happens, when persecution is alleviated, there is greater security and ease for the church.  The church may even attain a profusion of power – as it did during the era of Christendom.  But along with that comes the stink of cultural Christianity.  Being known as a Christian becomes advantageous.  Nominalism and hypocrisy run amok.  True Christians become harder to find. 

This is what makes Constantine’s story fascinating – it reminds us that persecution of the church often makes it stronger, whereas political and social acceptance often makes it weaker, especially over the long term.  It’s not that we then pray for persecution, but we shouldn’t fear it either.  God has a way of working through suffering for the spread of the gospel.