Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) Defends Christianity While in Prison

Grotius Preparing for His Escape from Loevestein, Hamilton Vreeland’s Hugo Grotius the father of the modern science of international law (New York: Oxford University, 1917)

In 1619 the government of the Netherlands imprisoned Hugo Grotius, a brilliant legal thinker who had been a child prodigy. The reason for this traced back to his political affiliations (he was among those who advocated states’ rights as opposed to centralized government) and for his religious views (he defended Arminian theology in opposition to the dominant Calvinism of his homeland).

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The authorities were fairly lenient to Grotius. They allowed him to have books to him in a chest. Consequently, while in prison, Grotius produced dramatic works, poetry, and the original version of The Truth of the Christian Religion. The chest later served him well as a means of escape.

While The Truth of the Christian Religion was not the first apologetic work, it was the first Protestant textbook on apologetics. Grotius did not seek to advance any particular version of Christianity as much as to demonstrate the truth of Christian fundamentals against Atheists, Deists, Jews, and Muslims.

Curiously, this defense of Christianity was originally written in verse. Later, with the help of his wife and maid, Grotius escaped and fled to Paris. While in Paris, he rendered The Truth of the Christian Religion into Latin prose. While not the most famous of his works—his Law of the Sea and Law of War and Peace are much better known—it was highly influential because it answered “modern” attacks on the Gospel. Many scholars translated it into diverse languages. One innovation of the work was the “moral government” theory of the atonement, widely adopted by Arminians and Methodists. This is the theory that Jesus’ sacrificial death occurred in order for the Father to forgive mankind while still maintaining his just rule over the universe. However, it is not Grotius’ theory of atonement we excerpt, but section VI in which Grotius advanced some evidences for Christ’s resurrection. Our version is taken from John Clarke’s translation, published in 1829.

The Resurrection of Christ Proved from Credible Testimony.

Christ’s coming to life again in a wonderful manner, after his crucifixion, death, and burial, affords us no less strong an argument for those miracles that were done by Him. For the Christians of all times and places assert this not only for a truth, but as the principal foundation of their faith: which could not be, unless those who first taught the Christian faith, had fully persuaded their hearers that the thing did come to pass. Now, they could not fully persuade men of any judgment of this, unless they affirmed themselves to be eyewitnesess of it; for, without such an affirmation, no man in his senses would have believed them, especially at that time, when such a belief was attended with so many evils and dangers. That this was affirmed by them with great constancy, their own books, and the books of others, tell us; indeed, it appears from those books, that they appealed to 500 witnesses, who saw Jesus after he was risen from the dead. Now, it is not usual for those that speak untruths to appeal to so many witnesses. Nor is it possible so many men should agree to bear a false testimony. And if there had been no other witnesses but those twelve known first propagators of the Christian doctrine, it had been sufficient.

Nobody has any ill design for nothing. They could not hope for any honor, from saying what was not true, because all the honors were in the power of the heathen and Jews, by whom they were reproached and contemptuously treated: nor for riches, because, on the contrary, their profession was often attended with the loss of their goods, if they had any; and if it had been otherwise, yet the Gospel could not have been taught by them, but with the neglect of their temporal goods. Nor could any other advantages of this life provoke them to speak a falsity, when the very preaching of the Gospel exposed them to hardship, to hunger and thirst, to lashes and imprisonment. Fame, amongst themselves only was not so great, that for the sake thereof, men of upright intentions, whose lives and tenets were free from pride and ambition, should undergo so many evils. Nor had they any ground to hope that their opinion, which was so repugnant to nature, (which is wholly bent upon its own advantages), and to the authority which everywhere governed, could make so great a progress, but from a divine promise. Further, they could not promise to themselves that this fame, whatever it was, would be lasting; because (God on purpose concealing his intention in this matter from them) they expected that the end of the whole world was just at hand, as is plain from their own writings, and those of the Christians that came after them.

It remains, therefore, that they must be said to have uttered a falsity, for the sake of defending their religion; which, if we consider the thing reasonably, can never be said of them; for either they believed from their heart that their religion was true, or they did not believe it. If they had not believed it to have been the best, they would never have chosen it from all other religions, which were more safe and honorable. No, though they believed it to be true, they would not have made profession of it, unless they had believed such a profession necessary; especially when they could easily foresee, and they quickly learned by experience, that such a profession would be attended with the death of a vast number; and they would have been guilty of the highest wickedness, to have given such occasion, without a just reason. If they believed their religion to be true, indeed, that it was the best, and ought to be professed by all means, and this after the death of their Master; it was impossible this should be, if their Master’s promise concerning his resurrection had failed them; for this had been sufficient to any man, in his senses, to have overthrown that belief which he had before entertained. Again, all religion, but particularly the Christian religion, forbids lying and false witness, especially in divine matters: they could not therefore be moved to tell a lie out of love to religion, especially such a religion. To all which may be added, that they were men who led such a life as was not blamed even by their adversaries; and who had no objection made against them, but only their simplicity, the nature of which is the most distant that can be from forging a lie. And there were none of them who did not undergo even the most grievous things for their profession of the resurrection of Jesus. Many of them endured the most agonizing deaths for this testimony.

Now, suppose it possible, that any man in his wits could undergo such things for an opinion he had entertained in his mind; yet for a falsity, and which is known to be a falsity, that not only one man, but very many, should be willing to endure such hardships, is a thing plainly incredible. And that they were not mad, both their lives and their writings sufficiently testify. What has been said of these first, the same may also be said of Paul, who openly declared that he saw Christ reigning in heaven, and he did not lack the learning of the Jews, but had great prospect of honor, if he had trod in the paths of his fathers. But, on the contrary, he thought it his duty, for this profession, to expose himself to the hatred of his relations; and to undertake difficult, dangerous, and troublesome, voyages all over the world, and at last to suffer an ignominious death.