Constantine: Blessing or Curse?

By James M. Rochford

The Roman Emperor Constantine reigned from AD 313 to 337. Christian historians debate the effect that Constantine had on Christianity: Was he a force for good or for ill? Was he a true believer or a man who used Christianity for political advantage?

History of Constantine

Constantine was a Roman Emperor who battled against his nemesis Maxentius, who controlled Rome and Praetorian Guard. Even though Maxentius’ army was twice the size of Constatine’s, Constantine’s army defeated them in AD 312. Constantine chased him across the Alps to disloge Maxentius from Rome. When Constantine’s men arrived for battle, they had put the Greek chi and rho on their shields to fight. According to Constantine, God had implored him to fight this battle in the name of Christ, promising him victory. He saw a Cross in the sky with the words: “In this sign conquer.”

After this victory at the Milvian bridge, Constatine made alliances with others like Licinius at Milan to end Christian persecution. He would return “their churches, cemeteries, and other properties.”[1] This was enacted under the Edict of Milan in AD 313. Christians were substituted for barbarian captives in the gladiatorial arenas.[2]

Constantine established his capital: Constantinople. Byzantium was the original name of the city, but Constantine renamed it Constantinople after himself. In 1930, the Turks renamed it Istanbul. It was the capital of the Byzantine (or eastern Roman) Empire, and it was an impregnable fortress. He gave free food and new homes to anyone who moved from Rome to Constantinople.”[3]

Was Constantine a phony?

There are many reasons to believe that Constantine was not an altruistic Christian leader. His use of Christianity could have been a political maneuver—not a spiritual one. Even after converting to Christ, he still called himself Pontifex Maximus, and he still continued to conspire and murder. He also continued to be a part of Pagan worship and practices. Gonzalez writes, “Repeatedly, even after his conversion, he took part in pagan rites in which no Christian would participate, and the bishops raised no voice of condemnation.”[4] After his death, his three surviving sons moved to have Constantine deified as a Pagan god.

On the other hand, he gave Christian ministers tax exemption status in the Empire. Shelley adds, “He abolished executions by crucifixion; he called a halt to the battles of gladiators as a punishment for crimes; and in 321 he made Sunday a public holiday. Thanks to his generosity, magnificent church buildings arose as evidence of his support of Christianity.”[5] Moreover, after his baptism in AD 337, Constantine refused to wear his purple kingly robe. He would only wear his white baptismal robes. (Of course, he was baptized nearly before his death)

Was the conversion of Constantine a blessing or a curse?

Imagine living during the conversion of Constantine in the Roman Empire. You would have lived through some of the most violent persecutions from the State in Decius and Diocletian, only to see the Roman Emperor himself favoring Christianity! This would be like seeing Adolf Hitler coming to Christ in the midst of World War II. What would you have thought if you were a Christian at the time? You, no doubt, would have thought that this was divine providence. In fact, the conversion of Constantine had a number of deleterious effects on this burgeoning Christian movement:

The Church got in bed with the State. For all of his kindnesses to the Church, Constantine ruled the Christians with an iron fist. This sort of state-run religion is never good, and it has led to robbing the Church of her power. Christianity is not supposed to spread from the “top down” in society, but rather, from the “bottom up.” By nature, the Christian faith is a grassroots movement that spreads through persuasion—not conversion. While God wants to reach all people, including kings (1 Tim. 2:1-4), this does not mean that our strategy should take a top down approach like this.

False believers streamed into the church. After Constantine in AD 380, Emperor Theodosius made belief in Christ an imperial edict. Therefore, many Pagans “converted” to Christianity at this time—even though they were not true believing Christians. This filled the Church with Paganism, immorality, and hypocrisy.

Many true believers fled to isolation and monasticism. Because of the hypocrisy within the church, many believers (similar to modern fundamentalists) left the cities and retreated to the desert to keep themselves unstained from worldliness. Gonzalez writes, “[Others] withdrew to the desert, there to lead a life of meditation and asceticism. Since martyrdom was no longer possible, these people believed that the true athlete of Christ must continue training, if no longer for martyrdom, then for monastic life. The fourth century thus witnessed a massive exodus of devoted Christians to the deserts of Egypt and Syria.”[6]


[1] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 107.

[2] Gonzalez writes, “Frequent and extravagant shows in the circus gained the support of those who preferred violence and blood—the barbarian captives thus sacrificed were so many that a chronicler of the times affirms that the shows lost some of their interest because the beasts grew tired of killing.” Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 114.

[3] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 120.

[4] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 121.

[5] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition. Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson. 2013. 100.

[6] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 124.