What Did Constantine Really See?

Did Emperor Constantine see a cross in the sky and was he told by God to conquer in this sign?

When Constantine the Great came to power in 306, Christianity had already experienced nearly three centuries of persecution within the Roman Empire. After a succession of ten Emperors who were hostile to Christianity, Christians more than likely expected no less from Constantine. Yet, just the opposite occurred. Constantine adopted a form of what can loosely be called Christianity in 312 AD.

This event is shrouded in a mythos rivaling that of any great legend. What we can ascertain quite certainly is that Constantine battled Caesar Maxentius of Rome at the Milvian bridge in October of 312 (“Constantine”). According to the lore, Constantine sought the help of God to defeat Maxentius. This desire for God’s help led Constantine to call on the Lord in prayer. While praying, Constantine received a sign from heaven described as, “a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, ‘By this symbol you will conquer’” (“Constantine’s). As the story goes, the same night, Christ appeared to him “and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies” (“Constantine’s”).

Did this really happen? This writer thinks not.

The first and most glaring problem is a doctrinal one. The question of whether or not God was still communicating to men with miracles and signs in the 4th century AD is answered negatively in the New Testament. When speaking of love, Paul makes the point that “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away” (1 Cor. 13:8-10). The miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, including supernatural knowledge from God and prophesying (both of which Constantine experienced according to lore) were done away with when “the perfect” (or “complete”) came. Some believe that “the perfect” is referring to Jesus’ return, but it is referring to the completed cannon of the New Testament. The Greek τέλειον (“perfect”) is in the neuter gender in First Corinthians 13:10 and therefore refers to something neuter (i.e. not Jesus, but the completed New Testament canon). The New Testament was completed by the end of the first century. Likewise, John (the last apostle) died at the end of the first century, leaving him no way to lay hands on Constantine to give him these spiritual gifts of direct revelation from God.

The question remains, if Constantine did not see this sign, why did he so suddenly and radically shift to Christianity and begin the Christianization of Rome? While it is difficult to ascertain a man’s motives, perhaps Constantine saw Christianity for its secular potential. Constantine was obviously power-hungry. He systematically eliminated competing Caesars and moved the Empire’s capital to the Eastern front to evade oversight. While I do not believe he saw God; I do believe he saw an unholy potential for power within a Roman Church-State. Perhaps as he sat as lord over the Nicaean council, he thought not of his relationship with God, but of his impending overreach of all things in the Empire: both secular and religious.

Works Cited

“Constantine’s Vision.” Christian History Institute, https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/constantine/. Accessed 22 September 2016.

“Constantine.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. 3rd Vol., 1995.