A Theology of Martyrdom

by Kevin Hester

A few weeks ago, the Western world was rocked by the news of 21 Christians who were martyred at the hands of ISIS in Syria. Social media was abuzz with anger, dismay, and questions about politics and faith. However, the persecution of Christians is nothing new. Since the time of Christ, many have given their lives for their faith and this continues in many parts of the world today. Despite the efforts of some, many Western Christians remain ignorant of this reality throughout the world. But on February 16, the persecution of Christians was broadcast over airways and filled news and video feeds. The truth was apparent.

What to do about this truth was not. Most called for prayer. Some began looking for ways to offer financial assistance. A few spoke of recruiting Christian militia. Many raised questions about how a good God could allow something like this to happen. Modern Western Christians have had much to say about the presence of pain and evil in this world. Theodicies abound, but this seems different. In a review of 15 theology volumes immediately accessible on my bookshelf, the word “martyr” or “martyrdom” does not occur in the index. So it comes as no surprise that other than a few eschatological references there was little theological response.

The freedoms enjoyed by the church in the West have left us blind to the full import of significant sections of Scripture. We have come to equate persecution with social stigma, financial hardship, demands for sermons, and judicial and executive orders that legislate against conscience. I do not wish to diminish these realities or the possibility that they may be harbingers of more serious persecution to come. However, even the Christian voices that raised concerns over them seemed to approach them from the perspective of individual rights rather than biblical principles.

The church has not always been so silent. The earliest Christian communities not only experienced such persecution, but they wrote about it in an attempt to understand what God was doing in the world. Their answers were both practical and theological. In the face of real persecution there is much we can learn from them about the Christian’s relationship to this world, the cost of discipleship, and the kingdom of God.

The Church in the World

Martyrdom reminds us in the words of the old gospel song, “this world is not my home.” The early church distinguished between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of men. They understood that although Christians continue to live in this world, their lives here are lived with another end in view– Christians live a heavenly life on this earthly plane. This realization lay behind everything the early church did and thought.

The early church developed an ethic of moral and philosophical separation from the prevailing culture and government. As may be seen in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, they viewed the culture as atheistic and evil. When offered an opportunity to sacrifice to Caesar and save his life, Polycarp instead responded, “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.” This quotation demonstrates his philosophical separation from the world and his view of death. Rather than fearing death, Polycarp embraced it as the vehicle to his final sanctification.

Though the early church’s experience of martyrdom sometimes expressed itself in a radical division from the world that can be problematic, their sentiment condemns the way the modern Western church has comfortably cozied up to it. The Gospel of Christ is a “scandal” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) and the early church was comfortable with that. Their attitude and actions were driven by Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, “Blessed are ye when, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil…(but)…woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:22, 26) As the author of Hebrews says in reflecting upon martyrdom, “this world was not worthy of them” (Heb. 11:38).

The Cost of Discipleship

The early church believed that martyrdom was the true mark of a disciple. For them, discipleship wasn’t about small groups or catechisms (though they certainly believed in them). To be a disciple was to live like, and if necessary, to die like Christ. It was an all-encompassing endeavor. Martyrdom was the outward expression of what had already occurred in the heart. Dying to one’s self was necessary for salvation and in their day was often literally applied.

This can be seen from the very use of the term martyr. The root is the Greek word martus which literally means a “witness”. It is used in Scripture to refer to those who followed Christ and proclaimed him to be Messiah and Savior. The legal background of the term, a witness in a court of law, was applied very early to Christians persecuted for their proclamation of the Gospel and their testimony for Christ when they were “brought before governors and kings…for a testimony against them.” (Mt. 10:18) It was not lost on the early church that this prophecy of Jesus led up to one of his most famous description of discipleship: “and he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Mt. 10:38-39) By the fourth century, the term “martyr” was applied only to those who had borne testimony to Christ and in so doing lost their life.

One of the earliest martyrs was Ignatius of Antioch. Early in the second century he was arrested and sent to Rome to stand trial as a Christian. On the journey he wrote a number of epistles which detail counsel to various churches and reflections on true discipleship. Throughout these letters he highlights holy living, pure doctrine, and obedience as the marks of a follower of Christ. He begs the church in Rome to do nothing to avert his martyrdom but to allow him to imitate the passion of his God. “Now, I begin to be a disciple.” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 5)

The Kingdom of God

The early church understood that the demands of discipleship, proclamation and persecution, went hand-in-hand. Jesus has prophesied that this would be the case (Jn. 15:20), as had Paul (2 Tim. 3:12), and the book of Acts consistently repeated this thematic coupling. They believed that the truth would be opposed by Satan and by hard-hearted humanity. But they were also sure that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Gospel’s assault (Mt. 16:18).

The early church believed that the church would advance under the sovereignty of God. God was sovereign even in the midst of trial and gladly granted crowns to those who suffered (Rev. 2:10). Persecution and martyrdom were eschatologically understood as integral in bringing into full flower the inaugurated kingdom. As Tertullian explained,

“But do your worst, and rack your inventions for tortures for Christians—it is all to no purpose; you do but attract the world, and make it fall the more in love with our religion; the more you mow us down, the thicker we rise; the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more” (Tertullian, Apology, 50).

Until Constantine’s Edict of Milan, the church embraced martyrdom as a mark of a true disciple and as evidence of the truth of Christianity and its advance. Such sentiment died a hard death, its memory fading into monasticism. As the church came to be identified with the Empire, the theology of martyrdom gave way to state sponsored religion. As the states of the world move further and further away from religion perhaps the need for a theology of martyrdom is once again on the horizon.

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