Throughout history there have been no lack of souls who have been willing to die for a good cause. Such reasons to lay down one’s life are varied, but of course one of the most prevalent motivations is for the protection of one’s country. Countless men and women have gone to the front lines to preserve the freedom of their nations or to repel tyrants and enemies to their quality of life. With fierce loyalty to their homeland, many such militants captured by the enemy have refused to divulge information that would betray their country despite torture and death. And such noble sacrifice we readily applaud.
Other good causes that we can easily relate to might involve the parental instincts of a mother or father for a child. It would probably be a minority of adults who would not risk their lives to save their son or daughter when in danger. When a child is seen drowning in a pond, the adult will automatically dive in to save it despite his own swimming abilities and the potential for his own death in attempting to rescue the boy or girl. And along the same lines, which impoverished parent of a starving family will not first give to his children whichever scraps of food he finds to his children, for their welfare naturally comes before his own. And this he does gladly despite wasting away himself.
We are certainly impressed by such acts of sacrifice but are not surprised at them, though we may be a little more astonished when a stranger offers up his life for someone he doesn’t know. This was the case in Auschwitz during the Second World War when a man offered to die in place of another. After prisoners escaped from the camp, the commander decided to deter further escapes by selecting a group of ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When one of the men chosen for this death cried out for the welfare of his wife and children, a priest named Maximillian Kolbe volunteered to take his place. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, Kolbe alone was found alive in the bunker and was summarily given a lethal injection to finish him off.
And speaking of starvation, we can also consider the voluntary hunger strikes of men like Gandhi who so believed in their causes that they were willing to do physical harm to themselves to achieve a greater good. As India grew closer to independence from Britain, Gandhi was instrumental in galvanizing the people together. Highly esteemed by his countrymen, Gandhi engaged in prolonged fasts as a symbol of resistance to the British but also as a means of persuading his fellow Indians to work together to achieve the goal, even Muslims and Hindus cooperating peacefully with one another. Ultimately, though he didn’t starve to death, he was assassinated by a fellow Hindu who didn’t like his liberality to Muslims.
Of course we could cite a number of other people who were willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater good and lay down their lives for a noble cause. In our own nation the 20th century saw men and women who recognized racial inequality and sought to do something about it. Men like Martin Luther King, Jr. died as a direct result of the vision they had for equal rights among all citizens. And in hindsight, we can only be thankful to people like him for raising the consciousness of our nation to a point where such an idea is now normal in the minds of the vast majority.
So far we have identified a number of tangible causes for which people lay down their lives. Every case we have cited represents something that we can relate to and appreciate because its end is the greater good of another individual, people group, or on a larger scale, the nation itself. But there is another class of people who die for a good cause that we would generally have a harder time esteeming because the purpose for which they lay down their lives is decidedly intangible.
From time immemorial, there have not only been those willing to die for something concrete but perhaps in a more bizarre way to many, there have been those who have been willing to give up their lives for an abstract ideal. Holding fast to some intangible conviction, it has been men and women of faith who have put their necks on the chopping block before relinquishing a principle or idea that they held dear. From all religions we find examples of those unwilling to part with their beliefs on pain of torture or death, and though from an earthly perspective such tenacious stubbornness seems like a waste, we must wonder at the depth of conviction within a man or woman to endure pain for an unproven religious idea. Such men and women the world knows by the term martyr which comes from the Greek for “witness.” Indeed such people die as a witness to their intangible faith.
We will now survey this strange breed of idealists, crazy as they might seem to natural thinking, tracing the Judeo-Christian strain of martyrs. We begin with a look at the post-exilic Jewish people who were living under the thumb of Greek overlords in the 2nd century B.C. Since the time of Alexander the Great it had been the intention of the rulers to Hellenize the people they had conquered, submersing it in the culture and language of the Greeks. Many Jews readily embraced this taking on Greek names. Even those who wished to participate in athletic competitions underwent what we might call a “reverse circumcision” as such contests were in the nude.
Though the ways of the Greeks permeated Judea, all was well until the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes IV took things too far. Angry at those political factions that opposed him, the king decided to punish Jerusalem by completely outlawing the Jewish religion and forcing the people to assimilate completely to the Hellenistic culture. The Law of Moses became illegal and with it the important Jewish practices of circumcision and keeping the Sabbath became capital crimes. The king desecrated the temples by sacrificing swine on the altars and then attempted to force the Jews to eat pork on pain of death.
In this setting we have the story of a family from the Book of Maccabees who showed the ruler that they were more than willing to die than turn their back on the laws of their ancestors. A mother and her seven sons were brought before Antiochus and given the option to eat a little pork or die. One of the sons boldly spoke out against ingesting this food as it would transgress the law of God, and in a rage the king scalped him, cut out his tongue, and severed his hands and feet. Still breathing yet helpless, the man was thrown upon a roasting pan and fried to death while the putrid smoke wafted into the face of his brothers and mother.
In turn one by one, each brother was condemned to the same fate after refusing to eat a morsel of swine’s flesh, and each son made a statement of faith before his execution. With great conviction one of them declared, “The King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” Another seemingly despising his own body stretched out his hands and stuck out his tongue and exclaimed, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.” The last son to die made a theological statement before his demise saying, “We are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants.”
What is evident in the words of all the victims of this family is the firm belief that their existence would continue beyond this life. Perhaps the conviction that one will in some way survive death is alone responsible for being willing to easily let go of his mortal existence. The sons recognized some form of reward, not in this life, but in another for courageously adhering to God’s laws. And that reward might very well be received in another incarnation, for one of the woman’s children indicated that he was willing to give up his hands and feet for the hope of getting them back again in the future. Indeed the Book of Hebrews which chronicles the lives of the people of faith comments on this family indirectly where it says, “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.”
That this terrible fate had come upon this family was in no way resented or scorned. The mother and her sons did not question why they had to die in this way, and perhaps that was because they acknowledged that in the end God is just and somehow they were suffering for their own sins, if not misdeeds from the current life then from past lives, debts which needed to be settled. In fact as we shall see as we go along, this is one of the main reasons why God may require martyrdom of an individual. When a soul is close to completing life on earth for good and ready to move permanently beyond physical existence, it is necessary that all outstanding debts be paid for, and in God’s Providence, martyrdom is probably the most radical way of settling our sins quickly and efficiently. The acknowledgement of these spiritual ideas seems to have been the source of this Jewish family’s willingness to abruptly end their lives over what we might otherwise call an innocuous pork dinner.
Besides this noble family, other Jewish martyrs are chronicled in the scriptures not the least of which were the prophets. Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day (along with their ancestors) for murdering the prophets whose messages were frequently unpopular. He said, “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”
It seems likely that Jesus was summing up the whole history of the prophets from the very beginning to his own day, and in that regard, probably Zechariah the father of John the Baptist is in view. The apocryphal records mention that John the Baptist’s father was murdered by the soldiers of Herod the Great in the temple after he refused to tell about the whereabouts of his son. At the time, Herod was busy snuffing out all the infant boys in the region who were potential candidates to be the Messiah and challenge his kingdom, and young John was certainly a leading contender as the son of a priest.
John the Baptist was of course the last of the Old Testament prophets and according to Jesus, “the greatest among those born of women.” Like the prophets before him, he too was martyred because of his convictions in the service of God. John as we know from the scriptures was very bold and spoke the truth without fear. Zealous for the Law of Moses, he condemned Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive. This enraged his wife Herodias (who happened to be his own niece through his half-brother.) According to the gospel of Mark, Herod imprisoned John because his wife was nursing a grudge and wanted to kill him. But Herod wouldn’t consent to doing away with John as he revered him as a holy man and a prophet.
Finally, Herod was duped into executing John when Herodias’ daughter Salome danced for him and a number of guests at a feast. So pleased was Herod that he promised to grant the young woman anything she requested, and taking the golden opportunity, Herodias instructed her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And sadly Herod was obliged to consent.
This story from the gospels illustrates for us the other major reason why God requires martyrdom from some of his servants and not others. If in the past we failed to face our fears when we were threatened with suffering or death for standing up for our faith, then ultimately we will have to repeat the same test again the future. If at one time we ran from the potential threat of martyrdom, then we will undoubtedly have to face it again and this time our fear will of necessity become a reality.
Of course it wasn’t during John the Baptist’s lifetime that he failed to stand up for his convictions, for the man was full of the Holy Spirit and extremely bold throughout his whole life. Rather John’s failure was from the distant past, from a prior lifetime in which he ran from trouble. We are told by Jesus that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the great prophet Elijah who lived eight centuries earlier. Though Elijah was faithful in so many ways to the God of Israel, in one episode from his life he failed to live up to what God was asking of him.
Ironically it was right after his great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel that he succumbed to fear. King Ahab reported to his wife Jezebel, a devotee of Baal about what happened on Mt. Carmel, and enraged she sent a message to Elijah which said, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” We are told that Elijah was then afraid and ran for his life and journeyed all the way to the desert of Judah where greatly depressed he prayed to die. In a moment of weakness he ran from his opponent rather than confronting her, and so failing to stand up to an irate queen (Jezebel) as Elijah, he ultimately died at the hands of another irate queen (Herodias) as John the Baptist.
Like the prophets, many times it was the case that Jewish martyrs were killed by their own people whether for preaching an unpopular message or for teaching a dogma that the mainstream was antagonistic to. This was particularly the case in Palestine when after the Resurrection of Christ, a new sect quickly emerged in Judaism that the Bible refers to as “the Way.” Proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah, this new movement in the Jewish faith was met with fierce resistance and it wasn’t long before one of its members met with martyrdom.
Stephen was one of the original seven deacons ordained by the apostles and apparently the chief among them. We are told that he was a miracle worker and was very capable of debating with the mainstream Jews. He argued for Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and his opponents had a hard time refuting his evidence for this belief. So they trumped up false charges against him as if he had uttered blasphemy against Moses and God in order to silence him whom they couldn’t overpower through debate. When Stephen was brought on trial, he delivered a long defense in which he summarized the history of Israel. When he culminated his speech with how his own people had killed the Messiah, they were furious at him and dragged him outside where they stoned him to death.
Stephen is traditionally the first martyr of Christendom even though at that time Christianity was not yet a separate religion from Judaism. With his death the first significant persecution broke out against the church, and those who followed Christ fled from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria as well as to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and the city of Antioch. This record from the Book of Acts illustrates for us the plan of God behind religious persecution or martyrdom beyond just the scope of the individual. For any new religious movement to grow, it is obviously necessary for its adherents to spread that message far and wide. In the years immediately following the beginning of the church, the Jewish Christians still clung to the main religious center of Jerusalem not venturing too far away. With the onset of persecution, they were scattered away from the Holy City and in consequence began to share the new faith with those they met along the way.
A few years later King Herod Agrippa took it upon himself to begin persecuting the church more than likely to curry favor with mainstream Jews. We are told that he had James the brother of John put to death with the sword, and so James the son of Zebedee became the first of the apostles to be martyred. The Book of Acts indicates that when Herod saw that this act pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter and do the same, but miraculously Peter escaped his clutches. However, Peter and the other apostles did not linger in Jerusalem. We understand that they all scattered, and naturally we also see in this event the hand of God forcing the message of Christianity to advance far from Jerusalem.
Jesus had told the apostles, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But it seems that until the circumstances forced them to leave the Jewish epicenter, the apostles were not about to engage the world as missionaries. However when it was no longer safe to stay in Jerusalem they didn’t hesitate to leave and bring with them the gospel to many nations. The apocryphal literature gives us an indication that they went to many of the surrounding nations. There is a link of Ethiopia with Matthew and Bartholomew, and Armenia has a tie with Thaddaeus. There is strong evidence that Thomas went to India, and Andrew seems to have spent time in Russia and Greece. James the son of Alphaeus was a missionary to Persia, and Philip is said to have preached in Scythia, Greece, Parthia, Carthage, and perhaps even France.
The exact destinations of the Twelve may be somewhat uncertain but what is true is that all were martyred with the exception of John. Most all of them met horrendous deaths. We know from the apocryphal records that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome while his brother Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross only without nails to draw out the suffering. Bartholomew according to some sources was flayed alive and James the son of Alphaeus was beaten to death with a club, and only a couple met with relatively easier deaths like Thomas who was run through with a spear or Matthew who was killed with an axe.
That all of the apostles save John the son of Zebedee ultimately had to give up their lives for their faith is not any more a mystery than the case of John the Baptist. If we recall the circumstances surrounding the Passion of Christ, all of the apostles deserted Jesus in his greatest suffering for fear of suffering a similar fate. The prophet Zechariah wrote, “Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered,” and indeed they all hid themselves away in those dark hours terrified for their own lives. That is, all of them except for John who was brave enough to stand at the foot of the cross despite the possibility of being identified as a follower and winding up in a similar predicament. Because John passed this test, he would have the privilege to die a natural death in Ephesus at over 100 years old. But the others who failed to stand up to their fears would ultimately be required to face that challenge again, realizing what they originally hoped to avoid.
While the apostles were dying in foreign lands preaching the new message of Christianity, Jewish Christians back in Palestine were still under persecution and dying for their faith. Probably the most significant martyr in this tradition was James the Brother of the Lord who was made the bishop of Jerusalem to lead the church “at home” while the apostles did their work in foreign lands. As a Jewish Christian he was very faithful to the Law of Moses and as such was well respected even by those in mainstream Judaism. But he had enemies, and it seems that as he was not supporting the zealots who were fomenting a rebellion there was cause to get rid of him. As long as Roman rule was present, this was difficult, but conveniently in between procurators, Ananus the Sadducee managed to have him killed. There are some texts which suggest he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, but the most likely scenario is that he was stoned to death as Stephen was a few decades earlier according to the Jewish historian Josephus.
For the first few generations of Christianity, while it was largely a branch of the Jewish faith, the followers of Christ were usually martyred by mainstream Jews who were antagonistic to the belief in Jesus as the Messiah. But as Christianity broke away from its Jewish roots toward the end of the first century and decidedly became a Gentile religion throughout the empire, martyrdom was for completely different reasons.
Hostility toward Christians was common throughout the Roman world in large part because of the counter-cultural practices of the new religion. They were generally viewed with suspicion as members of a secret society whose rituals were bizarre if not totally unacceptable. Christians were charged with cannibalism because of a misunderstanding of the Eucharist and the consumption of the Body and Blood of Christ. Withdrawing from the culture, Christians refused to participate in public festivals or enter public office. On top of this they criticized ancient traditions held dear to their fellow countrymen, and for this the pagans were insulted. The members of the new faith also prized virginity which was a value that was greatly counter-cultural, and as Augustus Caesar had implemented laws against celibacy this was seen as an affront to the Roman way.
But perhaps above all of these issues, the main reason that people were antagonistic to Christians is because they viewed them as atheists. This charge may surprise us, but we must remember that in a strongly polytheistic society, the worship of just one god to the exclusion of all the others was interpreted as gross negligence at worst and simple disrespect at best. For the Romans who were steeped in their ancient paganism, the neglect of the gods was a dangerous thing. Being very utilitarian, the Romans feared that if their gods were not given the homage they deserved bad things would happen. And to their thinking the Christians were clearly offending the pantheon through their deliberate snub. Our word piety descends from the Latin word “pietas” which was the worship ascribed the Roman gods. Clearly from the Roman perspective, Christians were impious and downright subversive.
While initially Christian martyrdom among the Gentiles was simply due to their great unpopularity with their neighbors, ultimately the charge of atheism became the legal basis for punishment. Those who practiced the Christian religion were undermining the empire through their neglect of the pantheon and consequently were enemies of the state. Though admittedly there would always be some who simply hated Christians because they were Christians, certainly this was not the case with the larger majority who simply though mistakenly interpreted them as a threat.
That this was the conviction of the culture, we can read the words of an early 3rd century emperor who unambiguously attributed the prosperity of the Roman world to the gods: “For who can be found so ignorant or so devoid of all understanding as not to perceive that it is due to the kindly care of the gods that the earth does not refuse the seed sown in it, nor disappoint the hope of the husbandmen with vain expectation; that impious war is not inevitably fixed upon earth, and wasted bodies dragged down to death under the influence of a corrupted atmosphere; that the sea is not swollen and raised on high by blasts of intemperate winds; that unexpected hurricanes do not burst forth and stir up the destructive tempest; moreover, that the earth, the nourisher and mother of all, is not shaken from its lowest depths with a terrible tremor, and that the mountains upon it do not sink into the opening chasms.
Because the Christian was by definition a criminal for not paying homage to the pantheon, persecution was present and at times widespread for nearly 300 years until the religion finally became legally tolerated. The first outbreaks among the Gentile Christians came under Nero and Domitian in the first century. When Rome burned down, Nero conveniently made use of the building antipathy toward Christians and blamed them for starting the fire. In the aftermath a number of them suffered greatly and we have records of them being crucified as well as being clothed in animal skins to be torn apart by wild dogs. Some victims were also unfortunate enough to become torches in the night to serve as illumination until the dawn.
In the second century we have the record of some famous martyrs who gave their lives for the new religion. The story of Ignatius of Antioch is one that communicates the courage and zeal of many Christians who were all too willing to lay down their lives for the faith. When the Emperor Trajan had just won a few major military victories, he decreed that the Christians should join with the pagans in the worship of the gods. When it was discovered that Ignatius who was the bishop of that city had resisted that injunction, he was taken before Trajan and condemned to be thrown to wild beasts in Rome.
So he was arrested and taken on what was seemingly a slow journey to Rome in which he was permitted many liberties. Along the way he visited various churches and wrote a number of letters to various parishes throughout the Empire. He became quite a celebrity for news spread quickly about his impending martyrdom, and so his fellow Christians offered him encouragement on his journey.
Ignatius might surprise us a bit in his letters, for we do not hear the voice of a man hoping to escape his fate. Rather he writes to the church at Rome to do absolutely nothing to hinder his martyrdom. He writes, “You cannot do me a greater kindness than to suffer me to be sacrificed unto God, now that the altar is already prepared … I beseech you that you show not an unseasonable good will towards me. Suffer me to be food to the wild beasts; by whom I shall attain unto God.” Concerned about the possibility that his friends in Rome might reverse his condemnation, he expressed his worry saying, “I fear your love lest it do me an injury. For it is easy for you to do what you please; but it will be hard for me to attain unto God if you spare me.”
We should not think Ignatius to be unique in this eagerness to die for the faith as it was only all too common. It seems that the tradition that dying a martyr’s death assured one’s salvation was strongly embraced by the early Christians. Perhaps this evolved from the apostolic teaching, for John in his Apocalypse indicates this idea more or less in the second chapter. Addressing the Church at Smyrna, Christ said, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Martyrs were therefore greatly revered and perhaps even envied by the faithful for automatically achieving sanctity and passing into the kingdom of heaven. We consider now the story of another bishop who though initially attempting to escape from the sword embraced it in a miraculous account of martyrdom.
Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna in the second century and had the privilege of being consecrated to his post by the apostles themselves. Toward the middle of the century, when he was a very old man and persecution was fomenting in Asia Minor, the crowds cried out, “Away with the atheists; let Polycarp be sought.” The church historian Eusebius tells us that when it was clear he was being hunted, he went out of the city to a farmhouse where he remained in prayer. While there he had a vision of himself sleeping, and the pillow underneath his head suddenly burst into flames and was consumed. By this revelation, Polycarp understood that God was calling him to martyrdom.
Though his friends urged him to go hide at a different farm, Polycarp would not run away from his destiny but waited for his captors to come. When they arrived, the saint was so full of serenity that he astonished those who came for him. As a token of his kindness, he arranged that a bounteous feast be spread for them before they should take him away. Once the led him back to the city and into the stadium where he would die, some heard a voice from heaven say, “Be strong Polycarp and play the man.”
Initially the governor was going to let wild beasts upon him, but when Polycarp was unfazed by this threat, they decided to burn him with fire. So they bound him to a stake and piled wood beneath him to consume him in a conflagration. When they lit the fire, then the miracle was witnessed by all of the spectators. Eusebius recounts, “For the fire presented the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, and made a wall about the body of the martyr, and it was in the midst not like flesh burning, but like gold and silver refined in a furnace. For we perceived such a fragrant odor, as of the fumes of frankincense or of some other precious spices.” When it was clear to the executioner that his body would not be consumed by fire, he approached the pyre and ran Polycarp through with the sword, and perhaps just as wondrous as the first miracle, we are told that such a tremendous amount of blood poured froth from the martyr that it completely extinguished the fire.
By the third century persecutions had become fairly systematic as under the Emperor Decius. Not all Christians were brave enough to withstand the threat of violence and death and at times mass apostasies took place. We have the record of widespread renunciation of the faith at Carthage, and we understand that one of Polycarp’s successors, the bishop of Smyrna recanted and sacrificed to the gods while encouraging his flock to do the same. Naturally fear would get the better part of a good portion of the Christian community, and we dare not pass judgment on those who caved in without the knowledge of whether we also could pass such a severe test.
Nonetheless, despite those who fell away, persecution ultimately caused Christianity to expand, and we have the words of the second century church father Tertullian to attest to it. In his defense to the authorities, he wrote, “Refined as it is, your cruelty serves no purpose. On the contrary, for community, it is an invitation. We multiply every time one of us is mowed down. The blood of Christians is effective seed.” This father of the church bore witness to the somewhat paradoxical observation that the more the church was hunted down, the more it seemed to grow. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, for it is a spiritual truth that trial in one’s life is the source of personal growth, and so on a corporate level, the persecution of the church was the cause of its expansion. This of course is another aspect of God’s plan in martyrdom, for Providence arranged for hostility toward the early church that it should grow.
And by the turn of the fourth century, that divine plan would bring forth the most horrendous persecution of them all under the Emperor Diocletian. It is said that “the night is always darkest before the dawn,” and this was certainly true for the Catholic Church in that hour. Unexpectedly perhaps the final persecution came upon the Christians, for during most of the second half of the third century there was relative peace for those who embraced the faith through a series of somewhat tolerant emperors. Eusebius reports that a great deal of favor was shown to Christians by the rulers who governed throughout the empire so much so that believers were commissioned with the government of provinces. And in this time, those who held the Catholic faith could speak freely of their beliefs even in royal palaces. The church came out of hiding in this season and built large buildings in all the cities to worship in.
But this general reprieve was not to last, and we are told by Eusebius why the time of toleration came to an abrupt halt. We might be a little surprised to know that the historian states emphatically that the blame for the renewed persecution was not so much with the pagan rulers of the empire as it was with the Christians themselves. The freedom that they enjoyed for a few decades had unfortunately made them lax and slothful, and without a common enemy to harass them, they began to envy and revile one another, forming factions such that the infighting was a great embarrassment to the faith. The bishops themselves were the worst examples stirring up strife and eager to assert their power. Of course this was noticed by the pagans, and it left a bitter taste in their mouths. They began to view the Christians as undisciplined with their affairs in disarray. As the situation degenerated, it got the attention of the emperors at which time there were four who had divided up the empire among themselves.
Diocletian who controlled the Eastern part of the Empire was a religious conservative who favored the traditional Roman cult and wished to restore the empire to its former glory. Initially he sought to denude the army of its Christian presence and soldiers and officers were compelled to sacrifice to the gods or lose rank. But this was only the first phase of an escalating persecution, for after this campaign was under way an edict was proclaimed that called for the leveling of the churches, the burning of the scriptures, and the degradation of all those who held places of honor.
Then another edict followed that targeted the clergy, and all who possessed Holy Orders were imprisoned until they should sacrifice to the gods. We are informed that “a vast multitude were imprisoned in every place; and the prisons everywhere, which had long before been prepared for murderers and robbers of graves, were filled with bishops, presbyters and deacons, readers and exorcists, so that room was no longer left in them for those condemned for crimes.”
Finally the imperial edict painted with a broad brush and decreed that all of the people offer sacrifice to the gods in every city and pour out libations to the idols on pain of torture and death. As far as our historian is concerned, the persecution that came upon the Christians at this time was justified as a divine chastisement for their misdeeds. In fact we can very well recognize that as the purpose of God, for he is always interested in purifying the people of faith and stripping them of their sins. At times such punishment can be very harsh, but ultimately it cleanses, and certainly by the time the final persecution was over the Church was in much better shape spiritually than it had been at the onset.
We shall now attempt to sketch the magnitude of this dark night of the church making use of the details provided by Eusebius. We need to remember that for many of the law enforcers in this day, there was a sincere desire to see the Christians recant of their faith and offer a little incense to the gods and avoid carrying out their grizzly acts of justice. When it was clear that there was resistance to make any such offerings, rather than slay their prisoners they attempted to force the issue at hand by compelling the lawbreakers to advance to the altar. Once there, they thrust the sacrifice to foreign gods into their hands to make it look like they paid homage to the gods and then dismissed them as if they had recanted. And to the crowds who watched, such individuals were discredited whether they wanted to cooperate or not. Those who cried out that they were doing this against their will were struck in the mouth and also led away as if they had sacrificed.
Perhaps this could be construed as mercy on the part of those whose job it was to enforce the law, but clearly this scam was more the exception than the rule, for the executioners would generally begin inflicting torments as they met resistance from the prisoners. However, throughout the often grueling affair they would frequently offer the victims an opportunity to worship the gods, undoubtedly hoping that the criminals would desist for their own sakes. But as many of the ministers of justice would find out, all too many were willing to resist until the point that death became inevitable.
Eusebius describes in vivid language the sufferings of the martyrs and we offer his words without commentary: “It would be impossible to describe the outrages and tortures which the martyrs in Thebais endured. They were scraped over the entire body with shells instead of hooks until they died. Women were bound by one foot and raised aloft in the air by machines, and with their bodies altogether bare and uncovered, presented to all beholders this most shameful, cruel, and inhuman spectacle.
Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this.
Some of them, after scrapings and rackings and severest scourgings, and numberless other kinds of tortures, terrible even to hear of, were committed to the flames; some were drowned in the sea; some offered their heads bravely to those who cut them off; some died under their tortures, and others perished with hunger. And yet others were crucified; some according to the method commonly employed for malefactors; others yet more cruelly, being nailed to the cross with their heads downward, and being kept alive until they perished on the cross with hunger.”
Not a few we shall remember were also fed to wild beasts in the stadiums to satisfy the blood thirst of the crowds. And here we must point out the legal fiction of the Romans in this condemnation, for technically it was not a sentence of death but rather the prisoners were being sent to “fight the lions” or whatever wild beasts were present at the time. If one died in doing so, it was just because he happened to lose the battle but theoretically he wasn’t necessarily intended to expire in doing so.
Of course a fictitious technicality like this didn’t prevent the deaths of the majority of those who were condemned to fight the wild beasts, but there were some miraculous exceptions that our historian shares. Much like the story of Daniel in the lion’s den we have accounts of the condemned whom the animals refused to touch. Whenever the beasts attempted to rush on the victims, they were restrained by an invisible force that made them turn around and go back to the place where they came from. Eusebius describes how devoted young men stood naked in the stadiums with their arms outstretched in the form of a cross completely engaged in prayer and not exhibiting the least bit of terror. Bears and leopards breathing fierce rage would descend upon them and retreat just as they were about to bite into them. And this continued over and over again until like in the story of Polycarp, the executioner had to change the plan and run the victims through with the sword.
Other miracles of nature were evident which seemed to express the divine sadness at the atrocities that were happening. We are told that in Palestine, the local governor did not permit the victims to be buried but ordered that their bodies lay exposed in the open fields to be food for the beasts. And a poor decision this was, for the corpses were torn apart and limbs and entrails were strewn all around even throughout the cities. Then on a dry day without a cloud in the sky, from all sorts of inanimate objects throughout the city drops of water began to fall. From metal, wood, and stone tears as it were fell to the ground, and the people were convinced that the earth was weeping because of the abominations that were taking place.
We may imagine that many of the victims of the final Roman persecution were absolutely terrified and trembled uncontrollably at the punishments that were upon them. And certainly while there were, yet others seemed to exhibit behavior entirely on the other end of the spectrum. The historian reports about not a few martyrs who not only showed no fear of what would happen to them but actually deliberately put themselves in danger.
Eusebius tells a story in which it was publicly announced that Christians were to be sent to fight the lions on a particular day and when a band of six believers in another locale heard about it, they bound their hands together as prisoners and made haste to the governor who was going to preside over this show. Once there, they boldly confessed that they were Christians and when they too were condemned to die they broke out into laughter and were filled with joy and sang hymns to God until their last breath.
Similarly we are told about a young man who was also fearless and full of great zeal for the faith. This youth found away around those guarding the governor and boldly approaching him seized his arm while he was sacrificing to the gods. Restraining this powerful ruler, he exhorted him to abandon his delusion of false gods and worship the only true God.
Needless to say, this man suffered the most horrendous punishment in consequence of his zeal for the Christian faith. After being stretched on the rack for a night and a day, he was offered an opportunity to recant, but as he remained unshaken in his conviction, they began to tear his sides ripping the flesh down to the bone and the bowels. When finally this would not break him, it was ordered that his feet be covered with linen cloths, soaked in oil, and then lit on fire. Yet even with this unbearable pain of scorched flesh, he did not give up his faith, so the governor commanded that he should be thrown into the sea where according to Eusebius, the waters refused to receive the blessed martyr and spewed forth his body before the gates of the city.
Our church historian calls victims such as these the “athletes of religion” invoking imagery of marathon runners successfully crossing the finish line of faith. And there were no shortage of them, for he chronicles many accounts of those who voluntarily rushed up to the ruler and boldly confessed their faith hoping for the “blessed” gift of martyrdom.
Not that these Christians were alone in such unfettered zeal; the faithful in centuries before and after have eagerly sought a martyr’s death, and we recall the great church father Origen who as a boy tried to run to where the persecution was fiercest in hopes of receiving the martyr’s crown, and we are told that he was only stopped by his mother who hid all his clothes so her son couldn’t leave the house. Even as late as the 16th century we have the story of Saint Teresa of Avila who with her brother tried to run off to the part of Spain that was occupied by the Moors that they should die as martyrs for the faith but were fortunately stopped by their uncle.
Having heard just a fraction of the tales of would-be martyrs, we must ask the important question of where we draw the line between faith and presumption, between zeal and stupidity, and between martyrdom and suicide. Perhaps there is not an easy answer to that question, yet we must acknowledge that people have fallen on either side of that fence throughout the course of history.
Of course as we have noted, that there has historically been such an ambition for martyrdom is tied to the tradition that it is a bona fide ticket to heaven and an evidence for the gift of eternal life. And while perhaps in most cases this is true, it is a belief that needs to be qualified. Before anyone should be permitted to enter the kingdom of heaven, it is absolutely necessary that he pay off all debts toward God, learn all lessons of life in the physical world, and acquire all virtues needed to function in the heavenly planes. God cannot be mocked, and no one who has not lived a holy life in service to God should expect to bypass all the rules through offering his life in martyrdom.
Unfortunately throughout history, there have been misguided Christians who were all too eager to volunteer for martyrdom. Despite the intermittent persecutions of the first few centuries, we have records that suggest that many times the Roman authorities actually tried to avoid Christians because they “goaded, chided, belittled, and insulted the crowds until they demanded their deaths.” One story recalls how once a group of Christians in Asia Minor presented themselves to the governor and announcing that they were Christians encouraged the ruler to do his duty and execute them. After he proceeded to do away with a couple of them, the rest asked for the same fate. The governor refused, and though his response is sad to hear, it is also a little humorous inasmuch as tried to talk some sense into the would-be martyrs. He chided them sternly saying, “You wretches, if you want to die, you have cliffs to leap from and ropes to hang by.”
Clearly in this circumstance the believers were presumptuous and had what St. Paul might call a zeal “but not according to knowledge.” We could safely say that God was not behind their foolish actions, and without the backing of the Holy Spirit they would be “on their own” without his help even if death should be their lots.
But the genuine “gift of martyrdom” is accompanied by circumstances that compel the person of faith into that predicament through no fault of his own nor by any reckless desire for the kingdom of heaven. Throughout the heavy persecutions of the first few centuries, most sensible Christians fled into the country and hid in the woods to avoid being seen by the authorities or anyone else who would turn them in for their religious practices. But those who through situations beyond their control were taken captive by the secular powers would undoubtedly have found themselves in that extreme trial by the will of God. And those who were legitimately given the gift of dying for their faith would have been souls who were very near the end of their earthly journey and nearly qualified to enter into everlasting life. The opportunity for martyrdom was granted to such people to help them make the final leap into the kingdom of heaven.
However, as we have heard described in some of the stories, there were indeed a class of bona fide martyrs who rather than attempting to hide plunged themselves right into the thick of the persecution, and many of them were praised by Eusebius and the church of the day. And here we must differentiate between those people who offered themselves up as martyrs through divine inspiration and those who through their own personal will jumped into the fire.
Citing the former type of Christians, we remember Polycarp who initially fled out of the city and hid in a barn and we apparently prepared to remain in hiding as long as he could until he had a special vision from God. And when he saw the pillow under his head consumed by fire, he knew God was asking him to be a martyr. From that point onwards he made no more attempts to elude his captors but welcomes them when they appeared.
The same could be said of Peter, for the apocryphal records indicate that during the persecution under Nero he attempted to flee Rome along with other Christians, but along the road he met Jesus who was heading toward the city. When Peter queried him as to his destination, he replied that he was going to Rome to be crucified once again. This naturally cut Peter to the heart, and he knew that he needed to return to the city and be prepared to offer his life in sacrifice. In fact he had known this ever since Christ told him, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” So Peter knew his time had come, and feeling unworthy to die the same way as the Savior requested that he be crucified upside down.
Even Paul knew that he would end his life in martyrdom, for he had a mystical revelation of this as he reports in his letter to Timothy. He said, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.”
We have considered cases of legitimate martyrdom among those who were forced into it and among those who volunteered for it, but Eusebius also identifies perhaps another group worthy of our consideration who took their own lives rather than subject themselves to wicked men. These too he praises highly, and while we may be a bit skeptical that such souls took the “easy way out,” their stories reveal a motivation higher than just escaping pagan brutality.
We are told of a very holy woman of great virtue and privilege who lived in Antioch, and at the time of the persecution her daughters were coming of age and into the “bloom of life.” When the woman realized the inevitability of what was going to happen to them, the violation of their chastity, she pressed her children to avoid this possibility at all costs, for as she put it, “to surrender their souls to the slavery of demons was worse than all deaths and destruction.” And so when the girls had been arrested and were being led out along a road, they requested a time to retire, presumably under the pretense to relieve themselves. Then while the guards were turned away, the two young women cast themselves into the river destroying their mortal bodies.
Eusebius tells a similar story about a virtuous Roman woman who became the target of the Emperor Maxentius’ lust. This one of the four rulers was a womanizer and abused every one he could get his hands on, violating their chastity and robbing their virginity. We are told that a Christian woman, despite being married was to be the next prize for the royal scoundrel but before she was led away to his chambers, she made sure he would never touch her. Requesting a little time in her room before departure, she stabbed herself with a sword and died immediately. Our historian comments on this incident saying, “By her deeds, more powerfully than by any words, she has shown to all men now and hereafter that the virtue which prevails among Christians is the only invincible and indestructible possession.”
What are we to take away from these two anecdotes from a brutal time and place? On the surface we may be tempted to call such women cowards for doing themselves in, but clearly Eusebius thought otherwise. It is hard to label the women as “fainthearted” when we are told that their objective in taking their own lives was not to escape from pain. Rather in both cases, death was the necessary result of clinging to an ideal, in this case the preservation of chastity. The early Christians prized this very highly, and we know well that virginity was considered a noble path in life from the writings of many Fathers of the Church. Before we try to project our 21st century sensibilities and values on 4th century people of faith, we must remember that what was important to them may not be important to us and vice versa. In the eyes of God, the main factor in evaluating the good or evil in any action is motivation, and if as these stories convey, the women were living up to the highest ideals of which they were aware, then to the Deity it would have been acceptable. As we have identified martyrs as those who forfeit their lives for intangible ideals, then it would seem that these women would also appropriately fit into that category.
Up to this point we have focused on those who died in short order once apprehended by the authorities. The cult of the martyrs has historically focused on those who died glorious deaths for the faith, and rightly so. But it is often forgotten that many suffered at the hands of the authorities and did not die or at least not for a very long time thereafter.
As the Diocletian persecution wore on, our historian tells us that novel forms of torture were continually being invented as if the executioners of justice were participating in a contest to win the prize for the most horrendous of them all. Ultimately though, the persecution took a toll on everyone and not just the victims. The entire populace was worn out by the shedding of blood and wearied by the continual killing. And so it was decided that there should be a more “merciful and humane treatment” of the prisoners.
Rather than slaying them with the sword or burning them at the stake, the “lightest of punishments” was doled out toward the end of the final Roman persecution. It was ordered that recalcitrant Christians should have one of their eyes put out and their left foot maimed for life. Eusebius says it would be impossible to tell how many souls had their right eyes cut out with the sword and had their left foot cauterized with fire to disable the joints. Afterward such believers were condemned to work in the copper mines as a punishment of perpetual hardship.
We must wonder who ultimately suffered more, those who survived the persecution maimed for life or those who died quickly at the hands of the executioners. It seems that the former also deserve the title of martyr for they suffered greatly for Christ, and clearly were willing to give up their lives had that been exacted of them. In any event, they paid off a tremendous debt of sins to God through their ordeals, and it would seem that in many cases such souls also achieved everlasting life when they died a natural death.
By 313 A.D., after 10 years of bitter persecution, the dark night was over for the Christians when the Emperor Constantine issued an edict of toleration that would continue from that time forth. Though it would be several decades before the Catholic faith would become the official religion of the empire, the road was paved in favor of the monotheistic faith.
From that point on, martyrdom in Europe would a relatively rare event save for the killing of “heretics” who would buck some aspect of the official dogma of the Church. It wouldn’t be until the 16th century Reformation that Europe would see mass martyrdom again with victims on both sides of the Catholic and Protestant wars.
For the most part though, the persecution of Christians occurred outside of Europe since the Roman persecution ended, and certainly this has been true in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Since the 6th century, most Christian martyrs have died at the hands of Islam even until our day where violence continues strong in such nations as Sudan, Syria, and Iraq.
We expect that souls will continue to die for their faith up until the return of Christ himself, and it seems from the tone of the New Testament that before that glorious appearance of the Savior, perhaps one of the worst persecutions ever to embroil the faith will take place under the leadership of the Antichrist. The road is undoubtedly rough ahead of us, and certainly martyrdom will be required even for those souls who now abide at ease in the West. Ultimately though, Christ the King will appear and with him an era of unprecedented peace that the world has never known.