“He was a martyr for a good cause.” A person may be put to death (often quite brutally) because he refuses to recant his beliefs and teachings when he is demanded to do so by angry opponents. So we have Muslim martyrs, Jewish martyrs, communist martyrs, Christian martyrs, Buddhist martyrs, Hindu martyrs, and so on. They are all the same, right? Not really.
The English word martyr is an almost direct transliteration from the New Testament Greek word, martus, which originally meant a “witness.” It was especially used in the early church to signify those who were witnesses of Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (e.g., Acts 1:22), and consequently many of those Apostles died giving testimony of their Lord. In current usage it usually means people who are killed for refusing to renounce their religious faith, practices, and beliefs.1 The unspoken assumption is that if the person would renounce his beliefs, then he would not be put to death, and thereby avoid martyrdom. History is replete with tales of martyrs, from Old Testament believers, to the Apostles, to the early church fathers down to our time, especially in areas like the Sudan, the Middle East, Philippines, Indonesia, and parts of South America. For the most part, these have been either Jewish or Christian martyrs, and the logical question to ask would be why? Why not Buddhists or Taoists or Hindu martyrs to the same extent? We will consider that question in due course.
A martyr is someone who believes so strongly in his religion that he is unwilling to compromise when faced with external pressures to convert to another religion. He would rather face death than dishonor himself and his god (either a false god or the True and Living God of the Bible). He does not deem it right (even in those situations where the threat of death is imminent) to even outwardly conform to a “religious conversion,” even if he knows he would internally keep his original belief system. This would be construed as failing his god, lying to himself, and giving a poor testimony to the world about his god and religion. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are perfect examples of this type of mindset, although they were divinely spared from becoming martyrs (Daniel 3).
Radical Muslims who blow themselves up in a suicide bombing to kill others are occasionally called martyrs by some, but this is a misnomer. The suicide bomber is not a martyr, but one who has chosen their own death, and is actively pursuing it. They are not dying because they refuse to convert to Christianity (or Buddhism, or Hinduism), but rather because of a choice to be an offensive weapon of terror.
For most polytheistic religions, martyrdom is usually not much of a concern, since another belief system can be incorporated into the pantheon of deities and beliefs already present. For example, this is why in India today we can see Jesus Christ being added by Hindu worshippers to the religious festivals and even the pantheon of deities. They will even venerate Jesus as a god without recognizing that He is actually the Creator God.
This is not to say that Buddhist or Hindu adherents never become martyrs. The Tibetan Buddhists have for many years been persecuted and martyred by the Chinese government for their refusal to convert to atheistic communism, and Muslims have killed Hindus for their refusal to convert to monotheism as well.
As in all cases of conflict, however, one must remember that religion may not be the only factor in persecution. In the case of the Hindu/Muslim conflict, much of the conflict lies in nationalistic animosity between Pakistanis and Indians. In the case of the Tibetan Buddhists vs. communist Chinese government, it is as much a conflict about self-government and independence versus centralized government as it is about religion. Therefore, deaths on either side may be the result of skirmishing as opposed to actual cases of direct religious persecution leading to martyrdom. Nevertheless, we do know that such persecution and martyrdom does take place. So what makes the Buddhist or Hindu martyr different from the Christian martyr? How does a Christian missionary to Indonesia who is martyred differ from the Tibetan monk who is martyred?
This is a difficult question to answer, but it basically boils down to two things. First, what was the person who was martyred engaged in doing? What was his lifestyle and business, which caused him to be a target? Second, what was the martyr killed for? In the above-mentioned cases of Hindu and Buddhist martyrs, some are engaged in violent or revolutionary activities against another government and so are not true martyrs because they are killed as “enemy combatants.” But many people in this situation are innocent bystanders living in areas viewed as hostile to the government in question. They may be killed inadvertently (or deliberately) because of nationalistic reasons. These deaths would actually be war casualties or genocide, not martyrdom in the religious sense. Others are killed mainly for religious reasons, but without a direct threat to convert or die. These killings are still mostly nationalistic in intent, not true martyrdom. The killing of non-Christians simply because of their religious beliefs and their subsequent refusal to convert to another religion is rare (although not unheard of).
The killing of Christians simply because of their belief and their refusal to deny Christ and convert to a different religion has been recorded countless times since the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 (ca. AD 32–35) up to the present time. In fact, it has been said that more Christians are suffering martyrdom today than ever before—up to 100 thousand per year.2 Often there is additional persecution of Christian populations that leads to loss of property, forced displacement from their homeland, or even time in forced labor camps.3 According to David Barrett, the “persecution of Christians is more common in our generation than ever in history. The oft-quoted statistic is that more people died for their Christian faith in the last century than in all the other centuries of recorded history combined.”4
The Christian organization Voice of the Martyrs lists 52 countries that are currently persecuting Christians.5 This persecution includes verbal assault, property confiscation, physical assault, unlawful imprisonment, threats, torture, psychological intimidation, kidnappings, and murder. In Sudan alone it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Christians have been martyred and up to 2 million forced to flee their homes, simply for refusing to renounce their Christian faith.6
The Romans, the Huns, the Goths, the Vikings, Muslims, Hindus, and other religious groups have perpetrated martyrdom of Christians since the time of the Apostles, mainly because of their Christian faith. The vast majority of these Christian martyrs were not revolutionaries or dissidents, but were ordinary citizens trying to live peaceably among their neighbors. According to principles laid down in Scripture, they paid their taxes, honored the king and governors, loved their neighbors, and gave no cause for offense (Romans 13:1–8; 1 Peter 2:13–17).
How then can we account for this vitriol directed at Christianity in excess of other inter-faith conflicts? The answer lies in the exclusivity of the Christian faith and the means of salvation. True Christianity does not teach a multiplicity of ways to “come to God.” It does not teach that humans are basically good and just need a divine nudge to get on the right track. It does not teach that man can earn merit with God. True Christianity teaches what Jesus Christ taught, that He alone is “the Way, the Truth and the Life: no man comes to the Father, but by Me” (John 14:6). Christianity is intricately tied to the authority of the Bible, which details mankind’s separation from God due to sin, the remedy that God provided through the death and Resurrection of Christ, how God wants to be worshipped, and how we are to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for Christ. We read in Ephesians 2:1 that we are all dead in sins until Christ makes us alive, and in verses 8–9 Paul tells us that we are saved (from God’s judgment) by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, not by our own good works or merit.
Romans 3:10–18 teaches that we are not righteous in our natural state and that we do not seek after God, and then we read in 1 John 4:10 that God demonstrated His love for us by sending His Son to be the propitiation (substitutionary sacrifice) for our sins. Just as by one man (Adam) judgment came upon all men to condemnation, so by the righteousness of one man (Jesus Christ), the free gift of salvation comes (Romans 5:15–18) through faith, if they believe (Romans 3:22).
Therefore, Christians preach a gospel that teaches that all men are sinners, that we all need a Savior, and that Jesus Christ took our sins upon Himself on the Cross to pay for our transgressions. We are told to repent of our sins, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make confession with our mouth (Acts 17:30–31; Romans 10:9–19). Christians understand that God has given us the insight to comprehend His Word. In our natural state we are at war with God and could never understand or please God (Romans 8:7–8). Consequently, we recognize that salvation is of the Lord (Psalm 3:8).
It is this teaching, that we cannot in and of ourselves please or earn merit with God, nor can we work toward our own salvation, that makes Christianity different from all other religions. It is not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to His mercy that He saves us (Titus 3:5). People do not like to hear that they are sinners, and that they can never please God by their own works or righteousness (Galatians 2:16). Nor do sinners like to hear that God will one day judge every man according to his works (Revelation 20:11–15) and that those works will be deemed at best “filthy rags” in the sight of God (Isaiah 64:6).
It is for this gospel that Christians are persecuted, some to the point of martyrdom, even today. Jesus Himself told us to expect persecution because they persecuted Him. Therefore others would persecute His followers (John 15:20). The Apostle Peter wrote that we are not to think it strange that we Christians should suffer persecution (1 Peter 4:12–13). And Paul told Timothy that “all who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 2:12). It is for this reason that the world hates us. As Jesus said in John 15:18–19, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
The Apostle James wrote much about persecution, suffering, and endurance. He wrote that we are “to count it all joy when [we] fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of [our] faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that [we] may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2–4). James understood that Christians would suffer persecution, but urged them to continue to spread the gospel, using the example of the Old Testament prophets’ proclamation of the Word of the Lord even in times when that message was reviled.
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful. (James 5:7–11)
Christians in America have been blessed to live in a land that legislated religious freedom. Sadly, we are one of just a handful of countries that has such liberty. Most of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world suffer for their faith in one form or another, either at the hands of their government or at the hands of angry mobs bent on silencing their witness for Christ. We are enjoined by our Lord to “weep with those that weep” (Romans 12:15) for we know that we are all of one body in Christ (Romans 12:5). Therefore we should pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and also help provide for their needs (Romans 12:13).
Thankfully, we serve a God who providentially works all things in our lives for our good. Nothing ever catches Him by surprise. He will then use even the most trying circumstances to make us more like His Son, Jesus Christ.
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:28–29)
Lastly, let’s look at the reaction of some Christian martyrs as they faced their own death. First, we should remember the words of our Lord as He hung on the Cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Next, we have recorded in Scripture the words of Stephen as he was being stoned to death: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). We read of eyewitness testimony of Polycarp, a disciple of John. While being burned to death on a pyre he remarked, “I bless You that You have considered me worthy of this day and hour, to receive a part in the number of the martyrs in the cup of Your Christ . . . ”7 In each of these cases, and in many more examples, Christian martyrs did not rail against their persecutors, nor curse them. Rather, either they prayed for their persecutors, or they thanked God for allowing the Christian to be a witness unto death for Him.
As we look to God’s revealed Word as our absolute authority and live lives that reflect its truths, we as Christians should be both salt and light. That light will stand out in a dark world (Matthew 5:14–16) and will expose the darkness of sin (Ephesians 5:11). It will also mark Christians as different from the rest of the world and make them targets for hatred, just as Christ was hated (John 15:18). As Christians striving to live godly lives, we are to expect persecution (2 Timothy 3:12), whether it be in the form of mockery, being called foolish and scientifically illiterate, having our rights impinged on or denied, or—as we see in many countries around the world—physical persecution and even martyrdom. But we can be exhorted with the words of Christ on this matter: "And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Mark 13:13) and the promise that Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).