Question: I don’t deny that the early Christians were thrown to the lions, crucified, burned alive, and otherwise killed for their faith. But I object to using their willingness to endure such treatment as proof of Christianity. The followers of many other religious leaders, even of cult leaders later proven to be frauds or evil, have been willing to die for their faith. Look at the 900 followers of Jim Jones lying dead in the jungles of Guyana. Muslims (suicide bombers and other terrorists, for example) are willing to sacrifice themselves for Allah and Muhammad. How can you say that the martyrdoms of Christians prove Christianity any more than the martyrdoms of others prove their religions?
Response: There are huge differences between the martyrdom of Christians and the others you mention. Most of those who died with cult leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh had little or no choice. Therefore, their martyrdoms cannot be compared with that of Christians who were given the chance to save their lives if they would deny Christ, yet persisted in their faith in Him though it meant torture and death.
Islam, which was spread with the sword, is now maintained by the same means. Today one must be a Muslim to be a citizen of Saudi Arabia. It is the death penalty there and in other Islamic nations for a Muslim to convert to any other religion. Try to imagine what it would be like if one had to be a Southern Baptist or a Methodist (or member of any other religious group) to be a citizen of the United States and that the death penalty would be carried out upon anyone who converted to another religion! In fact, such will be the case if Islam ever accomplishes its goal of making the United States and every other nation Islamic countries.
Loyalty to Islam is maintained under the threat of death, whereas loyalty to Christ is maintained by love. Jim Jones and other cult leaders tricked their followers into dying. They were not killed for their faith by persecutors. And they submitted to the death in the belief that not to do so would be to miss heaven. So it is with Muslims who sacrifice their lives in jihad. They are taught that this is the only sure way to paradise, so they give their lives to gain eternal life.
In contrast, the followers of Christ are assured of heaven without any required good works or sacrifice on their part. Christ has paid the full price for their salvation. They know they have eternal life and need not die to obtain it. Their submission to persecution and death is out of love for their Lord and their unwillingness to deny Him or to compromise what they believe is the truth.
Dying for Facts Versus Loyalty to a Religion
To recognize the greatest distinction between Christian martyrs and all others, however, one needs to go back to the apostles themselves and to the early Christians. They died not out of loyalty to a religion but for testifying to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The importance of that fact seems to be overlooked by the skeptics. For example, the famous nineteenth-century atheist Robert Ingersoll wrote:
All the martyrs in the history of the world are not sufficient
to establish the correctness of an opinion. Martyrdom, as
a rule, establishes the sincerity of the martyr – never the
correctness of his thought. Things are true or false in them-
selves. Truth cannot be affected by opinions; it cannot be
changed, established, or affected by martyrdom. An error
cannot be believed sincerely enough to make it a truth.
What he says is true as far as it goes, but he misses the distinction of Christian martyrdom. The apostles and early disciples died for insisting that Christ had risen from the dead; and they insisted upon it not merely as a religious dogma but as an event in real time to which they themselves had been eyewitnesses. Ingersoll admits that people generally won’t die for what they know is a lie, yet all of the apostles, except perhaps John) died as martyrs. Not one backed off at the point of death and bought his freedom by confessing that the apostles had dreamed up the story of the resurrection and that it hadn’t really happened – or that maybe they weren’t really sure they had seen Him alive but perhaps had only thought they had.
We know for certain, even by Ingersoll’s standards, that the apostles were sincere – and not just concerning their belief that Jesus was the Messiah but that they had spent 40 days with Him after His resurrection, and He was indeed alive. That is the point. To disprove their solemn testimony, one would have to show that they had simply all imagined that Christ had spent those 40 days with them, showing Himself alive “by any infallible proofs” )Acts:1:3). For such an imagined tale they would all die? Never!
Eyewitnesses of the Resurrection
The apostles suffered almost unbearable persecution and then went to their graves as martyrs still affirming that the events that they had witnessed had actually occurred. They all testified, to the very death, when they could have bought their freedom by denying it, that Christ’s miracles, His teachings, and His resurrection were factual events that they themselves had witnessed and therefore could not deny. Greenleaf argues:
From these absurdities [of men willing to die for a lie] there
is no escape, but in the perfect conviction and admission
that they were good men, testifying to that which they
had carefully observed and considered and well knew to be
true. (Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists, p. 31)
It is often forgotten that not only those to whom Christ appeared during that historic 40 days but all Christians testify to the resurrection of Christ. The very heart of Christianity is the certainty that one is in personal contact with the resurrected Christ, resident in one’s heart.
Linton picks up that fact when, as a fellow lawyer, he pursues an argument similar to Greenleaf’s:
Nothing in history is better established than the fact that
the Gospel writers, and those who believed their report and
became Christians, were subjected to lifelong persecution,
frequent torture, and ultimate death. This occurred both
at the hands of the Jews, who were incensed at being told
that they had slain their own promised Messiah, and of the
pagans, who were enraged at being told that all the gods in
their Pantheon were but myths and the Pontifex Maximus
at Rome but the perpetrator of a hoax, and that the only
true God was the One who became incarnate as a Jew and
died on a cross.
Now as surely as the human frame shrinks from pain
and death, no man ever lied when the natural and sole result
of his lying was to incur all the evils possible to suffer in this
life and punishment for his lie in any possible life to come.
(Irwin H. Linton, A Lawyer Examines the Bible (W. A. Wilde Co.,
1943), p. 31
Therein lies the great distinction. The apostles died for testifying to the resurrection, a question of fact, not merely of faith. They were convinced of an event. And their willingness to die in attestation of that event is far more convincing than the willingness of others to die for a mere belief or because of loyalty to a religion or religious leader. As Linton points out, “Christ is the only character in all history who has four contemporary biographers and historians, every one of whom suffered persecution [and martyrdom] in attestation of the fruitfulness of his narrative.”