“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed–in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” –1 Corinthians 15:51-52
It sounds like a fairy tale ― most of it, at any rate. Mansions in heaven. No more crying, pain, disease or ugliness of any kind. A Creator-King who made the entire universe out of nothing, who is so just that blood must be spilled for violations of his holy law, yet so loving that he is willing to stand in and take the punishment for his creatures, who are busy killing, maiming and pillaging while he is arranging for their pardons. No one is excluded from the offer ― not even those who drive the spikes into his son’s wrists.
Sacred, mystical elements are sprinkled throughout the story: a virgin gives birth; her firstborn son becomes the most famous man who has ever lived and turns the entire world on its head. After being ripped to shreds, he hangs dying on a plank of wood, then comes out of the grave alive, with the marks of his execution still on his body. Around 500 people testify to seeing him alive after his crucifixion.
Impossible. And yet many men who walked with Jesus went to their own hideous deaths rather than retract the strange story ― a tale they told all over the world. Some of the most gruesome stories involved the Apostles, most of whom were ordered to renounce their faith ― or die. Peter was crucified, but when the time came, he requested that he be turned upside-down, since he wasn’t worthy to die in the same manner as his Master. Philip and Andrew were tortured and crucified. However, Philip kept preaching to the crowd from the cross and managed to convince the proconsul to release Andrew. Later, Andrew was crucified in earnest (upside-down this time) and, like Philip, continued to preach to onlookers while he was dying. Thomas was speared to death. James (son of Zebedee) was beheaded. James (the other James) was stoned, but one of his executioners became impatient and hastened his death by dashing his brains out with a club. Simon and Jude were rumored to have been sawed or axed to death. There are different accounts of how Matthew died, including being killed with a sword and burned alive. Bartholomew was skinned alive and beheaded. John was arrested and thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, but he miraculously survived and was exiled to the island of Patmos. He is the only Apostle who died as an old man.
Saul of Tarsus, whose chief occupation was arresting and murdering Christians, claimed to have seen Jesus as he was traveling to Damascus to secure letters authorizing him to arrest more Christians (Acts 9:3-6). His experience was sufficiently penetrating to turn a Christ-hating Jew into the greatest Christian missionary the world has ever seen. Paul (as he was called after his conversion) must have seen something spectacular, since his testimony cost him several trips to prison and resulted in his being flogged five times (39 lashes each), beaten with rods three times, stoned (he was presumed dead after this incident but later got up and walked away), and shipwrecked three times (2 Corinthians 11:23-27) . These were just the more noteworthy episodes, all of which he could have avoided if he had just gone back to dismissing Jesus and enjoying the luxurious life of a wealthy Pharisee. Instead, he endured every kind of impoverishment and was eventually martyred for his trouble.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word mártys, which means “witness.” If we can trust the etymological construction, these people died because of their testimony about Jesus. The question comes to mind: How many people would willingly die for a lie?
I had a conversation about this with a co-worker several years ago. His assertion was that the Apostles were starry-eyed sycophants whose enthusiasm for Jesus’ teaching explains why they martyred themselves. I don’t know about you, but even if I had been one of the 500 witnesses who saw the risen Christ, I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t back down at the threat of a gruesome death. Even Galileo chose survival after being warned by Catholic Church leaders to recant his statements about heliocentrism. And he was telling the truth.
In the comprehensive chronicle of the early Christian Church, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs notes that the time of Christ’s purported resurrection is historically pivotal. Right up to the third day after his crucifixion, Christ’s followers gave a dismal showing. After Jesus was arrested, ten of the disciples scattered. Peter followed at a distance, but when things got prickly, he succumbed to fear and denied Christ. Even after seeing the empty tomb and being visited by the risen Jesus (during which he invites “Doubting Thomas” to put his hand into the wounds from his crucifixion), the disciples have apparently given up and gone back to fishing when Jesus shows up again and calls to them from the shore: “Bring some of the fish you have just caught!” Jesus calls (John 21:10). They sit down for breakfast, during which Jesus reinstates Peter.
After Christ’s ascension, the Church exploded in numbers and in its vociferous testimony, even as enemies of the Church embarked on one killing spree after another to silence believers. The slaughter of Christians accelerated when Nero became the Emperor of Rome in 54 AD. One of Nero’s favorite things to do was to wrap Christians in garments covered with pitch, fasten them to poles, and set them on fire to light up his gardens during the evening festivities. This practice is thought to be the origin of the term “Roman candle.” Alternatively, according to Foxe’s, “he had some sewed up in skins of wild beasts, and then worried by dogs until they expired.”
But even Nero’s persecution of Christians didn’t compare with what was later inflicted on believers. It is estimated that 20,000 were killed under Emperor Diocletian alone. Christians were subjected to unimaginable tortures, including being fed to lions in the Colisseum. The remarkable thing is that the persecution only hastened the spread of the gospel. It is the same today, when as many as 100,000 Christians per year are martyred around the world, according to Christianity Today.
Lest the reader should think this is some kind of lament, au contraire! This is a celebration. The martyrs will be lavishly compensated in the coming age, honored by throngs of angels because of their faithfulness to the Lord. Their deaths are a blot on human history, but they brighten the story of the Church. Not a drop of their blood will be wasted, nor a moment of the cataclysmic pain they endured. Their voices will be heard for all eternity.