Christian Martyrdom: Relevant or Irrelevant?

By John Joseph Kilpin Fletcher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By John Joseph Kilpin Fletcher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On November 3rd, 2013, 80 people from across North Korea were reportedly executed for the following crimes: 

"Watching or illegally trafficking South Korean videos, involvement in prostitution, or possessing a Bible." 

On October 21st, 2013, the BBC released a news report about the latest attack on Christians in Egypt. Says the report: 

"Egypt's Coptic Christian community has been targeted by some Islamists who accuse the Church of backing the army's overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July." 

On September 22nd, 2013, The Huffington Post reports

"A pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up amid hundreds of worshippers at a historic church in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing 78 people in the deadliest-ever attack against the country's Christian minority." 

In his March 24th talk at the 2012 Reason Rally, popular atheist speaker Richard Dawkins called upon fellow atheists to adopt this tactic toward the religious: “…mock them. Ridicule them. In public... Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged, and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.” 

Recently, scholar of early Christianity Candida Moss published her book The Myth of Persecution which, according to the books description"...reveals how the early church exaggerated, invented, and forged stories of Christian martyrs and how the dangerous legacy of a martyrdom complex is employed today to silence dissent and galvanize a new generation of culture warriors." 

So what, if any, is the significance of Christian persecution, and why are some interested in emphasizing it while others are set on denying or downplaying it? 

A classic argument for the truth of Christianity is that those who claimed to be eyewitnesses of Christ's resurrection went on to be tortured and killed for their claims. Therefore, their claims must be true because (the apologist reasons) men do not willingly die for what they know is untrue. 

On the face of it this argument may seem fairly persuasive, but is not without its critics. The atheist team at Reasonable Doubts, for instance, argued that in order for this argument to hold water, they would have had to know they were going to be tortured and killed ahead of time, and they would have had to have the opportunity to escape said execution by denying their beliefs. Even if they did have such opportunity, the ancient world considered it quite noble and honorable to die a martyr's death, so the execution might have been its own reward. 

Or, as Candida Moss argues, there really wasn't much death or persecution at all. 

Furthermore this argument loses all of its persuasive force for those who were not eyewitnesses to Christ's resurrection, as they might hold their beliefs with sincerity because of a faith in the testimony of others - a fact which does not prove that it is actually true. 

For centuries, Christianity has been the majority influence in the west, even going so far as to persecute others in the name of Christ (which is wildly counter to what Christ actually taught). Additionally, almost every religious group has undergone hate, mistrust, and persecution in one venue or another. Why deny Christian persecution or, indeed, up-sell it? 

It cannot be denied that Christians have been hated, maligned, persecuted, and even killed for their beliefs to one degree or another at certain times and places in history, and continue to be today. This is significant primarily because it was predicted by scripture: 

John 15:18-20 

English Standard Version (ESV) 

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” 

Not only did Jesus prophecy that Christians would be hated, but specifically that this hatred would manifest itself in the type of verbal abuse that Dawkins suggests: 

Matthew 5:11-12 

English Standard Version (ESV) 

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

Jesus commanded Christians to rejoice when shamed or slandered, and the Christians took up that call. In the book of Acts, mere months after Jesus had been crucified, the disciples were arrested for preaching Christianity. They were commanded to stop spreading their teachings, beaten, and released. This was their response: 

Acts 5:41 

English Standard Version (ESV) 

”Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” 

In fact, the New Testament is filled with encouragement to rejoice under persecution and slander, and for good reason. 

Western Civilization has risen to prominence on the back of various Christian traditions. It is easy to forget that, at one time, they were very much in the minority. While Candida Moss will argue that Christians never were persecuted, at least not to the degree the Church would have people believe, it would be difficult to argue that it was always popular. 

Christianity began in Judea where it was wildly counter to Jewish faith and traditions; holding them accountable for rejecting their Messiah, and spread across the Roman Empire where it was counter to the pagan Romans, also making them culpable in the death of the Messiah. 

In describing the events surrounding the fire of Rome, ancient Roman historian Tacitus had this to say

“Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he had started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.” (Annals, 15:44) 

Tacitus, clearly no fan of the Christians, wrote this around the end of the first century. It would be over 200 years before Christianity would begin its rise to the majority religion. It would be difficult to claim that in those two centuries Christianity bore no weight of persecution or derision at all. 

While Christianity is at the very least tolerated by the Western culture, in communist countries such as North Korea and China, and in predominantly Muslim countries, Christians continue to be maligned, abused, and killed for their beliefs. And despite its supposed dominance in the Western World, it is likely that if anyone announces "I want to talk to you about Jesus," in a public place in America, eyes will roll and heads will turn in discomfort.  

The Bible predicts that Christianity will encounter resistance, and so it has. Jesus also predicts that "...when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." 

Christianity is paradoxically successful and disliked, all of which was predicted by the Bible. 

Persecution may not be a strong argument for the truth of Christianity. It is still an uncomfortable fact for those opposed to Christianity because, as Candida Moss puts it: "the dangerous legacy of a martyrdom complex is employed today to silence dissent and galvanize a new generation of culture warriors." 

To allow Christians to believe they are or have been persecuted actually reinforces their beliefs. However, books such as Moss's are not exactly designed to make Christians feel comfortable or accepted. The very dissent she claims such tales are intended to silence could be seen by Christians as persecution, just as any other group, minority or otherwise, claims to be "persecuted" when someone in the modern world speaks out against them. When it comes to Christianity, there is no bad publicity. The mere act of talking about it, negatively or positively, continues to encourage its growth. As Paul said: "Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."