The Special Status of Martyrs

The word “martyr” gets in the news these days in the context of suicidal Muslim terrorists.  It is ironic that such people are called “martyrs”.  The word actually means “witness”.  What does their actions and their death say about their theology?  I hear, “God is full of hate”, “I am full of hate”, and “I will do anything to advance my selfish ambitions for the afterlife.”  Not exactly a compelling witness.

Christians have long used the word “martyr” for those who lost their lives because of their faith.  They did not commit suicide or even seek death, their lives were taken from them out of hatred for God or his message.  Their witness was “The gift of eternal life is better than this life”, and “I am not afraid to die because I trust God”.  That is a very different witness.

Martyrdom for Christians is not something isolated to the first century.  While the Romans took their share, genuine disciples of Jesus have been killed through the centuries, sometimes even by nominal Christian institutions.  Today, Christians are under the greatest threat of death in Muslim and Communist countries.

A strong theme, maybe even the main theme, of the book of Revelation is that martyrdom for the sake of Christ is well worth it.  Martyrs get special mention in Revelation 6:9-11, 12:11 and 20:4.  What do these passages teach us about this special class of people?

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had be slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  They called out in a loud voice, “How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?  Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Rev. 6:9-11)

This passage is important because it rules out the idea of soul sleep or that we go immediately to Judgment Day at our death.  It also lines out one of the criterion for the timing of Judgment Day–there are a preset or pre-known number of martyrs.  You might think this a strange and morbid standard, but to be a martyr is a high honor.  Those who experience this are chosen for this.  Their location “under the altar” brings to mind where the blood of the sacrifices was poured.  Only the sacrifice of Christ has merit in saving others.  But the death of the martyrs hasn’t historically deterred faith in Christ but it has counter-intuitively advanced it.  They are a sacrifice pleasing to God in the sense that they truly trusted him, and their deaths advanced the Gospel.

The gift of a “white robe” is common for all who die in Christ.  It is probably not clothing but a reference to a heavenly body that is pure.  The desire for judgment may be a surprise.  It doesn’t feel like love for your enemy.  Such judgment is just, however.  It doesn’t preclude the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

In Revelation 12 the martyrs are honored and their praise is sung.  In Revelation 20 it speaks specifically of souls who were beheaded.  This is probably synecdoche and actually refers to all martyrs.  Here they have the honor of reigning with Christ.  What is that?  In this context, it would seem that they are part of God’s divine council, which actually participates in making decisions executable on Earth.  This honor would make sense since their lifetimes were cut short on Earth.

Our Dependence on Revelation

What happens after our death is terribly relevant to us all.  After all, we are all going to die.  It is not like to get to try it out first to see if we like it, at least not usually.  We approach death blind with the exception of what we know from revelations.  Science, our normal go to, is limited here.  It would tell us that nothing happens, but if certain revelation is correct, then science doesn’t have the tools to test it.

How can you know?  We have purported revelation from every world religion and we also have NDEs (Near Death Experiences) to consider.   NDEs tend to not be consistent.  There could be many reasons for this, from people not having the words to relate their experience, to genuinely different experiences (like heaven or hell), to deceptive experiences, to NDEs not being legitimate experiences of an afterlife at all. In the end, NDEs can be exciting but they don’t provide much guidance except, perhaps, for the person who had one.

What weight can we give to the revelations provided by world religions?  How do you test them?  If there is not only God trying to communicate with mankind, but also an enemy of God trying to confuse mankind, then we are in a difficult spot.  Who are we to sort it out?

I think of Mary, Joseph and Zechariah who all experience an encounter with the angel Gabriel.  Their information would lead us in a very different direction than the reported encounter of Muhammad and Gabriel some 600 years later.  How would any of these people know for sure who they were dealing with, and how would we know whether the events happened at all?  Without a doubt, we will be biased by where we start–if raised Christian, then Christian; if Muslim, then Muslim; if skeptic, then skeptical of it all.

I’m sure each group can provide a line of reasoning that is convincing for them.  Only God can get somebody over this hump of bias if they hold a false doctrine.  Since eternal life is on the line, we all desperately pray that God would do so.

My line of reason is clearly Christian.  In full disclosure, that is how I was raised.  I also think that I am rebel enough to leave the orthodoxy of my youth behind if it doesn’t make sense, especially if it matters this much.

The experiences of Zechariah, Mary and Joseph have supporting evidence in prophecies that clearly pre-date them.  The Old Testament is proven to be written before this time by the Dead Sea Scrolls.  These prophecies have a degree of specificity to them that you couldn’t stage for yourself.  The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, a virgin birth, and the presence of John the Baptist are all in there.  Isaiah 53 in particular aligns with Jesus’ life.  It is not the life of merely a prophet, but the life of a sacrifice for sin.  Then we must consider the story of Jesus’ life, including clear miracles witnessed by many eyewitnesses who have no clear motive to lie.  All of the disciples of Jesus suffered terribly for their testimony.  I don’t believe people would do this if they knew it wasn’t true.  This is capped with the experience and witness of Paul of Tarsus, who was an admitted persecutor of the early Church.

If this is all a fiction, then when was it written and why?  How could such a fiction survive this long without cultural and military support?  Both existing bible fragments and testimony found in non-Christian sources point to existence of the Christian church to within a lifetime of the Jesus’ ministry.  A fiction could not have been written later.

Then there is the message itself.  The message is that God loves mankind, even though, He finds mankind to be sinful and un-saveable based on personal goodness.  So, God’s solution is to fulfill the requirements of the law that governs us and pay the price for the sin himself, by Jesus’ being forsaken and then dying on the cross.  That is love.  Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others is the ultimate love.  That action correlates with what the Old Testament hinted as the plan from the beginning.

Islam changes that plan.  It cannot conceive of God doing something like this or even a prophet being subjected to something like this.  So which is the deception?  Did the disciples of Jesus distort the story or was the story distorted within Islam from the very beginning because “Gabriel” wasn’t really “Gabriel”?  In the end, Islam offers only a legalized way of life and the vague hope that Allah is merciful to you.  It has largely advanced itself through conquest.  It doesn’t shy away from doing so.  Even Muhammed was treated abusively by this so called Gabriel.

We are in a poor position to judge, but the little clues just mentioned make me think that the God who cares about His creation isn’t the one who gave revelation to Muhammed.  Jesus, as Savior of the world, is the revelation for me.