Why are martyrs important?
In the modern era, religious persecutions are relatively minor compared to what they had been in ancient times. Moreover, those countries in which religious persecution is still commonplace tend to be ignored on account of their lack of political importance. The outpouring of religious freedom which characterizes most of the modern world had lead to a subsequence drop in the number of religious martyrs, and the decline of martyrdom has caused many Christians to forget why the institution was valued in the first place.
Martyrs are important because they prove one’s sincerity to Christ’s teaching. Martyrdom also reinforces the faith of those who observe the act, for observers are moved to Christianity by watching the passion of Christ’s followers. This change of heart serves to sanctify the fallen world.
The loss of martyrdom is a sign that the world today is much less violent than it was in the past and that the Christians living within it are a fair bit safer. However, the loss of martyrdom’s effect on viewers has also allowed standards for determining strong faith to collapse, and many fair-weather Christians exist because they lack any apparent examples of what it means to place one’s faith above everything else. The notion that Christ is worth dying for is something that the common Christians simply does not believe. Therefore, when an oppressive force tries to draw them away form Christianity, they buckle under the pressure, and the religion dies as a consequence.
Below, we explore the value of martyrdom within the Christian understanding of Creation as explained by one of the influential saints who lived during the days of the early Christian persecutions, i.e., the times when martyrdom was commonplace.
St. Augustine’s Answer from The City of God – Ch. 13
St. Augustine was one of the most influential fathers of the Church. His influence in Catholicism is matched only by Thomas Aquinas, and his influence on Orthodoxy has been immense as well. Protestants, drawing much of their theology from a Catholic base, may also be able to draw connections between what they believe and St. Augustine’s original works. The commentary presented below contains an overview of the saint’s views on martyrdom and its importance within Christianity.
How can people who have been saved by grace still die?
If, moreover, any one is solicitous about this point, how, if death be the very punishment of sin, they whose guilt is canceled by grace do yet suffer death, this difficulty has already been handled and solved in our other work which we have written on the baptism of infants.
A common theme throughout the New and Old Testaments is this position that death has been introduced into the world as a consequence of man’s sinning in the Garden of Eden. This death pervades all creation, and the deaths of plants, animals, and other lower life forms are all attributed to man’s fall. Therefore, it would see that a person living a sinless life would be able to live forever.
Yet this is clearly not the case, and some fo the more astute critics of Christian theology will point to the deaths of saints as proofs that the Christians explanation for the source of evil and suffering is inadequate. We tend not to encounter criticisms of this sort in the moderne ra because most of the people railing against the faith are not thinking and know very little, so they are unable to articulate questions of this complexity.
The nature of bodily immortality
There it was said that the parting of soul and body was left, though its connection with sin was removed, for this reason, that if the immortality of the body followed immediately upon the sacrament of regeneration, faith itself would be thereby enervated.
A key component of Christian theology is this notion that the soul and body are unique and living things. This idea is not uniquely Christian, although many of the pagan systems which existed within the world of the early Christians did not possess this position. This duality allows immortality to take on a new meaning within the Christian understanding of man, for his body may live while the soul dies, and vice-versa.
People tend to forget this duality of man when they think about the way that Christian writings describe immortality. It is on that account, then, that many Christians find themselves confused when certain esoteric questions are posed to them concerning the nature of eternal life. Much of this confusion may, I think, be avoided or alleviated if the Christians remembers that man is a multiplicity.
Here, Augustine reminds us that if pious men were given immortality such so that we could see it, then this would prove the soundness of Christian doctrine, so the lack of bodily regeneration must be accounted for.
Faith requires uncertainty, and uncertainty requires death.
For faith is then only faith when it waits in hope for what is not yet seen in substance. And by the vigor and conflict of faith, at least in times past, was the fear of death overcome.
Augustine writes that the bodies of saints may be prevented from regenerating in order to ensure that our faith in the Lord is enhanced. Faith, form his perspective, requires uncertainty, yet to see someone revive before our own eyes would provide us with certainty that what they had believed was, in fact, true. Therefore, the fact that pious men do not revive before us is a sort of mercy meant to ensure that our faith arises from a love of God and His Word and not, as many would have it, form an expectation of reward.
Martyrdom requires death
Specially was this conspicuous in the holy martyrs, who could have had no victory, no glory, to whom there could not even have been any conflict, if, after the layer of regeneration, saints could not suffer bodily death.
Many saints have achieved their position through martyrdom. Martyrdom requires death. Therefore, if a saint is martyred, and if they are revived, then the reason fro their sainthood would be undone. This would undo their claim to piety and, consequently, render them unfit for revival on account fo their sinless being. This paradox is avoided by their death.
Immortality degrades Christ and His role in our lives
Who would not, then, in company with the infants presented for baptism, run to the grace of Christ, that so he might not be dismissed from the body?
Suppose that a person were to rise form the dead on account of their holy way of life. Ir this were to happen, then hordes of insincere people would flock to the faith with the hope that they would also receive the reward of revival. These people grasping for Christ in the hope of some reward would then pervert the structure and doctrine of the church as their influence grew, and these perversions would destroy the love of Christ among His so-called faithful. For they would only follow Him out of their expectation of some reward and not for their love of the god-man.
Death is a test which man is meant to confront with faith
And thus faith would not be tested with an unseen reward; and so would not even be faith, seeking and receiving an immediate recompense of its works.
Christians are meant to regard death as the final obstacle in life, and we are meant to confront it with dignity. It is not to be avoided, postponed, or sought. Instead, it comes when it is meant to come, Christians should try to recognize death as it approaches, and we are then meant to enter into the next life at the proper time and with a dignified attitude.
The Punishment of Sin is a service for the righteous
But now, by the greater and more admirable grace of the Saviour, the punishment of sin is turned to the service of righteousness.
The greatest of all men was only able to achieve His greatest work by dying. IT si for this reason that death is meant to be seen as a wondrous occasion, and a Christian should not fear its approach. Instead, it must be seen as an opportunity for great works to be achieved without fear of what may come afterward.
The Inversion of Death
For then it was proclaimed to man, “If you sin, you shall die”; now it is said to the martyr, “Die, that you sin not.” Then it was said, “If you transgress the commandments, you shall die”; now it is said, “If you decline death, you transgress the commandment.” That which was formerly set as an object of terror, that men might not sin, is now to be undergone if we would not sin.
Death had presented a great terror for the vast multitudes of people who had lived during the years before Christ’s coming. Yet Jesus, having entered the realm of death and returning in glory, has transformed this attitude so that humans need no longer be afraid of the kingdom of death and what lies behind its gates. Martyrs are those men and women who exemplify this unique Christian perspective on death. Therefore, martyrdom serves a necessary function as a reminder of the freedom from fear that Christianity an offer.
Martyrdom transforms weakness into strength
Thus, by the unutterable mercy of God, even the very punishment of wickedness has become the armor of virtue, and the penalty of the sinner becomes the reward of the righteous. For then death was incurred by sinning, now righteousness is fulfilled by dying. In the case of the holy martyrs it is so; for to them the persecutor proposes the alternative, apostasy or death.
Here, Augustine places the choice for martyrdom against the alternatives of apostasy and death. In doing so, he affirms the position that to live in a way that will likely bring one to great opposition and potential ruin against the various powers that be in the world around them. We often see this play out in the modern era, as Christians are oppressed in various locales where rulers constantly strive to acquire more power for themselves and find it advantageous to damage the Christian community in their endless power grab.
The Two Views
For the righteous prefer by believing to suffer what the first transgressors suffered by not believing. For unless they had sinned, they would not have died; but the martyrs sin if they do not die.
All people, believing and non-believing alike, die. Nothing may change this, and all attempts to avoid death are taken in vain. It is with this knowledge that we must approach the prospect of our own deaths and cope with what we know will one day come. the believing person may look to the example fo a martyr and find contentment with the coming end, whereas the unbelieving person is likely to be faced with an existential despair and dread.
Death & Redemption
The one died because they sinned, the others do not sin because they die. By the guilt of the first, punishment was incurred; by the punishment of the second, guilt is prevented.
As martyrs give their lives int he name of Christ, the faith of those who observe them is enhanced. These viewers than begin to take Christian doctrine more seriously, and they begin to emulate Christ’s example more consistently. In doing so, they bring themselves loser to a clean and blameless state which may save them from the punishments of the world to come.
To Live in Sin or to Die in Christ
Not that death, which was before an evil, has become something good, but only that God has granted to faith this grace, that death, which is the admitted opposite to life, should become the instrument by which life is reached.
So holy martyrdom is desirable because it both ensures the sanctity of those who die and moves the viewer closer to that same sanctified state.