I think about my most recent study of Revelation, a book written not only to comfort Christians being persecuted in the first century but in every century. Revelation envisions “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” who came out of the foreseen “great tribulation.” As I think about their triumph over evil and death I also think of that famous quotation about “the blood of martyrs being the seed of the church.”
The way Christian martyrs died is an irrefutable testimony not only to their and our faith in life after death. A fourth reason to believe in life after death is “the inspiring death-defying deaths of martyrs”!
Historians have often struggled to explain the miraculous spread and success of Christianity, rising out of a backwater country riddled with conflict. Christians faced horrendous harassment from Jewish and Gentile opponents. It was the way Christians died, often under great duress, which made a tremendous impression on people.
Christians who had died for their faith showed the world how to look beyond death to a new and better life where our dreams of a good and just, kind and gracious, happy and joyful, loving and forgiving world shall be realized.
Certainly those seeing and hearing Jesus die on the cross witnessed someone not of this world and heading for a different world, praying that His persecutors might be forgiven and offering a dying thief a place in Paradise. What went through Saul’s heart, soul, and mind as he not only watched Stephen the Christian stoned to death but heard him pray for those killing him: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60)? How does anyone pray that way? How does anyone die with such peace and love?
My favorite place in Canterbury Cathedral is the Chapel of the Saints and Martyrs of Our Time, which incorporates a quotation from “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot: “The blood of thy martyrs and saints shall enrich the earth and shall create the holy places.” As I stood looking at the faces of the dead, yet alive, martyrs I thought about how and why they died is a powerful testimony to lives that triumph over evil, even the evil of death.
Historians have often struggled to explain the miraculous spread and success of Christianity…
Among these extraordinary “Heroes of the Faith” is Edith Stein, 1891-1942, a Christian nun from a Jewish family who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz concentration camp, inspiring her fellow victims with faith and hope – hope for a life that transcends such darkness. There is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945, Christian pastor and theologian. There is Maximilian Kolbe, 1884-1941, who in volunteering to take the place of another prisoner condemned to death, died in Auschwitz concentration camp. Their lives and deaths make it impossible to believe that this was the end of them. If death is the end, it is the kiss of death to our most noble instincts!
As a graduate student I studied an inspiring book entitled The Last Messages of Men and Women Who Resisted Hitler and Were Martyred: DYING WE LIVE. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Forward in which he observed:
“… the heroic heights to which the human spirit may rise when it is informed by ‘grace,’ a power that transcends the sense of duty and that is infused into those lives which have a sure hold of the meaning of human existence, which transcends their own lives and survival and, indeed, which transcends the very dimension of historical existence. It is one of the operations of grace that such deeds, pointing by faith to a realm of meaning beyond history.”
This book with its “extraordinary collection of letters and other writings of men and women, from all walks of life, who resisted Hitler and were martyred, has one great underlying theme – faith triumphant in death.” They, their families, and we the readers instinctively know that death was not The End for them!