Truth, Martyrdom, and Resurrection
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
March 20, 2008 - This weekend Christians around the world celebrate the defining moment in human history – the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As is the secular custom, this season of the Christian calendar represents an occasion to resurrect wearisome and ineffective arguments that seek to undermine the veracity of the historic apostolic witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection.
In their respective new books, The Reason for God and The Faith both Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and (with Harold Fickett) Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, renew the evidential challenge that the skeptic must face.
Keller writes: “There is one more thing to keep in mind. As Pascal put it, ‘I [believe] those witnesses that get their throats cut.’ Virtually all the apostles and early Christian leaders died for their faith, and it is hard to believe that this kind of powerful self-sacrifice would be done to support a hoax.” Similarly, Colson calls attention to the fact that while it is possible that some may die for a falsehood they believe to be true, no one will ever die for something that they know to be false.
Of course, the persistent skeptic may point to an apparently similar kind of religious fervor among extremist elements in other religious traditions. Doesn’t the suicide bomber’s willingness to die equally demonstrate truth of Islam’s claims? Doesn’t the religious persecution endured by those in Buddhist or Hindu traditions vindicate their own profession of faith?
These are important challenges. Yet, the subtle differences between these forms of religious martyrdom and the deaths of Christians in the early church are significant. In the case of Islam, the martyr’s death is an instrument of warfare. The suicide bomber does not merely die for his faith; he kills for it – dying in the process. Thus, while he may be motivated by religious conviction, any doubts he has about the veracity of his faith can be assuaged in knowing that in killing his enemies, he is, at least, not alone in death.
The Christian witness could not be more radically different in kind. The martyrs of the early church did not merely die for their faith; they were killed for it. And unlike modern day suicide bombers, the Christian martyrs had no occasion to face their deaths with the satisfaction of knowing that they would take at least a few of their enemies with them.
The case of those who die for their faith as non-aggressors is more difficult to distinguish from the witness of church martyrs. For on the surface, the death of a disciple of some Eastern religious tradition in the face of intense, unwarranted religious persecution, looks remarkably similar to those Christians who gave up their lives for Christ in the Roman coliseum. Yet, there is a subtle difference.
Whereas the Christian martyrs died for nothing other than their conviction about the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection, death in many Eastern traditions is viewed as a means of salvation itself – an escape from the earthly prison of one’s body. Thus, there is a sense in which the death of an Eastern religious martyr is not, properly speaking, a “witness.” It does not testify to the reality of something other than itself. Rather, it is requirement of religious devotion – and possibly the very essence of salvation itself.
To be sure, the early Christians died with the hope of eternal life. But unlike many Eastern religions, the hope of something beyond one’s present mortal condition was not merely forward-looking. Christian hope for the future is grounded in the reality of the past. When the Christian martyrs died, they did not merely hope to escape the transitory pain and suffering that we experience in a fallen world. Nor did they believe that such bodily realities were merely an illusion. Rather, they died in hope because they knew that God had raised Jesus bodily from the dead. For “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” (I Corinthians 15:17)
One can make rational sense of the martyrdom of many from other religions traditions in ways that do not entail the truth of their religious claims. But unless Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead, there is no rational explanation for deaths of the early Christian martyrs. For they neither viewed their deaths as a necessary step in their salvific journeys, nor did they view their deaths as instruments of vengeance against their enemies. Rather, they viewed their deaths as simply testifying to the Truth. And the Truth is that Jesus Christ is risen from the grave.
Thanks be to God!