When Did Christians Stop Seeking Martyrdom?

Christianity’s founder was a martyr, not Islam’s.

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, 1883, oil on canvas.
The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1883, oil on canvas.

Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme/Wikimedia Commons.

Federal authorities arrested a Bangladeshi man who attempted to blow up the Federal Reserve building in Manhattan on Wednesday. Just prior to his arrest, Quazi Nafis told an undercover officer, “We will not stop until we attain victory or martyrdom.” Islam was not founded by a martyr, but Christianity was. When did Christians stop actively seeking martyrdom?

Around the third century, with some exceptions. Martyrdom was hugely important in early Christian theology. The first Christians believed that Jesus’s promise, “Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of,” was an invitation to martyrdom. Dying for the faith guaranteed immediate passage to heaven, where martyrs sit on a throne next to God himself. Early Christians buried their deceased loved ones near the graves of martyrs, hoping that they could somehow hitch a ride to paradise. Initially, there was no taboo against actively seeking martyrdom. The North African writer Tertullian praised thousands of Carthaginian Christians who supposedly approached the Roman governor en masse to request execution—the governor is said to have declined—and there were reports of similar incidents. Beginning in the third century, however, Christian theologians argued that this kind of behavior shouldn’t be glorified. Within a few decades, the orthodox Christian view was that voluntarily seeking execution was suicide, not martyrdom.

Despite this doctrinal shift, many rank-and-file Christians continued to seek martyrdom for centuries, often by provoking members of other faiths. In the fifth century, for example, a Christian burned down a Zoroastrian temple in Persia, knowing that the act would result in his execution. In a crisis, even Christian authorities have abandoned the prohibition against voluntary martyrdom. The diaries of medieval crusaders clearly indicate that they viewed themselves as martyrs, and Pope Urban II offered the fallen complete absolution and immediate passage to heaven. (The status of crusaders as voluntary martyrs is somewhat controversial, because they may have viewed themselves as draftees in a defensive war.)

Islamic martyrdom now has a higher profile, but Christian extremists still refer to themselves as martyrs today. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed dozens of people at a political youth camp near Oslo, called his plot a “martyrdom operation.”

Although seeking martyrdom is now verboten, the celebration of martyrs has remained a defining element of Christianity. The practice tends to intensify during times of widespread persecution, because martyrs provide the faithful with someone to rally around. One such peak was in 16th-century England, when 5,000 subjects were executed for their Catholic or Protestant faith, depending on the religion of the monarch on a given day. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, an account of the persecution of Protestants, became one of the country’s defining texts. Analogous books about the persecution of Catholics and Anabaptists were also massively popular during the same period.

The cult of martyrs has faded somewhat among mainstream American Christians, but some still speak the language of martyrdom. Devoted Catholics celebrate the Feast of the North American Martyrs on Friday, which honors a group of French missionaries slaughtered in a war between the Iroquois and the Huron. Martyrdom is still seen as something of a fast-track to Roman Catholic sainthood. An interdenominational group called “The Voices of the Martyrs” chronicles incidents of persecution against Christians.

Some American Protestants have established a cult of martyrdom around Cassie Bernall, a high school student killed in the Columbine massacre. Early reports suggested that a shooter asked Bernall whether she was a Christian, then killed her when she answered “Yes, I believe.” This account is in dispute, but several churches have staged re-enactments of the shooting, which end with Bernall’s ascension to heaven.

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Explainer thanks Brad Gregory of the University of Notre Dame, author of Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe, Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame, author of Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions and the forthcoming book The Myth of Martyrdom. How Early Christians Invented a Story of Persecution, and Kyle Smith of the University of Toronto, author of the forthcoming book The Martyrdom and the History of Blessed Simeon bar Sabba’e.

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