"No Virtue, No Valor: Martyrdom in Christianity and Islam" by WRF Member Steve Curtis

No Virtue, No Valor: Martyrdom in Christianity and Islam 

Steve Curtis, M.A.R., M.R.E., Ph.D. (candidate)
Executive Director
Evangelical Reformed Fellowship

It is likely that within the next few days – whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other quarter of the world – there will be a suicide bombing. These tragic  events have become as normative in this age as air raid sirens were during the  Blitzkrieg. In 1940.s London, the residents of that city dealt stoically with the incessant alarms that would sound at all hours, disrupting plans and sending folks scurrying into shelters or basements. Accounts of that period demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit in the face of a crisis and tell of the patient and even good-natured resolve of the British citizenry. The standard response seems to have been a tacit understanding that such trials will come and must be endured, at least for a time. Today, we see a similar acquiescence in the face of suicide bombing.

It is a wretched consequence of the global conflict against terrorism that the frequency of such attacks can cauterize our collective conscience. We read or hear of another terrorist, another bombing, another killing, and we tend to assign shock only in relation to the number or the age of the victims. Twenty were killed? How sad. A school bus was involved and children died? Tragic! Yet when the suicide bomber “only” manages to take one or two lives, or when those killed are seen as somehow complicit in the conflict – soldiers, for example – we chalk it up as an unfortunate yet unavoidable cost of such an unconventional war.

As a result of this numbing of our sensibilities and the attendant blurring of our perceptions, this most outrageous and wicked manifestation of terrorism is subtly penetrating traditional ideas of warfare – gaining forbearance if not even pardon. As proof, consider the ever-expanding critical base of conspiracy theorists that holds the United States responsible (to varying degrees, from incompetence to treasonous) for the murderous actions of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other expressions of Islamic terrorism. Or consider the indirect honor we bestow upon these radicals whenever we say that they have, at least, the courage of their convictions.

To be sure, there is a tendency to gawk in amazement at the sheer audacity of a man (or, increasingly, a woman) who agrees to die “for a cause.” In honest moments of critical self-analysis, we often must confess that there are few motivations in our own lives that could move us to such a degree. We may include in this short list our children, our spouse, and other close family members. As Christians, we would hope to include the cause of Christ, as well. So, then, do we have a point of contact with the suicide bomber in Baghdad or Kabul? Do our own passions help us to understand and, to some degree, even empathize? We must not give credit where credit is not due; the answer must be an emphatic “No!”

We must resist such a lethargic analysis and, instead, critically examine the clear distinctions that delineate them from us, and there are several. Chief among these is the foundational tenet of sacrifice as an expression of love, as opposed to sacrifice as an expression of hate. And this distinction is based on one even more properly basic: Truth, as opposed to a lie. To gain a proper (and biblical) perspective, we need only to consider and contrast the chronicles of Christian martyrs through the centuries.  [The following accounts are adapted from: Steve Gallagher, Deny Yourself (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2000.]

Before the Roman Empire legalized Christianity, those who openly professed the faith were subject to unimaginable torture and death.

One report tells of a young woman, Blandina, who “dreaded that she would not be able to witness a good confession, because of the weakness of her body. Blandina was endued with so much fortitude, that those who successively tortured her from morning to night were quite worn out with fatigue, owned themselves conquered and exhausted of their whole apparatus of tortures, and were amazed to see her still breathing whilst her body was torn and laid open. The blessed woman recovered fresh vigor in the act of confession; and it was an evident annihilation of all her pains, to say – „I am a Christian, and no evil is committed among us….

“The blessed Blandina, last of all… hastened to undergo sufferings herself, rejoicing and triumphing in her exit, as if invited to a marriage supper, not as one going to be exposed to wild beasts. After she had endured stripes, the tearing of the beasts, and the iron chair, she was enclosed in a net, and thrown to a bull; and having been tossed some time by the animal, and proving quite superior to her pains, through the influence of hope, at length breathed out her soul.”

In China, toward the end of the nineteenth century, a nationalistic movement emerged, now known as the Boxer Rebellion. Foreigners in general, and Christian missionaries in particular, were faced with the sobering options of fleeing the approaching violence or staying to fulfill their mission. In Frenchow, a city of northern Shansi province, a group of missionaries were placed under guard by a local magistrate. One of the missionaries, Lizzie Atwater, wrote the following letter:

“Dear ones, I long for a sight of your dear faces, but I fear we shall not meet on earth. I am preparing for the end very quietly and calmly. The Lord is wonderfully near, and He will not fail me. I was very restless and excited while there seemed a chance of life, but God has taken away that feeling, and now I just pray for grace to meet the terrible end bravely. The pain will soon be over, and oh the sweetness of the welcome above!

“My little baby will go with me. I think God will give it to me in Heaven, and my dear mother will be so glad to see us. I cannot imagine the Savior's welcome. Oh, that will compensate for all these days of suspense. Dear ones, live near to God and cling less closely to earth. There is no other way by which we can receive that peace from God which passeth all understanding. I must keep calm and still these hours. I do not regret coming to China, but am sorry I have done so little. My married life, two precious years, has been so very full of happiness. We will die together, my dear husband and I.”

Twelve days later, they were killed.

In January, 1956, the most publicized missionary massacre of the twentieth century occurred in the jungles of Ecuador. Jim Elliot and four other young missionaries were ambushed and killed by the Auca Indians to whom they were trying to bring the gospel. While still a student at Wheaton College, Elliot had written, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

The missionaries had come to Ecuador to minister to other tribes, but, while there, heard of the fierce Aucas who murdered any white man who stumbled into their territory. After much prayer, they became convinced that it was the will of God that they reach out to this tribe with the gospel. Knowing full well the danger, Jim Elliot told his wife Elizabeth, “If that.s the way God wants it to be, I.m ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas.”

One day, Elizabeth waited for Jim to radio her at a prescheduled time. The message never came. The following day a search party was organized. The men were discovered speared to death. While burying the bodies, a Life magazine photographer arrived. The story he told made it the missionary story of the century. It touched multitudes of people, with many offering their lives in service to reach the Aucas. Incredibly, through a series of miraculous events, one month after the massacre, two of the wives were able to bring Christ to the killers of their husbands. Every one of the killers came to Christ, with one later becoming a martyr himself as he attempted to bring the gospel to another tribe of Aucas.

In each of these – and countless other – accounts, we can discern several common denominators: 

*** The martyrs did not seek, but rather accepted martyrdom; 

***  They did not die cursing, but forgiving; 

***  They were passive, not active in their deaths; 

***   They were driven by love, not hate; and 

***  They were enlightened by truth, not blinded by lies.

The last two of these are central to distinguishing between the true martyrdom of the saints, and the true murder of the suicide bomber. The definition of a martyr may be distilled like this: A sacrifice of one’s own life, motivated by a love that is founded upon truth. Thus, there are two essential elements to true martyrdom: love and truth. As to the first, the necessity of love, the Apostle Paul declared that even if “I give my body to be burned but have not love it profits nothing (1 Cor 13:3).” A sacrifice that does not have as its motivation a pure love that is both selfless and God-honoring can be called many things, but not

Far from being self-less, a suicide bomber chooses such a course of action for explicitly self-ish reasons: namely, the supposed guarantee of paradise with free- flowing wine and amenable virgins. Make no mistake: the Muslim.s paradise is not the Christian.s heaven. The Muslim is seeking personal rewards. The Christian, properly informed, certainly sees heaven as a paradise of joy and peace; however, the preeminent reward is the beatific vision, the opportunity to behold the unconcealed glory of God and worship Him in the beauty of His holiness.

As to the second element of true martyrdom, the necessity of truth, those who would kill themselves and others to promote their Islamic faith are in no way to be admired, for, whatever one may say about their intensity, it is rooted in a fundamental lie. This is why we must proclaim that Truth is indeed absolute. As church historian John Gerstner has written, “A true martyrdom or a martyrdom that is admirable must be death for truth. If death is incurred for something other than truth, necessary truth, it is not admirable but pitiable, not courageous but foolhardy.”  [John H. Gerstner, Reasons For Faith (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publishing, 2004), p. 179. ]

I would suggest, however, that the death of such individuals is not pitiable, but rather pitiful. While the former indicates that they are objects of our sympathy, the latter may be defined as arousing disapproval, due to imprudence or inferiority. To be sure, we ought to pity, or regret, the loss of life and the lingering pain of loved ones. Yet that is not all that there is. We should also remember that the tragedy is the direct result of a willful and deliberate act that is both imprudent and fundamentally inferior to the Truth of Jesus Christ. We cannot – indeed, we must not – compromise on this sharply-defined contrast between Christianity and Islam.

Both religions simply cannot be right. Logically, two contrary propositions may both be wrong; however, it is a logical impossibility for two propositions to be correct, which affirm positions that are diametrically opposed to each other. There are innumerable, clear contradictions between Islam and Christianity. For example, Christianity affirms – and Islam denies – the crucifixion and physical death of Jesus. And the religions are utterly irreconcilable in their claims regarding the nature of Christ: Islam denies His deity, yet this is a foundational and essential tenet of the Christian faith. Thus, according to the principles of logic, both religions cannot be true.

Thus, returning to Gerstner.s words, the Islamic suicide bomber must not be viewed as “admirable” or “courageous.” If we give them any credit, we are obligated to give them some pity also – but they are certainly not objects of divine pity, but objects of divine wrath and enemies of God. The Bible does not allow for the politically correct attitude that finds legitimate merit in either the Muslim religion as a system of faith or in the deplorable acts that we are encouraged to view as examples of martyrdom. It is not martyrdom; it is murder. It is not commendable in any sense of the word; it is reprehensible. It is not excusable in the context of religious expression; it is a willful act of hostility against Almighty God.

We must always view the ebb and flow of world events through the lens of biblical revelation. There are absolutely no admirable qualities to the behavior of the suicide bomber recounted on the evening news. He may be sincere in his beliefs; but he is sincerely wrong. He is not a hero of his religion; he is a fool for a lie. He may seem courageous, but there is no valor where there is no virtue. There is no truth to his conviction; therefore, there is no merit in his sacrifice.

We should fervently pray that the light of the gospel will reach into the homes and hearts of all those who are being led by sin and by lies; yet in so doing, we must never back away from the essential doctrines concerning sin and God's judgment on those who do not repent. As those who bear the name of Jesus Christ, our paramount concerns must be to glorify God and to lead others to the riches of His saving grace. This we can only do by boldly proclaiming the gospel without prejudice and the Truth without compromise.