Explainer
Creed
Freedom of Belief
4 min read

Why should society care about the persecution of Christians?

Believers revere martyrs, but others are also inspired by sacrifice.

Ryan Gilfeather explores social issues through the lens of philosophy, theology, and history. He is a Research Associate at the Joseph Centre for Dignified Work.

A stone monument within which set, in the shape of a cross are statues of numerous standing praying figures.
Martyrs monument, Nagasaki, Japan.

The story of Christian martyrdom began with the death of St Stephen. On the 26th December 36 AD, Stephen the Deacon proclaimed the Christian faith before the rabbinic court in Jerusalem. His apology enraged the crowd before him. They dragged him outside of the city gates and stoned him until he perished. Looked at from one angle, all we see is chaos, fear and violence. Viewed from another perspective, however, we see remarkable courage and love for God. Stephen’s love for God so consumed his heart and mind, that he preferred to die violently than turn against Him. He became the first Christian martyr, a term which means ‘witness’ in the original Greek, because he would rather testify to his belief in Christ than live. We also use this term because his death says something about the character of God. Those who follow Christ take on his virtues. Stephen’s death showed how he possessed God’s virtues of courage and love more than the average believer.  

More stories of martyrdom emerged from the first three centuries after the death of Christ. A number of sources have told of the harrowing death of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Each presented it differently. Basil of Caesarea recounted how the Roman emperor enacted a law, making it illegal to confess faith in Christ. As an imperial official was posting up the law in a public place and demanding obedience, forty soldiers stood up and declared, ‘I am a Christian.’ The official promised them riches and high office to deny their belief in Christ. But they did not relent. He threatened violence and they remained steadfast. They said that because of their love for God they would readily accept torture on the wheel, by screws, and being burned alive. In response the official exposed them to the cold, where they stood until they froze to death. In this story, these same two perspectives emerge. One reveals violent death at the hands of a state scared of the consequences of people refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The other speaks of people full of love for God, and the courage and integrity to refuse to turn their backs on Him.  

The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle.

Stories about martyrdom punctuated the worshipping life of the Early Church. Each year as the anniversary of a martyr’s death rolled around, crowds would gather at their tombs. Singing hymns, they held a candlelit vigil all night. In the morning the crowds processed into the tomb, where the bishop celebrated the eucharist and gave a speech commemorating their violent deaths. By the fourth century, each region celebrated dozens of different martyr festivals. These were joyful and ecstatic occasions. Early Christians treasured the opportunity to honour the martyr’s memory through commemoration. 

They also invested these stories with great spiritual potential. The martyrs were seen to be guides in the path of holiness. The deaths of St Stephen and the Forty Matyrs of Sebaste revealed how to express one’s love for God: to treasure Him so much in one’s heart, that nothing is worth denying one’s belief and trust in Him. Additionally, early Christian writers began to articulate that these stories also inspire and embolden their audiences to imitate the martyrs. Until the early fourth century, when Christianity became legally tolerated, some Christians faced the choice of denying Christ or death. For these Christians, the stories of the martyrs showed them that the Christian life involved proclaiming their faith and facing death, and crucially it gave them the inner strength to follow it through. After Christianity was made legal, Christians still saw the martyrs as spiritual guides. They revealed how to express courage and love for God in the face of hardship. These stories ignited a fire of zeal to imitate the martyrs in some way.   

They are, I propose, also of great inspiration to those who do not think of themselves as Christians.  The martyrs reveal to us how a love for God generates virtues we prize so greatly in society, namely courage, integrity, and faithfulness. If it were not for love for God, Stephen and the other martyrs would not have chosen to suffer, and they wouldn’t have expressed these precious qualities. In short, they give insight into how Christians understand love for God to be the wellspring for those precious virtues. The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle. In a sense, they reveal the value of suffering for virtue. However, they do not encourage us to suffer for its own sake. Rather, they reveal that the full expression of love for God can so often involve suffering and struggle. When Christians faithfully say yes to this hardship out of love for God, it transforms them into the embodiments of these precious virtues, which perhaps we need more than ever today, in an age where comfort and ease seems the goal of life.

Explainer
Creed
Faith
6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  

Watch

The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.