Saints Longing for Martyrdom
Death is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, the last human enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). For this reason, no man should ever long for death. Although the Lord Jesus Christ by His death and resurrection gives eternal life to all people who are born of God and eternal joy after their physical death, New Testament believers must value above all else life on earth, which its Creator also celebrates.
As is the case with many other biblical texts, vast portions of The Lives of the Saints misinterpret the Scriptures talking about death. Specifically, many of the “saints” inappropriately express their desire to prove their faith in God by dying a violent death of martyrdom. Some verses misinterpreted by the ancient “saints” include:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.’”
“But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
“We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.”
Probably on the basis of these and other verses, some so-called “Christian zealots” throughout history have dreamed of their suffering and ultimate martyrdom. Here are some examples from The Prologue of Okhrid:
“The Venerable Martyr Anastasius… Anastasius was a Persian by birth… It was not enough for him to be baptized, but, in order to give himself completely to serving the Lord he was also tonsured a monk. Among his other mortifications, Anastasius joyfully read the hagiography of the holy martyrs and in reading them he moistened the book with his tears and ardently yearned for martyrdom… He suffered on January 22, 628 A.D., in the town of Bethsaloe near Nineveh.” (January 22)
“The Holy Venerable Martyr Roman… Roman was a simple and illiterate peasant from Carpenesion. Learning of the heroism and glory of the martyrs of Christ, the young Roman desired martyrdom for himself. He went to Thessalonica were he began to praise the Faith of Christ on the streets and referred Islam as a fable. The Turks tortured him horribly and then sold him to a galley captain. Christians ransomed him from the captain and sent him to the Holy Mountain [Athos] where he was tonsured a monk by the illustrious Elder Acacius. But Roman further desired martyrdom for Christ. With the blessing of the Elder Acacius, Roman traveled to Constantinople pretending insanity and began to lead a dog along the Turkish streets. To the question: ‘What are you doing?’ Roman responded that he is feeding the dog as Christians feed the Turks. The Turks threw him into a dry well, where he remained without bread for forty days. They then removed him from the well and beheaded him.” (February 16)
“The Holy Martyr Sabas of Gothland… In Gothland, there was a brutal persecution against Christians… Finally, Prince Atharidus condemned Sabas to death and handed him over to the soldiers. Full of joy, Sabas arrived at the scaffold praising God. Recognizing him as a good man, the soldiers wanted to release him along the way and, because of that, Sabas became very sorrowful and said to the soldiers that they are duty-bound to carry out the order of the prince. The soldiers then brought him to the Mussovo river [at Targoviste, Romania, near Bucharest] tied a stone around his neck and tossed him into the water… Sabas, the saint, suffered at the age of 31 in the year 372 A.D.” (April 15)
“The Venerable Martyr Onuphrius of Mount Athos… In his youth, Onuphrius became angry with his parents and declared before the Turks that he was going to convert to Islam. Immediately following that, he repented because of these words and went to Hilendar where he was tonsured a monk. Tormented by his conscience, Onuphrius decided for martyrdom. Because of his determination and with the blessing of his spiritual father, he departed for Trnovo, Bulgaria where he reported to the Turks, proclaimed himself a Christian, and ridiculed Muhammad. Because of that, Onuphrius was beheaded on January 4, 1818, in his thirty-second year. The body of this spiritual knight is not preserved for the Turks tossed it into the sea.” (January 4)
“Holy Martyr John the New of Ioannina… To his torturers, he bravely said: ‘Do what you want in order to send me as soon as possible from this transient life to eternal life. I am Christ’s slave, I follow Christ, for Christ I die that I may live with Him!’ After that, John was bound in chains and brought to the place of burning. Upon seeing a large fire prepared for him, John ran and leaped into the flames. His torturers seeing how he loved death in the fire removed him from the fire and sentenced him to be beheaded. After they beheaded him, they threw his head and body into the fire… Thus, St. John of Ioannina died a martyr’s death and received the glorious martyr’s wreath on April 18, 1526 A. D.” (April 18)
These few examples demonstrate that these saints, whom the Orthodox Church venerates by lighting candles and reading about their lives, desired to end their lives much earlier than the Lord had planned for them. Some of them risked their fate and died at a young age (around 30 years old) for no reason. Others themselves jumped into the fire as soon as possible in order to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, while others refused to be released and intentionally sought their own death, having confidence that Christ would meet with in Heaven with a wide smile.
Though one could argue that these “martyrs” are strong examples of unwavering faith in God and courageous testimony, the Scriptures actually reveal the opposite. Such “martyrs” violate in all seriousness and spirituality the commands of Holy Scripture. Simply put, we do not find one single example in Scripture, especially in the New Testament, of any person intentionally plummeting to his or her death in order to demonstrating his or her faith. Even though the Apostle Paul says that “to die is gain” and he would like to be with Christ, he never deliberately and carelessly risked his life without reason. Neither did Paul have an ardent “desire for martyrdom”, as did the Orthodox saints. In order to prove this point, let us examine a few examples from the apostolic writings.
When the Lord Jesus Christ spoke of the great plagues that will befall the residents of Judea, He instructed the believers living in that area to flee and avoid the disasters that threatened their lives:
“Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes… And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.”
Also, Jesus commanded His faithful disciples to flee from persecutors:
“When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
After the martyrdom of the Apostle James, son of Zebedee, the apostle Peter was thrown into prison. During the night, the angel of the Lord freed the chains and let Peter out of the prison. After his release, Peter did not have the slightest desire to return to prison and await his death sentence. In fact, Peter rejoiced over his freedom and the angelic intervention that God had sent to free him:
“And when Peter had come to himself, he said, ‘Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.’”
After Peter shared his report with the believers who were praying for him, under cover of night, Peter left that place so he would not be discovered and arrested again (verses 12-18).
A similar example is found with the apostle Paul. After he was interred in a Roman prison in Jerusalem and awaited trial, more than forty of his religious opponents took an oath that they would neither eat nor drink till they killed him. The plan entailed a diversion where the Roman military commander would be deceived into sending Paul with a light guard to the Jewish council for examination. During that moment, a group would have attacked and murdered Paul. Fortunately, Paul’s nephew found out about this plot and informed his uncle. According to the Apostle’s account, the young man then immediately reported everything to the Roman commander. Paul was kept safe and with a strong armed escort at night was taken to the city Caesarea. There is nothing in this text that indicates Paul’s delight at hearing of his own murder plot, let alone his reluctance to do anything to save his own life. Quite contrary to the so-called “Venerable Martyrs” in later centuries, the apostles used all available (and appropriate) means to save their own lives.
We also learn of Paul’s escape from Damascus, immediately after his conversion to Christianity, from the raucous crowd who wanted to kill him. The hero of the faith had to flee in a rather “unheroic” way. His brothers in the faith had to lower him down the city wall at night hidden in a basket:
“But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket.”
Another example occurred in Iconium. During a time when they were sharing the Gospel, the apostles were forced to flee to another city:
“And when a violent attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone them, they became aware of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding region.”
The apostle Paul, who repeatedly instructed Christians to imitate him as he imitated Christ in obeying His will, gave instructions on how every Christian should behave in the event that his life were endangered:
“For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
According to the Scriptures, every Christian is always expected to demonstrate sober behavior and use common sense, which precludes any kind of religious fanaticism, including the extreme of hastening one’s death as an alleged token of one’s loyalty to Christ. The deliberate efforts by Orthodox saints to seek death could be considered a form of suicide. The only nuance is that instead of they themselves taking their own lives, these Orthodox saints sought the first opportunity to give someone else a shot to kill them. When St. Sabas the Goth rejected the offer to be released from his death sentence without any renunciation of faith in Christ, what is the practical difference between this act and suicide? Undoubtedly, any of the apostles would never have failed to seize the opportunity to be released and preserve their own life, as evidenced by Paul’s claim that, because of his defense, he appealed to the Roman Caesar. Another example similar to the apostles occurred with the first of the Fathers of the second century. Polycarp, bishop of the church in Smyrna, was a disciple of the Apostle John:
“When Bishop Polycarp, the teacher of Irenaeus, went into exile, he did not seek martyrdom. He left Smyrna to hide somewhere in the countryside. However, in the end, he was spotted, arrested, and burned at the stake (155 or 166)… Polycarp did not boldly stomp off to his death because he hated the world and wanted to escape to the next. He tried to save his life, but when inevitably faced with the reality of martyrdom, he was comforted knowing that his body and soul will rise again.”
Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp and later bishop of the church in Lyons, acted in a similar manner at the time of persecution:
“Between the years 155-177s, rising tension in Lyons between pagans and Christians led to bloody persecution. At first, the uproar was started by a mob, but the Roman governor and his troops eventually took an active role. After the bishop of Lyons died during the persecution, Irenaeus became his successor. Irenaeus seems to have saved his own life by hiding in those years.”
These examples of some of the first religious teachers in the post-apostolic period would support the idea presented earlier in this section. The lives of the later “holy venerable martyrs” and “saints” exalted and venerated by the Orthodox in no way resemble the lifestyles shown by the early Christians. Instead, Orthodox saints display fanatical behavior similar to that found today among members of non-Christian religions, who believe that they can earn the favor of entering paradise by intentionally seeking their own death.
Dositej Obradovic admitted that after having read the Lives of saints such as the martyrs Anastasius and Roman, he too wanted to suffer as a martyr for Christ:
“Indeed, after having filled my childish head with the lives and the prologues, and not having any sobriety or common sense to analyze these ideas, I intended and devoted myself to becoming the perfect person. Contemplating how the martyrs suffered, I could hardly complain that Christans were tortured. I would have been the first one to give myself to be burned by the authorities.”
Seeing that the examples of the venerated martyrs, who sought their own death by provoking their enemies to kill them, do not conform to the apostolic teachings, we have demonstrated that such behavior is irrational madness. Yet, there is another group of Eastern Orthodox saints that also highlights the clear misinterpretation of the Bible and the unchristian behavior venerated in Orthodoxy. This group is called “outcasts for Christ’s sake”.