Muslim and Christian Martyrdom

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz wrote about some Muslims' love affair with death. It raises the question of how Christian martyrdom is different. He writes:

“We are going to win, because they love life and we love death,” said Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. He has also said: “[E]ach of us lives his days and nights hoping more than anything to be killed for the sake of Allah.” Shortly after 9/11, Osama bin Laden told a reporter: “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.”

“The Americans love Pepsi-Cola, we love death,” explained Afghani al Qaeda operative Maulana Inyadullah. Sheik Feiz Mohammed, leader of the Global Islamic Youth Center in Sydney, Australia, preached: “We want to have children and offer them as soldiers defending Islam. Teach them this: There is nothing more beloved to me than wanting to die as a mujahid.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech: “It is the zenith of honor for a man, a young person, boy or girl, to be prepared to sacrifice his life in order to serve the interests of his nation and his religion.”

Christians do not love death. They love Christ. If he bids them come and die, they count it an honor to suffer and die for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41). Jesus showed Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (John 21:19). And he promised his disciples, “some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16). There is an appointed number of Christians who will be martyred, as John said in Revelation 6:11, “. . . until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”

There is a long history of Christian martyrdom. Often missionaries have desired to die for Jesus. But there are two great differences between this and the death wish of radical Islam. One is that Christian martyrs join Jesus in dying to save, not dying to kill. In their own sufferings, they extend Christ’s sufferings to those for whom he died (Colossians 1:24). The other difference is that they call death gain not because of the secondary benefits of paradise, but because “to depart and be with Christ . . . is far better” (Philippians 1:23).

Raymond Lull gave his life to save Muslims. He represents the tradition of those who chose martyrdom by choosing humble, non-violent witness to Christ. Samuel Zwemer tells his story. Christians will need this kind of courage in the days ahead.

His pupils and friends naturally desired that he should end his days in the peaceful pursuit of learning and the comfort of companionship.

Such however was not Lull’s wish. . . . In Lull’s contemplations we read . . . “Men are wont to die, O Lord, from old age, the failure of natural warmth and excess of cold; but thus, if it be Thy will, Thy servant would not wish to die; he would prefer to die in the glow of love, even as Thou wast willing to die for him.”

The dangers and difficulties that made Lull shrink back . . . in 1291 only urged him forward to North Africa once more in 1314. His love had not grown cold, but burned the brighter . . . . He longed not only for the martyr’s crown, but also once more to see his little band of believers [in Africa]. Animated by these sentiments he crossed over to Bugia [Algeria] on August 14, and for nearly a whole year labored secretly among a little circle of converts, whom on his previous visits he had won over to the Christian faith. . . .

At length, weary of seclusion, and longing for martyrdom, he came forth into the open market and presented himself to the people as the same man whom they had once expelled from their town. It was Elijah showing himself to a mob of Ahabs! Lull stood before them and threatened them with divine wrath if they still persisted in their errors. He pleaded with love, but spoke plainly the whole truth. The consequences can be easily anticipated. Filled with fanatic fury at his boldness, and unable to reply to his arguments, the populace seized him, and dragged him out of the town; there by the command, or at least the connivance, of the king, he was stoned on the 30th of June 1315. (Raymond Lull: First Missionary to the Moslems, 132-45.)

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.