Living for a Cause, Dying for God: What Makes a Martyr? 

A presentation on Christian martyrdom given at the Gulf Cultural Club, London. Watch the video here

“The early church’s theology of martyrdom was born not in synods or councils, but in sunlit, blood—drenched coliseums and catacombs, dark and still as death. The word martyr means “witness” and is used as such throughout the New Testament. However, as the Roman Empire became increasingly hostile toward Christianity, the distinctions between witnessing and suffering became blurred and finally nonexistent.” (William Bixler)[2]

While persecution and martyrdom are common to all religions, for literally millions of Christians, suffering and death are inevitable consequences of following Jesus Christ.

And the simple reason why the word witness (martur in Greek) became synonymous with martyrdom is because Christians would not stop testifying that Jesus was alive and with them and because they worshipped him alone as their Lord and Saviour.

According to the charity Open Doors, more than 360 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith – that’s a staggering 1 in 7 believers.[3] 

Every year, Open Doors produce an annual World Watch List which ranks the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. This year the top ten countries where Christians face the most extreme forms of persecution are: North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan. A further 40 countries are names where persecution is considered very high.[4]

In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II founded the Commission for the New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee. The commission researched and catalogued all those who died for the faith in the 20th century. They concluded that the “20th century has produced double the number of Christian martyrs [than] all the previous 19 centuries put together.”[5]

“Probably the most well-known case of present day martyrdom comes from Egypt. In 2015, twenty-one men were martyred for their faith by ISIS. They were beheaded one by one for their faith in Jesus Christ. One of these martyrs, Matthew Ayairga, was not a Christian when he was captured. When asked by his executioners if he rejected Jesus Christ, he was moved by the faith he witnessed from the others and said, “Their God is my God”, accepting Christ there on the spot.”[6]

Tonight, I would like to present first, what Jesus taught about persecution and martyrdom; second, how the Early Church interpreted martyrdom; third, summarise the reasons Christians faced martyrdom; and fourth, give a brief history of Christian persecution then conclude with some contemporary examples of Christian martyrs.

What did Jesus Teach about Persecution and Martyrdom?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus not only warned his followers they would face persecution but described it as a blessing from God for which they would be rewarded.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

The primary reason for their persecution, insists Jesus, would be because of their association with him. Jesus makes this more explicit in another passage from John’s gospel.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.“ (John 15:18-20).

This is why, when the risen Lord Jesus confronts Saul on his way to arrest Christians in Damascus, Jesus takes it very personally. 

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” (Acts 9:4-5)

Jesus used graphic language to describe the implications of being his disciples.

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self?” (Luke 9:23-25)

The image of a person carrying their cross daily is probably the most graphic to be found in all the teaching of Jesus. A person who carried a cross was going to their death. Jesus calls his followers to literally give their lives to serve him. Following Jesus Christ therefore involves ruthless self-sacrifice and radical service of others.

Jesus went further, predicting that persecution and even death were inevitable for his followers but God would support them.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.  Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.  But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time, you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.  You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22)

The “you” here is clearly the disciples.  Jesus not only warned his disciples they would face persecution, he also taught them how to respond.

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”(Matthew 10:26-33)

Instead of retaliating, Jesus insisted his followers seek the welfare of their enemies:

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27-31)

Although Jesus warned his disciples to expect persecution, he never encouraged them to seek martyrdom. Instead, he instructed them, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.” (Matthew 10:23)

So, it is clear, Jesus taught that suffering, persecution and even martyrdom were inevitable among his followers. But as and when suffering came, if they could not flee or avoid it, they were to rejoice and be glad, because, he assured them, God would be with them, giving them the words to say and would reward them for their faithful witness.

How the Church Experienced and Interpreted Martyrdom

And in the Acts of the Apostles, we read that from the very beginning, the church faced persecution and martyrdom. The most detailed account is found in Acts 6-7 which gives an account of the stoning of Stephen. At his trial, Stephen proclaimed,

“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”  When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.  But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.  Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.  While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:51-60)

The Acts of the Apostles records repeated waves of opposition to the early Christians and in some places outright persecution which also led to martyrdoms. Persecution, however, served to grow the Church as they were scattered but it failed to destroy it. 

Acts 8 records what happened after Stephen’s martyrdom.

“On that day, a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria…Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (Acts 8:1, 4)

What is significant is that Christians never retaliated when they were persecuted. Throughout his short ministry, Jesus exemplified non-violence – none more so in his arrest, at his trial and execution, insisting: 

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)

Christ followers saw persecution and martyrdom as an imitation of Christ.  The Apostle James interpreted persecution as God’s way of making them more like Jesus.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)

The apostle Peter explained how Christ followers should respond to opposition or persecution.

“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threatsdo not be frightened.”  But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:13-17)

“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (1 Peter 4:12-16)

We have discovered what Jesus taught about persecution and martyrdom and then how the Early Church experienced and interpreted that suffering as God’s will.

Four Reasons Christians were Martyred. 

  • Christians were persecuted because they followed Jesus.

“Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)

  • Christians were persecuted by the Jewish religious authorities because, like Jesus, they were seen as sectarian, a threat to their power, Christians insisted Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and denied the necessity of worshipping at the Temple or offering sacrifices. They also persuaded Gentile proselytes not to keep Jewish rituals and traditions like circumcision because they were saved by God’s grace, not the Law or works. Ironically, before his conversion, the Apostle Paul, then a Pharisee named Saul, was one of the prime instigators of the systematic persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison… Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”” (Acts 8:2-3; 9:1-4; See also Acts 9:5-30)

  • Christians were increasingly persecuted by the Roman authorities. They were designated atheists because they refused to sacrifice to the Romans gods or participate in emperor worship. They were thus accused of treason toward the state. 
  • Sometimes persecution was instigated fof economic reasons, by merchants whose trade in pagan religious artifacts was threatened by the growth of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles there is an account of Christians being persecuted in Ephesus.

“About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” (Acts 19:23-27)

Ironically, on more than one occasion, the Roman judicial system prevented the Apostle Paul and his companions from being lynched – both in Ephesus (Acts 19:28-41), but also in Jerusalem where the religious leaders plotted to assassinate Paul (Acts 19:28-41; Acts 21:30-36; 23:12-22).

A Brief History of Early Christian Martyrdom

All of Jesus 12 Apostles died as martyrs, (apart from John who died in exile), convinced that Jesus was the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. Many of the early Church died as martyrs as well. 

William Bixler observes the distinction between a martyr and a confessor.

“In the second century, then, martyr became a technical term for a person who had died for Christ, while confessor was defined as one who proclaimed Christ’s lordship at trial but did not suffer the death penalty. A passage from Eusebius describes the survivors of the persecution in Lyons (in 177 in what is today France): “They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ . . . that, though they had attained honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times—having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds—yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any one of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as martyrs, they rebuked him sharply… And they reminded us of the martyrs who had already departed, and said, ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors.’”[7]

Philip Mitchell provides a timeline of persecution experienced by the Early Church before the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity under Constantine.

“In the first few centuries, Christianity grew quickly. By AD100, it had become mostly Gentile and had begun to break from its Jewish origins. By 200, the faith had permeated most regions of the Roman Empire, though Christians were mostly in the larger urban areas (Gaul, Lyons, Carthage, Rome). By 325, an estimated 7 million were Christians. This growth can be attributed to the new faith’s meeting needs across cultural barriers, its giving general meaning to life for many, the overall transformation of those lives, the social concerns of Christians during the plagues for the sick and the poor, and the power of its doctrine. News of the resurrection of Christ produced great loyalty among followers. Christian martyrdom also, ironically, created vast interest in and respect for the Christians and increased their numbers.”[8]

I have adapted his time line as follows:

  • After A.D. 50, Christianity was put on the imperial list of “illicit” sects, and after A.D. 64, it was declared illegal, though this did not always result in continual persecution.  There were sporadic persecutions under the Emperors, Nero (A.D. 64); Domitian (A.D. 81-96); and Trajan (A.D. 108)
  • Marcus Aurelius (A.D.162). The persecution of the Christians at Lyon is the most famous incident during his period.
  • Severus (A.D. 192). Not everyone agrees that Severus himself was responsible for Christian persecutions. The most well-known incidents took places in North Africa, such as the executions of Perpetua and Felicity.
  • Maximus (A.D. 235). Again, it is debated whether Maximus himself authorized these or whether they were the decisions of local governors. Several well-known Christian senators and leaders were executed during this time, while others such as Hippolytus were sent into exile.
  • Decius (A.D. 249-251) tried to force apostasy rather than create martyrdom. He created the libellus, a stamp of state approval given after swearing fealty to Caesar.
  • Valerian (A.D. 253-260) singled out bishops, forcing them to recant or die. He also kept Christians from meeting in cemeteries. This period has been called the Great Persecution.
  • Diocletian (A.D. 285-305)/ “Age of the Martyrs” known for evicting Christians from their homes, the army, and jobs. Christian churches and homes are burnt, copies of scriptures burnt, and Christian civil servants persecuted.[9]

Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John. He became Bishop of Smyrna (what is today Izmir in Turkey). Around 155 AD he was arrested and tried before the Proconsul. The story of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (translated by J.B. Lightfoot) records the following. 

“The Proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On hearing that he was, he tried to persuade him to apostatize, saying, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’” …“Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” Polycarp replied, “86 years have I have served him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” “I have wild animals here,” the Proconsul said. “I will throw you to them if you do not repent.” “Call them,” Polycarp replied. “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.” “If you despise the animals, I will have you burned.” Polycarp replied “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”

Tertullian of Carthage (Tunisia), in his work Apologeticum (The Apology) published in 197AD, addresses the provincial governors of the Roman Empire with this aggressive, even sarcastic challenge:

“Christians are persecuted in ignorance, because they are not allowed to defend themselves – as long as they can be called ‘Christians’, they can be executed. Real criminals are allowed to deny their offences, defend themselves, and are tortured to get them to confess. By contrast the Christians are not allowed to demand evidence of any crimes they are condemned for, and are tortured to make them stop confessing. Christians are denied any chance to vindicate themselves, nor do the magistrates try to find any evidence of crime – the name of ‘Christian’ is enough…

No, we don’t worship your fake gods. We don’t worship men, and you admit that your gods were all just that once. So how did they become gods? What did they do, that made them divine? They certainly didn’t make the world, or anything that is in it. Nor do the whoring, raping, murderous crew you describe as gods deserve anything more than imprisonment in Tarterus, since that is where you would assign any man who behaved like that. If they don’t deserve that, why do you condemn in your courts men who do the same sorts of things? And does the status of each god really depend on a vote of the senate? 

But you don’t worship them either. Not unless being impious and sacrilegious constitutes worship. You buy and sell your little household gods like pots, and tax your temples. You charge admittance – one may not know the gods for nothing; they are for sale. You give your gods the useless bits of dead animals. In fact, you do nothing for your gods that you don’t for your dead – the same altars, statues, emblems. You retail the vilest stories of your gods – of their tantrums and adulteries. You allow the public theatres to display your gods as entertainment, played by the shameful wretches you have as actors. You allow the temples to act as brothels, and priests as panders. Even the temple-robbers are always of your faith! So what do we worship instead? We worship Truth. Get hold of this first, and then learn our whole system.

But a few more lies to dispose of. We don’t worship an ass-headed god – we leave that to you, and your Anubis cult. We don’t worship the cross, a bit of wood. Worshipping bits of wood – idols – is your trick. In fact the trophies of victory you adore all hang off cross-shaped bits of wood, so that’s you, not us, once again. A few of the more refined of you think we worship the sun. Again, that is your practise, not ours. Instead, we worship the one God, the creator… 

The second charge is more serious, apparently – treason against Caesar. Truly a living man is more important than a fake god, even to you! But we ask the real God to help him, not the fakes and demons. Of course, we’re just lying to you, but look in our holy books, which we don’t conceal. And since the Roman empire holds off the end of the world, naturally we wish it to be preserved. But not by false honours, and dishonest applause, which Augustus himself rejected. Moreover, your religion is of such a nature that frankly Caesar is dishonoured by being included in it, with its impious way of worship being positively disrespectful to him. But be serious – is it really the Christians who assassinate the emperors? And wasn’t every one of the assassins worshipping the emperor, right up until they stabbed him; and even giving the Christians the name of public enemies while they themselves plotted? Of course, we aren’t treasonous – if we were, we are so numerous in even your own estimate that we outnumber your soldiers! If you killed us all, who would be left for you to rule?

The meetings of the Christians are described, and how the Christians love one another. Yet the unbelievers sneer at the way Christians call each other ‘Brothers’ – because among pagans such usage always means fraud. We share everything except our wives – you share nothing except your wives.

Every misfortune is ascribed to the Christians – as if earthquakes never happened until 33AD. 

You say that the community suffers because of us – we are unprofitable in business. Yet we have to live, and buy and sell like everyone else. The only people to suffer are the pimps and magicians! But the state really does suffer when the honest and hardworking can be executed because they are Christians – that really does decrease the public revenue.

We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation. That’s why you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. You praise those who endured pain and death – so long as they aren’t Christians! Your cruelties merely prove our innocence of the crimes you charge against us…

And you frustrate your purpose. Because those who see us die, wonder why we do, for we die like the men you revere, not like slaves or criminals. And when they find out, they join us.”[10]

In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity: 10 years later, it had become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

For more information on Christian martyrs from the 1st to the 20th Century, I commend Martyrs in the History of Christianity edited by Franklyn Balasundaram. [11] and also Modern Martyrs published by Westminster Abbey.[12]

Contemporary Examples of Christian Martyrdom

I want to close with the testimony of two contemporary Christian martyrs who demonstrated by their words and actions how the Lord Jesus transformed their lives. I hope you will find their testimony truly inspiring. I would also commend the testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer[13], Archbishop Oscar Romero[14] and Dr Martin Luther King.[15]

Jim Elliott: Martyr

In 1948, a young 21-year-old Wheaton College student named James wrote in his journal, “I seek not a long life, but a full one, like You, Lord Jesus.” A year later, against all advice, he became convinced that God was calling him as a missionary to Ecuador. That year he wrote in his diary, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’ Jim spent most of 1952 in Quito, Ecuador, learning Spanish and orientating to a new culture… Since college days he had been fascinated by a remote Stone Age tribe known as the Aucas. 

Jim knew that they had a deserved reputation for killing anyone, Indian or white, who dared to intrude into their land. Nevertheless, he began praying for them and was determined to reach out to them. In September 1955 a pilot with the Mission Aviation Fellowship, Nate Saint, spotted from the air a small Aucas settlement. On Sunday morning January 8th 1956 Nate went up alone and spotted a group of Auca men walking towards their camp. He flew back to the beach with the good news and radioed their wives. “A commission of ten is coming. Pray for us. This is the day.” Together they all sung the hymn:

“We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender, 
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise.
When passing through the gates of pearly splendour.
Victors, we rest with Thee through endless days.“

A few years earlier aged just 23, Jim Elliott had written:

“I must not think it strange if God takes in youth those whom I would have kept on earth till they were older. God is peopling Eternity, and I must not restrict Him to old men and women… When it comes time to die, make sure all you have to do is die.”

Jim and his four mission partners Nate, Ed, Roger & Pete were indeed called home that Sunday, to “people eternity”. Refusing to use their weapons in self-defence, they were slain by the people they had sought to befriend. 

Jim Elliot wrote, “When it comes time to die, make sure all you have to do is die”. One of the first things Jim’s widow, Elizabeth did was tell their story in the book, Through Gates of Splendour. In the months that followed the widows returned to their work among the tribal peoples of Ecuador. 

Other mission partners came and continued to reach out to the Aucas. For nearly a year Elizabeth Elliot, with her little daughter Valeria and Nate’s sister Rachel Saint, lived and worked among the men who killed her husband. They discovered why their husbands had been killed as well as the identity of their killers. 

“We thought foreigners would kill and eat us,” one Auca said. Another confessed that he had cried after the killings. Each one of the killers, confessed their sin and accepted Christ. One of them, Kimo became a pastor of the Auca village. To demonstrate their faith in Jesus Christ, Nate’s teenage son Steve and daughter Kathy asked if they could be baptised by the Aucas. The baptisms were held at Palm Beach at dawn. Kimo, one of their father’s killers baptised Steve and Kathy along with two teenagers from the village. Near the site of the missionaries’ graves, the two forgiven killers, two of the widows, Marj and Rachel and the four teenagers sang the hymn which the five men had sung near that same spot “We rest on Thee, our shield and our Defender.” That was only the beginning of the miracle. 

Auca believers themselves became missionaries to other long-time enemy tribes among whom, Tona, one of the six killers himself became a martyr. For the wives and relatives of the five men, the mute longing of their hearts was echoed by words found in Jim Elliot’s diary.

” Walked out to the hill just now. It is exalting, delicious. To stand embraced by the shadows of a friendly tree with the wind tugging at your coat tail and the heavens hailing your heart – to gaze and glory and give oneself again to God, what more could a man ask? Oh the fullness, pleasure, sheer excitement of knowing God on earth. I care not if I never raise my voice again for him, if only I may love him, please him. Perhaps in mercy he shall give me a host of children, that I may lead them through the vast star fields to explore his delicacies whose finger ends set them to burning. But if not, if only I may see him, smell his garments and smile into my Lover’s eyes — ah then, not stars nor children shall matter, only himself.”

Eric Liddell: Martyr

In 1943, Li Airui found himself  imprisoned by the Japanese in the Weihsien internment camp in Shandong, Northern China. Li quickly emerged as a leader among the 1800 internees. Life in the camp was hard, under a brutal regime. Some oil company executives, managed to bribe the guards into receiving extra rations and luxuries. Li shamed them into sharing these with the other prisoners.  Without the benefit of equipment or supplies, Li taught science to the children in a makeshift school. He led Bible studies, taught Sunday school and cared for the sick and elderly. Li organized games to promote fitness and boost morale. That is perhaps not surprising because Li was the first Chinese person ever to win a gold medal in the Olympics.

We know him better as the “Flying Scotsman”. But Eric Liddell was actually born in Tientsin, in northern China, in 1902. Li Airui was his Chinese name. Appropriate since he spent most of his life serving the people of China.  As an undergraduate at Edinburgh University he won seven caps in rugby for Scotland in the 1922 and 1923 Five Nations championships. He gave up rugby to concentrate on becoming a 100-meter sprinter. When he was criticized for spending so much time training instead of becoming a missionary, he replied “God made me for running. He made me fast. And when I run I feel pleasure. To give it up would be to hold God in contempt.”

He was chosen to run for Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Controversially he declined to run in that race because it was to be held on a Sunday. A devout Christian, he believed that running on Sunday violated the keeping of the Sabbath, something he would not do for king, for country, or Olympic glory. For the stand he took, Liddell was called a traitor. Immense pressure was put on him to run but he refused. He was instead given the opportunity to run in the 200 and 400 meter races. Winning a bronze in the 200 meters, he won the gold in the 400 meters, setting a world record as well. 

Returning to Scotland, he quietly finished his degree in science and theology, and then in 1925, returned to his native China to serve for the next twenty years as a mission partner. In 1936, as China prepared for war, Communist and Nationalist tensions increased. In 1937, Liddell was asked by the London Missionary Society to become a village evangelist in Siao Chang a more remote and hazardous region. 

By 1941, life in China was becoming so dangerous the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Liddell sent his wife, Florence and their children to safety in Canada but stayed behind Japanese lines to continue his work. In 1943, he was arrested and sent to Weihsien Internment Camp. He preferred captivity to freedom in order to reach the lost. Liddell was convinced that lost people matter to God. Winston Churchill negotiated an exchange of prisoners but, Liddell refused to go, giving up his place to a pregnant woman. If Liddell was in great pain in early 1945, he never really let on. 

Despite his illness, he simply continued to love and teach and train the children. But on 21st February, 1945, just months before the end of the war, he succumbed to an undetected brain tumour. He was laid to rest in a little cemetery outside the walls of the camp. Then, after the war, Liddell’s remains were interred in the Mausoleum of Martyrs at Shih-Chia-Chuang, 150 miles south-west of Beijing. It is there that China honours the memory of 700 people who made the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of China from the Japanese. The record books may remember Eric Liddell the runner, but the people whose lives he touched remember him as a servant of Christ. 

A fellow internee, Stephen Metcalfe, later wrote of Liddell: “He gave me two things. One was his worn out running shoes, but the best thing he gave me was his baton of forgiveness. He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them.”

Living for a Cause, Dying for God: the people I have introduced to you to I believe embodied what is makes to be a Martyr. I hope they have inspired you to live out your faith, whatever the consequences, as they have me.

A presentation delivered at the Gulf Cultural Club, Abrar House, London on 17th July 2023.

Photo of The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer attribution: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Nicholas Labanca, Blood of the Martyrs Is Still Seed for the Church,

[2] William Bixler, How the Early Church Viewed Martyrs, Christian History Institute  



[5] Philip Kosloski, Are there more martyrs now than in the early Church?

[6] Nicholas Labanca, op.cit.,

[7] Bixler, op.cit., 


[9] Ibid.,

[10] Tertullian, Apologeticum