The concept of martyrdom is, on its surface, a simple one. A martyr is someone who is willing to die for their faith; martyrs are generally considered to be saints – meaning they go to heaven – and deserving of a special respect, since they were willing to die for their faith.
But the motives for martyrdom become confused. A martyr is someone who is willing to die for their faith – someone who is willing to endure something bad, death, because their faith is so strong. But martyrdom itself is considered good, and martyrs are rewarded with a special place in Heaven, and so quickly you have many people who desire martyrdom – not who are willing to be martyred for their faith, but who actively desire to be martyred.
These people’s faith would have to be strong, otherwise they wouldn’t believe that if they martyr themselves they will go to Heaven – but because they believe martyrdom is good, they no longer look at it as “willing to endure something bad because their faith is so strong” – they are willing to endure death, which is no longer considered that bad anyway because they will go to Heaven when they die, so that they can be a martyr.
This attitude has always been around, and it has generally been seen as severely flawed. There are references to it as early as the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a document from the second century AD, which is careful to point out that Polycarp didn’t have this attitude – he tried to hide from the people looking for him, rather than actively seeking out capture and martyrdom.
But something always strikes me as odd about these claims that specific saints did not seek out martyrdom. They were men of deep faith; they would have believed that, if they died a martyr, they would go to Heaven; why would they not seek it out? Because to do so is to seek out Heaven, rather than demonstrate faith in God, and so it makes you not a martyr at all. And so, whenever I read about how a given saint tried to avoid capture and execution, it feels like the saint was evading capture only reluctantly; they actually wanted to be captured, to be martyred, but felt that they had to avoid it because, counterintuitively, avoiding martyrdom was a better way of proving their love of God than being martyred.
I sometimes thing the reason counterintuitive situations like this arise in Christianity is that Christians are so focused on Heaven as where you go when you die, and how you are rewarded in the afterlife for your actions in this life. If there were no Heaven, after all, it would be silly to martyr yourself in order to get there – you would only allow yourself to be martyred because you would rather die – enter oblivion – than renounce God. Martyrdom would still be considered heroic, but it would be a kind of futile heroism, and not one that anyone would ever seek out.
I don’t think we should stop believing in Heaven just because it makes the issue of martyrdom confusing, of course. But I do think we might be better off if we stopped saying that “if you’re good, when you die you’ll to Heaven”, and start emphasizing instead that “if you love God, when you die you’ll be with God” – shifting the focus of hope from faith, the least of the theological virtues, to love, the greatest.