Not long ago, three suicide bombers killed 52 people in Iraq, 30 in Pakistan, and a police officer in Yemen. If you pay attention to the news, you cannot help but notice what radical Islamic groups call these suicide bombers: They call them martyrs. But for Christians, who uphold many martyrs like Stephen or Peter as pillars of the Church, this raises the question—what does it mean to be a martyr?
Martyrdom: Does the Bible ask it of us? “Take up our cross”? (Mark 8:34) “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”? (Matthew 16:25) “To live is Christ, and to die is gain”? (Philippians 1:21) Hebrews 11 talks of martyrs of whom the world was not worthy. And Jesus Himself was put to death as His mechanism of human redemption.
Certainly, all of these things are true. Giving up one’s life for Christ is a glorious thing. But as with so many things, the more beautiful they are to begin with, the more horrific they become when they are perverted. This is what makes twisting the concept of martyrdom so dangerous. And make no mistake, the jihadist view of martyrdom is twisted. It is radically different from the Christian concept of martyrdom.
To start, think about Christ’s example. He died that others might live. The thing to notice here is that death itself was never the glory—it was the death that brings life. That is why Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 15 about the resurrection defeating death, not encouraging it: because life was the point. It was sacrifice for the sake of others that Jesus taught. He went down so that humanity might go up!
These suicide bombings are quite the opposite. They reveal not a love of life, but a love of death. And the terrorists are quite open about it. Any number of them have been quoted in the press saying that while Westerners love life, we (that is, jihadists) love death.
These people give their lives in order to destroy life. You could say they die for the sake of killing.
Not long ago, at Guantanamo Bay, Salim Hamden, a Yemeni father of two and former driver for Osama bin Laden, testified that he overheard the infamous terrorist leader say that he was “happy with the 9/11 death toll.” Contrast this with Christ who, as the apostle Peter tells us, is patient with sinners, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
And there is another aspect of terrorist martyrdom that is at odds with true martyrdom. The suicide bomber, while he believes his cause is great, is ultimately seeking his own reward—an eternal reward. And, although he will not be around to enjoy it, he receives praise and fame because he killed infidels. He chooses death for reward.
This is the opposite of true martyrdom. True martyrs do not choose death, but are put to death, because they cannot compromise their beliefs. When they lay down their lives, it is an act of selflessness, not selfishness.
So the next time you hear a suicide bomber called a martyr, do not be confused—or fooled. Just remember, Christ died—yes—but to give life, not to take it. Our lives should echo Christ’s own, sacrificing not for selfish gain, but for the sake of others that they might live.