On June 17, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina, a white supremacist gunned down nine African American Christians as they participated in a Wednesday night Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Americans were outraged at such heartless and vile racism, but something else gained national attention: The church members forgave the murderer. In fact, such forgiveness is so countercultural that many in the media sought to explain it away by saying that the African American church was fearful of reprisals or was ingratiating themselves to the majority white culture. Fortunately, a few reporters accurately identified the “supernatural” source of such forgiveness—the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.
The media missed another crucial, countercultural aspect of the gospel: resurrection hope expressed by endurance. One week after the shooting, believers were back at Wednesday night Bible study, and they have continued ever since. The gospel message of Christ’s loving forgiveness has transformed these believers, and the promise of eternal, resurrection life has given them enduring hope. Forgiveness and endurance shape their values according to God’s kingdom ethics. As Joe Riley, mayor of Charleston, pronounced at the funeral of one church member, “Myra [Thompson] will always be here in the memory of this church. She was a martyr in the continuing fight of human dignity.”
During the season of Lent, Christians around the world focus especially on Jesus’s death on the cross and think about repentance and forgiveness. They recall Paul’s words in Romans that they are co-heirs with Christ, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:17). One of the ways believers share in Christ’s sufferings, Paul continues, is to “hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (hupomonē)” (Rom. 8:25). The term translated “patiently” means “endurance.” This Christian virtue is tightly linked to the promise of the resurrection of the body. Paul declares that we eagerly await the redemption of our bodies, and in the meanwhile, we share in Christ’s suffering.
Since the time of the early church, the gospel message has been challenging cultural norms. While today we stand in awe of the martyrs who embraced endurance in hope of resurrection, the ancient Roman culture they lived in viewed the martyrs’ passive submission to suffering and death as unworthy of free men, and ridiculed their hope of bodily resurrection. The idea that a man would quietly endure torture unto death was beyond comprehension. The promotion of the virtue of endurance by early Christians challenged the reigning definitions of masculine and feminine, even as belief in resurrection of the dead confused and confounded the Roman authorities.
Seneca and the Feminine Virtue of Endurance
In the ancient world, virtues were mapped across a gendered hierarchy, which assigned a masculine label to those traits and qualities that involved freedom of choice, and assigned a feminine label to those traits that were deemed passive. Self-control and courage, public voice and action—these defined the Roman understanding of masculinity. By contrast, women were seen as passive by nature. That made endurance, defined as accepting pain from something or someone outside one’s control, a decidedly feminine virtue. Roman philosophers pointed to childbirth as a ready example of endurance—passive acceptance of pain as forces over which she has little control consume a woman’s body.
Seneca, a philosopher who was a contemporary of the apostle Paul, represents the dominant viewpoint of his day. Seneca talked about endurance exhibited by free men (not slaves) in the context of torture or illness. He was concerned that pain would cause a free man to falter, to let go of his reason and succumb to fear. Consequently, in a letter, Seneca warned his friend Lucilius to avoid torture at all costs, even to the point of committing suicide, so as not to lose his reason—and by extension, his masculinity. Seneca cites the example of a gladiator who, having endured his opponent’s superior abilities, chooses honor by killing himself rather than be killed by his opponent. For Seneca, endurance has temporary value, but only if it leads to victory or noble suicide.
Romans 8 and the Virtue of Endurance
How did the gospel prepare Paul and the early Christians to face their culture’s distain for endurance? Paul’s answer can be found in his encouraging words to the Romans, “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance (hupomonē), and endurance (hupomonē) produces character, and character produces hope,” (Rom. 5:3–4 ESV). As we share in Christ’s suffering, seen most vividly in his crucifixion, so too we proclaim that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed (8:18).
Additionally, Paul uses language concerning childbirth here in the context of suffering (8:22). Paul describes creation’s groaning as labor pains, and describes believers’ own groaning in the same fashion (8:23). As we endure this life filled with suffering, we eagerly await our adoption as God’s children, and the redemption or resurrection of our bodies, and in this hope we are saved (8:23–24).
Notice the connection between endurance as a virtue and the hope of bodily resurrection. Moreover, Paul challenges the wider pagan culture—not only its denial of the resurrection of the body but also its gendered view of endurance. Paul’s “countercultural” move makes endurance a worthy virtue for both men and women. This virtue is demonstrated in the testimonies of martyrs.
Jewish Endurance and Martyrdom
Two hundred years before Paul, the Jews in Judea faced martyrdom at the hands of the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV. During the second century B.C., Antiochus outlawed expressions of Judaism, such as circumcision and observing the Sabbath. Those Jews who resisted were often brutally killed. For example, the deuterocanonical book 2 Maccabees tells the story of two mothers who resisted the new orders and circumcised their sons. When discovered, their babies were hung about their necks and they were paraded through the streets, before being tossed to their deaths from the city wall.
In another example, Antiochus demanded that seven brothers and their mother eat sacrificial pig meat. As each son in turn refused to eat, he was subjected to horrific tortures, while his siblings and mother looked on. The sons testified to their ultimate deliverance, proclaiming that God would raise their bodies after death, thus highlighting the importance of belief in bodily resurrection. The same story is told in 4 Maccabees, which draws particular attention to the mother’s experience in bearing her sons and suffering even greater agony than birth pains in seeing her children tortured to death before her eyes. She was able to endure the unendurable because of her piety; she is lauded as “more noble than males in steadfastness, and more courageous than men in endurance” (4 Maccabees 15:30). These Jewish martyrdom accounts promote endurance as a critical virtue for devotion to God and belief in the resurrection.
One of the earliest Christian martyr stories is that of Thecla, told in the second century apocryphal book, The Acts of Paul and Thecla. In this non-biblical account (the “apostle Paul” in this story does not always act and speak in line with the biblical apostle Paul), Thecla embraces Paul’s message, and decides to leave her family, which includes breaking off her engagement. Her mother is outraged, and wants Thecla burned at the stake for abandoning her family. Miraculously saved from certain death, she flees the city in search of Paul. When she finds him, she wants him to baptize her, but he refuses, saying, “May another trial not leave you worse than the first, and you might not endure but you might be cowardly,” (3.25). Paul is concerned that further challenges might jeopardize her faith and so he is unwilling to baptize her before he has confidence in her ability to endure persecution—even to the point of death.
Notice the emphasis on endurance; for as it happens, in the next city they visit, Thecla is again arrested and sentenced to death and again she is miraculously delivered. The following day, Thecla survives the beasts in the arena as well as the threat of being drawn and quartered. At the end of her ordeal, she jumps into a pool of killer seals, who perish amidst a flash of lightning; she understands this immersion as her baptism. The governor stops the spectacle, as he and the other spectators are amazed.
The narrative highlights Thecla’s endurance; she has fulfilled the requirement for baptism set out by Paul earlier in the story, namely that she endure any trial, even if it could result in her death. Thecla’s endurance is demonstrated physically, written on her body as tortures fail to bend her will. Thecla links her endurance and protection in the arena with the God who will raise her body to eternal or “deathless” life.
Paul and Thecla
Thecla’s story provides a valuable lens for understanding endurance. Thecla in her martyrdom, puts on display in her body the reality Paul is pointing to in Romans 8:17–23. Thecla opens our eyes to see new things in Romans 8. Thecla shows us the reality that the body is a place of communication—the body can speak. This story challenges our tendency to concentrate on doctrines as though they were disembodied realities to be only intellectually embraced. The resurrection of the body means that in the present, through exhibiting the virtue of endurance, the body can also speak about this hope. It not only can do so, but it should do so. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body is made real in the here and now by the practice of the passive virtue of endurance.
Romans 8 stresses Paul’s countercultural move of elevating endurance to a first order virtue. In Paul’s day, cultural pressures pushed men away from a life of submissive suffering—of endurance—with a hollow promise of autonomy and power. Paul stood firm against such characterizations. Today our culture values similar things: individualism, consumerism, and celebrity—“me first, last, and always!”—are seen as the way and the truth and the “fulfilled” life. Paul points to Jesus, who himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). The gospel message invites each and every person to follow Christ. God’s plan is not merely to save a believer’s soul from hell once they die, but to raise them up, body and soul, to life in the new heavens and new earth. Even more, a new community called the church—the body of Christ—is growing to maturity, and in the end all creation will be made whole.
In modern English, endurance is sometimes used as a synonym for perseverance, another important virtue. Perseverance, however, is about choosing and remaining in that course of action, while endurance as Paul uses it in Romans 8 carries a sense of passivity. Endurance is about not choosing, but allowing others to choose your course. It is having your hands tied by cancer, your feet bound by unemployment, your arms and legs drawn and quartered by an unfaithful spouse. It is the reality of evil being done to you, on you, at you. And though you appear “helpless” in the world’s eyes, biblical endurance says that such a human perspective fails to see into the beyond, into the new heavens and new earth. It fails to see the raised, cancer-free body; the raised, productive body tending the new earth; the raised joyful body of the Bride enjoying her wedding feast with her beloved Bridegroom.
Endurance is about receiving from God the gift of powerlessness. Jesus’ death was ignoble, passive, and shameful. Endurance is hearing from God, as Paul did, that the “thorn” would not be removed because “my grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). It is accepting that the Messiah took up his cross, and we are to do likewise.
Endurance in Action
“Guilty as charged; sentenced to death,” so stated the jury on January 10, 2017, convicting Dylann Roof for the murders of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. One of the deceased, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, had a sister at the sentencing hearing who acknowledged the anger she was feeling, and speaking to Roof, added, “But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family… is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.” This incredible forgiveness testifies to the hope of the resurrected body and eternal life for forgiven saints.
Such testimonies change lives. For example, the Rev. Anthony Thompson is the husband of victim Myra Thompson, who was killed by Roof. When he was asked to speak about the tragedy at a nearby church that is predominantly white, a woman was so moved by his forgiveness of Roof that she publicly confessed her own sin of racism. The congregation responded by giving glory to God, and other white members of the congregation stood and repented of their racism.
Practicing the Christian virtue of endurance places us in the middle of God’s salvation narrative brought to completion in Christ, because it demonstrates in our soon-to-be-resurrected bodies that we are co-heirs with a suffering Messiah. Endurance for Christ and responding to evil with good expresses a believer’s sure hope of abiding forever with our crucified—and resurrected—Lord.
Lynn H. Cohick is Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. Her upcoming book, co-authored with Amy Brown Hughes, is Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries. (Baker Academic, 2017).
Editor’s Note: Lynn Cohick recently gave a Tower Talk at Wheaton College on this topic titled “The Hope of Endurance.”