"Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—only let me get to Jesus Christ!"

Hardly the stuff of Sunday morning conversation in the 21st century. Ignatius, a bishop in Antioch, wrote these words in a letter to the Roman church in the early second century. He had been arrested for being a Christian and knew that a grisly death probably lay before him. Yet he looked forward to it almost joyfully. Why?

Ignatius and many other believers in his time were dealing with dilemmas most American Christians will never have to face: "Should I go to the local executioner and volunteer to die for my faith, or should I try to avoid being arrested at all costs? Is it okay to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods just once, if it means staying alive? Does martyrdom bring me closer to the sufferings of Christ? Are martyrs more special than the rest of us?" Questions like these shaped early Christianity.

The unpopular crowd

Despite what many people imagine, the early church was not constantly on the run from wild beasts, torture chambers, and fiery deaths. For the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. But at first it was only a tiny sect, hardly worth the notice of the emperors.

This began to change with the emperor Nero. In A.D. 64, a fire destroyed 10 of the 14 city wards in Rome. Though Nero probably wasn't playing the fiddle at the time, as the legend goes, he was unspeakably cruel and perhaps even insane. To deflect public suspicion that he had ordered the fire to be set, Nero blamed the Christians.

The historian Tacitus (who called Christianity a "deadly superstition") said Nero had believers killed in a kind of circus in his public gardens: "Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to flames. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed." The apostles Peter and Paul probably died during this time.

Fortunately, torturing Christians for amusement wasn't the usual practice among Roman authorities. Persecution happened from time to time in various places, but there were also periods of relative peace and toleration. Some officials tried to make sure Christians were treated fairly.

But the suspicions Nero aroused damaged the Christians' reputation. Public hostility towards Christians grew. Rumors spread about their secret practices. They were seen as superstitious, anti-social, and disloyal to the emperor. They undermined Roman society, in which pagan religion played a crucial role. They became scapegoats. The early Christian writer Tertullian complained, "If the Tiber floods the city, or the Nile refuses to rise, or the sky withholds its rains, if there is an earthquake, famine, or pestilence, at once the cry is raised: 'Christians to the lions!'"

Bearing the name

Around the year 155, persecution broke out against the Christians in Smyrna in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Believers were being fed to the wild beasts in the arena and burned alive. The crowd began to call for the Christians' leader, so the authorities brought in Polycarp.

Polycarp had been a disciple of the apostle John and was a revered elderly leader of the church. The proconsul pled with him: "Curse Christ and I will release you." Polycarp's reply is classic: "Eighty-six years I have served Him. He has never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?"

The church in Smyrna wrote an account of Polycarp's death and sent it to believers throughout the region. This was the first Christian martyr story, and it influenced how Christians thought about martyrdom ever afterward.

"If you suffer as a Christian," the apostle Peter had said, "do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name" (1 Peter 4:16). Indeed, in the first centuries of the church, Christians often suffered not for any particular accusations but because they bore the name. When pagan sacrifices were demanded of them, martyrs responded (like Polycarp) with a simple statement: "I am a Christian."

This was no time for lukewarm, half-hearted believers. Becoming a Christian was deadly serious. Two of the most famous martyrs of the early church, young women named Perpetua and Felicitas, were new converts during a period when conversion to Judaism or Christianity was against the law.

Christians held those who stood firm in the face of death in the highest honor, because they were literally imitating Christ's death. Churches celebrated these deaths annually as the martyrs' "birthdays." Some believed that martyrs went straight to heaven, while the rest of the church had to wait until the final resurrection. And some Christians wanted so badly to achieve this highest honor that they deliberately sought death. When the future theologian Origen was a boy, he was so eager to be martyred that his mother hid his clothes in order to keep him from going to the authorities. It worked. He wouldn't turn himself in naked.

The true martyrs

It's difficult for us to understand this attitude today when we read about the horrific sufferings some martyrs underwent. In 177 in Lyons, Gaul (modern France), the Christian community faced mob beatings and prison conditions so horrible that many died before they could be thrown to the beasts. Some were chained to a hot-iron seat where their flesh was burned—making them literally a human barbecue.

Blandina, a young female slave, inspired the others with her courage: "After the scourging, after the wild beasts, after the roasting seat, she was finally enclosed in a net, and thrown before a bull. And having been tossed about by the animal, but feeling none of the things which were happening to her, on account of her hope and firm hold upon what had been entrusted to her and her communion with Christ, she also was sacrificed."

Unlike Blandina, those who volunteered for martyrdom were often the very ones to buckle under pressure, bringing shame upon the church. And as the persecutions grew more intense, many Christians surrendered their Scriptures and sacrificed to the pagan gods.

So the martyr stories had to get across a very important message: Don't go seeking wild beasts and torture chairs! But if you are forced to suffer for your faith, here is how to act and what to say—be like these brothers and sisters in Christ who did not give in when persecuted, but trusted God.

And Christian leaders like Clement of Alexandria reminded believers that it is not only those who literally die for their faith who are "martyrs." The word means "witness," and being a faithful witness to the gospel is something every Christian is called to do, in every circumstance.