Most of us fear death too much to dwell on it without a good reason. We should remember, though, that it need not be fearful, even when pain is involved. Throughout history, many brave souls have stared the most frightful of endings right in the eye and smiled.
For just a moment, imagine this: You stand condemned to death before a small crowd, naked apart from a girdle wrapped around your waist. Your legs are bound to a thick stake, which runs up from behind your heels to the base of your neck. Your arms are also bound, wrapped behind the stake. As a soldier approaches to nail you in place, you politely ask if he might instead free your hands and feet, promising that you will happily stay standing throughout your execution without need for constraint. Surprisingly, your wish is granted.
Thoughtfully stroking your greying beard, you look down at your tired feet, which are browned and wrinkled from seventy years of service. You take a few seconds to thank them, along with the rest of your faithful frame, for persisting so long. Your executioners treat you with an eerie respect, allowing you time to pray to your creator as you prepare to meet him.
Kindling wood is set around your feet. This is fuel for the fire that will soon consume you. You stand proud, your will indomitable. For this is a moment you have anticipated. You recently received a dream from God; a simple vision of a pillow burning. You knew from this that you would soon be burnt alive by authorities for your faith in Jesus.
The kindling is lit by another young soldier, and the inevitable quickly unfolds. Without protest, you watch your legs and girdle catch fire. After what seems an endless delay, your senses finally catch up, and the pain arrives. It’s a searing, penetrating pain far greater than any you’ve known. You insist, however, on holding to silence, even as the last of your skin fuses to the flesh beneath and begins to bubble. You are mostly concerned with setting a good example for onlookers (believers and unbelievers alike), showing them that the spirit of a follower of Jesus is not so easily broken. Your death will be one that glorifies and defends your precious Lord Jesus before these witnesses. This moment is nothing but an honour. Your life’s last prayer is silently uttered upon your body’s last breath, containing only two words: “thank you.” Suddenly, all is dark and silent and your pain is ended.
This is a glimpse of the martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna in c. 156 CE. Whatever pain you may fear in death, it will unlikely surpass his. This is not one of the more violent deaths of early church history, but it should be one of the most treasured, not least because of who Polycarp was in life.
Friend to Disciples, Sinners and Saints
Polycarp lived from late in the first until half way through the second century. He was best known as the Bishop of Smyrna (today called Izmir), a city on the west coast of modern-day Turkey. He was greatly loved and respected by the early church, but his teachings are mostly revealed by studying his successors, who embraced and echoed his pastoral nature and his love for even those who resisted him.
The generational thread woven by Polycarp’s life has not left history unchanged. This might represent his greatest impact on Christianity: As a young man, he was the disciple of St. John, and later in life he took his own disciple — none other than Irenaeus, arguably the hero of early church history. While Polycarp wrote no enduring textual masterpieces like the men either side of him (his only remaining work is a letter to the Philippian church, which repeats many of Paul’s earlier instructions to them while quoting many other apostolic writings), he forms an all-important human bridge between the apostles (who knew Jesus personally) and the great Christian writers of the second century (who defined and upheld the Christian faith through many early trials.)
Most of his life’s work is unknown, and that which is known is mostly overlooked, but the manner of his death was celebrated by the early church as the gold standard of Christian character while facing persecution. He was a loving, peaceful protestor who gladly paid the ultimate price for his belief, and his name was a household name in second century Christianity. It deserves to become so once more.
Great in Life, Great in Death
The original document that retells Polycarp’s death (simply called The Martyrdom of Polycarp) quickly became a great treasure of the early church. It’s an utterly captivating read, and can be read in its entirety here.
My paraphrase in this article’s introduction included none of the story’s most spectacular moments. Polycarp’s body was, according to the account, not so easily consumed by the flames. It defied them, and his burning flesh smelled of bread, giving off sweet aromas as if it were a rare spice or perfume. This caused his executioner to stab him with a dagger to finish him off quickly. A dove came forth as he was stabbed (whether it came out of his body, or simply flew up at that very same moment, is unknown).
Even if you dismiss these elements as too fantastical to be true (before which you should remember that the New Testament is filled with wilder miracles), the strength of Polycarp’s character in the days before his execution make up the other half of his legacy.
By his accusers, Polycarp was practically begged to renounce his faith (they did not want to kill such an old man), yet he submitted to them that a few minutes of flames were no bother at all compared to the flames of judgment. He remained at once calm, happy and resolute.
Respect for him within the church was such that many even desired to die as he did, so that they might somehow prove themselves worthy of their Lord and demonstrate Christian virtue to both believers and unbelievers. Some accounts of martyrdom written after his are disturbing, as though a lust for one’s own violent death (and even a kind of one-upmanship) had settled into some corners of the church. Surely this wasn’t Polycarp’s wish, but he can’t be blamed.
Polycarp’s unbending commitment and strong character stood in stark contrast to other would-be martyrs, like one called Quintus, who ‘turned cowardly’ as soon as the reality of his execution faced him (despite him earlier encouraging other Christians to be faithful to the end). The strong belief of the time was that God chose a person for martyrdom, rather than a person choosing it for his or her self, and that those chosen were strengthened by Christ to stand firm. Any who buckled under such conditions were either imposters, or were contemptibly fearful. Polycarp gave believers hope that radical faithfulness was possible.
A Friend’s Wish Fulfilled
Many years before Polycarp was called to his death, a friend and fellow church leader called Ignatius wrote to him to encourage him in his faith (Ignatius was, incidentally, writing on the way to his own martyrdom). These were his words: “Be sober, as God’s athlete…. Stand firm as an anvil under the stroke of the hammer.” It seems these words were not lost on Polycarp. At the end, he proved himself truly worthy of his calling.
Both Polycarp’s life and death speak powerfully to not only the Christians of the second century, but to all Christians today. Not that we should seek an opportunity to die or to fight, but that we should willingly and lovingly submit ourselves fully to God’s service, in soul, body and mind, to whatever end.
For we carry the light of the world, and that light must shine brightly.