Since thou art vainly urgent that, as thou sayest, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, hear me declare with boldness, I am Christian!1
Polycarp and Christian Boldness
Polycarp, Church Father and bishop at Smyrna, rails against the proconsul in Rome. The story describes how people heard a voice from heaven when Polycarp was entering the stadium, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!” And Polycarp faced his death with courage and strength. They decided to burn him alive and he requested that they refrain from nailing him to the wood, “Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.” They did this and, to our great benefit, a prayer was recorded of Polycarp as he lay there waiting for the fire. This prayer reveals the key to boldness.
O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and the whole race of the righteous who live before Thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of Thy Christ, to resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost.
What is Christian boldness and where does it come from? It is to believe and hope in the resurrection of the dead through Jesus Christ.
We must pause here and understand what the gospel is all about. It is not pie in the sky, floating around on the clouds for millions of years. Most have heard a gospel presentation to that effect, “if you believe in Jesus you get a ticket to heaven.” Those are the thoughts I had as a child, when I did not know the scriptures. But that idea is simply deficient of the actual promises of God to those who have faith in Jesus. This wrong idea that we are simply ‘going to heaven’ strips the gospel of its this-world relevance. We are not going to heaven; heaven is coming to earth (Rev 21:2-3). Jesus is coming to earth (Rev. 22:12). And the saints (believers) will be raised from the dead and reign with Him on earth (Rev. 20:4). Even the earth itself will experience a resurrection of sorts (Rom. 8:21). The gospel is not the termination of the physical realm, as if God failed in that respect and just gave up after the fall. The gospel promises the restoration of creation. Man was created for Eden, not heaven. That is why Polycarp, about to be burned alive, mentions his hope in the resurrection of both “soul and body.” One day God will bring this martyr’s ashes together by the power of the Holy Spirit (of course this isn’t difficult for a God who spoke universes into being)!
I am not saying that saints do not enjoy a conscious experience of heaven while they are “away from the body” (2 Cor. 5:8). But blessed presence turns into blessed purpose when we live on earth doing stuff with God to fill the earth with His glory. That is what we were made for.
The Fear of Death
We were meant to live; free from death and from fear. I think this is apparent to those who have held loved ones as they passed away. What an intruder death is! The bane of all peoples.
In death, there are some core issues of fear that face us all. Meaninglessness is a big one. If this 100 years is all that there is, or all I will ever be conscious of, then is life meaningful? If death is an exit from this world into non-being, then the significance of family, friends, work, country, kindness, rudeness, or even my life, is in serious question. What if I am just a blip in evolution, destined with the entire universe into oblivion? As one Christian philosopher put it:
If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever.
This is the horror of modern man: because he ends in nothing, he is nothing.2
Most people have thoughts like this when they are teenagers, but learn quickly that dwelling on them does not produce anything beneficial. We learn to suppress these ideas and bury them deep in the sub-conscience. I am alive right now, I’ll deal with death later. Nevertheless, this fear is like a leaky faucet in the recesses of our mind, which cannot really be shut off. And there are times when it comes on like a flood, like when we see someone close to us die.
Here is where another aspect in our experience of death encroaches; the fear of loss. Who has never felt the biting pain when wife or husband, child or parent, friend or relative is gone? A person who meant everything to us is now farther than planets and stars. Loss is like a gaping wound that often becomes a giant scar.
Finally, I think most people do not ascribe to the non-being view of death because they sense that life does have meaning. Therefore, there must be more to life than what we are presently experiencing. The thought then is, “will I be condemned?” The majority of people alive today believe in some form of a reckoning after death, whether by Karma or by Christ, which can cause great anxiety to those who know they are flawed.
Jesus used this awareness to motivate people to repent. He unequivocally warned that there will be torment for the wicked who do not repent.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right-hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Mt. 5:29–30)
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…’.’And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Mt. 25:41–46)
Deliverance From Fear of Death
With words of deep significance then, the scriptures declare that Christ came to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Heb. 2:14–15)
The early Church was infused with new freedom and boldness, knowing that sins were forgiven and Christ was coming to earth with eternal life for all who believe. They faced death like it was a foe already beaten. We see this in a powerful admission by Paul the apostle as he is teaching on the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15.
Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:30–32)
Here again, we see the key to Christian boldness. It is the resurrection of the dead which gives Paul courage to face the beasts at Ephesus. What can you do to stop a person who does not fear death?
The Historicity of the Resurrection
It is because of this boldness we cannot explain away the resurrection of Jesus as some kind of myth. The message of the apostles was that Christ actually rose from the dead, and they were eyewitnesses to this fact (1 Cor 15:1-21).3 This means that Christianity stands or falls on real history and on a real resurrection (for a brief reading on the historicity of the resurrection see Mike Licona’s article http://www.equip.org/article/making-a-case-for-the-resurrection-at-36000-feet/).
This is where the gospel derives its unstoppable power to overcome; Christ Jesus faced our greatest enemy and won.
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:51–57)
Believing the Gospel
Let’s stop believing fluff, and let’s believe the gospel. There is rock solid hope here that we can stand on.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”” (Jn. 11:25–26)
A couple years ago our coworker’s five-week-old daughter perished in a car accident. We watched and prayed as she left us in an understaffed hospital room in Uganda. In such a moment the rubber of what we all professed met the road of sorrow, but something supernatural happened; instead of losing faith, our faith deepened. Christ became our very real and present help in time of trouble. We will see her again in the resurrection of the dead. This is what the scriptures says to believers who have lost loved ones,
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep….the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thes. 4:13–18)
And what about finding the courage to preach Christ in hostile places? John’s encouraging vision can help us face the gallows preaching with boldness; like Polycarp, Paul, and like the faithful men beheaded by ISIS on the shores of Lybia.
I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ” (Rev. 20:4)
1. The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01/Page_39.html
2. Craig, William Lane, and William Lane Craig. “The Absurdity of Life without God.” In Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 71-72. Third Edition ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008.
3. Most historians agree to certain facts of history about Jesus. He died by crucifixion, was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and later the tomb was found empty. There is also universal agreement to the postmortem appearances of Jesus to multiple eye witnesses. Finally no one can deny the birth of Christianity among second temple Judaism through the bold witness of the early disciples of Christ who were willing to die for their witness. What can best explain all these facts of history better than that Jesus did in fact rise? (see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-resurrection-of-jesus)