Fox’s Book of Martyrs is a must read for every Christian. Written by John Fox over 350 years ago, it catalogs the lives of hundreds of believers who, throughout church history, were willing to give their lives for the cause of Christ. When it comes to contagious courage, I can think of no greater testimony than reading about those who embraced their Lord to the point of embracing death.
One such account concerns the lives of Jerome Russell and Alexander Kennedy, two English Protestants who took a daring stand for what they believed. Because of their biblically-sound doctrine, the pair was arrested and imprisoned. Kennedy was only eighteen years old. After some time, the two men were brought before religious officials for questioning. Russell, being older, gave an articulate defense, using the Scriptures to support his belief in salvation through faith alone. Yet, in spite of the evidence, the men’s accusers prevailed and Russell and Kennedy were deemed heretics.
In keeping with the jurisprudence of the times, they were condemned to death—their sentence to be carried out the following day. Early the next morning, Russell and Kennedy were led from their prison cells to the place of execution. They could have denied their Lord, right then and there, and been spared. But when Kennedy, being but a young man, began to display signs of fear, Russell quickly encouraged him to stand firm:
Brother, fear not; greater is He that is in us, than he that is in the world. The pain that we are to suffer is short, and shall be light; but our joy and consolation shall never have an end. Let us, therefore, strive to enter into our Master and Savior’s joy, by the same straight way which He hath taken before us. Death cannot hurt us, for it is already destroyed by Him, for whose sake we are now going to suffer.
In this way, the two men came to boldly face execution without compromise. John Fox finishes the account with this.
When they arrived at the fatal spot, they both kneeled down and prayed for some time; after which being fastened to the stake, and the fagots [kindling] lighted, they cheerfully resigned their souls into the hands of Him who gave them, in full hopes of an everlasting reward in the heavenly mansions.
How could these men calmly submit to being burned alive? Why did they willingly undergo severe suffering and death? The answer begins with the biblical doctrine of hope. By focusing on God and His unwavering faithfulness, they stood firm as a testimony to the truth.
Biblical Hope Changes the Way We View Death
Every day over 150 thousand people die. Some die from disease, others from crime, and still others from tragic accidents. Sometimes death is expected, the prognosis having been grim for several months; other times death is unforeseen and sudden—the result of an unexpected stroke or a drunk driver. But no matter how it comes, all of us know that one day it will be our turn. Death is part of life, and there’s no escaping it.
One might think that, due to its widespread inevitability, death is something people would ponder frequently, constantly preparing for the end of their earthly lives. Yet, generally speaking, the opposite is usually the case. People feel uncomfortable talking about death. For most, it represents the great unknown. It is the result of tragedy, the basis of fear, and the ultimate separation from friends and family.
Of course, it’s understandable to realize that non-Christians cower at the thought of dying. For them it is the end of everything they hold dear. The pleasures of this earth, its resources and relationships—this is all they have. In dying, they lose what they have worked so hard to obtain.
What’s sad is when those in the church embrace that same kind of worldly perspective. Why should a Christian ever fear the grave? Is not death the doorway to heaven? Is there not eternal life on the other side? God’s Word is clear: death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:56–57). Granted, when we hope in the pursuits of this world, death is the enemy—separating us from the temporal treasures we love. But, when our hope is properly placed in God, death comes as a welcome friend to take us home.
Here are two reasons why:
a. Hope sees death as a beginning, not an end.
For believers death is the beginning of eternity in heaven. Death is not termination but initiation—the start of an existence far better than anything we can imagine. The apostle Paul knew this to be true. The book of 2 Timothy is the last letter he wrote before his execution—chapter 4 indicates that he realized his death was imminent (see v. 6). As he looked back on his life, he realized that his life was almost over (v. 7). Yet, he now looked forward to something far greater: namely, the reward of Jesus Christ and an eternity spent together with Him (v. 8). Paul looked beyond the grave and saw his God. Because Christ had conquered death (1 Corinthians 15:20–28) there was nothing to fear.
It was John Owen, the great Puritan, who wrote on his deathbed: “I am yet in the land of the dying, but I hope soon to be in the land of the living.” Like Paul, he too understood that true life, in its fullest measure, begins where this life ends. In stark contrast, many in the contemporary church live as though this present life is better than the life to come. Tenaciously, they hold on to their short stay on this earth. Some follow every health fad, taking whatever supplement will reduce the risk of a heart attack. Others avoid airplanes, fearful that their trip could end in an unexpected dive.
Our quest for longevity has affected our eating habits, our exercise routines, our travel plans, and even the type of sunscreen we buy. While there is nothing inherently sinful in enjoying the earthly life that God has given, Christians sometimes need to be reminded that the next life is far superior. Death is a doorway, not a dead end. And for God’s children, death’s door opens into heaven.
b. Hope sees the Shepherd through the shadows.
A second reason Christians need not fear death is because our Savior has already conquered death. He is not asking us to go anywhere He has not already been. And, because He arose from the grave victorious (Acts 2:32–33), we can be confident that we also will be resurrected one day (1 Corinthians 15:20). In Psalm 23:4, the writer says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” For David, whose life was often in danger, comfort came in looking to his Shepherd, even when thinking about death.
Just over 1,000 years later, an early Christian leader named Ignatius shared David’s confident perspective. According to church tradition, Ignatius was arrested by the Roman government and executed because he professed Christ. Shortly before his death, he wrote the church of Rome, saying:
I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus.
Even in being thrown to hungry animals and torn limb from limb, Ignatius’ commitment to his Lord remained firm. He was willing to endure death because of the Master he sought to please, the Master he knew he would soon see face-to-face.
In considering death, these men focused on the One who was waiting to meet them there. They did not fear death, because they rested in the promises of their Savior. What comes into your mind when you think about death? A biblical perspective thinks first about Christ. And for the soul that loves Jesus, nothing is more exciting than the thought of going to be with Him. We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), and not even death can separate us from that love (Romans 8:38–39).
Death is the doorway that brings us into the presence of Christ. That is why Paul could triumphantly tell the Philippians, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” For those who know the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul’s words summarize both our purpose in this life and our hope for the next.