Death and Deliverance: Modern Day Martyrdom

“You speak in your letter of the possibility of one place being safer than another; I think, dear Eva, from the human standpoint all are equally unsafe, from the point of view of those whose lives are hid with Christ in God all are equally safe! . . . ‘A mighty fortress is our God,’ and in Him we are safe for time and for eternity. Shall we murmur if we have less of time than we expected?”[1]

—Edith Searell, missionary to China, in one of her last letters before dying in the Boxer Rebellion

When John Bunyan describes martyrdom in his allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, he helps us look beyond “the things that are seen” to “the things that are unseen” (2 Cor. 4:18). In one of the most vivid scenes in the book, Christian and Faithful are nearing the City of Vanity. As the two pilgrims approach the town, they receive encouragement and direction from a guide named Evangelist. He leaves them with these words of counsel: “Believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible.”[2]

This insight soon becomes clear as the pilgrims enter the city. They arrive on market day to a lively scene of shops and street stalls well-stocked with every customer’s every desire. But the carnival-like atmosphere of Vanity Fair quickly turns dark and hostile when Christian and Faithful refuse to buy anything; and the foreignness of their dress, speech, and allegiance sets them apart for mockery and assault. The unwelcome travelers are arrested, and a sham court is quickly assembled. Faithful’s testimony of devotion to his King and his defiance of the prince of that city brings down upon him the full rage of his captors.

What follows is a mob scene of unrestrained hate as they fall upon Faithful in an instant, beating him with their fists, piercing him with swords, crushing him with stones, and then burning his body to ash.

DEATH AND DELIVERANCE

By all appearances, injustice had won. The enemies of the King had forever silenced the voice of one of his witnesses—at least, it seemed that way. But here Bunyan pulls back the curtain “concerning things that are invisible.” He points past the blood-spattered scene, swirling with fire and ash and faces concentrated on killing, to something beyond:

Now I saw, that there stood behind the multitude a Chariot and a couple of horses waiting for Faithful, who (so soon as his adversaries had dispatched him) was taken up into it and straightway was carried up into the clouds with the Sound of Trumpet, the nearest way to the Celestial Gate.[3]

There are two realities in view. In the foreground is violent martyrdom, but beyond that scene the horses of heaven are waiting to bring the faithful witness to a swift, glorious welcome home.

Sing, Faithful, Sing, and let thy Name survive;
For tho’ they kill’d thee, thou art yet alive.
[4]

The death and deliverance of Faithful at Vanity Fair is a composite picture that Bunyan draws from a great company of martyrs—witnesses who were sure that neither death nor life would be able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord.

A CULTURE OF LIFE VERSUS A CULTURE OF DEATH

Like them, we too can take risks, face fear, and endure suffering with death-defying joy because Jesus is alive and with his people always. This is how Mary Slessor, a pioneer missionary to the interior of Africa, put it:

I do not like that petition in the Prayer Book, From sudden death, good Lord, deliver us. I never could pray it. It is surely far better to see Him at once without pain of parting or physical debility. Why should we not be like the apostle in his confident outburst of praise and assurance, “For I am persuaded . . .”? Don’t talk about the cold hand of death—it is the hand of Christ.[5]

The Christian’s way of life is rooted in the reality of the resurrection. Gospel messengers who brave hostile places don’t go to seek martyrdom. Rather they go to fully live for the glory of Christ and the sake of others, and they trust that the timing and circumstances of their departure are in God’s hands. And they are in good hands! As the Puritan Thomas Watson put it, “We are more sure to arise out of our graves than out of our beds.”[6]

The Christian’s way of life is rooted in the reality of the resurrection.

The Christian’s culture of life is in stark contrast to the culture of death that animates militant Islam. This violent strain of Islam celebrates religion-based killing as a rite and includes suicide-bombers in their arsenal.[7]

Into this culture of death, Christians go, armed only with Calvary love and a life-giving message. They carry out the radical rescue work of the gospel through acts of mercy and words of witness. I saw this in Afghanistan in the lives—and death—of Gayle Williams and Cheryl Beckett.

THE MARTYRDOM OF FAITHFUL GAYLE AND CHERYL

Gayle was a physical therapist who lived and worked in Afghanistan, helping to rehabilitate children maimed by landmines. She had served in a clinic in Kandahar for two years until her team was forced to leave because of the deteriorating security situation. She then relocated to Kabul to continue serving disabled children.

Cheryl Beckett worked in Afghanistan for six years as a community development worker and Pashto interpreter. She spent her time there reaching, loving, and serving Afghan women. In that deeply segregated society characterized by the Pashtun saying “A woman’s place is in the home or in the grave,”[8] Cheryl could cross that barrier and befriend the women behind the burqas. She helped Afghan women plant gardens and fruit trees, and along the way she planted gospel seeds, too.

When I first visited Kabul, Cheryl was already a veteran worker of four years who led by example through her quiet courage, contagious joy, and intimate prayer life. Beth, who served there with my organization, was one of those whom Cheryl mentored. Even after Cheryl’s death, the fragrance of Christ lingers on in the lives of teammates such as Beth. Because Jesus is alive and our lives are forever bound up in his life, death is no longer the worst thing that can happen.

As Tim Keller said, “Resurrection is not just consolation—it is restoration. We get it all back—the love, the loved ones, the good, the beauties of this life—but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength.”[9]

And so, like Faithful at Vanity Fair, in the face of untimely graves and unanswered questions, Gayle, Cheryl, and a great host of whom the world is not worthy, continue to teach us to “believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible.”


[1] Edith Searell in Marshall Broomhall, ed., Martyred Missionaries of the China Inland Mission with a Record of the Perils and Sufferings of Some Who Escaped (Toronto: China Inland Mission, 1901), 29.

[2] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), 96.

[3] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 109.

[4] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 110.

[5] W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916), 324.

[6] Thomas Watson in I. D. E. Thomas, ed., A Puritan Golden Treasury (Carlyle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000), 246.

[7] The exponential increase in the number of suicide bombers is just one aspect of Islam’s deep darkness. In the 1980s, the global average of suicide bombings was three a year. In the 1990s, it was one a month. In the early 2000s, there was one a week, and by 2015 one a day. While Islamists call suicide bombers “martyrs,” they really are just mass murderers who kill and maim thousands of innocent people each year. For more information see “Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. Suicide Attack Database,” http://cpostdata.uchicago.edu/search_new.php.

[8] Robert D. Kaplan, Soldiers of God: With the Mujahidin in Afghanistan (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1990), 49.

[9] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Viking, 2013), 59.

Excerpt taken from A Company of Heroes by Tim Keesee, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Tim Keesee is the founder and executive director of Frontline Missions International, which has served to advance the gospel in some of the world’s most difficult places for over twenty-five years. He has traveled to more than eighty countries, reporting on the church from the former Iron Curtain countries to war-torn Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Keesee is the executive producer of the DVD documentary series Dispatches from the Front. Learn more at frontlinemissions.info.