In our previous discussion of the Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Romans , we briefly noted that this letter standards apart from the other six letters from the author on two grounds. For one, this letter is the only one that does not acknowledge the presiding bishop of the congregation or seek to encourage or bolster the authority of the bishop in his congregation. This is sufficient to make this letter an unusual one in the author’s intriguing if short body of work. However, there is another difference that deserves some extended treatment, and that is the approach of Ignatius towards martyrdom in his letter to the Romans. Indeed, Ignatius’ view of martyrdom is so distinctive and even troubling that it is worthwhile to let Ignatius (at least in translation) do as much of the discussion of his view as possible. When one finds troubling texts, it is best not to try to insert oneself into the interpretation of that text except as necessary and to let an author speak for themselves as much as possible to define themselves in their own words.
When we wonder what view Ignatius had about martyrdom, it is best to let him speak in his own words, and before offering up commentary on this view, I think it would be best to read what Ignatius himself has to say on the subject:
“My prayers that I might live to see your devoted community face to face have been answered; indeed, I have been granted more than I asked for, since I can now hope to greet you in the very chains of a prisoner of Jesus Christ, if His will permits me to reach my journey’s end. So far, things have made an admirable beginning; and now all depends on whether I can reach the goal and secure my inheritance without hindrance (85).”
“For by staying silent and letting me alone, you can turn me into an intelligible uttarance of God; but if your affections are only concerned with my poor human life, then I become a mere meaningless cry once more. This favour only I beg of you: suffer me to be a libation poured out to God, while there is still an altar ready for me (85-86).”
“For my part, I am writing to all the churches and assuring them that I am truly in earnest about dying for God – if only you yourselves put no obstacles in the way. I must implore you to do me no such untimely kindness; pray leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am His wheat, ground fine by the lions’ teeth to be made purest bread for Christ. Better still, incite the creatures to become a sepulchre for me; let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh, so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I fall asleep. When there is no trace of my body for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus Christ’s disciple (86).”
“How I look forward to the real lions that have been got ready for me! All I pray is that I may find them swift. I am going to make overtures to them, so that, unlike some other wretches whom they have been too spiritless to touch, they shall devour me with all speed. And if they are still reluctant, I shall use force to them. You must forgive me, but I do know what is best for myself. This is the first stage of my discipleship; and no power, visible or invisible, must grudge me my coming to Jesus Christ. Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the puverizing of my entire body – let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Jesus Christ! (87)”
“Intercede for me, then, that I may have my wish; for I am not writing now as a mere man, but I am voicing the mind of God. My suffering will be a proof of your goodwill; my rejection, a proof of your disfavor (88).”
What do we read when we see these statements? It is hard to consider such statements as the mind of God for at least several reasons. For one, we know from Ignatius’ writings that he was hostile to the Sabbath and this alienated him in some way from the mind of God because of his disobedience of God’s clear commandments. For another, we do not know of martyrdom being the main or only way that someone could reach God’s kingdom. We do know, from reading passages like Hebrews 11, that the godly often faced unjust persecution from a world that was not worthy of them throughout history, but the martyrdom was a sign of the world’s unworthiness and not strictly a sign of the worthiness of those believers. Whether or not God chose to deliver someone from martyrdom was a matter of His decision, and there is no biblical warrant for judging that those delivered from possible martyrdom (Daniel in the lion’s den or his three friends in the fire of Nebuchadnezzar) were less godly and less righteous and less blessed for being delivered than those who suffered the extreme horrors as a result of their faith (like the martyrs during the persecution of the Seleucids).
Where, then, did Ignatius get the idea that his ticket to the front of the line in the kingdom of heaven was being martyred? Was his death a necessary one or did he court it unnecessarily? It is one thing to live honorably and to find death the only way that one can preserve one’s fidelity to God’s ways in the case of persecution, but generally the Bible counsels that people flee and live and worship God somewhere else and raise godly offspring and all of that. Martyrdom is to be an option of last resort, not to be a choice made impulsively and unnecessarily, as may have been the case for Ignatius. Having made that choice, it is little surprise that Ignatius should defend that story personally and vigorously, but the question is whether he was right to do so in the first place. The Bible indicates, at least if we take Hebrews 11 as our model, that it is not the manner of death that is most fundamental to one’s place in God’s Kingdom but rather one’s faith and obedience in the way one lives life. If one is not godly enough in one’s manner of living to enter into God’s kingdom, then one’s horrific death will not earn one a speedy ticket there.
After all, did not Jesus say to those who rejected His ways the following in Luke 13:26-28: “Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out.” Did He not also say in Matthew 7:21-23: ““Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” Since we do not believe that Ignatius’ making a spectacle out of dying was doing the will of God and we know that his hostility to the Sabbath was contrary to God’s ways and practicing lawlessness, Ignatius’ attempt to enter the Kingdom of God by dying in imitation of Christ was in vain and was not the sort of example that we should follow ourselves. Quod erat demonstradum.
 See, for example: