“And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and because of their resolute witness. And they cried out with a loud voice saying, ‘For how long, our Sovereign, holy and true, do you defer the judgment and vengeance that our blood demands upon those who dwell on the earth?’ And there was given to each one of them a white robe; and they were told to rest for yet a short time, until the martyrdom of their fellow servants and brothers should be completed as well.”
The Apocalypse 6.9-11
This picture of a large group of martyred persons crying out for justice looks in three directions. It looks back and acknowledges that many people have been put to death for their allegiance to the Creator God of the Apocalypse. Happily, martyrdom was not the end, for not a single one of them was lost or forgotten. They are all pictured as here present before their Creator.
The picture also looks up and affirms that the Creator God has not overlooked the wrongs committed, and that he will ultimately exercise just judgment against the perpetrators. Thirdly, it looks ahead and gives notification to successors of these martyrs that the battle is not over; martyrdom will still be a road for others to travel.
There is no question that martyrdom continues today, but reliable statistics are hard to come by. It depends on the definition of “martyrdom” that is being used.
On the one hand, there are reliable reports of thousands of “Christians” killed in sectarian and terrorist violence over the past few years. For example, new statistics suggest that the number of people, mostly “Christian,” who have been killed by the Boko Haram in Nigeria is about 20,000. The number of “Christians” killed in Iraq and Syria is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
But we use the word “Christian” in quotes here, though with all due respect. It is one thing to belong to a traditionally or historically “Christian” people group; it is another thing to have a personal allegiance to the Creator God of the Apocalypse.
To explain further: it is one thing (yes, a terrible thing!) to die in sectarian violence that is the result of one religious culture rising against another. This is a terrible reality of our world even to the present, and such horrific developments are suggested in the “precursor” prophecy of the pale horse. Whether Christian versus Christian (as it was in Rwanda), or Muslim versus Christian (as it is in Syria), or Christian versus Muslim (as it was in the medieval crusades), such atrocities are painful even to contemplate. But they are not necessarily the kind of “martyrdom” that is being identified in the Apocalypse.
The martyrdoms of this “precursor” prophecy occur “because of the word of God” and “because of the resolute witness” of the martyrs. These are people who are killed expressly because of their allegiance to the Creator God of the Apocalypse. Globally, martyrs such as these continue to number in the thousands every year, even if we cannot track the statistics with precision.
This prophecy gives us fair warning: if we are going to give our allegiance to the Creator God of the Apocalypse; if we are going to resolutely identify ourselves with him; if we are going to align our lives with what the Apocalypse tells us to do; then we ought not to expect a cake walk. We ought to prepare ourselves to face antagonism or opposition or things worse, even to the point of death.
For most of us in North America, we do not yet face such opposition as this when we give our allegiance to the Creator God. But this prophecy, like all the others, is a global one. Our comfort and security here does not at all indicate that opposition to the point of martyrdom is not the reality of our fellow travellers elsewhere. Could it be ours here one day as well?