Origen on Martyrdom

Origen on Martyrdom

. 16 min read

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published at The Warden Post on February 11, 2019].  

Origen of Alexandria was an early Church Father, ascetic, scholar, apologist and theologian whose writings heavily influenced the development of proto-orthodox Christianity. Before proceeding further, it should be noted that Origen’s status as a Father of the Church is not without controversy. Despite having a profound impact on the development of Christian theology, many beliefs associated with Origen, or more correctly his followers, were supposedly condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 AD.¹

Some disagreement exists surrounding fifteen additional “Anathemas against Origen” whose authenticity is subject to scholarly debate. Still, the fact that the bishops present at the Second Council of Constantinople decided to anathematize Origen three-hundred years after he died a martyr’s death and went so far as to lump him in with the greatest arch-heretics the Church had ever known shows, if not a misjudgment on the part of the bishops, then certainly a prejudice on their part, as what constituted Christian orthodoxy was far clearer in the centuries post-Nicaea then it was in Origen’s own day. This paper, however, is not meant to be a defense of Origen, his ideas of even the various heresies condemned as “Origenism” by Constantinople II, rather it is to be a commentary on a selection of one of Origen’s many writings, “An Exhortation to Martyrdom.”

It is necessary to provide some background on Origen’s early life to understand both the significance of this text as well as the context in which it was written. Origen’s father, a teacher by the name of Leonides, was a well-respected member of Alexandria’s middle class and possibly a Roman citizen. ² Leonides was also a devout Christian who practiced his faith openly and publicly. Origen was a teenager when his father was arrested during the reign of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who had begun persecuting Christians who openly practiced their faith. Origen’s father was arrested and later beheaded. It was Origen’s wish to join his father and be martyred alongside him but was prevented from doing so by the intervention of his mother. ³ Still, the memory of the death of his father as well as the martyrdom of countless Christians must have been foremost on his mind as this text was written during the height of the series of persecutions undertaken by the Emperor Maximinus Thrax.

The exhortation itself is dedicated to Origen’s friend and patron Ambrose of Alexandria, whom Origen had converted from Valentinian Gnosticism to orthodox Christianity. The text opens with Origen quoting Isaiah 28:9-11⁴ and explaining to Ambrose as well as another Christian, Protoctectus, the meaning of this passage. Having been “weaned” on the Holy Scriptures, both Ambrose and Protctectus are now ready for “solid food” and begins to emphasize that, having become true Christians, can now expect “affliction upon affliction” or put simply, to be persecuted for their faith. They should not be discouraged, however, as despite the oncoming trials they can expect “hope upon hope” and that, quoting Paul, these hardships are nothing more than “a light momentary affliction” ⁵ which is to prepare them for the “weight of eternal glory” ⁶ awaiting them. Origen writes,

[…] we turn our governing mind from our sufferings and look not to the present sufferings but at the prizes kept for athletes who by their endurance of these tests compete according to the rules in Christ by the grace of God. He multiplies His benefits and gives as much beyond what the toils of the contestant deserve as it is right for Him to give as the God who does not quibble about trifles and who in His munificence knows how to increase His gifts to those who demonstrated they love Him with all their soul by despising so far as they are able their earthen vessel.

Origen then goes on to praise those Christians whose love and yearning for God is so great that they no longer care for worldly things and are unafraid to give up their bodies for the sake of God. Urging Ambrose and Protoctectus to take up the same cause, Origen writes,

Therefore, I beseech you to remember in all your present contest the great reward laid up in heaven for those who are persecuted and reviled for righteousness’ sake, and to be glad and leap for joy on account of the Son of Man just as the apostles once rejoiced when they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for His name. And if you should ever perceive your soul drawing back, let the mind of Christ, which is in us say to it, when it wishes to trouble that mind as much as it can, “Why are you sorrowful, my soul, and why do you disquiet me? Hope in God, for I shall give Him thanks.” I pray that our souls may never be disquieted, and even more that in the presence of the tribunals and of the naked swords drawn against our necks they may be guarded by the peace of God, which passes all understanding and may be quieted when they consider that those who are foreigners from the body are at home with the Lord of all.

Origen goes on to write that although there have been many peoples who have fought, struggled and died for their gods it is only the Christians who truly participate in this “contest.” He explains that while the pagans may embody a great many of the virtues, it is the Christians who are “the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the holy nation.” ⁷ Origen then puts forth an argument highlighting how Christians were brought before councils and tribunals and were demanded to renounce their God and questions if bowing down to idols to save one’s skin but still professing the Christian faith is acceptable. At the time, many did indeed choose to declare worship to the gods of Rome, but only as an outward gesture to protect their lives and livelihoods. In the end, Origen decides that such a gesture is unacceptable and that a true Christian should keep to the letter of the Gospel and swear no oaths and make no sacrifices to pagan idols. Citing Matthew,⁸ Origen reminds Ambrose and Protoctectus that they will ultimately be held accountable for their actions of the day of Judgment.

In chapters VIII and IX, Origen continues to warn against the worshipping of pagan gods, quoting the well-known verse in Exodus 20:5, “I the Lord your God am jealous”, he explains that God’s jealously is not borne from capriciousness or malice, but love. Origen goes on to say that God’s love for his people is that of a bridegroom for his bride, giving everything of himself so that the bride will remain faithful and not be unfaithful towards him. At the beginning of chapter X, Origen expounds on this idea in further detail,

Even though it is not Himself that the bridegroom turns His betrothed away from all defilement, since He is wise and without passion, nevertheless, for her sake, when He sees her defilement and filth, He will do everything He can to heal her and to turn her back, addressing her as a free agent with words exhorting her away from fornication. And what worse pollution could you think of happening to the soul than she should ever proclaim another god and fail to confess Him who is truly the one and only Lord? At any rate, I think that just as he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her, so the one who confesses some god, especially in the time when faith is being tried and tested, is mingled and united with the god he confesses. And when he is denied by his own denial, he suffers amputation by being separated from the One he denies. Know, therefore, that it is probably because it is a matter of course and of necessity that the one who confesses is confessed, and the one who denies is denied, that it is said, “So everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before my Father who is in heaven.”

Developing this argument even further, Origen writes at the beginning of chapter XII that if we truly believe to profess the Christian faith then we should accept it wholeheartedly and be ready to sacrifice our lives and bodies for the sake of the Kingdom. Origen writes,

We must also understand that we have accepted what are called the covenants of God as agreements we have made with Him when we undertook to live the Christian life. And among our agreements with God was the entire citizenship of the Gospel, which says, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his soul would lose it, and whoever loses his soul for my sake will save it.” And we often come more alive when we hear, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what ransom shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay every one for what he has done.”

In chapters XIII and XIV, Origen assures Ambrose of the glories that are to be won by enduring the hardships of the Christian life and martyrdom. Following the account of Saint Paul, Origen relates how the apostle was caught up in the third heaven and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”⁹ Origen tells Ambrose that there are even greater treasures stored up in the higher heavens for those who endure the bitterness of persecution and condemnation; in a word, the highest heavens are not won by those who do not have the strength to endure the struggle that is the Christian life. Origen tells Ambrose,

And if you do not shrink from what following Him means, you will pass through the heavens, climbing above not only earth and earth’s mysteries but also above the heavens and their mysteries. For in God there are treasured up much greater visions than these, which no bodily nature can comprehend, if it is not first delivered from everything corporeal.

Origen drives home this idea in the beginning of chapter XIV, telling Ambrose,

Therefore, one of those already martyred and who possessed something more than many of the martyrs in their Christian love of learning will ascend quite swiftly to those heights. And you, holy Ambrose, by examining the saying of the Gospel with great care, are able to see that perhaps none or only a few will attain some special and greater flood of blessing. May such a lot be yours, if you get safely through the contest without flinching. Words put it this way; once Peter said to the Savior, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” Jesus said to them (that is, the apostles), “Truly I say to you, in the new world, when God shall sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left brothers or sisters or parents or children or lands or houses, for my name’s sake, will receive a manifold reward and inherit eternal life. ¹⁰

Quoting Matthew 19:27-29, Origen assures Ambrose that all those who give up worldly possessions and relationships will receive an even greater reward in the heavenly Kingdom. What follows next is a brilliant exegesis where Origen extols the virtues of martyrdom, warns against denial even in times of crisis and ends with a rousing call to endure all manner of persecutions and afflictions to the bitter end. Beginning with chapter XVIII, Origen begins by saying,

A great theater is filled with spectators to watch your martyrdom, just as if we were to speak of a great crowd gathered to watch the contestants of athletes supposed to be champions. And no less than Paul you will say when you enter the contest, “We have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.” Thus, the whole world and all the angels of the right and the left, and all men, those from God’s portion and those from the other portions, will attend to us when we contest for Christianity. Indeed, either the angels of heaven will cheer us on, and the flood will clap their hands together, and the mountains will leap for joy and all the trees will clap their branches—or, may it not happen, the powers from below, which rejoice in evil, will cheer.

The following chapters continue with a fiery sermon outlining how—should one recant their faith in the throes of martyrdom—all manner of demons, antediluvian giants and long dead kings of fallen nations will rise from the depths of hell to claim the unfortunate’s soul. Afterwards, Origen begins to quote the Psalter, explaining to Ambrose how he should expect all manner of derision and ridicule for holding on to his Christian faith. This passionate homily ends beautifully with Origen to undertake this arduous struggle with fervor and zeal,

Let us enter the contest to win perfectly not only outward martyrdom, but also martyrdom that is in secret, so that we too may utter the apostolic cry “For this is our boast, the martyrdom of our conscience that we believed in the world […] with holiness and godly sincerity.” And let us join to the apostolic cry the prophetic one, “He knows the secrets of our hearts,” especially if we are led to death. Then we shall say to God what can be said only by martyrs, “For your sake we are slain all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” And if fear of judges who threaten us with death should ever try to undermine us with the mind of the flesh, let us say in Proverbs, “My son, honor the Lord, and you will prevail. Fear no one else but him.”

Going forward, chapters XXII-XXVII of the Exhortation are a summary of the martyrdom suffered by Eleazar and the seven brothers in the book of 2 Maccabees. Origen goes into excruciating detail recounting the horrific punishments visited upon the Maccabeans at the hands of the Seleucid king Antiochus. Chapters XXII-XXIX discuss the nature of “the cup of salvation” mentioned in Psalm 116:13 as well as Jesus’ having referenced “this cup” in the Gethsemane scene in both Matthew and Luke, itself being a reference to martyrdom. Origen explains,

Martyrdom is customarily called “the cup of salvation,” as we find in the Gospel. For those who wish to sit on Jesus’ right and left in His kingdom yearn for so great an honor, the Lord says to them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am able to drink?” He means the cup of martyrdom; and the point is clear because of the verse, “Father if it is possible, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” We learn, moreover, that the person who drinks that cup which Jesus drank will sit with Him and rule and judge with the King of kings. Thus, this is “the cup of salvation”; and when someone takes it, he will “call on the name of the Lord.” For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

The following chapters deal with the nature of baptism, sacrifice under the Levitical law, an exegesis on the scene in Daniel where the three children who refused to worship the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar are thrown into the fiery furnace and saved by their faith as well as references from scripture on what to do should one find oneself set before condemning judges. Origen cites Luke 21:14-9 and Mark 13:11-13 as inspirational wisdom to take heart in should one be faced with persecution. Origen also urges Ambrose to “not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”¹¹ Origen goes on to explain,

Therefore, those who destroy us kill the life of the body; for such is the meaning of “fear not those who kill the body,” found in the same words in both Matthew and Luke. And after killing the body, even if they wish, they cannot kill the soul; indeed, they have “no more than they can do.” For could the soul that has been made alive by the confession itself be destroyed? And in Isaiah the One who exhorts us to martyrdom joins witness to this with His Son. The passage reads, “You are my witnesses, and I am a witness, says the Lord God, and the Son whom I have chosen.”

Origen once again proceeds to warn both Ambrose and Protoctectus about the dangers of denial. This is especially true for Ambrose who was a wealthy well-to-do amongst Alexandria’s urban elite. Origen warns Ambrose that he should not be afraid to confess Christ even in the presence of kings and governors, reminding him that whoever denies Christ among men himself will be denied by Christ to His Father in heaven.¹² Origen tells Ambrose not to be ashamed of confessing his faith as Christ was not ashamed to endure ridicule and suffer the cross. Saying,

Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, and therefore is seated at the right hand of God. And those who imitate Him by despising the shame will be seated with Him and will rule in heaven with Him who came not to bring peace on earth but to the souls of His disciples and to bring a sword on earth. For since the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart, this Word especially now awards our souls the prize of the peace that passes all understanding, which He left to his apostles. And He draws a sword between the image not of the man of dust and the image of the Man of heaven, so that by taking our heavenly part at this time He may later make us entirely heavenly, if we are worthy of not remaining cut in two.

As was stated earlier, Ambrose was a very wealthy man and one with very much to lose. He had sons, daughters and wealth and having his family imprisoned or his estate confiscated for refusing to worship the gods of the Imperial Cult was a real, serious possibility. Origen, however, assures Ambrose that persecution, humiliation, chastisement and martyrdom are not things to be feared or shunned, but gladly welcomed. Origen explains,

What other time, then is it more acceptable than when for piety toward God in Christ we are led under guard in procession before the world, celebrating a triumph rather than being led in a triumph? For the martyrs in Christ disarm the principalities and powers in Him, and they share His triumph as fellows of His sufferings, becoming in this way also fellows of the courageous deeds wrought in His sufferings. These deeds include triumphing over the principalities and powers, which in a short time you will see conquered and put to shame. What other day is so much a day of salvation as the one when we gain such a deliverance from them? […] But commend yourselves “in every way as the ministers of God.”: through the great “endurance,” saying “And now, what is my endurance? Is it not the Lord?”; in “afflictions” persuaded that “many are the afflictions of the righteous”; in “necessities,” so that we may ask for the blessedness necessary for us; in “difficult straits,” so that by travelling steadily on the straitened and narrow path we may arrive at life. If it is necessary, let us recommend ourselves also “in beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, and fasting.” For behold, the Lord is here, and His reward is in his hand to give to each according to his works.

The last part of the Exhortation, namely chapters XLIII through LI, deals firstly with the nature of the pagan gods, which Origen unsurprisingly declares to be demons, and how they gain their sustenance in this world through sacrifices and burnt offerings. From chapter XLVIII onward Origen relates to Ambrose the Parable of the Sower and how some of those who profess themselves to be Christians receive the Gospel, at first with great enthusiasm, and then fall away from the faith in times of great crisis.

Finally, the last two chapters, L and LI, find Origen relating the story of Cain and Abel. Just as the ground was “crying out with Abel’s blood”,¹³ Origen states that the blood of the martyrs cries out to God from the earth where it is shed, being as it were, a pure sacrifice. He writes,

And perhaps just as we have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus, who received the name of every name, so some will be redeemed by the precious blood of the martyrs, since they too have been exalted beyond the exaltation of those who were righteousness but did not become martyrs. For there is good reason to call the special kind of death that is martyrdom and exaltation, as is clear from the verse “When I am, exalted from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” Let us then, glorify God, by exalting Him by our death, since the martyr will glorify God by his own death. This is what we have learned from John, when he says, “This He said to show by what death He was to glorify God.”

The Exhortation ends with Origen hoping that his advice in this treatise helps Ambrose in some way and the he will grow in the spiritual life to the point where he would have surpassed the need for such words.

Finally, we need to ask ourselves what can we take away from this work. We live in an age of decadence and vice that Origen and the early Fathers of the Church could only dream up in their nightmares. If any point in human history was as bleak and could be argued as proof as the beginning of the End of Days, ours is that time. The nihilistic ideologies that emerged as an outgrowth of the 19th and early 20th centuries have only intensified their ferocity to tear down and demolish any sign, symbol, and icon representing Traditional Christianity. The forms and appearances of this nihilism have changed over the course of the decades, their destructive intentions, however, have not.

In the Gospel of John, it is written, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”¹⁴ We men and women seeking to live above the ruins of the postmodern world—constantly striving for some inkling of truth and semblance of authentic, lived Tradition—must accept down to our very core that this world and the rulers of this age hate us with a loathing that no human being should bare against their fellows. Let me be perfectly clear: the authorities and powers that rule this dark epoch hate us. They hate you, they hate me, they hate our faith and families, unborn children and righteous dead. These people will not stop until we are nothing but a footnote in history and the only records of us allowed to exist will be those that make us out to be monsters who fought until the end to prevent the arrival of the nihilistic utopia, a daemonic earthly “New Jerusalem.”

As Christians we need to understand that martyrdom is the greatest act of piety we can ever hope to achieve in our earthly lives. I do not mean going out and causing harm to others or advocating for violence, rather, by simply living our faith and stop apologizing for what we believe, we will have stalled the machinations of the enemy. Christianity became the State religion of the Roman Empire without a single stroke of the sword. It was in the arenas, coliseums, forums and public squares where Christians suffered, died and were martyred for the sake of righteousness. Such it was then, so it will be now. From the stoning of St. Stephen to the Edict of Thessalonica and from the Tourkokratia to the Fall of the Soviet Union, Christians have proven time and time again that we will always have the readiness to bleed, suffer and die for our faith. Let us then go forth and participate as athletes in the contest for Christ, proving true the adage that the blood of the martyrs is closer to God than the ink of the theologians and the prayers of the faithful.

  1. Specifically, the Eleventh Canon of Constantinople II
  2. Trigg, Joseph Wilson (1983), “Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church” Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little: For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.”
  5. 2 Corinthians 4:17.
  6. Ibid.
  7. 1 Peter 2:9.
  8. Matthew 12:36.
  9. 2 Corinthians 12:2-14.
  10. This is Origen’s reading of the text instead of “the Son of Man.”
  11. Matthew 10:28.
  12. Matthew 10:33.
  13. Genesis 4:10.
  14. John 15:15-19.