The Importance of Hell to the Martyrs

The doctrine of hell was of great importance to the early Christian martyrs’ sacrifices. They probably would not have gone so willingly to their deaths if not for the knowledge of the sanctions of heaven and hell.

In the Catholic Church, there are two different types of contrition one can do for one’s sins: imperfect contrition and perfect contrition. Perfect contrition is the sorrow for one’s sins because they are offensive to God. Imperfect contrition is the sorrow for one’s sins for the fear of losing heaven and being damned to hell. The early Christian martyrs of the second and third centuries were not solely motivated by fear of hell, but it played a very important role in their sacrifices.

The Catholic Church taught that the giving of one’s life for the Catholic faith (martyrdom) means that person would definitely go to heaven. Without the threat of the negative sanction of hell and the hope for the positive sanction of heaven, the martyrs’ enthusiasm for dying for their beliefs would have been diminished. If the doctrine of the Catholic Church made no provision for positive or negative sanctions after death, then no one would have had any incentive to do anything righteous. Good deeds would not be rewarded and bad deeds would not be punished. The martyrs made their sacrifices because of their belief that a greater world awaited the righteous after death.

If the doctrine of heaven existed and the doctrine of hell did not, the martyrs still would not have been so anxious to sacrifice their lives for their faith. If heaven awaited all those who died, regardless of their righteousness, why would they have willingly died for what they believed in? Wouldn’t it have been much easier for the Catholics to denounce their faith during the various persecutions if entering heaven was a given? The idea of hell was important in motivating the martyrs to do what they did.

The martyrs were very enthusiastic about dying for their faith, and according to The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity:

 “The day of their [the martyrs’] victory shone forth,
 and they proceeded from the prison into the amphitheater,
as if to an assembly, joyous and of brilliant countenances;
if perchance shrinking, it was with joy, and not with fear.”

The doctrine of hell was of great importance to the early Christian martyrs. The great martyr Polycarp said, after being threatened with death by fire:

 “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth
for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of
the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the
ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.”
The fear of hell motivated the martyrs to do what they could to avoid it. If not for the threat of negative sanctions, they would have had no incentive to die for their faith. No doubt there would still be people willing to die rather than to denounce their faith, but without the doctrine of hell, they would have been few and far between.
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