When the Roman empire told everyone in the empire to worship the emperor or their other gods, the early Christians refused to do so. Because of this, the Roman officials would execute many Christians who resisted these decrees. Those who chose died for their faith and did not give in to the desires of their oppressors were called martyrs.
Although the Romans threatened the Christians with various punishments, the Christians believed that the worst punishment that they could give them would be death. God, however would issue even worse punishment to the Roman officials if they did not repent. God, the martyrs believed, would give them rewards if they endured to the end. God’s sanction of hell was much more damaging than the temporary sanctions of the Roman officials.
In the epistle The Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, a letter from the church of Smyrna to other Christian centers throughout the Roman empire. It tells of the martyrdom of Polycarp, a Christian leader who lived in the second century. When told to say “Away with the atheists”, and to blaspheme Christ, Polycarp waved his hand at the people in the amphitheater and said “Away with the atheists”, indicating that they were the true atheists. The word “atheist” was not used as it is used today. Today it is used to describe someone who does not believe in a god, but here it is used to describe someone who does not believe in the true god (or gods). When asked to reproach Christ, he stated that Christ had done him no wrong in the eighty-six years he served him, and that he could not blaspheme his Lord and Christ. The proconsul threatened him with wild beasts, but Polycarp still wouldn’t submit to his desires. When threatened with being burned alive, Polycarp said that his fire would soon be extinguished, while the fire of hell reserved for the ungodly was eternal and would last forever.
Polycarp was originally ordered to be killed by a lion in the amphitheater, but because the shows of the wild beasts were over, the keeper of the beasts said it was not lawful to release them anymore. Polycarp was then sentenced to be burned alive. They set up the firewood and set it on fire. But, since the fire did not reach him, they killed him with a spear.
Another example of this belief of the martyrs was the account The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity. In this account, a African noblewoman named Perpetua and a servant named Felicity were arrested, along with other Christians, for their beliefs. They were put into prison for a while, and were then led to be killed by wild beasts in the amphitheater. When they came in sight of the head official who was responsible for their deaths, they said, “You judge us, but God will judge you”. They obviously believed that hell was a much greater judgement than what they were facing at the moment. When they were brought into the amphitheater, some of them were killed by the wild beasts, and those who survived the wild beasts were killed with the sword afterwards.