During the first three centuries of the Christian era those who refused to deny the name of Jesus and sacrifice at the Roman altars were tortured until they either broke under pressure or mercifully passed out of this life. The persecutions were sporadic but intense. In 251 there was a systematic attempt to destroy Christianity by making everyone in the empire sacrifice to the Roman gods and obtain a certificate, but this lasted less than a year. For most of the developing era of the Christian church, this dramatic death was rare enough to not present a true threat to its further growth and development.
We can ask the question "what is the meaning of these deaths?" To a Roman citizen they likely meant the triumph of Roman justice over those 'atheists' and disturbers of the peace who strangely refused to be a part of the state life, who were therefore traitors. But to a Christian, martyrdom could provide a number of possible meanings. Suffering and death could be a meaningful (and even desirable!) activity, as strange as that seems to our modern sensibilities where any unhappiness or suffering is evidence of defect. Martyrdom could be seen as the final ascetic rejection of the body and triumph of the spirit. It could be the emulation of the passion and death of their Lord Jesus Christ, which suffering they believed offered to man the possibility of life after death. Instead of dying as a criminal, a martyr "witnessed" and confessed his or her faith and showed that it was stronger than the state law. By dying they inverted Roman justice and used their suffering and death as a witness for the truth of their movement and a witness against the Romans--for they believed themselves guilty of no crime. Who gets to say what the meaning is for such a death? The Roman keepers of the peace, or the persecuted Christians?
Dr, Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychotherapist, happened to be Jewish at a very inconvenient time, and found himself at Auschwitz, all of his family dead, his life's work (a manuscript for his later book) burned as he entered. Through his experience he came to develop what he called "logotherapy" or finding meaning or reason, "logos" in life. He believed that the meaning of life is different for every indivdual, and is a question that is put to each of us to answer through our actions. A brief anecdote he relates will make this clear. An elderly doctor friend had been grieving terribly over the loss of his longtime companion two years ago. He could not bear to carry on without his wife, and was in deep depression. Frankl asks him what would have happened if the doctor had passed away instead, widowing his wife. His friend replied that it would have been horrible for her and she would have suffered greatly. Frankl then responds that by outliving his wife, he has spared her this anguish, and has paid for it himself by his daily loneliness and grief. Having a meaning attached to his suffering, the doctor shakes Frankl's hand and leaves. Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche as saying that he who has a 'why' to live can endure almost any 'how'.
Man is has the power of self-determination, the freedom to choose his attitude and define his meaning in life, Frankl asserts. Though it may seem harsh, he applies this to his memory of the camps--no matter what the circumstances, this freedom (and responsibility) can never be taken from you. We are free to choose how we respond, how we define the meaning of our lives through our thoughts and actions. Though the responsibility is great--we must accept the blame for our failures and faults--the freedom and possibilties are even greater. We can find rise above or change our circumstances and not merely wallow in the mire of being victims. This is harsh doctrine, and perhaps only because he endured the most horrible tragedy of the century was Frankl given the freedom to say such things. In the current culture of victimhood it is so easy to blame your parents or your grandparents (that is, your upbringing or your genes). Frankl is not denying the suffering and pain of victims; he does not teach that we can wish it away with a positive attitude. Rather we can answer the question put to us by life by living rightly and morally and with love; we can still choose to be fully human. We can receive evil and still give good back. Such is the story of Joseph sold into Egypt by his brothers and falsely accused by Potiphar's wife.
I have not been imprisoned in a concentration camp, sold into Egypt by my family, nor is it likely that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will throw me to the lions if I refuse to deny my faith. My struggles and sufferings are minor, even puny in comparison. So are those of people I know around me, though like a gas, suffering tends to fill any container; no matter how small the provocation, it can fill a soul with suffering, especially if there is lack of meaning. The challenge is the same for the Harvard chemist, and the question is the same. Life asks of us what the meaning and purpose is of our lives, and we must respond.