“He was a martyr for a good cause.” A person may be put to death (often quite brutally) because he refuses to recant his beliefs and teachings when he is demanded to do so by angry opponents. So we have Muslim martyrs, Jewish martyrs, communist martyrs, Christian martyrs, Buddhist martyrs, Hindu martyrs, and so on. They are all the same, right? Not really.
The English word martyr is an almost direct transliteration from the New Testament Greek word, martus, which originally meant a “witness.” It was especially used in the early church to signify those who were witnesses of Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (e.g., Acts 1:22), and consequently many of those Apostles died giving testimony of their Lord. In current usage it usually means people who are killed for refusing to renounce their religious faith, practices, and beliefs.1 The unspoken assumption is that if the person would renounce his beliefs, then he would not be put to death, and thereby avoid martyrdom. History is replete with tales of martyrs, from Old Testament believers, to the Apostles, to the early church fathers down to our time, especially in areas like the Sudan, the Middle East, Philippines, Indonesia, and parts of South America. For the most part, these have been either Jewish or Christian martyrs, and the logical question to ask would be why? Why not Buddhists or Taoists or Hindu martyrs to the same extent? We will consider that question in due course.
A martyr is someone who believes so strongly in his religion that he is unwilling to compromise when faced with external pressures to convert to another religion. He would rather face death than dishonor himself and his god (either a false god or the True and Living God of the Bible). He does not deem it right (even in those situations where the threat of death is imminent) to even outwardly conform to a “religious conversion,” even if he knows he would internally keep his original belief system. This would be construed as failing his god, lying to himself, and giving a poor testimony to the world about his god and religion. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are perfect examples of this type of mindset, although they were divinely spared from becoming martyrs (Daniel 3).
Radical Muslims who blow themselves up in a suicide bombing to kill others are occasionally called martyrs by some, but this is a misnomer. The suicide bomber is not a martyr, but one who has chosen their own death, and is actively pursuing it. They are not dying because they refuse to convert to Christianity (or Buddhism, or Hinduism), but rather because of a choice to be an offensive weapon of terror.