Scope vs Intensity of Persecution

There is an old saying that “more Christians were killed in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined” (see herehere, and here for examples of how this statistic is used). This has often been used as a simplistic attention-grabbing headline, but I think it conveys a very bad message. The tonal implication behind this is that the 20th century has a terrible martyrdom problem.
By the measure of the number killed, the 20th Century was clearly the “deadliest” century for Christians.
Yet Christianity has grown remarkably during this century, and is in no danger of being killed off. In fact the 20th century may very well have seen more Christians killed not because of an enormous upsurge in martyrdom but simply because there were more Christians to kill.
When considering martyrdom rates, there are two factors to look at: the scope of martyrdom (that is, the number of people killed) and the intensity of martyrdom (martyrs per Christian, or the % of Christians who were martyred).
The scope can be huge but the intensity low. If there are a million Christians in one place, and 10 are killed, it’s one thing; but if there are only 100 Christians in a place, and 10 are killed, it’s a completely different picture. During the days of the Roman Empire, the organized intentionality and intensity of some of the persecution periods (and there weren’t all that many) was far more intense because the number of Christians martyred as a percentage of all Christians was far higher. And there have been other organized persecutions of the church throughout history – Timur springs to mind, for example.
Last year there was some talk about Nigeria being the deadliest country for Christians. Nigeria may have the greatest scope of killings–yet it in fact has one of the lowest intensities. There were over 1,000 killed in last year in Nigeria–but Nigeria is also home to over 50 million Christians. 1,000 deaths, while horrible, doesn’t signal the overnight end of Christianity in Nigeria. This is a country where the evangelical missionary association (NEMA) wants to see 100,000 missionaries sent out from Nigeria!
Another way to look at this is the probability that any given Christian will face the very real possibility of martyrdom in their lives. Dividing the number of martyrdoms by the number of Christians (who could be martyred) gives us a rough estimate of the odds of martyrdom. Globally, that’s 100,000 out of 2 billion, or 1 in 20,000.
In Nigeria, it’s roughly 1,000 in 50 million (1,000 deaths out of 50 million Christians in Nigeria)–or 1 in 50,000. In other words, Nigeria, on average, is a safer place than most of the world in terms of the odds of someone dying.
The martyrdoms in Nigeria are largely confined to a few provinces in which Boko Haram is active. It’s probably very accurate to say those provinces are one of the deadliest places for Christianity right now–but Nigeria as a whole is a bastion of African Christianity. It’s a very complicated situation.
In places like Somalia, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, the intensity is far more dramatic. Somalia has less than 60,000 Christians, and killings are common. The ten people killed in 2008, for example, would make the odds of martyrdom in Somalia about 1 in 6,000. The intensity is greater. The fact that the president of Nigeria is a Christian and that it will send the military in to counter Boko Haram is a completely different situation than in Somalia, North Korea or Saudi Arabia.
Another thing to think about: certain professions face far greater risks of martyrdom than others. For example, there are about 1.1 million Christians in Saudi Arabia right now – mostly, expatriate workers. The average expat in Saudi Arabia keeps his head down and the probability of his/her arrest/martyrdom is pretty low. But Saudi Arabia also reportedly offers a bounty of a year’s salary for anyone who turns in a discipleship group or Bible study. So, the number of Bible study leaders is far lower–and the odds of their arrest, imprisonment, torture and death is far higher. Bishops, pastors, missionaries, aid workers–all of these face higher odds of death than the typical lay Christian who never faces any danger for his faith.
Finally, it’s important to remember that a lot of martyrdom in the world goes unreported for a very long time. Much of it doesn’t make the evening news. Jubilee Campaign has said the 1,000 people martyred in Nigeria is 70% of the world total, meaning there were only 1,500 martyrs worldwide last year. The Status of Global Mission computes 100,000 per year on average. There is a huge disconnect between those two numbers, which leads me to wonder about what definition and data set is being used. Sometimes when we only know about a certain number of martyrs but we know historical patterns, we have to assume some “under-the-water” icebergs that we will find out about later, after lots of careful research.