QUAERITUR: Do martyrs killed in the state of mortal sin go to Heaven?

From a reader:

I know that the Church teaches that people that die in a state of mortal sin cannot go to Heaven. However, can martyrs killed in a state of mortal sin still go to Heaven?

Excellent question, and one that should remind people to GO TO CONFESSION.  We don’t know when our turn is going to come.  It could be today.  If you know yourself to be out of sync with God and doubt or know that you are not in the state of grace… there is a solution for you.  You know what it is.

Ad rem: Holy Church holds that when a person dies with “voluntary suffering or sustaining of death for the faith or another virtue related to God” and also that the person was killed “out of hate for the faith or for a virtue prescribed by the faith”, then – provided both of these elements can be ascertained through clear proofs and not just conjectures or guesses – he died the death of a “martyr”.

Moreover, the person must voluntarily accept the death that is inflicted for the sake of the faith.  This acceptance can be long-standing and habitual or it can be of shorter duration, but it has to last until their last moment of earthly life.  Even in the act of dying, they have to accept death for the sake of Christ and faith in Him.

Just because you were willing to die a martyrs death and you were killed longing to be a martyr, those elements don’t make you truly a Christian martyr.  Just because someone kills you from hatred of the faith, you are not necessarily a martyr.  The different elements must converge.  Voluntary death for love of Christ and death from hatred of Christ.

In that supreme moment of dying, we hold that all the virtues are present in the person in a heroic way.  It is as if there is a fiery cleansing of burning charity coursing through the martyr’s soul.  This is a rather poetic way to put it, of course.  In a sense, this true martyrdom can substitute for a sacramental confession of sins.

It would not, however, in the case of non-martyrs.

We all are called to foster virtue in a heroic measure (be mindful of the sense of “heroic” here, as understood by the Church in these causes of canonization, etc.).  We are summoned by Christ and the Church to persevere in the life of virtue to the end.  True martyrdom, however, is a special case of intense Christian living and Christian dying.

It is paradoxical that blood is what makes the Church grow (cf. Tertullian).  It was Christ’s overwhelming “defeat” on the Cross that was the greatest victory of human history.  Martyrs hold a special place in the album of the saints precisely because their blood was and is now the seed of the Church’s fruitful growth.

This does not mean that we cannot try to avoid death.  We don’t have to invite death.  We can try to flee or hide or defend ourselves and loved ones and the innocent with us.  However, when the moment comes when we are brought to death as lovers of Christ, His Church and the virtues that Christian life requires, then as martyrs we (please God!) abandon ourselves to His will in charity, hope and faith, with accepting perseverance to our last breath.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION, Modern Martyrs, New Evangelization, Our Catholic Identity, Saints: Stories & Symbols, The future and our choices, The Last Acceptable Prejudice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Palladio says:

    Gratias tibi, pater.

  2. iPadre says:

    The supreme gift from God to a chosen soul and given back in love. St. Therese said “Love is repaid by love alone.” If we could all be worthy of such a great gift.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    There have always been a fair number of Christians of extremely dubious character who are still perfectly willing to die for their Lord when worst comes to worst. Ditto apostates who change their minds, stop fearing martyrdom, and are “resurrected into life,” as the early Christian martyrs used to say. Similarly, there are a fair number of non-Christians who respond to nasty comments and the martyring of Christians with the decision that Whoever this Christ guy may be, He’s the better one to follow; they go from a life of pagan (or atheist) sin to Christian martyrdom in one fell swoop.

    A life of virtue and becoming more like Christ is a darned good thing, and would also be more likely to strengthen one against persecution and martyrdom. But if it comes down to it, you can pass His test even at the last minute. Those who know they owe Jesus the most will love Him most, and that will often be the worst sinners, turning around at the last moment.

  4. lmgilbert says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, please Father, but one other note should be added to any catechesis about martyrdom: it is not something one should court. One could pray for the grace of martyrdom, and the grace to bear it,and I believe there have saints who have done just that and have had their prayers answered.

    That is a very different thing from indulging the fantasy that if the opportunity presented itself one would certainly be faithful to Christ and go singing to one’s martyrdom, or to boast to oneself or to others that one would never deny Christ in the face of martyrdom, that it would be one’s glory to die for Christ, or to despise people who apostatize in the face of martyrdom and to think or to say that one would never do that. In the early Church, those are the very people who apostatized. If we are ever hunted down for our faith, it is a very bad idea to step forward and volunteer for martyrdom confident that we will be faithful unto death. As Robert Bolt has Thomas More saying in A Man for All Seasons, “Our natural business lies in escape.”

    Why do I say all this? Because in the current climate where persecution seems to be coming our way, I have seen people in conversation at a party tear up as they contemplate the beauty and nobility of their own martyrdom! They see themselves as guiding the sword to their own throat in the coming days of persecution as in the painting above. No, none of us has the strength to bear it and it is very dangerous to think that we do. If anything, we should be praying for the grace not to betray Him if it comes to that, for left to ourselves it is certain that we would.

  5. sw85 says:


    Can you explain how the idea of ‘martyrs of charity’ fits into this? Is this a ‘real’ category of martyrdom in the sense that you describe it here or is it more of an analogical kind of martyrdom? I’m thinking specifically of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of a husband and father in a Nazi death camp. [I don’t see the distinction. All true martyrs are so “of charity”.]

  6. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Thanks for the encouragement re: confession. Another reason to go to confession: it helps one to avoid falling into mortal sin.

  7. Ralph says:

    We are living in a time of martyrs. I am thinking especially of our brothers in Asia and the Arab World, may God have mercy on them.

    I believe that Christians in North America will soon be called to the heroic witness that is martyrdom. (It’s not unthinkable. Not 40 miles from where I write this, Christians were martyred in the last century during the Mexican Revolution) We need to keep our children close and in the faith.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    Even St. Thomas More noted, when he looked out of the window at the Carthusian monks singing, “like bridegrooms”, that he needed the time he had in prison to come to the needed spiritual state of martyrdom. It seems to me that this is a process. If we are use to dying to self daily and trying to live the life of the virtues, then martyrdom is just one more step. I would be concerned if a person was sinning and not trying to break away from serious sin would think that relying on martyrdom would “save” them at the last minute. One has to create a disposition of the soul and mind and heart. A martyr who is imprisoned for awhile might not have had the ability to have his confession heard, but the practice of the Presence of God and the life of the virtues could help one on the way. I would not want to rely on martyrdom for sanctity, but instead, cooperate with daily grace.

  9. Peggy R says:

    Interesting as I just finished Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.” No priest was available or willing to hear the martyr’s confession of a mortal sin. He was clearly remorseful and wished to be unburdened of this sin, but no one could. It is an important read for us in the US these days.

  10. cainech says:

    As St. Thomas More remarks in “A Man for All Seasons”: “He will not refuse one so blithe to go to Him.”

  11. What about the Holy Innocents? All the elements of true martyrdom as listed above were not present in their case, but do we not revere them as martyrs? Why would someone similarly situated — murdered out of hatred for Christ, but not knowing it — not also gain heaven? I can see why such a person might not be honored publicly as a martyr, but would their death not constitute a baptism of blood?

  12. Norah says:

    ” a person dies with “voluntary suffering or sustaining of death for the faith or another virtue related to God” and also that the person was killed “out of hate for the faith or for a virtue prescribed by the faith”, then –”

    With the above teaching of the Church in mind how is it that Fr Maximilian Kolbe and Sr Teresa Benedicta were proclaimed saints when, as said above, Fr Kolbe died because he volunteered to take another’s place and Sr Teresa Benedicta was killed because she was born Jewish?

  13. Supertradmum says:

    Some people want to know about the Holy Innocents and about the Maccabees. These people, babies, children, young persons, mother, ancient man, died BEFORE Christ was made manifest to the world and before the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The Church recognizes these exceptions, which they are, as the babies died because of the Presence of the Messiah in Bethlehem, and not because of consent, and the Maccabees because they were obeying the Law and following God in the purity of their hearts, looking forward to the Resurrection. However, as they are part of the Old Covenant, and the babies did not know Christ but suffered for Him directly, even though He was not yet manifested, the Church in Her Wisdom has canonized all as martyrs. These are exceptions to the New Covenant, the New Testament. In other words, now, martyrs choose Christ, as He is known.

  14. SonofMonica says:

    To the original question, I have the ever-present feeling that many more of us are about to find out.

  15. Supertradmum says:

    Norah, St. Maximilian Kolbe was imprisoned for being a priest. He was already being persecuted for his faith. His final giving up of his life for another prisoner is just part of that process of being persecuted for his priesthood. Again, his martyrdom is in that context.

    And, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was arrested not merely for being a Jew, but for witnessing to her faith as a Catholic nun. She was a Jewish-Catholic. One does not separate the witness of the faith from one’s Jewishness. In fact, it most likely irritated the Nazis more that a famous, really famous philosopher, Edith Stein, would become a Catholic nun. That would be like me saying that if I was imprisoned in Ireland for being an American Catholic working against abortion, (which I am not publicly only in prayer), would I be punished for being an American, a Catholic, or pro-abort? How can you separate these parts of our being?

  16. Supertradmum says:

    oops anti-life-horrors, but you get my point. I think people see martyrdom as a one off thing which happens when, actually, it is a way of life. If we are not working on the path to martyrdom, there is not going to be a magic moment when all of the sudden we choose to die for the faith. We have to be dying for the faith daily in some ways, even small ways, to face the big decision. If you look at the lives of the martyrs, like Blessed Titus Brandsma and others, they were making decisions for the Church, for religious freedom, for God, along the way.

    If someone is not living in the life of virtues and grace daily, it seems to me to be presumptuous to expect to choose the correct way under torture or duress.

  17. Pingback: Convicted Killer Chooses Christ - BigPulpit.com

  18. Pingback: Pastoral Sharings: "I came to cast fire upon the earth" | St. John

Comments are closed.