Comparisons of this kind are forbidden by the divine Apostle. In his Epistle to the Romans he writes |Therefore judge nothing before the time until the Lord come who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make manifest the counsels of the heart: and then shall every man have praise of God.| And he is quite right; for we can see only outward deeds, but the God of all knows also the intention of the doers, and when He delivers his sentence judges not so much the work as the will. So He will crown the divine Apostle who became to the Jews as a Jew, to them that were under the law as under the law, and to them that were without law as without law for his object in thus assuming an actor's mask was that he might do good to mankind. His was no time-server's career. The gain he got was loss, but he secured the good of them whom he taught. As I said, then, the divine Paul bids us wait for the judgment of God. But we are venturing on high themes; we are handling a theology passing understanding and words; not, like the unholy heretics, seeking blasphemous positions, but endeavouring to confute their impiety, and as far as in us lies to give praise to the Creator; we shall therefore do nothing unreasonable in attempting to reply to your enquiry.
You have suggested the case of an impious judge giving to two athletes of piety the alternative of sacrificing to demons, or flinging themselves into the sea. You describe the one as choosing the latter and plunging without hesitation into the deep, while the other, refusing both, shews quite as much abhorrence of the worship of idols as his companion, but declines to commit himself to the waves, and waits for this fate to be violently forced upon him. You have suggested these circumstances, and you ask which of these two took the better course. I think that you will agree with me that the latter was the more praiseworthy. No one ought to withdraw himself from life unbidden, but should await either a natural or a violent death. Our Lord gave us this lesson when He bade those that are persecuted in one city flee to another and again commanded them to quit even this and depart to another. In obedience to this teaching the divine Apostle escaped the violence of the governor of the city, and had no hesitation in speaking of the manner of his flight, but spoke of the basket, the wall, and the window, and boasted and glorified in the act. For what looks discreditable is made honourable by the divine command. In the same manner the Apostle called himself at one time a Pharisee and at another a Roman, not because he was afraid of death, but acting quite fairly in fight. In the same way when he had learnt the Jews' plot against him he appealed to C√¶sar and sent his sister's son to the chief captain to report the designs hatched against him, not because he clung to this present life, but in obedience to the divine law. For assuredly our Lord does not wish us to throw ourselves into obvious peril; and this is taught us by deed as well as by word, for more than once He avoided the murderous violence of the Jews. And the great Peter, first of the Apostles, when he was loosed from his chains and had escaped from the hands of Herod, came to the house of John, who was surnamed Mark, and after removing the anxiety of his friends by his visit and bidding them maintain silence, betook himself to another house in the endeavour to conceal himself more effectually by the removal. And we shall find just the same kind of wisdom in the old Testament, for the famous Moses, after playing the man in his struggle with the Egyptian and finding out the next day that the homicide had become known, ran away, travelled a long journey, and arrived at the land of Midian. In like manner the great Elias when he had learnt Jezebel's threats did not give himself up to them which wished to kill him, but left the world and hurried to the desert. And if it is right and agreeable to God to escape the violence of our enemies, surely it is much more right to refuse to obey them when they order a man to become his own murderer. Our Lord did not give in to the devil when he bade Him throw Himself down, and when he had armed against Him the hands of the Jews by means of the scourge and the thorns and the nails, and the creature was urging Him to bring wholesale destruction on His wicked foes, the Lord Himself forbade, because He knew that His Passion was bringing salvation to the world, and it was for this reason that just before His Passion He said to His Apostles |Pray that ye enter not into temptation,| and taught us to pray |Lead us not into temptation.| Now let us shift our ground a little, and we shall see our way more clearly. Let us eliminate the sea from the argument, and suppose the judge to have given each of the martyrs a sword, and ordered the one who refused to sacrifice to cut off his own head; who in his senses would have endured to redden his hand with his own blood, become his own headsman, lift his hand against himself, in obedience to the judge's order?
Clearly your second martyr deserves the higher praise. The former indeed deserves credit for his zeal, but the latter is adorned by right judgment as well.
I have answered you according to the measure of the wisdom given me; He who knows thoughts as well as acts, will shew which of the two was right in the day of His appearing.