The Republic of Korea is now a thriving economic power, one of the “Asian Tigers” of production and wealth generation—a leader in automobile manufacturing (Hyundai, Kia), telecommunications devices (LG), and consumer electronics (Samsung). South Korea is now a global force, maintaining the 12 largest economy on earth.
Approximately 1/3 of the adults in South Korea are Christians. In fact, the largest Christian congregation in the world exists in Korea—the Yoido Full Gospel Church on Yoi Island in Seoul. In 2007, the population of the Yoido church exceeded 830,000. Yes! the congregation of this one church is equal roughly to the population of San Francisco. Korea and Christianity appear to be getting along quite well.
It was not always the case that Korea and Christianity could peacefully coexist. In the 18th and (especially) the 19th centuries, Koreans were terribly intolerant of Christians. By the end of 1866, the Christian population of Korea totaled about 20,000. That year, Christians were martyred by the thousands; estimates put the total number of Christians killed between 8-10,000.
Today, Christians in Korea remember those who paved the way of faith with their own blood. In Jeoldusan, on the spot where hundreds of martyrs were killed, there is now a Museum-Shrine to Korean martyrs. Detailed records in the museum tell the story of how Confucian leaders killed Christians so their “errors” would not catch on and lead Koreans “astray.” Yet Christianity did catch on in Korea—eventually.
In 1962, Christians made up only 5% of the population of South Korea. Now, as I said above, over 30% of the population is Christian. What a difference 50 years can make! How have Christians made such a difference in Korea over the past 50 years? The secret may well be in the faith their Christian forefathers showed over the last century, suffering intense persecution but maintaining a witness to the truth through it all.
Consider the faithful witness of Saint Andrew Kim Taegon. By the age of 25, he had become Korea’s first Catholic bishop. And at the age of 25, he was martyred for his faith in Christ. In the face of his imminent execution, he proclaimed,
“This is my last hour of life, listen to me attentively: if I have held communication with foreigners, it has been for my religion and for my God. It is for Him that I die. My immortal life is on the point of beginning. Become Christians if you wish to be happy after death, because God has eternal chastisements in store for those who have refused to know Him.”
In the face of death, Christians maintained the hope of life. Over time, the Christian answer to death proved much more powerful than either Confucianism or the ancestor worship of Korea’s tribalism. The real world problem of death demands an uncompromising solution. Christ alone satisfies death’s demand. The Korean martyrs left decades of powerful testimonies affirming the Resurrection.
Though we Christians may lose the temporal battle for life to the power of our enemies, we cannot finally lose at all. Where is death’s victory? Has it not been swallowed by the resurrected life of our Lord Jesus Christ? Death no longer stings the believer.
So whatever battles appear to be lost, let us remember as Andrew Kim Taegon did to press on by faith in our Jesus who has been raised from the dead. Who knows what the Lord may do in 50 years or in 150 years? We know already what he has done to death in the death of Christ. Our sure hope is Christ, who began a good work in us and will keep it until His final, victorious return. Thanks be to God for our indescribable gift.