Belief unto death. All for a lie?

The establishment and spread of the Christian faith is unique among all religions in that both rest on a historical event (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ) witnessed firsthand, unwavering belief that what was witnessed actually happened (i.e., what happened was a true state of affairs in reality), and the resolve to share this conviction in the face of adversity up to and including death. So, with these points in focus, would the apostles have been persecuted even unto death for something they knew they did not actually witness or was, in fact, untrue? Before looking at this issue, there are a few objections which need to be cleared up in order to move on.

First, as critics often decry, people believe lies, spread lies, and even die for lies all the time. In fact, they claim, Christians accuse all other religions of being a lie and point to the willingness of those adherents to go to their deaths as believers also. However, each of these criticisms miss the mark considerably when examined further. We can tie them all together and see it is true that people believe lies knowingly or unknowingly, but in each case, the individual either has something to gain from believing and spreading the lie, is uninformed, or has possibly been deceived purposely. Most often, people will believe, go along with, and spread lies because they have something to gain by doing so (e.g., self-preservation, fame and fortune, a good name, personal/academic/professional advancement and recognition, protection of assets, and so forth). Other times, people will simply believe a lie because they are uninformed or do not have enough information to know whether or not they hold an untrue belief. And finally, people will believe lies based on their trust in another person or entity who has willingly deceived them due to various motivations. In the case of the apostles, none of these reasons adequately account for their willingness to believe. First, as far as things of the world were concerned, they had nothing to gain and everything to lose (e.g., family, friends, social status in the community and synagogues, financial means, and even their lives). Second, they were certainly not uninformed about what had happened because they were eye-witnesses to the events. And third, while charges have been leveled by critics that the apostles were involved directly with a conspiracy, I am unaware of any attempt to substantiate a scenario in which the apostles themselves had fallen victim to the deceit of others. The key point is this: people with properly operating cognitive faculties do not willingly give up their lives, both figuratively and literally, for something they know is untrue. With nothing to gain and everything to lose, the lie would eventually be unveiled and the charade ended. However, even in the face of torture and death, they did not waver in their conviction and belief.

Second, critics attempt to dismiss the martyrdom of the apostles because records of their deaths are found in the early church writings of Hippolytus and Eusebius. Because of this, they say, the records are biased and most likely the product of church propaganda in an attempt to spread the religion. The problems with this objection are that (1) it begs the question in favor of the critic’s view that there is a lie to be spread, (2) it ignores the obvious question, “Where else would their deaths have been recorded if not in the history of the church?”, and (3) it ignores the incredibly inhospitable social climate towards Christianity during the first four centuries AD when the early church was established and when both Hippolytus and Eusebius lived. For (1), the critic simply assumes that either parts or the entirety of the gospel narratives are untrue and the church needed stories of martyrdom to fan the flames of the movement. On the issue of (2), the question addresses the objection by pointing the critic to the fact that the inclusion of the apostles’ deaths in the writings of the early church is obvious because they are a part of church history. Given the nature of religious and philosophical movements throughout the regions during early church history, it is reasonable to assume that no historians outside of the church would have given any special attention to the deaths of the apostles. Finally, (3) takes note of the situation early Christians found themselves in as they sought to establish the faith. Roman persecution of Christianity has deep roots spanning from the reign of Nero (ca. AD 64-68) to Diocletian and Galerius (ca. AD 303-324). The apostles and subsequent Christians placed themselves into severely hostile environments for the sake of their beliefs knowing full well that they would be subject to public humiliation, torture, and death (at times gruesome and for the pleasure of an audience).

Of the twelve apostles, John, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Matthew are assumed to have died a natural death while Judas hanged himself and the remaining seven were put to death for their faith. Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, Philip, and Bartholomew were all crucified. Thomas was speared through his body. James the son of Alphaeus was stoned and James the son of Zebedee was beheaded. To read the writings of Hippolytus, Eusebius, and other church fathers, take a look here. These men were willing to risk everything sharing the belief in an event which changed their lives forever. These are the actions of men not led by a motivation to deceive, but by the conviction of a truth so important that no amount of opposition would sway them to give up.

Witnessing firsthand a thriving Christian faith adhered to by over two billion people across the globe [1], we are left to determine the best explanation for this fact. One form of inductive reasoning useful to this discussion is what’s known as Inference to the Best Explanation. Discussing this method, Craig and Moreland explain,

In such an inference we choose from a pool of live options the explanation that, if true, would best explain the facts at hand. We assess which explanation is the best in terms of such criteria as explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, degree to which it is ad hoc, accord with accepted beliefs and comparative superiority vis-à-vis its rivals. [2]

Given the above criteria, the pool of live options, and the inability for competing hypotheses to better explain the establishment and rise of the Christian faith, the most plausible explanation is that the apostles did in fact witness the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Competing views offered by critics in attempt to dismiss the historical Jesus, a bodily resurrection, and the church itself, fail to adequately explain the facts as substantially as the traditionally held view of Christians today.

Reading Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, there can be no doubt that the historical fact of the resurrection is the very foundation of Christianity, the object of conviction for the apostles, and the instrumental event in spreading the faith throughout the world. Paul writes,

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without foundation, and so is your faith. In addition, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified about God that He raised up Christ – whom He did not raise up if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (1 Cor. 15:13-19)

1. Luis Lugo and Alan Cooperman, “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” The Pew Forum,
http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Global-Christianity-exec.aspx (accessed September 18, 2012)

2. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 66.

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About Dwight Stanislaw

Dwight is a second-year religious studies student with a passion for apologetics, philosophy, and theology. He loves to read, write, spend time with family and friends, and cheer for the professional sports teams of Colorado. His personal blog, Man on Mars, can be found at http://themanonmars.wordpress.com