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A Good Martyr Is Hard to Find

It seems like a slam dunk to say the apostles wouldn't have 'died for a lie.' But be careful to avoid these pitfalls!

A common argument for the Resurrection goes like this: Jesus rose from the dead because the disciples willingly submitted to torture and martyrdom instead of recanting their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. If they were just making up the story of the Resurrection, we’d expect them to admit it once it looked as though they were about to be killed. This argument is often summarized as “Who would die for a lie?” or “Liars make poor martyrs.”

But there are three issues I must address when it comes to using this argument.

First, we must be clear that this argument is not meant to prove that Jesus rose from the dead. It’s not trying to prove the existence of anything supernatural. Instead, it is a part of the general argument for Christ’s resurrection.

The main evidence for the Resurrection is that people who were in a good place to know if Jesus rose from the dead say that this happened. Once we prove they did say this (and that resurrection claims aren’t later legends), we have to show that they sincerely believed it (they weren’t frauds) and what they experienced took place beyond their own minds (they weren’t hallucinating).

That means “Who would die for a lie?” doesn’t prove that Christ rose from the dead; it just proves that the apostles weren’t frauds, and thus it makes a part of the case for the Resurrection rather than the whole thing.

Second, one might object that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, also endured persecution and risked death. Does that mean that Mormonism is true? Do Muslim suicide-bombers prove that Islam is true, since they would never “die for a lie”?

Remember: martyrdom doesn’t prove that a belief is true—it just proves that the believer is sincere. Modern day martyrs, Christian and non-Christian, are probably quite sincere. But unlike the apostles, they aren’t in a position to know if the belief they are dying for is true or not.

As for Mormonism, Joseph Smith could have been sincerely mistaken and caught up in 19th-century Protestant revivalism. Or he could have been a charlatan willing to take certain risks in order to gain earthly rewards. For example, whereas the apostles weren’t known for using their status to acquire sexual partners, Joseph Smith used his position to acquire dozens of “spiritual wives,” some as young as fourteen years old.

Moreover, whereas we will see evidence of the apostles accepting martyrdom for their beliefs, no such similar example exists for Joseph Smith, who died in a shootout using a gun smuggled into the jail where he was being kept for trial—hardly what one would call a willingness to submit to martyrdom.

Finally, we shouldn’t place an undue emphasis on the apostles being martyred. We can show that the apostles were sincere simply in that fact that they risked tremendous suffering and death to proclaim the Resurrection. It isn’t necessary to prove they were actually martyred.

This is important because it isn’t as easy as you might think to prove that the apostles (except for St. John) were martyred.

For many of the apostles, the accounts of their martyrdoms come from sources written one or even several centuries after their deaths. Although the Church may be able to recognize a sacred tradition transmitted through these accounts, skeptical scholars are much more willing to dismiss them as legends. The definitive treatment of this issue is found in Sean McDowell’s book The Fate of the Apostles. McDowell is a Protestant Christian, and even he finds exceptionally strong historical evidence for the martyrdom of only four witnesses of Jesus: Peter, Paul, James the son of Zebedee, and James the Brother of the Lord.

But the fact that all the apostles risked persecution, and some of them definitely were persecuted, without pursuing comparable earthly rewards, à la Joseph Smith, is strong evidence of their sincerity.

First, Jesus’ public preaching about himself led to suffering and death, so it was rational for the apostles to assume that the same thing would happen to them if they preached Jesus’ message.

Second, we have the firsthand accounts of St. Paul, who describes his own suffering at the hands of the Jewish leaders. He says he experienced “far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” compared to other Christians. He also says,

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:24-28).

Not only does Paul say he was scourged and almost killed, but he admits that before his conversion, he himself used to persecute the Church. In Philippians 3:6, he says he was “a persecutor of the church,” and in Galatians 1:13, he writes, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”

Third, we have the accounts of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles that describe Peter and John being brought before the Sanhedrin (ch. 4) and the apostles being scourged for proclaiming the Resurrection (5:40). And for more on persecution, there is Acts 8:1-3 says that after the stoning of Stephen,

on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Fourth, we have testimony from the Roman historian Tacitus that says that during the time of the great fire in Rome, or A.D. 64, which was when the apostles were still alive, Emperor Nero persecuted Christians. He writes,

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.

All of this evidence shows that the original apostles would have, at a minimum risked suffering and even death in order to preach the gospel. The best explanation for their actions is that they sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead. So we must ask: what caused them to have this steadfast belief in spite of seeming defeat?

Most critical scholars who study the Resurrection (even though they don’t believe that it happened) do not question the disciples’ sincerity. Gerd Ludeman says, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (What Really Happened to Jesus?, 80).

And the Jewish scholar Paula Fredriksen says, “I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.”

Once we show that the apostles didn’t “die for a lie,” we are in a good position to defend the glorious truth that they, at the very least, risked death for instead.

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