The Apostles Died for Their Real Belief in Jesus — Not for a Lie They Made Up

By Ryan Leasure Published on March 16, 2019

What would you be willing to die for? Your family? Country? Most cherished beliefs? 

Would you die for a lie? Would you subject yourself to the death penalty for a lie you made up yourself? How about taking a bullet for believing in purple unicorns? No, at some point, when they’re about to pull the trigger, you’d admit that the whole thing was a hoax.

If the apostles were willing to die for their belief in a resurrected Jesus, what does that say about their belief in the resurrection? It strongly suggests that they genuinely believed he rose again and appeared to them. Otherwise, at some point, at least one of them would have caved under the threat of persecution. Yet we have no evidence to suggest that any of them ever recanted.

Instead, we have an abundance of sources testifying to the apostles’ martyrdoms. Here are some from the first century (there are many more from later on).

Acts (AD 60s – 70s)

The boo, of Acts circulated the Roman Empire as a historical document. We really can use it as a historical source.

So consider Acts 12:1-3:

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.

Note that Herod aimed his persecution specifically at the church, of which James was a leader. Herod had James, the son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle John, beheaded for his Christian faith. 

The Gospel of John (AD 90)

Near the end of his Gospel, John appears to speak about Peter’s crucifixion. Listen to Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21:18-19

Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.

Tradition has it that Peter died by crucifixion, and Jesus’ words here in John 21 seem to affirm that claim.

Josephus (AD 94)

Josephus was a non-Christian Jewish historian. His writings give us more insight into first-century Palestine than any other writer. In one of his works, he references the martyrdom of Jesus’ brother James — the leader of the Jerusalem church. 

But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and ever insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the raid; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.1

Of course, if you know your Jewish law, stoning was the prescribed punishment for blasphemy. And proclaiming that Jesus was Lord would certainly fit into that category.

Clement of Rome (AD 95)

Writing to Christians in Corinth, Clement reminds the church of the recent apostles’ martyrdoms. He notes:

Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience. 2

It appears to be common knowledge that Peter and Paul both experienced martyrdom at the hands of the Romans. Other sources go into more detail, but it’s commonly understood that Peter died by crucifixion and Paul by beheading.

Alternative Theories for the Apostles Martyrdoms

How do skeptics explain the apostles’ martyrdoms?

One theory is that the disciples stole the body and lied about it. Again, though, we must ask ourselves, would someone really die for a lie? More than that, would a group of people collectively die for a lie that they made up themselves?? The only reasonable answer to this question is no, of course not.

The disciples were in a position to know for certain whether Jesus rose again or not, and yet they were still willing to die. That is to say, people will die for something they believe to be true, but no one willingly dies for something they know to be false. And the disciples would have known if Jesus’s resurrection was false.

Best Explanation for the Apostles’ Martyrdoms

Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. The resurrection appearances explain why the disciples went from cowards during Jesus’ trial and death to bold proclaimers of Christianity, even unto death. If you saw a man back from the dead, especially after he had predicted it, your life would change too.


Ryan Leasure holds a M.A. from Furman University and a M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.

Originally published at Adapted and republished with permission.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Like the article? Share it with your friends! And use our social media pages to join or start the conversation! Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MeWe and Gab.

The Habit of Nearness
Robert J. Morgan
More from The Stream
Connect with Us