Would Jesus’ Disciples Have Died for a Lie?
What would you die for? Would you give your life for your family or friends? Would you die for a belief? If so, what kind of belief?
One of the most common arguments for the resurrection builds on the fact that the apostles were willing to suffer and die for their belief that Jesus had risen from the grave. While this argument doesn’t prove the truth of the resurrection, it does show they were not liars. In other words, the apostles really believed Jesus had risen. Thus, if you’re going to critique the evidence for the resurrection, you may need to find another route.
Consider four points that help establish the depth of their sincerity.
First, the earliest accounts all claim the apostles were eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus (e.g., Acts 1:21–22; 1 Cor. 15:3–8). Their convictions were based not on secondhand testimony but on the belief that they had personally seen the resurrected Christ with their own eyes. Unlike Islamic extremists who die for a secondhand faith, the apostles willingly suffered for a firsthand faith.
Second, even though persecution was sporadic and local, there is evidence that the public proclamation of the faith could be costly. For instance, consider the beheading of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:1–11), the crucifixion of Jesus, the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6–8), and “death by the sword” for James the brother of John. (Acts 12:12) The first statewide persecution of Christians was under Nero (AD 64), as reported by Tacitus (Annals 15.44:2–5) and Suetonius (Nero 16.2). The apostles publicly proclaimed the resurrection of a crucified criminal with full awareness of what their actions might cost them.
Third, early church historians Polycarp (2nd century) and Aphrahat (4th century) refer generally to the martyrdoms of the apostles, which indicate the existence of a moderately early tradition that the apostles died as martyrs (although, admittedly, there are many questions about these passages).
Fourth, there is strong reason to believe that Peter, Paul, James the son of Zebedee, and James the brother of Jesus died as martyrs. Take Peter, for instance. There are two first century references to his martyrdom: John 21:18-19 and 1 Clement 5:1-4. There are at least seven more sources in the second century that consistently tell the story that Peter died as a martyr. Similar quality of evidence can be offered for Paul and for both James.
On the other hand, the historical evidence for Andrew and Thomas is much weaker, but still enough to conclude that their martyrdoms are at least slightly more probable than not. As far as the rest of the apostles, the evidence is contradictory, late, and legend-filled. There is no early evidence any of them recanted, and we simply don’t know whether they were martyred or not. Regardless, we do know they willingly suffered for their belief that Jesus had risen from the grave (see Acts 4-5).
While this line of reasoning does not prove the resurrection is true, it does demonstrate that the apostles really believed Jesus had defeated death. The apostles could have been mistaken, but their willingness to suffer and die as martyrs establishes their unmistakable sincerity. The apostles were not liars; rather, they believed they had seen the risen Jesus, they were willing to die by this claim, and many actually did die for it. What more could they do to convince us of their sincerity?
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org
This article is third in a series on reasons for confidence in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.