Did the Disciples Die for a Lie?

If Christianity is a lie, if Jesus was never really raised from the dead, and if his followers never actually witnessed his empty tomb or ascension, would the disciples have died for their faith? There are many examples through history of men and women dying for a cause they believed to be true, but what about dying for a cause that you know is false? A martyr is someone who willingly endures persecution and often dies for refusing to renounce a particular belief or principle. It is hard to imagine anyone aspiring to martyrdom over something that they acknowledge to be untrue, and this is the central focus behind this question presented by countless Christian apologists. As Josh McDowell writes in More Than a Carpenter, “Jesus’ followers could not have faced torture and death unless they were convinced of His resurrection.”1 The obvious implication is that the disciples must have been telling the truth or else they would not have had the courage to die for the gospel.

Several avenues of response to this claim are available, but it will all hinge on the issue of whether or not the followers of Jesus could have known their beliefs were untrue. If there is no evidence that these men and women knew and accepted the falsity of Christianity, then their deaths are no more unique than suicide bombers or other martyrs who gave their lives for a cause. And there is nothing miraculous about the will to die for a strongly held belief, as members of many religions, political views, and ideologies have sacrificed themselves in such a way before.

I. Martyrs in a Hay Stack

To examine the martyrdom of the disciples, it is instrumental to know how the disciples died and for what reason they died. The bible only reports the deaths of two disciples: James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:1-3) and Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:5, Acts 1:18). Of course, Judas could hardly be claimed as a witness, not only because he betrayed Jesus, but because he died before the resurrection, according to the New Testament. The passage on James also gives us no indication about the circumstances of James’ death, simply stating that Herod decided to round up some of the church members and put them to death, among which was James. We are not told if James was given an opportunity to recant, and the verses explain that Herod’s decision was made more as a political move of appeasement of the Jews, rather than a direct assault on Christian beliefs.

We have to look outside the bible for the familiar stories of the early Christian martyrs, which come primarily from the 2nd and 3rd century authors Hippolytus and Eusebius. The chart to the right depicts the deaths of the apostles, as given in Hippolytus2 and Eusebius.3 Written over a hundred years after the disciples met their various ends, these accounts can only be chalked up to tradition, and the authors unfortunately did not disclose their sources. However, Hippolytus reports natural deaths for four of the twelve disciples (John, Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot), which means that, along with Judas/Matthias, nearly half of the disciples were not martyred under any tradition.

When we turn to the gospels with this information, we see that Matthew and John died of natural causes, and Mark and Luke were not among the twelve disciples or among those who witnessed the resurrection. Thus, even if we presume traditional authorship of the four gospels, none of the authors could have died for what they knew to be a lie. Matthew and John didn’t die martyrs at all and Mark and Luke, even if they had died for their faith, were not present at the tomb or the ascension and so would not likely have known their beliefs to be misplaced. Paul, who purportedly authored almost half the New Testament, was also not present during the resurrection, only seeing Jesus in a vision sometime later. There is no evidence the Christian scriptures were written by martyrs who would’ve known if they had bought into a lie.

Although it should not need to be said, the deaths of the other apostles are even less significant given that we don’t have any testimony from them. Traditions of martyrdom for figures like Thomas and Philip don’t come until approximately 100-150 years after their deaths. This should be enough to raise suspicion as to the authenticity of such martyrdom legends, and it is also worth noting that people have been made into martyrs after the fact by their followers, when they may have been killed without any chance to recant their faith. The sticky issue at the core of martyrdom is not just how someone met their death, but how they thought of going to their death.

1. Peter: crucified upside down under the reign of Nero
2. Andrew: crucified in Achaia
3. John: died a natural death at Ephesus
4. James: beheaded by Herod in Judea
5. Philip: crucified upside down in the reign of Domitian
6. Bartholomew: crucified upside down in India
7. Matthew: died a natural death in Parthia
8. Thomas: killed by a spear in India
9. James son of Alphaeus: stoned to death in Jerusalem
10. Thaddeus/Jude: died a natural death at Berytus
11. Simon the Zealot: died a natural death in Jerusalem
12. Judas Iscariot: death by suicide (Matt. 27:3-10) or falling (Acts 1:18)
12. Matthias (Judas’ successor): died a natural death in Jerusalem

II. Who Would’ve Known?

Once one has sifted through the various deaths of the apostles, the question should be asked: would they have known if they were following a lie? As already mentioned, it is quite unlikely that the authors of the New Testament – even as they are seen in conservative scholarship – would have known if Jesus’ resurrection never happened, since most of them were not around for the tomb or the ascension. Christian apologists sometimes like to argue that the disciples must have known because they witnessed Christ’s miracles. Yet this is not a convincing argument, as it presumes an inerrant historical accuracy of the gospels and the occurrence of extraordinary, supernatural events that have never been demonstrated to happen in our world. Additionally, the bible itself reports that some doubted the miracles, and even Jesus’ own disciples still had their doubts after seeing their risen savior (Matthew 28:16-17).

The ‘die for a lie’ argument is typically peddled by apologists as a response to the suggestion that the disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb to make it look as if he had risen from the dead. I will not be defending the stolen-body theory here, since it is not a view I accept, and in any other context, ‘die for a lie’ is lost in a sea of possibilities. Perhaps Jesus misled his disciples, maybe even performing some impressive magic tricks. As the bible portrays it, Jesus’ followers were very devoted to him even before they understood his teachings. Perhaps the disciples misunderstood Jesus’ teachings and conferred divinity and supernatural abilities on him when he had claimed no such thing for himself. Or perhaps what we have was embellished as the story developed – maybe the miracles, empty tomb, and ascension are later additions [see: He is Risen? Resurrection Discrepancies].

In considering who would’ve known the faith was a lie, two important details come to light. First, it is not at all obvious or easy to determine who among the disciples could have known if they were following a lie. The possible combinations of deception on the part of one individual, or multiple individuals, are difficult to assess with certainty, but still likely. Without having access to the disciples’ minds (the New Testament gives us the minds of men who were not martyred witnesses to the resurrection, you will recall), there is no sure way of knowing what they experienced, what they thought of it, and so forth. Secondly, people who invest themselves deeply into a faith or person can be notoriously defiant of facts that contradict what they wish to believe.

In an essay titled, “When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists”, social psychologist Lorne L. Dawson explains the various ways in which religious groups deal with prophetic failure.4 If the group is large enough and willing to retain a sense of community, there is a great chance of stemming off disappointment. If the leaders act quickly to provide some rationalization or explanation of the failure, labeling it as a “test of faith”, elaborating that the event really did happen on a spiritual and unseen level, or chalking it up to human error, there is an even stronger chance that the group will survive. Quoting two other social psychologists, Dawson writes that, “Beliefs may withstand the pressure of disconfirming events not because of the effectiveness of dissonance-reducing strategies, but because disconfirming evidence may simply go unacknowledged”. In other words, deeply invested believers may be known to count the hits and just ignore the misses.

The implications of such a study for the ‘die for a lie’ argument are tremendous. It may be that even if their beliefs had been exposed as false, the disciples may not have seen it that way. Not merely with cults, but with any group intensely dedicated to a belief or person, there is a tendency to rationalize discrepancies and reconcile cognitive dissonance. Thus, an expected messiah who dies prematurely might become a triumphantly raised immortal being.

III. Closing Words

Did the disciples die for a lie? As a non-Christian, I would say that the few who may have actually been martyred did die for beliefs that are false. However, I do not think the disciples died for what they knew was a lie. They were no different from others who have died for strong convictions, and they most likely believed it was for a good and true cause that they were to meet their death. There is no evidence of a miraculous strength under persecution that is exclusive to Christians, though, nor is there any reason to think that the disciples’ willingness to die for their beliefs makes their beliefs any more plausible than the martyrs of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, or any other group.

 

Sources:
1. Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Tyndale, 1977), p. 67.
2. Hippolytus, “On the Twelve Apostles of Christ,” Ante-Nicean Fathers, Vol. 5.
3. Eusebius, Church History, Books 2, 3 & 5.
4. Lorne L. Dawson, When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists, Nova Religio (1999), Retrieved May 15, 2011.