Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Disciples Wouldn't Die for a Lie

"And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

-Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:14, NIV

The resurrection is the sine qua non of the Christian faith and much has been written in its defence. Today I'd like to address one I've heard from a few different sources. My suspicion is that it originated with Lee Strobel's 'The Case for Christ' but I haven't given the origins investigation extensive time. Getting through the Case for Christ was trial enough already.

Anyway, on to the argument. It proceeds as follows:

  • Witnesses to the events of the resurrection are listed in the Gospels
  • They would not have been willing to die for their faith if it were based on a lie

Simple, straightforward and superficially satisfying. I agree that witnesses to the resurrection are listed in the Gospels. As to the second, it is hard for us to judge the hearts, minds and convictions of those at a remove of millennia. Perhaps their faith was this strong. Perhaps not. What matters is whether we can say it with certainty. 

Is this unfair? If you judge me harsh, you leave us in the awkward position of trying to prove the resurrection by taking the intentions of the disciples on faith. Why not skip a step, and suggest we take the resurrection on faith? Assuming you agree with the requirement to test the second premise, let's see what we can say.

As a street preacher I know says, ten out of ten people die. I am confident that all witnesses to the resurrection died. Were some martyred? James is listed as being killed by Herod in Acts 12:1, though the reason for this martyrdom is not listed. Does the premise hold in this instance? Did he willingly die for his faith in the resurrection? Was he, for example, given the opportunity to recant and be spared? We don't know. And his is the best attested apostles' death. We cannot judge his resolve at this distance without further information. 

But what of Paul? True, we have late traditions saying he was beheaded by Nero. But he did not meet Jesus in the flesh, and only ever claimed to have experienced him through visions, or more strictly, auditory hallucinations. Should he still be counted? If so we find ourselves trying to prove one supernatural event by assuming the truth of another. Why not save a step?


hargaden said...

Are you being inconsistent by privileging the Bible over the traditions of the church when you in fact trust neither?

Geoff said...

A fair question. I'd say the Gospels and Acts are useful historical documents, but that later traditions about the apostles' deaths are less reliable and more likely legendary. Also, the traditions I found didn't seem to support the premises either. Do correct me if I missed one of course!

RedCougar said...

When I was in Catholic school, a nun once explained that Christ's resurrection couldn't be a lie - because the belief in it has persisted for 2000 years! When I said "yeah, but the Jews are still around also and they don't believe in it", I was punished. So worth it though!!

Geoff said...

Interesting debate tactic they had!
Enjoyable blog by the way, do you still write?

Ronald said...

Out of curiosity, what do you suppose sparked Herod’s aggression towards the Jewish believers? According to the text, the Jewish believers specifically were persecuted, to the pleasure of the non-believing Jews, which only inclined Herod to persecute more Jewish believers.

Second, what do you make of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7?

Acts 8 tells of Paul ‘ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.’ In Acts 9 he’s recorded as ‘breathing threats and murder’ against the disciples. Acts 22 has Paul having said, ‘I persecuted this Way [the believers] to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished,’ i.e., killed. He continues later in the chapter, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’

Likewise in Acts 26 Paul’s recorded as having said, ‘I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.’ In Galatians 1 he said ‘I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.’ He says in Philippians 3 that in his zeal for Judaism he persecuted the believers. 1 Timothy 1 echoes all of the above.

Ronald said...

Now, regarding Paul’s martyrdom specifically –

We know Church tradition has him martyred at the hands of Nero. But we also have Paul’s own words, professing the extent that he was willing to suffer and most assuredly die for the sake of the Messiah. We can certainly survey his resolve. Acts 9 records the Messiah telling Paul ‘how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ Paul writes in 2 Cor. 11 that he has had,

‘. . . far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was 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 brothers; 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 on me of my anxiety for all the churches.’

Consider in Acts 20 Paul offers assurance that though he is going to face tribulations and death (in regards to his faith in the Messiah’s resurrection) that ‘none of these things move me: nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.’ Acts 21 Paul says, ‘I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’
Romans 8 Paul asks if there is anything that could separate him and the believers from ‘the love of the Messiah.’ He once again goes through a laundry list of persecution and death – none of which are sufficient.

Philippians 1 Paul is writing from prison, contemplating death. Due to his confidence in the resurrected Messiah he says that ‘it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Messiah will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Messiah, and to die is gain.’

To cut this short - does the NT record his martyrdom? No. But that’s because he lived through all the other times he suffered for the sake of the gospel. Considering all the opportunities he had to give up on his message of the resurrected Messiah – even after having been brought close to death – why didn’t he?

The willingness to suffer and die for the risen Messiah permeates the entire apostolic writings. It may not record many deaths, but it records much suffering and near-deaths due to the disciples’ unwavering message of the Messiah. To me, dying for my faith is easy. Suffering for it is much, much harder.

Geoff said...

On Paul, I completely agree with everything you wrote. He was willing to (and did) suffer hardships because of his belief in the resurrection. But to quote the post:

"But he did not meet Jesus in the flesh, and only ever claimed to have experienced him through visions, or more strictly, auditory hallucinations. Should he still be counted? If so we find ourselves trying to prove one supernatural event by assuming the truth of another. Why not save a step?"

To put it more briefly, you're asking me to assume the truth of the voices he heard, which I find a considerable stumbling block.