Christians claim that eleven of the twelve the disciples, who were eyewitnesses, were martyred for their belief in the resurrection. They were tortured and killed in horrible ways, supposedly for their beliefs. And who would go through that for a lie?
Of course, all kinds of people will die for a lie, and not just religious lies, either. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to people who would die for a lie. The first thing that comes to mind is 9/11 and other jihadist attacks, where people willingly killed themselves and others for what every Christian believes is a lie. But believers know this and they claim that there’s a crucial difference between suicide bombers, for example, and the disciples’ martyrdom.
The disciples were in a better position to know whether or not Jesus was resurrected than we are. So apologists aren’t claiming that nobody would die for something that wasn’t true, they’re claiming nobody would die for a lie that they themselves knew to be a lie. That’s actually not true — people will die for something they must know to be a lie, and I’ll go into a few examples of that in a minute. But to the apologist’s point — all the counterexamples we can give of people dying for lies don’t count, according to them, because they all believed it was true. All it takes is for you to believe it, and then you’re dying for the truth, at least in your mind.
I’m not sure how it doesn’t dawn on them that this could serve as a ready reply for the disciples. The disciples weren’t infallible, nobody is. They could’ve been sincere in their beliefs. Christians could have every detail of the disciples’ deaths correct (though they probably don’t). But even if we accept the traditional Christian story of how the disciples died and why, it wouldn’t serve the point they’re making for the exact reason they dismiss the deaths of jihadists: they might have believed it was true, they might have died for it, but they could’ve been mistaken. So this really only works as a meaningful objection if the disciples were infallible human beings.
This is also not a satisfying response because plenty of people who knew Mohammad died for him, since he was a warlord. Joseph Smith died for a lie and suffered extreme persecution, as did many of his followers. There are the examples of Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Dividians — all instances of people dying having known their prophet intimately well, witnessing firsthand proof of their legitimacy, and dying because of them. And many of the people I just named had a far more modern understanding of the world and we have better records of what they thought and why they died.
I’ve already belabored the point of just how unreliable the NT accounts are generally in the last two episodes, and the same arguments I’ve already laid out apply to everything we have about the disciples and their deaths, if not more so. So at the risk of boring you by repeating myself about copies of copies of copies written by anonymous non-eyewitnesses decades or centuries after the events, written by superstitious people living in the demon-haunted world of the first century Middle East or thereabouts, I’ll just refer you to the Trilemma episode and the Easter episode.
The stories of the disciples’ martyrdom are especially dubious. If someone asks you, ‘who would die for a lie?’ you could just ask how they know the disciples died for their Christian beliefs. We don’t actually have reliable accounts of the disciples’ deaths or what they died for.
The historian of early Christianity Bart Ehrman writes, “The big problem with this argument [of who would die for a lie] is that it assumes precisely what we don’t know. We don’t know how most of the disciples died. The next time someone tells you they were all martyred, ask them how they know. Or better yet, ask them which ancient source they are referring to that says so. The reality is [that] we simply do not have reliable information about what happened to Jesus’ disciples after he died. In fact, we scarcely have any information about them while they were still living, nor do we have reliable accounts from later times. What we have are legends.”
And these legends, these later additions, were written down long after their supposed occurrence by people who non-eyewitnesses and were trying to convince people their religion was right. The Christians who ask ‘who would die for a lie?’ have only heard that the disciples were martyred. There is no ancient source from any time or place even remotely close to the lives of the disciples that supports their narrative.
Ehrman, again, writes, “There is a statement that James the son of Zebedee was martyred in the book of Acts. There are hints that Peter and Paul died before the Gospels and Acts were written. There is the hint that the “Beloved Disciple” had died before the final form of John’s Gospel was written. But even in these cases, it isn’t clear how they died or whether it had anything to do with believing in Jesus’ resurrection.”
There are later legends that appear of those three and others being martyred, but they’re not present in the earlier manuscripts. The earliest descriptions we have of the legends of the disciples being killed for their Christian belief don’t appear until the late second century. Why would this be the case if they were historical? Why wouldn’t earlier manuscripts before the late second century have accounts of the disciples dying for their beliefs? Did the earlier authors just not think that was relevant information?
And many of these late accounts that we do have are insane and the church doesn’t even teach them today. The earliest account we have of the martyrdom of the apostle Paul is a story where he is beheaded, and after the beheading, his neck starts spouting out tons of milk instead of blood. And then he appears, presumably as a ghost, to the Roman emperor.
We don’t know how any of the disciples died for sure, and we definitely don’t know if they would’ve died for a lie or if they were martyred. That’s not the same as saying they weren’t martyred for sure, but we have no evidence that supports the idea that they were.
Dying for a lie
I want to go through some examples of people dying for a lie when they must have known it was a lie. I think it’s useful since apologists are implying that this would never happen, and if they could just establish that the disciples were martyred, then there would be no other explanation except that Jesus really was resurrected (or at least that the disciples believed he was). I’m going to run through a few different scenarios where someone would die for a lie, just to point out that these situations do exist. I’m primarily citing Tracie Harris of the Atheist Experience for these examples, and the post I’m citing in linked in the show notes.
Here are two coercive circumstances that would lead to you dying for a lie, knowing it was a lie. We’re going to call this first situation “Coercion 1.”
Coercion 1: This would be a situation where someone is being interrogated, and they give your name as someone who was running around preaching the resurrection. It is a lie. You know it is a lie. You are arrested, tortured, and questioned. You tell them whatever they want to hear to get them to stop torturing you, as many people do under duress, and as many people do even during long police interrogations. You hope for leniency, but you are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.
We’ll call this next situation “Coercion 2.”
Coercion 2: This would be identical to Coercion 1 except that you know you will be executed. You tell them what they want to hear in order to die quickly to end the torture, because they are not going to believe you were not preaching, and ultimately you’re going to die painfully and slowly if you keep telling the truth, or you can tell them what they want to hear to be more quickly executed, which you deem is preferable. You confess and are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.
Another conceivable ‘dying for a lie’ scenario is one where your enemies lie about you. This would be sort of similar to the last two examples, except it’s literally in the Bible. The first Christian martyr, Stephen, is killed in Acts chapter seven because of a lie his enemies told about him. He wins a debate against some Jewish leaders, and because they’re so disgruntled from their crushing defeat (remember, it was Christians writing these accounts), they go to the authorities and lie about Stephen, saying he committed religious crimes in order to get him killed. This is also yet another example of the Christian roots of anti-Semitism.
I’ve already sort of touched on this, but the phenomenon of false confessions is highly relevant here. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t believe this was so prevalent if there wasn’t so much empirical data to back it up. People regularly confess to murders they did not commit and risk the death penalty for doing so.
Most people are familiar with the case of the Lindbergh baby, where Charles Lindbergh’s infant was kidnapped and murdered. In the case of the Lindbergh baby, two-hundred people came forward, confessing to a crime that would earn them the death penalty. These people were not residents of mental institutions. They were asking to die for a lie and no one was making them do this. No one was making them come forward. There was no pressure.
Tracie Harris pointed out, “In a real ironic twist, the event was labeled as “the biggest story since the Resurrection,” by H.L. Mencken. An event that inspired hundreds of attention-seeking liars to beg for execution is compared to the resurrection.”
As hard as it may be to understand these false confessions (and there are many, many more), we can’t discount it as a phenomenon just because we would never do that. The police don’t even take confessions at face value because this is so well known. Not only have tons of people confessed to crimes they did not commit, risking the death penalty, but sometimes people confess to crimes that never happened. People will come forward confessing to a murder and there was no murder.
We have no reason to accept the legends of the disciples’ martyrdom, but even if we grant those accounts, I’m just trying to point out with all these examples that it’s not a foregone conclusion that the disciples couldn’t have been mistaken or wouldn’t have died for a lie. People dying for a lie or volunteering to die for a lie is actually pretty common.
Joseph Smith is another example of someone who died for a lie and he must have known it was a lie. You could speculate that he might’ve believed his own lies by the end of it, which is interesting. Either way, this is a huge problem for apologist who want to claim that no one would die for a lie if they knew or could’ve known it wasn’t true.
There’s also this attitude that’s promoted within Christianity that you know you’re doing the right thing when people hate you. When you’re being persecuted, that means you’re doing something right. I think there’s reason to believe that this way of thinking was promoted in the early church as well as the current one, based on some of the passages in the New Testament. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In John, he also says, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” The early Christians were probably as eager to be persecuted as modern Christians, so it wouldn’t really surprise me if they went out looking for it, or exaggerated their persecution back then, just as they exaggerate their persecution now.
Their faith is challenged
Try to put yourself in the disciples’ shoes for a minute.
Jesus preached that God was going to intervene in history, overthrow the current establishment, and create a utopia. Jesus told his disciples they would live to see this happen, and that they would be rulers in the new order. As crazy and cultish this sounds, it’s what the New Testament says.
Instead, Jesus was arrested, humiliated, and publicly tortured to death.
The disciples had left their families to follow Jesus. They not only made their own lives harder, but they probably left their wives and children to ruin, who had to try to survive and feed themselves during a time in history when that would’ve been nearly impossible. And the disciples did this to follow a guy who thought the end of the world was coming any day now.
It’s fairly ludicrous to expect these guys to have just said, “Well, this data completely falsifies my hypothesis!” Humans are not entirely rational actors who always admit when they’re wrong as soon as disconfirming evidence appears. There are mountains of psychological evidence that this is not the case. It’s not hard to imagine distraught cult members – with a lot of sunk cost, who left their families to starve, immensely pressured by cognitive dissonance – grasped for anything they could cling to and ran with it. (Assuming we know the disciples were martyred in the first place, which we don’t.) But psychological forces like cognitive dissonance are powerful and shouldn’t be underestimated.
The fact is that we’re just to easy to fool, some of us more than others. It’s not true that nobody would die for something they knew to be a lie, especially given the right circumstances. As uncomfortable as it may make us, it’s just a fact about human psychology that we’ll die for pretty much anything, given the requisite beliefs. It’s also a fact about human psychology that we’re plagued by cognitive biases, our thinking is naturally fallacious, we’re not always motivated by reason, and we don’t like to admit when we’re wrong, especially if the belief has been costly. There are examples of people dying for a lie today, so how much more probable would it be thousands of years ago? And it’s not just that humans generally are fallible; the disciples were probably some of the most fallible, least skeptical people you could find.
If I were to say to you, in any other context, that you should believe something because a handful of cult members from the first century Middle East believed it, or at least we have third or fourth-hand accounts that they said they believed it, this wouldn’t be a conversation.
who wouldn’t die for a lie?
Apologists behave as if we had original copies of multiple, contemporaneous, firsthand eyewitness accounts of the disciples’ deaths and the surrounding circumstances that show they were martyred for their Christian belief, but none of this is true. Even if it were the case — even if we did know how the disciples died and why — all that would prove is that some primitive, superstitious devotees of a cult leader were true believers.
We are not perfect reality detectors. Humans are naturally irrational. We’re easily fooled and manipulated, even without anyone intending to fool or manipulate us. We’re plagued by cognitive biases and other shortcomings that lead us to harm constantly. Being reasonable and skeptical is work, and I somehow doubt that it was a project the disciples or early Christians were deeply concerned with. Skepticism is even shamed in the story of Doubting Thomas.
The ‘who would die for a lie’ argument is another one of these apologetics like the Trilemma that relies on acceptance of the Christian mythology to get off the ground. You can only pose the Trilemma if you believe that Jesus claimed to be god in the first place, which the historical Jesus never did. You can only ask ‘who would die for a lie?’ if you accept the legends that the disciples were martyred for their Christian belief.
Even if we could prove that the disciples were martyred, and that they were killed for believing in the resurrection, and that there were no coercive circumstances, that would not be enough. I would not consider the followers of a guy predicting the imminent apocalypse to reliable sources of information, and we don’t even know what they thought, or how they died, or what they died for.
Tracie Harris — Why Martyrs? [Atheist Experience Blog]
Were the Disciples Martyred? [EhrmanBlog]
Easter Reflection [EhrmanBlog]
Paul’s Execution [MappingTheMartyrs]
Stephen’s Martyr Legend [Acts 6-7]