ChristianAnswers.net – Questions for Skeptics pt 13

30. Jun, 2010

Questions for Skeptics

This link to a page at ChristianAnswers.net provides a wealth of material to respond.  I have to admit that many of these questions have already been answered better than I could ever write, and many of them require lengthy answer.  I’ll attempt to answer them, but not in order.   My apologies in advance, but I will number the questions to make the reference easier.

Question 13: If Jesus’ resurrection was faked, why would twelve intelligent men (Jesus’ disciples) have died for what they knew to be a lie?

Short Answer

Early Christian writings indicate the apostles mostly died of natural causes.  By 240 AD the number of martyrs could be “easily numbered” according to Origen, so widespread martyrdom was not common.   Clement in 95AD says that Peter and Paul “contended unto death,” a phrase he uses to describe Joseph of the Old Testament who was certainly not a martyr.  Even if Peter and Paul died for their faith, Paul was not a witness of the resurrection himself.  Martyrdom can be seen in followers of other religious leaders as well, so it is no indication that something is factual or true.

Extended Answer

The Apostles

We don’t really know what happened to most of Jesus disciples.  The Bible records two martyrs, one of Stephen who was stoned to death by a Jewish mob (Acts 6-7) and James the brother of James was put to death by sword by Herod (Acts 12).   The Bible only records that James was arrested and put to death, but Stephen’s martyrdom has a fuller description.

We read that some of the Jews trumped up charges against Stephen that he was trying to change the Judaic traditions.  He was brought before the Sanhedrin and gave a spirited defense.  But notice his last words of defense in Acts 7:52, “Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.”

Stephen was then dragged off by the mob and stoned, with no indication that he believed in the resurrection of Jesus.  In any case, he was killed by a mob and it is doubtful that anything he did could have stopped them, even recanting his belief in Jesus.

Galatians 6:12 says, “Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.”  So we see that Christians were persecuted for being uncircumcised, but Paul does not mention persecution for believing in the resurrection.   In fact, the passage suggests that circumcision is THE issue causing persecution.

Josephus does record the arrest of James the brother of Jesus about 62 AD on trumped up charges, but says that the people rose up because the laws had been breached and managed to get the high priest sacked!

Were there other martyrs?  Clement in 95 AD mentions the deaths of Paul and Peter saying they “were persecuted, and contended even unto death.” Does this mean they were martyred?  No – Clement also says that Joseph, the son of Jacob in the Old Testament, “contended until death.”

Tertullian writes in 200 AD that Paul died the same way as John the Baptist, by beheading.  Caius confirms this in 198 AD and adds that Peter was crucified there.  Is it possible that these writers exaggerated details, and that a legend of martyrdom arose around Peter and Paul in the intervening 150 years?   Even if the two were actually martyrs, the Gospels only claim Peter as a witness of the resurrection, not Paul.

Hippolytus (170-236AD) wrote of the fates of the apostles:  John “fell asleep” in Ephesus, Matthew “fell asleep” in Hierees in Parthia, Jude “fell asleep” in Berytus, and Simon and Matthias “fell asleep” in Jerusalem.  He thus indicates that they died naturally, not as martyrs.

So we have evidence of only one witness of the resurrection being martyred, and that is not clearly stated until 198 AD while earlier evidence suggests a natural death.

Origen in the 240s says, “…some, on special occasions, and these individuals who can be easily numbered, have endured death for the sake of Christianity.”  So in two centuries, including the persecutions of Nero and Domitian, the number of martyrs is small enough to numbered.  This does not directly address the question, but it does show that the early Christians were not dying for their faith in large numbers.

Early Christians Didn’t Believe in a Physical Resurrection

1 Peter 3:18 say  Jesus was “put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit.”   In defense of the story of Jesus, the author of II Peter curiously does not mention a resurrection in 2 Peter 1:16-19, but speaks of the transfiguration before the crucifixion.  If the resurrection were an important proof of Jesus divinity and the apostles died for it, why is it not mentioned?

In fact, the evidence is strong that early Christians believed that Jesus experienced a spiritual resurrection, not a physical one.   The Ebionites, for instance, were followers of James the brother of Jesus who believed that Jesus was not divine and rejected the virgin birth and resurrection.   Paul’s account of Jesus’ resurrection in I Corinthians includes himself as a witness, although Acts states that he had a heavenly vision.  It is quite possible that the early Christians believed in a spiritual resurrection of Jesus with a “new body” and it was only when later generations of Christians wrote the Gospels that a physical resurrection became doctrine.

And some doubted

Reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, we see a common refrain, “…and some doubted.”  Is it possible that the Gospel writers included this phrase several times as an explanation for why many followers of Jesus did not believe in his resurrection?

How could some doubt, when they could see his empty tomb?  How could they doubt if they heard the first hand accounts of those who saw Jesus?  How could they doubt after seeing Jesus themselves?   The fact is, a religion doesn’t need to win over the skeptics, it needs only the gullible and mystically inclined.  Once a few “heavenly visions” of Jesus were passed around, it wouldn’t be long before second hand stories circulated of physical encounters.

Evidence from other faiths

Despite the fact that some apostles may have died for their faith, this doesn’t prove that Christianity is true or the Jesus rose from the dead.  We see martyrdom in other religions, but it does not prove the truth of those religions.

  • Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, was killed for his belief that the angel Moroni delivered golden tablets to him with the Book of Mormon inscribed on them.  We have eleven signed eyewitness accounts of people who saw him with these tablets and handled them.
  • Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad Shírází, the founder of Babism, claimed to be the Mahdi and John the Baptist.  He was executed for his faith in 1850 along with many of his followers.
  • Mohemmad is said to have split the moon to prove he was God’s messenger.  Eye witnesses report, “We were along with God’s Messenger at Mina, that moon was split up into two. One of its parts was behind the mountain and the other one was on this side of the mountain. God’s Messenger said to us: Bear witness to this”

Would the eleven witnesses of Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon suffered for their faith if it were a lie?  Yet Christians believe that Smith was fraud.  If those eleven would be chased from town to town and eventually halfway across the continent to the desert interior for Mormonism, we can expect the apostles to endure persecution for their faith as well.

Christians reject the Book of Mormon and Mormonism because it’s scripture is full of inconsistencies and logical problems, the eyewitnesses were biases, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  These are the same reasons that we should reject the claims of the Bible.

Would Islam have spread so quickly, and Mohemmad’s followers been willing to die for their faith, if he had not indeed split the moon in two?   Here is a miracle that early Muslims claimed to have witnessed, much like the resurrection.  Would they die for a lie?

My final response is that there is no need to assume that Jesus’ death was faked.  It could be that the crucifixion story never happened.  It could be that he was buried with criminals and his body not recoverable.  The reported appearances of Jesus could be a result of the distress and heartbreak of his followers, and no different from the spiritual experiences of other religions.

In short, yes, people do die for lies, they die for legends, and they die for mistaken beliefs.  The matyrdom of James, Stephen, and possible Peter and Paul does not prove that the resurrection happened.

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