They Died for A Lie?

The Exhortation to the Apostles by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

The Exhortation to the Apostles by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

The original disciples of Jesus—those to whom he had assigned the task of spreading his message throughout the world—made great claims about His resurrection.  The lives of the disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion, as well as their deaths, make a powerful argument for the truth of their claims.  Let’s explore how.

Immediately following Jesus’ death, his small group of disciples was shattered, dejected, fearful, and in hiding.  They must have felt that all they had done for the past three years had been for nothing.

But then something changed.  They experienced something that brought about a total transformation in their outlook and attitude.  They came out of hiding, ventured throughout the world, and preached the Gospel to anyone who would listen.  Why?  Because they (and others) claimed to have seen, touched, and spoken with the resurrected Jesus on multiple occasions.

This experience inspired them to spread the Word.  There was no wealth or earthly power to be gained by doing this.  In fact, they proceeded at extreme personal risk, as their message was highly unpopular with the local Jewish authorities…and becoming quite a problem for the Roman authorities, as well.  In fact, nearly all of the disciples were later killed for their actions and beliefs.

It will be helpful to take a brief look at what happened to Jesus’ disciples as they went about their work.  Our knowledge of these events comes from a handful of sources, including:

  • The Book of Acts:  The fifth book of the New Testament, most likely written by the historian, Luke, and regarded as basically reliable
  • Eusebius:  A Roman historian who lived from ca. 260-340 A.D.  Eusebius is sometimes viewed in a controversial light, but his writings are helpful.  One of his loudest critics was Edward Gibbon who, in my opinion, has lost a lot of credibility in recent decades.
  • Hippolytus of Rome:  A Christian historian who lived from 170-235 A.D.
  • Clement of Alexandria:  A Greek Christian historian who lived from ca. 150-215 A.D.

As we see how Jesus’ disciples met their deaths, let’s think about this one question:  Would they knowingly die for a lie?  Here goes:

  • James, Son of Zebedee – This disciple was the first to die.  In 44 or 45 A.D., James was ordered killed by Herod Agrippa, the Jewish monarch.  Acts, Hippolytus, and Clement of Alexandria all related James’ fate in one way or another, with Eusebius adding the detail that he was beheaded.  This report is considered highly reliable.
  • James, Son of Alphaeus – In about 63 A.D., this disciple was apparently stoned to death in Jerusalem.  His fate is less well-documented than that of James, Son of Zebedee.
  • Simon/Peter – Peter, who denied that he even knew Jesus three times immediately before Jesus was executed, never denied him again.  He was crucified—apparently upside down—for preaching the gospel.  Accounts of his execution are related by Eusebius and Hippolytus, and are considered reliable.
  • Matthew – Apparent author of the Gospel according to Matthew, this disciple died in Parthia (modern Iran), says Hippolytus.  Tradition holds that he was beheaded.
  • Paul – While not one of the original 12 disciples, Paul was an important follower of Jesus.  Originally, he had a violent hatred of Christians, and worked with the Roman and Jewish authorities to persecute Christians.  Following a life-changing conversion experience on his way to Damascus, he became the preeminent Christian evangelist.  For this, he paid dearly, suffering imprisonment on various occasions.  Finally, he was beheaded by order of the Roman Emperor Nero in about 67 A.D.  The story of Paul’s fate is considered extremely reliable.
  • Bartholomew (Nathaniel) – According to both Eusebius and Hippolytus, Bartholomew went to preach the gospel in India.  Tradition holds that he was later flayed and crucified in about 70 A.D.  Accounts of his death are not well-supported, so we can’t place a great deal of confidence in them.
  • Matthias (replaced Judas Iscariot) – Tradition holds that Matthias preached in Ethiopia and was stoned to death in about 70 A.D.  This is another one that is not well-supported by any reliable historian.
  • Thaddeus/Judas Son of James – This disciple, according to Hippolytus, preached in Mesopotamia.  Tradition holds that he was beaten to death in about 72 A.D.
  • Simon the Zealot – Hippolytus says that Simon became the Bishop of Jerusalem.  According to tradition, he was crucified by a Roman governor in Syria in 74 A.D.
  • Andrew – He preached to the Scythians and Thracians.  According to Hippolytus, he was crucified and was buried in Greece.
  • Thomas – After preaching to a range of peoples, Thomas was allegedly pierced by a spear.
  • Phillip – This disciple preached in modern-day Turkey.  According to Hippolytus, he was crucified upside down in Heirapolis during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Domitian (81-96).
  • John – Author of the Gospel of John, this disciple is the only one to have died of natural causes.  Hippolytus tells us that he died after a long, but difficult life preaching the Gospel.  He died in about 95 A.D., during the last years of Domitian’s reign.

While some of these accounts are better supported than others, there are a few key facts that cannot be disputed:

  • During this time, it was incredibly dangerous to be a Christian.
  • These disciples, after suffering intense grief, doubts, and fear immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion, “pulled a complete 180” after claiming to having seen the resurrected Christ and received the promised Holy Spirit.
  • These disciples then traveled across the known world to preach about Jesus, with no promise of any earthly reward whatsoever…and at great risk.
  • To save their own lives, in many cases they would only have had to renounce Christianity.  Various sources such as letters from Pliny the Younger to the Roman Emperor, Trajan indicate this.
  • Many—and likely most—of them died violent deaths, staying true to their faiths to the end.

It is my contention that these men would not have willingly dedicated their lives to itinerant preaching, and then died violently, for a lie.

“Wait!” you might say.  “People die for lies all the time!  Didn’t 19 terrorists die on 9/11 because they believed in the lie that they were striking at the heart of an evil America and that they would each be rewarded with 72 virgins in heaven?”

Yes, those people died for a lie.  However, there is one profound, critical, all-encompassing difference:  Those terrorists died because they believed in things told to them by someone else.  The disciples were in a unique position:  They were in a position to know firsthand whether their assertions about a very specific event were true or not.  They were present at the scene (on multiple occasions) and knew very well what they had seen (the risen Jesus).  As firsthand witnesses, they did not have to rely on the testimony, philosophical opinions, or interpretations of others.

There was no reason for them to lie about seeing the risen Christ.  In fact, there was every reason to run away after Jesus was executed…which they did!  It was only after a series of profound and inexplicable experiences that they changed their outlook and proceeded to build the Church at great personal sacrifice.  There is no way they would have done that had they been trying to perpetuate a lie.  There would have been no motivation to do so.

Some have suggested that the disciples were mistaken or were suffering from some grief-induced group delusion or hallucination.  This assertion is weak and falls apart under scrutiny.

It has been said that we should thank God for the hard lives and brutal deaths of the disciples.  If they had preached the Word while growing rich and famous, enjoying the adulation of crowds everywhere they went, then their message would have been suspect.  But that’s not what happened.  They sacrificed themselves because they had seen…and believed.