I wanted to do a post on the meaning of "resurrection" and "risen from the dead" for the disciples, but I am going to do that last, since I want to spend more time researching it. However, in this post I will discuss whether or not the disciples lied about Jesus resurrection. Sure, Jesus was crucified, and sure they claimed they had seen him after his death. But what if they lied about all of it?
The dilemma that 19th Century critics of Christianity faced is that the disciples of Jesus were either deceivers or deceived in their claim that Jesus rose from the dead. (5) In this post, we will address the charge that the disciples were deceivers.
Deception: What Critical Historians Believe
I will begin by saying that over 99% of New Testament historians since 1975 think that the disciples believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them. (1) Now, this shows that the scholarly majority is nearly unanimous in rejecting deception as a plausible explanation for the early proclamation of Jesus' resurrection. However, arguments are more important than consensus, so I will elucidate some good reasons why the early preaching was not the result of a conspiracy constructed by the disciples.
The Truth of the Tired Old Apologists Saying
It's been repeated over and over again rather tirelessly, but the pithy saying of apologists remains true: "Why would the disciples allow themselves to die for something they knew to be false?" If Jesus was dead, then the disciples knew it. So, to proclaim him raised from the dead, and to proclaim that he had made appearances to them would be an outright lie. However, at least some of these same disciples were martyred for their belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead, since the resurrection of Jesus was central to the Christian message (click here to see my justification for this). Being martyred for something does not at all prove that one's beliefs are true. People die for their beliefs all the time. However, they almost never die or suffer for claims that they know or believe are false. Hence, the disciples did not lie about the resurrection or the appearance, but sincerely believed they had happened.
For example, Muslim terrorists will crash airplanes into buildings because of their belief that it would result in a Paradise with 72 virgins. However, no one would do such an act if they believed that Islam was false. For example, no one tries to say that the terrorists who crashed themselves into airplanes on 9/11 were actually atheists or Christians. On the contrary, their association with a radically Muslim organization + their willing to suffer for those values proves that they actually believed them. It is taken for granted that those who suffer for their claims actually believe them. Only believers willingly suffer martyrs deaths. However, people who are lying do not believe what they are claiming. And hence, they would not willingly suffer martyrs deaths for those beliefs.
Another way to frame this is that people usually lie in order to gain some advantage. However, the disciples of Jesus had no advantage to gain by lying about the resurrection.
Evidences that the Disciples Were Telling the Truth
One can make a very powerful multifaceted case against deception using this general line of reasoning. Here are some good reasons why the disciples did not lie:
- As orthodox Jews, the disciples would have faced excommunication from the synagogue for following a religious leader (Jesus) whom the Jewish leaders handed over to the Romans to be condemned to death. In addition, if the leader (Jesus) was killed, the disciples shouldn't expect any better treatment for following him.
- The Neronian persecution (60's A.D.) involved the crucifixion of many Christians. This would be a great time for the disciples to give in and "fess up" if they were lying, since by continuing their lie they would face political pressure and severe persecution.
- It is accepted that the disciples engaged in lots of early preaching in favor of Jesus being raised from the dead. People who engage in any sort of active advocacy generally believe what they are saying.
- The early Christian proclamation "Jesus is Lord" was politically subversive and stood in stark contrast to the Roman cult of the day where Caesar was regarded as "Lord." (2) (3) People who spread a politically subversive message usually believe that message themselves because of the danger it entails.
- Their are early sources for the martyrdom of Peter, James (half-brother of Jesus), and Paul. (4) If all three of these guys got killed for their gospel, surely they had at least experienced political and social pressure for their beliefs prior to this, since executions don't come out of nowhere. They would have had ample opportunity to recant their beliefs and avoid getting themselves in a situation where they would be executed.
- The book of Acts (traditional authorship = Luke), reports that the disciples (and Paul) inadvertently caused riots because of their preaching. Furthermore, they often got beat up, run out of town, and sometimes imprisoned for their beliefs. If any of the reports in Acts are true, then advocating the gospel was certainly a rough job, and certainly not a message one would advocate if they did not believe it!
- In his undisputed letters, Paul regularly makes reference to his repeated persecutions. If they were characteristic for Paul, it was likely they were characteristic for the original disciples of Jesus as well, since they preached the same message. His persecutions were very severe, and often correspond to what is recorded in Acts. This passage from 2 Corinthians is particularly telling:
- "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." (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)
- Paul's mentioning of the Jews as having beaten him shows that the other disciples didn't have any easier experience, since they agreed that Paul would preach to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. (Galatians 2)
- In 1 Thessalonians (50's A.D.), one purpose of Paul's writing is to encourage the believers to withstand persecution- a persecution whose origin corresponds well with the book of Acts. If persecution was taking place in Greece as well as Jerusalem, it shows that hostility towards Christianity was particularly strong in a wide variety of areas.
Clearly, being a disciples of Jesus and proclaiming his resurrection was a task fraught with extreme difficulty, physical pain, and heartache. Their suffering clearly shows they believed the message of the resurrection that they were proclaiming. And since they believed it, it shows they were not lying, since liars do not believe the message they are trying to spread.
A Noteworthy Comparison
If the above evidences are unconvincing, a comparison should demonstrate my point. Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation and faced political and religious pressure for his views. He had to seek protection from those who sought his life. However, he never actually was killed for his views. Nevertheless, would anyone seriously challenge the notion that Luther believed in justification by faith? Hardly. Furthermore, when people get in heated discussions about controversial subjects, we very quickly concede that the person arguing their point actually believes it, especially if they face any sort of insults because of their stance on something. Furthermore, most people concede that the author of blog posts (such as myself!) generally believe what they are writing, even if they are not faced with insults.
We quickly concede that someone believes something when faced even with very minor pressure. The examples above show how quickly we concede that someone actually believes someone without forcing them to suffer for it. So if we concede that someone believes something even under very minor pressure, how much more should we agree that the disciples believed in what they preached, due to the fact that they suffered very severely for those beliefs.
Since I could come up with so many different reasons for the sincerity of the disciple's beliefs, it shows why the critical scholars have no problem conceding that the disciples were not liars. The disciples very sincere belief that Jesus had raised from the dead, and that they had seen him alive, demand an explanation. If I sincerely believe I have seen my friend Mike on repeated occasions, I am either telling the truth, experiencing very strong hallucinations, or seeing his identical twin. To these final options we turn in the next post.
4) http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/inbook_to-everyone-an-answer/habermas_case-for-xp-res.htm (see footnote 46)