When I originally started this blog I had no plans of venturing into the muddy waters of Christian apologetics. Though I’ve been reading on and studying the topic for about seventeen years, my obsession as of late has been the biblical texts themselves and how to understand them properly. But lately my Twitter feed has been clogged up with would-be Christian apologists making outlandish claims like this:
This is an oft-repeated argument, namely that one of the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus is that the disciples were ready and willing to die for their belief. For example, in his 1977 book More Than a Carpenter, apologist Josh McDowell made a similar claim:
But a few weeks after the crucifixion, in spite of their former doubts, the disciples were in Jerusalem proclaiming Jesus as Savior and Lord, the Messiah of the Jews. The only reasonable explanation that I can see of this change is 1 Corinthians 15:5 – “He appeared…then to the twelve.” What else could have caused the despondent disciples to go out and suffer and die for a crucified Messiah? He certainly must have “presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days” (Acts 1:3).
Yes, a lot of people have died for a good cause, but the good cause of the apostles died on the cross. Only the resurrection and resultant contact with Christ convinced his followers that he was the Messiah. To this they testified not only with their lips and lives, but with their deaths. (McDowell, 1977, 76)
The argument seems reasonable enough; after all, why would anyone die for a lie? For some Christian apologists, the fact of the willingness to die for their belief in Jesus constitutes powerful circumstantial evidence in favor of the historicity of the Resurrection accounts in the canonical Gospels. J. P. Moreland told Lee Strobel in the latter’s interview with him in The Case for Christ,
When Jesus was crucified…his followers were discouraged and depressed. They no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God because they believed anyone crucified was accursed by God. They also had been taught that God would not let his Messiah suffer death. So they dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.
Then, after a short period of time, we see them abandoning their occupations, regathering, and committing themselves to spreading a very specific message – that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God who died on a cross, returned to life, and was seen alive by them.
And they were willing to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming this, without any payoff from a human point of view. It’s not as though there were a mansion awaiting them on the Mediterranean. They faced a life of hardship. They often went without food, slept exposed to the elements, were ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned. And finally, most of them were executed in torturous ways.
For what? For good intentions? No, because they were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had seen Jesus Christ alive from the dead. What you can’t explain is how this particular group of men came up with this particular belief without have had an experience of the resurrected Christ. There’s no other adequate explanation. (Strobel,1998, 244-245)
No other adequate explanation? Are skeptics in a corner here, frantically wringing their hands trying to come up with an alternate explanation? Perhaps, or perhaps not.
The Death of the Disciples
Before we attempt to dissect the argument, we should consider who the apostles were and what we know or do not know about their ultimate demise. I can remember all of their names because of a catchy song I learned in New Testament 101 my freshman year of college:
There were twelve disciples / Jesus called to help him: / Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John, / Phillip, Thomas, Matthew, / James the son of Alphaeus, / Thaddaeus, Simon, Judas, / and Bartholomew!
We, of course, do not need the song as we have a list of all the disciples written down for us in the earliest of the four Gospels, Mark.
And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder; Andrew and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:14-19; cf. Matthew 10:1-4, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13)*
The deeds of many of the apostles are laid out for us in various stories in the four Gospels as well as in the book of Acts. But we only know about the death of two of the disciples from the pages of the New Testament. The first, of course, is Judas Iscariot who according to Matthew’s Gospel, felt so guilty for betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities that he hung himself (27:3-10). This is contradicted by the author of the book of Acts who claimed that Judas bought a field with the silver he was given for betraying Jesus and then apparently fell headfirst causing his insides to become outsides (1:18).
The only other disciple of Jesus whose death is recorded for us in the New Testament is that of James, the brother of John. We read in Acts that “about that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (12:1-2). So who was James?
As Acts 12:1 tells us, he was “the brother John” and if we look at Mark’s list of disciples, he and his brother were the “Sons of Thunder.” Along with Peter and Andrew, James and John were among the first to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19-20). Their fates, according to Mark’s Gospel, were foretold to them.
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” (Mark 10:35-39)
The “cup” and “baptism” Jesus speaks of are metaphors for his impending death at the hands of the Romans and under the jeers of the Jews. James and John, Jesus says, will face similar ends. (Evans, 2001, 117)
So the New Testament records for us how James, a Son of Thunder, died at the hands of Herod. But what about the other disciples? If the New Testament doesn’t tell us how they died, what can be known? For virtually all of them we must rely on tradition and hearsay. Let’s briefly detail some of what has been said about their deaths.
- Simon Peter, or Cephas – Peter and Andrew were among the first to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:18-20) and it was Peter who became one of the leading figures in the early church. Though we do not know the exact date of Peter’s martyrdom, it likely took place sometime around 64 C.E. and almost certainly in the city of Rome. By the second century, Christians had erected shrines to both Peter and the apostle Paul in Rome commemorating their deaths. (Davidson, 2004, 229) John Fox, writing in the sixteenth century, said that Peter was crucified upside-down in Rome under the emperor Nero’s orders. (Fox, 1926, 4) Tertullian, an early church leader writing in the late second century C.E. wrote of Peter’s death that he “endure[d] a passion like his Lord’s” (Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 36), undoubtedly a reference to crucifixion.
- Andrew, the brother of Peter – According to Fox, Andrew traveled to Edessa, a city in Greece, where he was crucified in the shape of an X. (Fox, 3) According to the second century C.E. Acts of Andrew, the disciple was in the city of Patras when he was taken and crucified. The date of Andrew’s death is uncertain but took place probably in the mid to late first century C.E.
- John, the brother of James – Though tradition ascribes the book of Revelation to John the brother of James, it is unlikely that he wrote the first century apocalyptic work. But assuming that the disciple John and the author of the Apocalypse are one-in-the-same, we are told that he was in exile on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9). According to Fox, before his exile John had been in Ephesus ministering when he has ordered to go to Rome. There he was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil which, miraculously, did not kill him. The emperor Domitian then exiled him to Patmos though his successor, Nerva, ordered him to return. Fox notes that John was the only one of the disciples not to die in some violent manner. (Fox, 5) As the book of Revelation is typically dated to sometime in the 90s C.E., these events would have happened around that time.
- Philip – The gospel of John records the moment when Jesus called Philip to be a disciple. “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me'” (1:43). Philip does not appear outside of the Gospels though he is often confused with Philip the evangelist who appears in the book of Acts (6:1-6; 8:4-8, 26-40; 21:8). According to Fox, Philip was “scourged, thrown into prison, and afterwards crucified” in Heliopolis around 54 C.E. (Fox, 3) An appendix to the apocryphal Acts of Philip claims that Philip, while in Heliopolis, was crucified upside down but continued to preach to onlookers before finally giving up the ghost.
- Thomas – Thomas is perhaps most famous for his doubting attitude when told Jesus had been seen alive. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to the disciples while they are huddled in fear inside a locked room. (20:19-23) However, for reasons unknown Thomas is not with them and he doubts their report. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe,” he tells the others. (20:24-25). Hence “Doubting Thomas.” Later, Jesus appears to him and tells Thomas to perform his test after which Thomas falls to his knees and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (20:26-29) Apart from the Gospels and one mention of his name in the book of Acts (1:13), Thomas does not appear in the rest of the New Testament. Fox claims that Thomas travelled to Parthia and India and was killed by pagan priests after they thrust a spear into him. (Fox, 4) Fox appears to be relying on the third-century apocryphal Acts of Thomas which narrate the details of Thomas’ death in India. The date of Thomas’ death is not known for certain but was perhaps sometime around 70 C.E.
- Matthew – The Pharisees accused Jesus of eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11). One of those tax collectors was Matthew who Jesus saw sitting at his tax both and said, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9). From then on “Matthew the tax collector” (Matthew 10:3) was a disciple of Jesus. As was the case with Thomas, the last time Matthew appears in the New Testament is in the list of disciples in Acts 1:13. Of Matthew Fox writes that “the scene of his labors was Parthia, and Ethiopia, in which latter country he suffered martyrdom, being slain with a halberd in the city of Madabah, A. D. 60.” (Fox, 3) However, the martyrdom of Matthew is disputed.
- James the son of Alphaeus – We do not know much about James “the Lesser” from the New Testament writings. It has been speculated that Matthew and James were brothers based on Mark 2:14 where Jesus calls “Levi the son of Alphaeus” to follow him, a parallel account to the calling of Matthew in Matthew 9:9. This is a tenuous connection. Fox writes of James that he was beaten, stoned, and had his brains bashed out with a club by the Jews at the ripe old age of ninety-four. (Fox, 3) 19th century church historian Philip Schaff wrote in his book History of the Apostolic Church that James was crucified in southern Egypt. (Schaff, 1874, 389) The date of James’ death is uncertain.
- Thaddaeus – Thaddaeus is a disciple mentioned only twice in the New Testament: Matthew 10:3 and Mark 3:18. Though he may be the “Judas the son of James” mentioned in Acts 1:13 and the “Judas (not Iscariot)” of John 14:22, it isn’t exactly clear that this is the case. Some have also sought to connect him to the supposed author of the tiny book of Jude who wrote that he was the brother of James (Jude 1). This connection to James is no small claim as James was purportedly the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:9; see also Mark 6:3 where Judas is listed outright). Fox evidently equated Thaddeus with Jude the brother of James and wrote that he was crucified in Edessa in 72 C.E. (Fox, 4) Others claim he was killed with an axe. We simply do not know how or when he died.
- Simon – Simon is also called “Simon the Zealot” (Matthew 10:4, Acts 1:13) and “Simon the Cananaean” (Mark 3:18). His final appearance is in Acts 1:13 and we know next to nothing about him. Fox wrote that he traveled to Africa and Britain where he was crucified in 74 C.E. (Fox, 5; see also Schaff, 389)
- Bartholomew – This disciple only appears in the various lists we have already mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. Schaff (388) associates him with Nathaniel in the gospel of John (1:43-51). Fox, however, makes no such association and claims that, in agreement with Schaff, Bartholomew traveled to India, translated the gospel of Matthew into the native tongue, and was then beaten and crucified. (Fox, 4) This is, of course, all speculation.
Much of what we know about most of the disciples’ activities are based on later sources and are often quite unreliable. Christian historian Igor Davidson writes,
Apart from our evidence regarding Paul, Peter, John, and James the Lord’s brother, and some glimpses of the vitally important work undertaken by other relatives of Jesus in Palestine and perhaps beyond, we know relatively little about the ways in which the apostles and their associates spread their message to their diverse constituencies, or even about the places they eventually reached….For the most part…we cannot be sure where the apostles and their co-workers finally traveled.
The apocryphal Acts of the apostles, produced in the late second and third centuries, claim that various remarkable missionary feats were accomplished by others among the Twelve. Thomas is said to have taken the gospel to Persia and to India, where he was eventually martyred for his faith. Andrew is reported to have engaged in evangelism in northern Asia Minor and Greece, especially in some of the territories evangelized by Paul, including Philippi and Corinth, and to have been martyred in Patras.
It is impossible to gauge the reliability of these claims….Many of these traditions are…simply pious fictions, designed to embellish the spiritual sanctity of particular localities. (Davidson, 154)
In other words, we simply do not know what most of the disciples did following their time with Jesus let alone how they met their end. Is martyrdom a possibility? Of course. But is it a certainty? In short, no.
Dissecting the Argument
Nevertheless, the likelihood that some of the disciples gave their life believing in a risen Jesus is very high (mythicists notwithstanding). If we are to believe the book of Acts then James was beheaded for his faith in Jesus. And there is a good chance that both Peter and Paul, two pillars of the early Christian movement, were executed by Rome. Do their deaths, and the deaths of numerous martyrs throughout time, constitute evidence that the Resurrection narratives are true? Is this proof Jesus threw off Death’s shackles and appeared to the disciples alive three days after a brutal form of execution? Let’s begin with one version of the argument laid out by S. J. Thomason, a pop-apologist, in a blog post entitled “An Extra-Biblical Case for Christianity.”
Critics often note that Muslims and Buddhists have also willingly been martyred for their beliefs, yet unlike Muslims and Buddhists, James, Peter, and Paul had personally seen the risen Jesus.
- Peter James, and Paul saw the risen Jesus.
- Peter, James, and Paul changed their initial views/doubts about Jesus.
- Peter, James, and Paul braved gory deaths for Jesus.
- Why? See item #1
It is easy to see the problem with Thomason’s argument: it is a tautology. She begins with the unproven assertion that the disciples “saw the risen Jesus” and effectively concludes with it. We could frame a similar argument.
- I saw a ghost hovering down the hall, shutting doors.
- I was a skeptic about ghosts but changed my mind.
- I endured ridicule and scorn for my newfound belief in ghosts.
- Why? See item #1
Item number 3 is in no way an indicator of whether item number 1 is true. And therein lies the problem with McDowell’s, Moreland’s, and Thomason’s view on this issue. To assert that the disciples’ willingness to die for the cause of Christianity is evidence that the claims of Christianity are true is an exercise in non sequitur. In other words, the sincerity with which one believes a proposition is in no way an indicator of whether that proposition is true.
Islam and Sincerely Held Beliefs
Consider for a moment the early followers of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Most of what we know about him comes from collections of his sayings and deeds known as hadiths. The Qur’an, the central holy text of Islam, is Allah’s revelation to mankind through Muhammad.
According to his wife Aisha, Muhammad would go into the caves near Mecca where he would worship Allah. But one day in the year 610 C.E. Muhammad entered the caves and something miraculous happened.
He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food likewise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet (ﷺ) replied, “I do not know how to read.” The Prophet (ﷺ) added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.1.3)
The angel orders Muhammad to read (also translated as “recite” – see below) but Muhammad cannot – he didn’t know how! And yet we read in the Qur’an his own recitation of the words the angel ordered him to reproduce.
Recite in the Name of thy Lord who created, created man from a blood clot. Recite! Thy Lord is most noble, Who taught by the Pen, taught man that which he knew not. (Surah 96:1-5)**
For devout Muslims, this is miraculous! The greatest miracle of Muhammad is the Qur’an itself. One author writes,
…I have come to believe that the real reason the Quran reiterates and reaffirms these foundations [i.e. the miraculous foundations of Judaism and Christianity] is because the Quran wants to challenge this questioning itself. In this respect, the Quran can be perceived as saying, “If you want to challenge these foundations, discredit my miraculous nature first, and if you cannot, then accept these foundations as truth.” (Hassan, 2012, 21-22)
But not everyone in Mecca was comfortable with the new religion being promoted by Muhammad. And as his following grew, so did his opposition. Yet when challenged by scoffers to produce a miracle like those of the ancient prophets, Muhammad didn’t throw a staff on the ground or turn water into wine. Instead, a challenge was issued.
This Quran could not have been fabricated [by anyone] apart from God; rather, it is a confirmation of that which came before it, and an elaboration of the Book in which there is no doubt, from the Lord of the worlds. Or do they say, “He has fabricated it”? Say, “Then produce a surah like it, and call upon whomsoever you can apart from God, if you are truthful.” (Surah 10:37-38)
In other words, if the Qur’an is the product of human invention, then it can be replicated quite easily by human means. The apparent fact that no one could produce a single surah was an indicator that Muhammad was indeed the prophet of Allah.
But this line of reasoning failed to convince his opponents and the persecution against these early Muslims only continued and escalated. By 613 C.E. Muhammad had expanded his preaching which created severe backlash against he and his followers. Some fled to Ethiopia while others remained with Muhammad. (Haleem, 2016, xi) For some of those who remained, the decision to stay proved fatal. In 615 C.E. Sumayyah bint Khayyat, a slave and one of the first followers of Muhammad, became the first martyr for Islam. The ruling tribe of Mecca – the Quraysh – deliberately targeted Muslims of lower social status and pressured them to recant their belief in Islam. Sumayyah, her husband, and her son were all tied up and beaten for their and when she refused to recant, Sumayyah was stabbed to death.
Why did she die? After all, her life may have been spared if only she had recanted. But she didn’t. So what does that say?
- Sumayyah knew Muhammad and knew the miracle of the Qur’an.
- Sumayyah had previously been a polytheist like most Meccans.
- Sumayyah braved a gory death because of Muhammad.
- Why? See #1.
And, of course, she was not the only one to die on behalf of Islam in the seventh century. Others died in battle defending themselves against those who would wipe Islam off the face of the earth. They had seen various miracles performed by Muhammad ranging from the splitting of the moon (Surah 54:1-2) to invoking rain and willingly gave their lives so that their faith would not be destroyed.
- Early followers of Muhammad saw the miracles he performed.
- Many of them were converts to Islam.
- Many of them braved violent deaths because of Muhammad and Islam.
- Why? See #1.
We must now ask the question, Is Islam true because the Qur’an is a “miracle” and some gave their lives because of their belief in that miracle? According to the logic of Thomason, yes it is.
Clearly, there is a problem. Islam and Christianity are mutually exclusive ideologies. Christianity declares that only belief in the crucified and risen Jesus provides salvation (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Romans 10:9). Islam, on the other hand, explicitly denies that Jesus was killed on the cross and instead someone made to look like Jesus was on there instead, confusing onlookers (Surah 4:157-158). What are we to make of this? They cannot both be right.
But they can certainly both be wrong.
Why the Argument Fails
If we are willing to concede that dying for a cause is evidence of that cause’s veracity, then we must concede that Islam is as valid as Christianity. According to each religion’s adherents, we have examples of men and women who were witnesses of extraordinary events and miracles who gave their lives for their belief in those events. So, if we can ask the question, “Why would the disciples die for something that wasn’t true?” then we can also ask the same question of the first followers of Muhammad.
“But,” comes the objection, “none of the followers of Muhammad saw the risen Jesus.” This does nothing more than beg the question as the supposed evidence for the Resurrection is that the disciples were willing to die for their belief. That, unfortunately, doesn’t get the job done.
Furthermore, in the case of both the disciples and the early followers of Muhammad, we need not assume that they were lying about what they saw. As far as we know, the moon has never split in half before coming back together as the Qur’an reports. But people can be tricked or duped or hallucinate or not see things properly. They can be convinced by powerful leaders or extremely stressful situations that something that isn’t the case is. No, the disciples didn’t die for a lie. They died because of their sincerely held belief that Jesus was alive. Christian apologist Sean McDowell, author of The Fate of the Apostles (2016), wrote in a blog post,
Here is the bottom line: the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith does not prove Christianity is true; it merely shows the apostles sincerely believed Jesus had risen to them. They did not invent the story. They believed Jesus rose from the grave and appeared to them personally. Their willingness to pay the ultimate price for this conviction shows the depth of their sincerity.
And he is right.
The sincerity with which we hold a belief is no indicator of whether that belief is true. As my old pastor was fond of saying, “People may be sincere, but they can be sincerely wrong.” Therefore, we should be cautious of any argument put forward that depends on notions of sincerity.
* All Scripture verses are taken from the English Standard Version (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2008).
** All Quranic verses are taken from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, editor (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2015).
Printed Works Cited
Yahiya Emerick. The Life and Work of Muhammad. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2002.
Igor J. Davidson. The Baker History of the Church: The Birth of the Church, From Jesus to Constantine, AD 30-312, volume 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004.
Craig A. Evans. Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27 – 16:20. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001.
William Byron Forbush, editor. Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967.
Ahmad Hassan. The Science of the Quran: Proving God’s Existence through Established Modern Science. Arlington, VA: Lido Horizons Publishing, 2012.
M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. The Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Josh McDowell. More Than a Carpenter. Wheaton, Illinois: Living Books, 1977.
Philip Schaff, History of the Apostolic Church with a General Introduction to Church History. New York, NY: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co. 1874.
Lee Strobel. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.