(Part 3 of 3 on Biblical Reliability)
The argument has been made that “the apostles died uniquely for the belief that they had actually seen the risen Christ.”(1) But, do we actually know how each one of them died? While this isn’t exactly the question I would ask, it does spark the interest of many Christians and non-Christians. The fast answer is no, we do not know how all of them died. We know by tradition how most of them died, but we can’t write that in stone for all of them. What we do know is this:
“The apostles spent between one and a half and three years with Jesus during his public ministry, expecting him to proclaim his kingdom on earth. Although disillusioned at his untimely death, they became the first witnesses of the risen Jesus and they endured persecution; many subsequently experienced martyrdom, signing their testimony, so to speak, in their own blood. The strength of their conviction, marked by their willingness to die, indicates that they did not fabricate these claims; rather, without exception, they actually believed Jesus to have risen from the dead…[This lends] credibility to their claims about the veracity of resurrection, which is fundamental to the case for Christianity.
We must recognize that this in and of itself only shows their depth of belief; it does not prove Christianity to be true. Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, says,
“Today, we are pointedly aware that martyrdom is not an exclusively Christian practice; virtually every religious group holds the deaths of their heroes in high esteem, and many people have died for religions that no longer exist. Yet many still declare that there is something special about the character and nature of Christian martyrs.”(3)
We must consider the difference here. While Moss is correct that most all religions, and even movements, have martyrs who die for what they believe, the difference is that the apostles believed they had seen the risen Jesus. This is firsthand eye witness evidence as opposed to believing something secondhand. Additionally, they were not OK with simply believing what they saw. Rather, they changed from cowardly men following their leader who were upset at his untimely death, to bold, courageous men ready and willing to die for what they had seen, what they knew to be true.
One last point of consideration, and perhaps one of the most important, is that there is no record of them ever recanting their beliefs. Often times, when put under severe pressure, people will take back what they claimed to believe. Sometimes, this is even done with little or no pressure.
Let’s look at an example of three men were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). These men, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer, claim to have seen the gold plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. However, at some point in each of their lives, they either voluntarily left the LDS church or were excommunicated. In fact, when Martin Harris was asked if he saw the plates with his “naked eyes,” he “looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, ‘No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.’” Additionally, Harris was said to have addressed a congregation and told them that “he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision or imagination.” Later in life Harris’ recantation was denied. Whitmer also claimed a more spiritual approach to seeing the plates before being excommunicated from the church. At some point each of these three eye-witnesses to the gold plates denied physically seeing the plates.(4)
If your eyewitnesses recant or change their minds at any point, even if they later deny ever doing so, it is reasonable evidence that it probably isn’t true. The apostles never did this. Their story didn’t change and neither did their testimony.
I want to leave you with a final thought from Sean McDowell:
“The willingness of the apostles to suffer and die for their faith contributes significantly to resurrection research. While alone it does not prove the resurrection is true, it does show the apostles sincerely believed it. They were not liars…The apostles proclaimed the risen Jesus to skeptical and antagonistic audiences with full knowledge they would likely suffer and die for their beliefs. All the apostles suffered and were “ready to be put to death,” and we have good reason to believe some of them actually faced execution. There is no evidence they ever wavered. Their convictions were not based on secondhand testimony, but personal experience with the risen Jesus, whom they truly believed was the risen Messiah, banking their lives on it. It is difficult to imagine what more a group of ancient witnesses could have done to show greater depth of sincerity and commitment to the truth.”(5)
(1) Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. (Routledge: New York, 2016), 3.
(2) McDowell, Sean (2016-03-09). The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus (p. 2). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
(3) Moss, Candida (2013-03-05). The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (p. 17). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
(4) The information in this paragraph is derived from three different sources: 1) John Gilbert, “Memorandum,” September 8, 1892, in EMD, 2: 548; 2) Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, April 15, 1838 in EMD, 2:291; 3) Whitmer interview with John Murphy, June 1880, in EMD 5: 63.
(5) McDowell, Fate of the Apostles, 265.
Victoria Harris holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. She is a former Miss Florida Teen USA and Mrs. Florida U.S. Victoria is a lover of Jesus, a wife, biological mom of a toddler and soon-to-be adoptive mom of a tween. Follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vdharris, on twitter @VictoriaDHarris, or on instagram @VictoriaRatliffHarris.Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Victoria is a wife, mom, ambassador of Jesus, and a lover of all things that involve learning.