apologetics, Apologetics of Christ, The Resurrection

Dying for Belief: An analysis of a confused objection to one of the evidences for the resurrection

800px-Caravaggio_Doubting_ThomasThere is an objection to one of the evidences for the resurrection which is, frankly, terribly confused. I most recently ran into it on the discussion page for the radio show Unbelievable? Essentially, the objection goes like this: Christians say the fact that the disciples died for what they believe is evidence for its truth, but all kinds of religious people die for what they believe; are they all true?

The objector then often proceeds to note that some Muslims will die in suicide bombings due to their beliefs; they will note events like Thich Quang Duc burning himself to protest persecution; they will note other events in which religious people die for their beliefs. The implication, it is alleged, is that this cannot count for evidence for the truth of what they belief. People die for false things all the time; it doesn’t make what they believe true.

The objection seems compelling at first because it is, in fact, largely correct. The simple fact that people are willing to die for something does not make whatever they are wiling to die for true. However, this objection shows that the objector is badly misrepresenting the Christian apologetic argument.

The apologetic argument is intended to be used against those who would allege that the disciples made up or plotted for the notion of the resurrection for some reason. It therefore presents a major disanalogy with people of other faiths (or even later Christians) dying for what they believe. The major difference is that the Christian is claiming the disciples who went willingly to their deaths would have known what they were dying for is false, if it were.

Suppose you and a group of friends decided to make up a story to get some money. You decided that you were going to pretend that a buddy had died and risen again. You managed to set up circumstances in which your buddy appeared to die; then smuggled him off to Argentina–because that’s where everyone likes to hide, apparently. Later, you ran about the streets proclaiming that you’d seen your buddy walking around. He had been risen from the dead. And, you’d tell the story for the right price. To your delight, the story spreads like wildfire. But eventually it attracts attention of the wrong kind, and people are coming to kill you. Now, suppose that you could easily get out of it alive by simply confessing you’d made up the whole story. What would you do?

Alleged explanations for the evidence for the resurrection which appeal to purported conspiracies are much like this. The disciples would have known they were lying. Thus, the fact that they willingly went to their deaths does indeed count as evidence for the truth of what they were claiming. Otherwise, one would have to claim that these people quite seriously and willingly went to their deaths for something they knew was a lie they themselves had invented.

Thus, it is not enough for the objector to simply point out that other people die for faith not infrequently. That is not the core of the apologetic argument. Instead, they must argue for the implausible notion that the disciples willingly died for what they knew was a lie. It was not something they simply thought might be a lie; it would have been something that they were certain was false.

I do not think it is too far afield to suggest that the objection fails. It seems far more likely that they certainly believed what they professed were true, and they were in the unique position of knowing whether or not they were lying. Thus, the explanation of the resurrection is more credible than the explanation of a conspiracy. There are, of course, other attempts to explain away the historical argument for the resurrection, but those are arguments for a different time.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


10 thoughts on “Dying for Belief: An analysis of a confused objection to one of the evidences for the resurrection

  1. Hello J.W. first of all Happy New Year!

    Are you related to J.W. Montgomery?

    There are very few Skeptics who accuse the first disciples of dishonesty.
    Apart from radical deniers, the lie hypothesis has been universally rejected for the very reasons you outlined here.

    The standard debunking theory brought up by folks such as Rezla Aslan looks as fellows:

    1) Jesus was a typical apocalyptical preacher of the first century.
    2) due to conflicts with his fellow Jews and the Romans he got executed
    3) his followers experienced extremely powerful hallucinations
    4) they concluded he rose from the dead
    5) many years later they made up stories about an empty grave

    Some months ago I explained why I believe that such a theory is pretty unlikely.

    You will see that the conclusions I draw there are pretty minimal.
    This is the case because I don’t buy the idea you can prove the resurrection while adopting an agnostic neutral standpoint.

    To my mind, the resurrection only becomes a plausible explanation after you accept the existence of a good God.

    Cheers from England where I am back to my research activity.

    Posted by lotharson | January 6, 2014, 10:23 AM
  2. You do a great job of clarifying the distinction between “dying for what you believe is true” vs “dying for what you know is false.” I might have thought of that angle, but you lead me there much faster. 🙂

    I do have one objection that you might be able to address. You suggest “Now, suppose that you could easily get out of it alive by simply confessing you’d made up the whole story. What would you do?”

    I wonder if they could indeed have simply confessed to making it all up. The “story” could well have simply gotten out of hand and riled too many of the wrong people. The Mafia or Kim Jong Un or the Crips are not known for being forgiving. If you cross them and they get ahold of you, even confessing your errors is no guarantee of escaping broken bones or death. The Romans were not known for being more forgiving than such groups.

    How convincing is the historical record that they “went willingly to their deaths”? Accounts of Jesus’ death certainly seem to give opportunities for him to publicly recant and escape death; did the various other martyrs have similar opportunities?

    Posted by Tim Folkerts | January 6, 2014, 2:32 PM
    • From some of the earliest accounts of martyrs we know that the people who were killed were often given the chance to give obeisance to Caesar, which was the main reason for persecution in the various periods. There are records of parents having their children killed in front of them if they did not pay obeisance. Some, of course, did; but others did not. That was the foundation for the later Donatist controversy and heresy [and the fact that such a controversy occurred presents more evidence for the historical credibility of the offered choice… not to mention the eagerness of some Christians to be martyred, which suggests a certain willingness as well].

      Of course, the persecution wasn’t continual, nor was it always widespread. As far as the disciples themselves going willingly to their deaths, we cannot know for sure how these deaths happened, but there is no historical grounds for assuming they would have been radically different from deaths which happened later, or the death of Jesus.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 7, 2014, 12:57 AM
  3. JW, good analysis! I recommend the book “Surprised by Faith” by Dr Don Bierle. It presents much the same argument and thoughts that you did but goes one step further.

    Posted by Renee Scheuerlein | January 16, 2014, 9:32 AM
  4. Great post J.W.!

    Sharing this one on my page tomorrow.

    Posted by Matt | March 6, 2014, 7:58 PM


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