Would someone die for what they knew was a lie?

From Religions Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

An often used modern argument for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus is that of martyrdom. The claim is that all of the apostles would have had first-hand knowledge as to whether or not Jesus actually returned from the dead and confirmed that he was the Son of God. As they died rather than admit the account was false, this suggests that rather than just believe that it was true like other martyrs in other faiths, they knew it was true for a fact.

"People do not willingly allow themselves to die for something they know is a lie so the Apostles really believed they saw, talked with, touched, walked with and even ate with Jesus in various group settings after He died on the cross which convinced them He was God so they became bold proclaimers when before they were doubters.[1]"


People do die for a lie[edit]

The premise that people would never "die for a lie" is demonstrably false. People throughout history have, in fact, died for beliefs which turned out to be false, deceptive, poorly understood, and even mutually exclusive. For example, many thousands of Germans died during World War II based on the belief that they were the "master race" and were justified in conquering other nations for "living space". Also during World War II, many Japanese civilians committed suicide rather than being captured by the Americans because of the false belief they would be mistreated. At Jonestown, over 900 people committed mass suicide while under the influence of the cult leader Jim Jones. In 1993, 76 people died at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas because they believed their leader, David Koresh, was a prophet of God. In 1997, 39 members of Heaven's Gate committed suicide in the belief that a UFO following the comet Hale-Bopp would transport them to "Their world". Since the argument would prove multiple incompatible religions were true, it is a broken compass argument (e.g. this argument would imply that Heaven's Gate is just as true as Christianity).

Earliest records we have[edit]

The earliest record of Christians from non-Christian sources is the letter of Pliny the Younger who specifically did give these very early Christians a choice between dying and worshiping Jesus. They overwhelmingly recanted and did not die for their faith.

"I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.[2]"

When threatened the group of Christians quickly recanted and insisted they first said they were Christians in error, they stopped being Christians long ago and all hail the emperor and to hell with Christ! Apparently when push came to shove, the evidence is they recanted and rejected Christ. Strenuously refusing to die for their belief. Being willing to die has little bearing on authenticating belief. But, in this case the earliest non-ambiguous non-Christian reference we have to Christians as a group, and they promptly recant.

Based on unreliable accounts[edit]

The Apostles may well have had firsthand knowledge, but that doesn't lend any credibility to the claim because we don't have first hand knowledge about them or of their claims. We also have only vague accounts of the death of the apostles, which are generally known by "tradition" or biased sources, rather than primary sources.

Many people have personally witnessed a seemingly paranormal phenomenon, and genuinely believe that what they saw was a supernatural element, only for them to discover after a meticulous analysis that what they witnessed was actually a regular incident with a logical and natural explanation (Will-O-Wisps were thought to be ghostly apparitions before being identified as the manifestation of chemical reactions).

Assumption of Biblical accuracy[edit]

"If you read through the book of Acts, it is obvious that the early Messianic community was willing to die whether than recant their faith in the risen Lord.[3]"

Implicit in this argument is the idea that the miracles of Jesus therefore actually happened, which is not supported by the premise that his apostles would not have died for a lie. This conclusion ignores several other possibilities:

  1. The apostles strongly believed the stories to be true, but were mistaken:
    • The ones who were killed never actually witnessed the events take place themselves, but were told by other apostles, whom they trusted.
    • They convinced themselves the stories were true, to the point of actually believing they were, even though what they witnessed directly contradicted them.
    • They remembered the details of the events differently than they witnessed, because the false details were constantly reinforced by everyone they kept company with.
    • They were fooled. They really did see the events, but what they saw was a trick.
  2. The apostles did not believe all of the stories, but died for another reason:
    • They believed the literal truth of John 3:16 Bible-icon.png, and thought they would not die.
    • They considered the cause to be just, even though they knew some of the stories were embellished or exaggerated.
    • They were protecting the lives of other people.
    • They would have chosen death rather than be exposed as shameless liars.
    • They were killed because they were public figureheads for the cause, not due to the specific stories they maintained or denied.
    • They were killed without having an opportunity to retract their stories.
    • They stuck to their story to maintain some dignity in their death, as they were going to be killed either way.
    • They intended to become martyrs.
  3. The apostles admitted the stories were not true, but the admission was never made public.
  4. They did die protecting the truth, but the stories of those events were later embellished. The "miracles" we now read about are not what they actually saw and died for.
  5. The stories of the apostles' deaths were themselves later embellished to present them as martyrs.
  6. The apostles as well as Jesus died for something else; perhaps they hoped they would help free Israel from the Romans.
  7. The apostles were never killed.
  8. The existence of the apostles was also an invention.

While all the above are possible explanations for early Christian martyrs, what we can tell about the 1st century Christian apostles (assuming they all existed) is mostly based on the stories within the New Testament. In the book of Acts, we only have two martyrs: Stephen and James. Stephen wasn't even an eyewitness, he was a later convert, meaning if he died for anything it was entirely based on hearsay. But according to Acts, he was not killed for what he believed, but for some trumped up false charge, and by a mob, whom he could not have escaped even if he had recanted. So his death does not prove he died for his beliefs, which was Jesus was the messiah and was at that moment in heaven. The lack of any mention of a physical resurrection could indicate that if Stephen died for his beliefs, it could have been a belief in a spiritual resurrection instead of an actual physical resurrection. As for James, we are not told anything about why he was killed or whether recanting would have saved him, or (like Stephen) if he believed in a spiritual resurrection instead of a physical resurrection. Josephus does mention that a James (which may or may not be the same James in Acts) was stoned to death in 62 CE, but he was stoned for breaking the Jewish law-recanting would not have saved him anyway.

Then we have stories of Apostle martyrs outside the New Testament, such as the famous crucifixion of Peter upside-down. The problem is that this event doesn't have any contemporary sources. It is never mentioned until about two or three generations later in only a single source: the Gnostic Acts of Peter, a gospel rejected as a false document by many Christians of the day. But even if this account is true, it claims that Peter was executed for political meddling and not for his beliefs. Even more important, it states that Peter believed Jesus was resurrected as a spirit, not in the flesh.

Paul the Apostle admits he was not an eyewitness. He merely had a vision of a spiritual figure of Jesus while on the road to Damascus. So even if he did die for his beliefs, it was based on a vision of a man he never met in his life. While the date of Paul's death is unknown, it is commonly accepted to have occurred after the Great Fire of Rome in July 64 CE, but before the last year of Nero's reign, in 68 CE. But all accounts of Paul's "martyrdom" come from sources 30-50 years after his death. The earliest mention comes from the non-canonical document 1 Clement, in which it only suggests Paul was martyred under the prefects.

As for the rest of the Apostles being martyred, they all come from non-eyewitness sources written numerous generations after their deaths, so there is no way to be certain how they died and if they did or did not die for their beliefs. The Apostle Philip has conflicting accounts about how he died, but the earliest mention comes from the apocryphal Acts of Philip which was written between the mid-to-late 4th century CE. Mark "the evangelist" was killed by Egyptian pagans, but there is no mention of this until the 4th century. The martyrdom of the Apostle Andrew account comes from the apocryphal Acts of Andrew written in the 3rd century CE. The Apostle Jude's martyrdom is only mentioned in the apocryphal Acts of Simon and Jude written in the 4th century CE. The Apostle Bartholomew has conflicting accounts about how he died, but the Gospel of Bartholomew is a missing text. And then there's Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas, according to tradition believed to be martyred in 72 CE. Yet the earliest mention of his martyrdom comes from a Syriac Christian, Ephrem the Syrian, who wasn't born until over 200 years after the death of Thomas.

Jesus didn't die[edit]

Assuming the Bible is true, Jesus didn't die, he was found alive some days after his crucifixion.[4]

This is contrary to the account in the Bible. According to the Bible Jesus did die and was resurrected, ergo creating a difference between resuscitation and resurrection. The gospels say that Jesus died on the cross as a result of crucifixion (if that doesn't prove his death, being in a sealed tomb for three days does). Furthermore, according to gospel accounts and other accounts, upon Jesus' resurrection it is said that he had wounds but wasn't in a state of looking ill (as would be the result of crucifixion and being in a tomb for three days). Thus Jesus had to die and resurrect, not just resuscitate, assuming the accounts are correct. The Gospels were all written at least a generation after the events stated there allegedly took place so we cannot be sure that the Gospel account is accurate.

Jesus was executed but not for his core beliefs[edit]

Apologists argue that because Jesus was willing to die for what he believed it proves that he believed in what he had said. However, assuming the Gospels are true, Jesus was executed as a criminal. The crimes described in the Gospels consist of vandalism (Mark 11:15 Bible-icon.png), theft (Mark 11:15 Bible-icon.png, Matthew 21:12 Bible-icon.png, John 2:15 Bible-icon.png), battery with a weapon (John 2:15 Bible-icon.png), impeding traffic (Mark 11:16 Bible-icon.png) and making terrorist threats (John 2:19 Bible-icon.png), as well as assault, disturbing the peace and impeding commerce. Most of these were capital crimes, and he was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to death for another-blasphemy (by supposedly claiming to be God). It is often believed that Jesus knew his actions would result in his death, so that despite his execution being legally justified it has no bearing on whether is was martyrdom. However, if he died for his beliefs, then those beliefs for which he died consist of not changing money or selling animals inside of the Temple. In addition, he was not killed for his beliefs, but as a threat to Jewish authority (Mark 11:18 Bible-icon.png).

Being willing to die does not authenticate Jesus[edit]

Their willingness to die shows that early Christians believed firmly in their religious ideal, not that they believed Jesus was a real person. The religious ideal could easily have been considered a worthy cause, whether or not its founder was invented.

Beliefs are not always correct[edit]

If early Christians did in fact die specifically for holding to the claim that Jesus was real (which has in no way been demonstrated), that only indicates that they believed it, not that they were correct.


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. Achtemeier, Paul J. "Introducing the New Testament." Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans Publishing Company. 2001.

External links[edit]

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes