Would the apostles have died for a lie?

Paraphrased from a talk by Lee Strobel: Jesus' apostles were put to death for proclaiming his resurrection. This is just like the 9/11 hijackers, who sacrificed themselves for what they fervently believed, right? Wrong. The apostles didn't just believe, they KNEW one way or the other for a fact. They were there. They saw, touched and talked to the resurrected Jesus. If they didn't, why would they knowingly die for a lie? I [Strobel] have searched through history and found no instance of this happening. Their sacrifice speaks to the truth of Christianity in a way in which the faithful actions of the suicide bombers do not speak to the truth of Islam.
Atheist Answer: 

Quoted from my own post on the richarddawkins.net forum:

Strobel didn't look very hard for others who've died for a known lie. Think of all the captured soldiers in wars throughout history who told false tales to their captors about their comrades' plans and whereabouts. Knowing that all their friends might be caught or killed if they told the truth, some brave men and women stuck to their lies even as they were tortured to death. Their armies might even have relied on the captors accepting the false information to set up raids, ambushes or escapes.

This is why one knowingly dies for a lie: it serves one's cause for others to believe it. In this case, the false idea that nobody would die for a lie is very helpful for the purpose.

It's simple to apply this to the resurrection.

Many modern Christians will tell you that believers are happier and more moral, and make the world a better place to live. In other words, they think it's better for someone to believe whether or not it's true (though they hasten to add that it is). Atheists meet this prejudice all the time. Even ignoring this, the apostles' friends and families were Christian and were in for a rough time if there weren't many more Christians very quickly.

For one reason or another, the apostles wanted people to be Christians. Whether or not they saw the resurrected Jesus, they wanted people to think they had. If they'd broken down under duress at the last moment and said it was all a hoax, all belief would fade (not counting victims of "true-believer syndrome") and it would all be for nothing. If it was a lie, to them it was a lie worth dying for.

I know the reliability of the New Testament is also a good basis for arguing against apologetic like this, but I find there's a greater impact if you can beat them on their own skewed terms.

- SmartLX


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Dying for a Lie

As a member of our nation's military, I can appreciate and understand your solider analogy. However, I don't believe it supports your conclusion in the context of the disciples' martyrdom; here's why:
- Contrary to risking the lives of their Christian brothers, a captured disciple would have most likely prevented his fellow brothers from harm (and saved his own life in the process) by simply saying that Jesus didn't rise from the dead (i.e., lying). Instead, the captured disciples didn't recant and thereby died, leaving their surviving buddies to suffer torture and execution by forcing them into a position where they’d have to answer the claims for themselves.
- In other words, you have the solider analogy inverted as it relates to the disciples. The captured soldier tells a lie to save his buddies and dies himself. The captured disciple tells a lie to save his buddies and saves himself.
- Bottom line: a soldier dies for a lie because there’s incentive (to save his buddies). A disciple doesn’t die for a lie, he lives; he dies for the truth because there’s incentive (to honor his Lord).


Phil's take

Thanks for that Phil, I did wonder how this argument would go over with a soldier. We agree at least that it is physically possible to die for a lie, which is farther than many considering this are willing to go.

Of course a captured soldier may lie and die to save his comrades, but what if the mission is in danger? Or his entire battalion (or equivalent)? Or his country? There's a point somewhere at which a soldier might have to make the heartbreaking decision to sacrifice not only himself but his unit to serve a greater cause; when, for example, he knows the enemy will only swallow the essential lie if they can't get the truth out of anybody. Those involved in espionage probably face choices like this more often than the rank and file.

Assuming once again (to avoid making this a larger argument) that the apostles lived and died roughly like the Bible says they did, they weren't soldiers (though some were willing to attack soldiers bodily), and yet they didn't relent under torture. If any one of them had, it's possible there would be no Christianity. Jesus' great act of self-sacrifice would be discredited and wasted. All goals of Israel, and other nations, united under Christian beliefs and morals would be up in smoke. No one would benefit from Jesus' teachings again.

That's without even considering the truth of the resurrection. Whether or not it happened, there was a great big reason to make people believe it did. These people believed if nothing else in the value of their cause, like many with noble causes but also like many with full knowledge that they're working from false premises towards noble ends. They made a conscious decision to support it to the end, no matter what. The whole apostolic "unit" was in danger and stayed that way, because that's how it had to be.

What I am asking you to consider, on a basic level, is that it's possible for a small group of determined men, who've devoted their lives to a great leader and teacher, to summon the courage of a soldier when it comes time to carry on his mission of mercy. Furthermore, though it demands more of them, this is possible even if that great leader is also just a man. If these few men succeed, those not in the know will then have it much easier, because they'll believe.

Understand that I'm responding to an argument by elimination - a claim that without a true miracle, there is no way the apostles could have done what they (apparently) did. I am compelled to consider any and every possible alternative until all are ruled out. Though this one requires extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary men, I just can't say that it couldn't happen. If you can't accept this scenario, you might be able to think of others entirely. But thankyou again for your response, it was most thought-provoking.

Thank you for your

Thank you for your thoughtful and reasonably presented reply.

I certainly agree that it is possible (in general), to die for a lie. However, in the disciples’ case (in particular) I think such a theory suffers from a low degree of probability, given a few pieces of information:

The content of their message. Without a doubt, the central teaching/proclamation of the apostolic church was Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, the fact that he was a great teacher and leader is undisputed; however, I don’t believe that the disciples would have willingly endured the type of persecution they suffered (or execution in some cases) if Jesus was only a great teacher—I base that on the next point…

The timing of their message. It wasn’t until after the disciples believed they saw literal appearances of the risen Jesus that they became bold proclaimers of the faith. Between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection they feared what the Jews might do to them and even went back to their “day jobs,” as it were.

The conversion of James (Jesus’ brother) to Christianity : James didn’t believe that Jesus was anything more than a mere mortal until he saw what he believed to be resurrection appearances. Thus, James had no “militant” loyalty to the cause of Christ until such time as an alleged resurrection occurred.

The conversion of Saul (Paul) to Christianity: Similar to James, Paul was not merely a skeptic, but a zealous persecutor of the early church. It wasn’t until after he had experiences which he believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus that he started preaching the resurrection (which was his core message). If anyone had nothing to gain and everything to lose by proclaiming such a message, it was Paul, and this all occurred after Jesus’ death.

For these reasons, I think the most “probable” explanation is that the disciples died for something they believed to be true (that being the resurrection message). If they didn’t at least believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, the impetus for their mission—the proclamation of the resurrection—would have been absent.

Again, your thoughts on this are appreciated.



DFAL specifics

Hi again Phil.

I'll begin by speaking very generally. A low degree of probability I can live with, simply because of the alternative. Extraordinary human behaviour is one thing, but unprecedented acts like defeat of death are another entirely. I'm looking for alternatives, as I said, and they require two qualities. One, in response to the implicit argument for God they must have only natural causes. Two, as exotic and unlikely as they may be, they must be strictly possible.

It's a contingency plan, if you like. If, and only if, the question of the Gospels' posession of any historical credibility were ever finally decided in the affirmative (it's a separate issue entirely), arguments like Strobel's would come to the forefront. Alternatives such as the lie idea would keep them from graduating from arguments to attempted proofs of God.

Now to specifics.

Jesus' existence, let alone the fact that he was a great teacher, is still disputed all right. I'm just not disputing it right at this moment. I'm happy to sit out on that limb for a while.

The content of the apostles' new message, if this is what suddenly gave them the guts to boldly proclaim, somewhat diminishes or disregards the rest of Jesus' body of work. Hadn't he been working miracles in public for years? How many hundreds had been cured of the incurable (leprosy, blindness)? Did his previous resurrection of Lazarus (in front of a crowd of Jews in Bethany) count for nothing? Or was the resurrection the first real miracle he actually publicly appeared to have managed?

Quite the reverse to your idea, I think the timing of the message is highly suspect. Jesus was dead and therefore robbed of his use as a figurehead, and his potential power over or against anybody, least of all the Romans...unless he could be somehow "resurrected" in the public eye. What better way than to take it literally; create the famous empty tomb and claim he had returned?

Incidentally, as I said elsewhere I don't blame the apostles for going to ground until the new campaign began. Their own following might have been after them unless they found a positive message to spread. In a way, the news of the resurrection probably saved their skins at first.

Jesus' "brother" (some theological contention over the relation) James the Just is an interesting case. Here's someone who knew Jesus in life, and according to Paul claimed to have seen him afterwards. Actually, it's only Paul who says that it happened, not even James himself in his own supposed Epistle. Some (not all) possibilities here: the resurrected Jesus did appear to James, Paul lied about James or James was in on the resurrection hoax, possibly for the same reason as the apostles: he had seen not the truth but the use of Christianity.

As for Paul/Saul of Tarsus himself, by his own admission he had never seen Jesus pre-crucifixion. That would have made him easier to convince on the road to Damascus, no matter who did it. On another similar site I've gone into Paul's case in more detail, and so have others.

It does indeed make every character's motivation easier to understand if they all really believed Jesus had returned. There are a couple of non-supernatural scenarios available in this case too: that perhaps Jesus acted independently, and faked his death with the help of the Roman guards, or that perpetrators outside of Jesus' inner circle (including a lookalike?) were responsible. Either option absolves the apostles and any other chroniclers of any deception at all; it merely substitutes a little credulity. Perhaps this is more satisfying if their behaviour does not appear to suit any attitude but sincerity.

Thanks again for the

Thanks again for the engaging and insightful dialogue.

You’ve presented a handful of major elements in this last post; e.g., philosophical coherence of miracles, historical reliability of the Gospels (and Scripture in general), the historical Jesus, etc. I’m interested in pursuing further discussion in any or all of these areas, but for now I’d like to train our focus onto the resurrection itself.

In this regard, I’m proposing that the resurrection (in spite of its miraculous nature) has a greater likelihood of having occurred than any competing naturalistic theory. What’s more, I believe you can maintain your naturalistic metaphysical commitment while evaluating the data for such an occurrence.

Perhaps you’re familiar with Gary Habermas’ minimal facts approach to the resurrection. If not, it essentially establishes a concise combination of critically-accepted data regarding the resurrection and employs them as a framework by which to analyze theories (i.e., facts test theories). Being the skeptical person that I am, I find this methodology helpful in getting to the root of the matter since it dispenses with the otherwise unavoidable ancillary issues that accompany resurrection discussions (coherence of miracles, reliability of scripture, etc).

In the event that you’re unfamiliar with these facts, there are twelve in toto; however, for the purpose of this dialogue, I’ll only cite six since these are sufficient to accommodate most naturalistic theories and they likewise enjoy the highest percentage of critical acceptance.

(1) Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
(2) The disciples had experiences that they thought were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
(3) The disciples were transformed from fearful doubters to bold proclaimers who were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection.
(4) The disciples’ proclamation of the resurrection began very early, when the church was still in its infancy.
(5) James, the brother of Jesus and a former skeptic, became a Christian due to an experience which he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
(6) Saul, a church persecutor, became a Christian due to an encounter with one whom he believed to be the risen Jesus.

You’ll notice I’ve already employed some of these points in my previous discussion—such an appeal warrants my explanation of their authenticity. First, these six facts are accepted as historically reliable by 95% of critical scholars. This encompasses anyone who’s published on the topic between 1975-present (spanning over 2,400 texts in French, German, and English). In other words, the list of input is comprehensive and spans the gamut of methodological precommitments, from vast-conservative (i.e., those who believe everything the Bible says) to extreme liberal (i.e., a priori miracle rejecters).

The reason these data enjoy a high-degree of acceptance among such an eclectic group is multifaceted, but it’s primarily attributable to their multiple attestation (i.e., independent corroboration). Furthermore, one need not hold to the theological doctrine of divine inspiration or the possibility of miracles, since the facts are of a historical nature and also non-supernatural (in and of themselves).

Given that brief explanation, I would like to test the two naturalistic theories that you’ve presented against these criteria:

“Jesus acted independently, and faked his death with the help of the Roman guards”:
- This would actually miss on all six points. It doesn’t account for Jesus’ death, which even the ultra-liberal, miracle-rejecting, John Dominic Crossan says is “as sure as anything historical can ever be … The most certain fact about the historical Jesus is his execution as a political rebel.” Furthermore, the faked-death theory fails to explain the subsequent resurrection appearances and corresponding conversion accounts. I wasn’t sure if you intended that this theory be taken in tandem with the following theory; if so, I apologize in advance for misrepresenting your position.

“Perpetrators outside of Jesus' inner circle (including a lookalike?) may have been responsible” […for hoaxing the resurrection appearances, I’m presuming?].
- This is a clever notion which only fails on perhaps two of the six points (2 and 5), assuming that Paul had never seen the pre-resurrected Jesus, of course. To illustrate this, Bill Craig correlated the “twin theory” to that which was seen in the movie, “Dave,” where the President dies and is replaced by a lookalike. The upshot of this analogy being that Dave wasn’t able to fool his closest acquaintances any better than an imposter-Jesus would’ve been able to fool the disciples and “half-brother” [ settling the former theological contention ;-) ]

What I have not attempted to say with all of this is that a resurrection can be “proved.” I am contending that the evidential force of this type of cumulative argument provides a more compelling explanation (in spite of its miraculous implications), than any competing theory.



Hi Phil. I get a more

Hi Phil. I get a more comprehensive response from you every time I write back. It would have been quicker to lay out the full argument and the material by Habermas at the very beginning, but whatever floats your boat.

For someone like me who's still mulling over the very existence of Jesus, these six "facts" are a lot to take. You've supported them with a huge appeal to authority. I don't fault you for this as we've agreed that there's no proof to be had here, but we do need to examine these authority figures.

On principle, in the absence of a breakdown, I immediately fear a skewed sample. 92% of those surveyed could be on the "vast-conservative" end of the spectrum with only token figures such as Crossan at the far end, and even many (all?) of the liberal scholars like him were still Christian when they did their studies. Everyone you've mentioned (Habermas, Crossan, Craig) sure is. Got similar examples of still-agnostic secular scholars grudgingly rather than joyfully accepting these "facts"?

Consider the kinds of academics who would do such a study in the first place. Every theologian, whose field depends on a basic assumption of the existence of God and Jesus (actually arguing for them is more in the field of philosophy of religion), would be tempted to add another voice of general support in the larger historical sphere. By comparison, is there a great deal of motivation for a secular historian to investigate this area?

But enough speculation from me. Is there a list of these scholars available? Let's find out who was what.

I intended the fake-death and outside-hoaxers ideas to be separate, so you're on the ball.

The former is ruled out by the "fact" of the death, if you accept it.

The idea of independent hoaxers does satisfy even 2 and 5 if Paul and the apostles accepted the Jesus double. That's why Craig needed to argue that they wouldn't, using the movie Dave. The difference is, it's not as if a hypothetical replacement Jesus had to come back looking as if nothing had happened, or resume his old life. He came and went, he had supposedly been to the afterlife and back, he didn't say much at a time up close, everyone spent a lot of time looking at his wounds, there weren't any cameras, his mother was old (average life expectancy of 25-30 years in that era, and JC died at 33) and those who had depended on him were desperate for him to really be back. So yeah, I can see it.

Until next time.

Hi again. I do appreciate

Hi again. I do appreciate (and generally share) your skepticism, as you’ve raised many of the same questions that I’ve asked (and continue to ask) regarding these issues. A favorite quote of mine comes from Irwin H. Linton’s A Lawyer Examines the Bible , “There is a place for skepticism as well as a place for faith; and in considering an investment or embracing a religion, skepticism should come first.” – Amen

Moving right along…

As for my appeal to authority, I’ll have to concede that since I didn’t adequately explain myself in the previous post. I wasn’t appealing to the scholarly array as much as I was the methodology upon which the facts are supported. Don’t get me wrong, a 95% agreement is nice, but not primary. That which is of primary significance is multiple-independent attestation of these data. Habermas provides a comprehensively outlined appendix citing the breadth of independent supporting data in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus(co-authored by Mike Licona).

Getting back to the scholars whom Habermas polled, it is my understanding that he researched anyone who’s published on the topic of the resurrection since 1975. He subsequently plugged their respective opinions into his spreadsheet which consisted of a hundred subcategories and then did the math. For my own interest as well as yours, I’m working to obtain the list of scholars and the spreadsheet itself (assuming it’s even available). From what I’ve gleaned from his lectures, his list is inclusive of historians who hold no doctrine of biblical inspiration/authority and are only interested in what can be learned of antiquity. As for now, a few highly skeptical people who do grant Habermas’ six facts (aside from Crossan) are:

Michael Martin (atheist)
Antony Flew (atheist turned deist, perhaps?)
Rudolf Bultmann (a priori-miracle rejecter)

…this isn’t exactly the membership list for the evangelical theological society ;-)

Not to divert the discussion from the resurrection, but in regard to your comment about mulling over the historicity of Jesus, I figured I’d offer this analysis: How Jesus stacks up to an historical contemporary (Tiberius Caesar).

Forty-two authors mention Jesus within 150 years of his life:
(1) Nine traditional authors of the NT: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Author of Hebrews, James, Peter, Jude.
(2) Twenty early Christian writers outside the NT: Clement of Rome, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Shepard of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, Epistula Apostolorum.
(3) Four heretical writings: Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Apocryphon of John, Treatise on Resurrection.
(4) Nine secular non-Christian sources: Josephus (Jewish historian), Tacitus (Roman historian), Pliny the Younger (Roman Politician), Phlegon (freed slave who wrote histories), Lucian (Greek satirist), Celsus (Roman philosopher), Mara Bar Serapion (prisoner awaiting execution), Suetonius, Thallus.
By comparison, only ten authors mention Tiberius Caesar—the Roman Emperor during Jesus’ ministry—within 150 of his life: Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Seneca, Paterculus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Valerius Maximum, and Luke.

Thanks for the dialogue. By the way, what’s your name?




It's Alex, Phil. Thanks back atcha for the dialogue. At the point where folks start throwing whole books at me, and the overall opinions of scholars (though I think I've written about Flew before), I have to say I'll take them under advisement and go do some reading. Once I'm done it may be too late, or take too much text for a Web forum. But you never know, I might find a brief way to reply later, for example about Tiberius.

In short, thanks and I'll get back to you. Cheers.

Sounds good, Alex. I'll

Sounds good, Alex. I'll check back periodically to see what's new. Take care, and thanks for the thoughtful discussion.



As I thought, the Tiberius argument is the most straightforward to reply to.

- The list of authors for Jesus counts just about everybody possible, while only authors of substantive historical accounts of Tiberius make the list.

- Those who wrote about both Jesus and Tiberius wrote a lot more about Tiberius, for example Tacitus who wrote six books of Annals about the emperor and two passages on the other guy. (The obvious exception is Luke, or whoever actually wrote that Gospel.)

- Besides the historical evidence, there's archaeological and even architectural evidence for Tiberius. His name and likeness are inscribed on buildings, and for example multiple surviving coins - coins minted and used during his lifetime. And let's not forget the statues and busts. There were consistent, recognisable, long-lasting images of the man's face all over Rome, and now they're spread all over the world. Herod even named a town after him. Count the contemporary sculptors and metalworkers with surviving art as amateur historians, and you've got dozens or even hundreds.

Regardless, I'm aware that there seems to be a general consensus on the existence of a human Jesus. I'm currently at a loss to explain this, as no particular piece of evidence has been universally accepted. I wonder whether historians may have made a mistake Richard Dawkins often mentions: to presume that the truth is about halfway between two strong opinions. I'm discussing that with other atheists elsewhere.

Meanwhile I'm moving on to the Habermas "facts".


I haven't had much time for research over Christmas, but I've passed this on to others and created a lively discussion on RichardDawkins.net. (You may have to register to see the page.)

Sure, it's not exactly neutral ground but all major perspectives are present: atheists disputing the existence of Jesus, atheists who accept his existence but deny his divinity and Christians supporting his divinity in the lion's den. You might like to pop over and address the concerns others have aired there, Phil, because there are many.

Beyond us?

I've just read the news that a great big group of scholars has started on this question from scratch. I had begun to suspect that historians had not actually addressed the concerns of those who don't think Jesus was real at all; well, this lot is doing just that. They estimate that it will take them five years.

Hi Alex, As much as I'm

Hi Alex,

As much as I'm intrigued by this topic, I unfortunately think that due to the variety of methodologies already applied to the matter, I’m not hopeful that such an endeavor will add much, if anything, substantive to current historical-Jesus discussions. Nevertheless, I’ll be interested in seeing what they produce.



I feel the same way, really.

At the very least, all the arguments pro and con will be refreshed in people's minds.

Back to the First Argument

Great dialogue, although it got a little rabbit-trailed.

Back to the beginnning:

People do die for lies, movements, and leaders based on the belief that it leads to something greater than themselves.

Jihadists - obvious
Soldiers - saving comrades, military victory
Cultists - a leader's cause

The problem with the disciple's fervor is the message failed on all accounts:

1) Their leader had already died, not exactly a great figure head

2) They would be fabricating a story which directly contradicted the essence of their leaders teaching - truth

3) Their leader supported submission to the Roman occupiers

Now, I would be very interested if any literary mythology, history, or theory ever supported another instance of followers of a dead leader, who supported truth, and submitted to a conquering authority supporting a lie unto their death.

Obviously, I believe that this instance is unique in historical perspective.

Unique situation?

I'd be interested too, if anybody knows any exact parallels. The possible uniqueness of the situation does little to eliminate natural explanations, though.

1. Their leader, for publicity purposes, was not only alive but immortal and invincible. As long as people believed in the Resurrection, Jesus was and still is the perfect figurehead. Scientologists have a weak echo of this in their concept of the current status and imminent return of L. Ron Hubbard.

2. Jesus and his apostles advocated truth, sure. If the Resurrection didn't happen, however, heathens who knew the truth wouldn't become Christians and learn the virtue of honesty (obviously, I'm speaking from a Christian can't-be-good-without-God perspective here). If the truth itself was in the way of preaching honesty or anything at all, the temptation to make an exception was tremendous, and Jesus wasn't there to object.

3. Despite the expectation that the Messiah would free the Jews from whoever was giving them grief, the Romans were apparently irrelevant to Jesus' aims. To him, simply not fighting the Romans wasn't much of a submission. (Perhaps it was more like Gandhi's civil disobedience.) Really submitting would have meant worshipping Jupiter and Apollo. As long as his followers worshipped the "one true God", earthly authorities didn't mean jack.