Of Christians, Matyrs, and Proof

There is a thought provoking post up over at Johnathan Groover’s place. I ran into it via Finding Truth. A comment over there immediately piqued my interest (emphasis mine):

yep, i think this is one that most skeptics cant really answer. there are many things that people die for. there are people who will even knowingly die for a lie (cultures where “saving face” is important will do so). but they wont go from being cowards one moment to stalwart defenders of the faith the next….UNLESS there was something that changed.

Joy oh joy, a challenge! So I bounded over to have a look (emphasis mine):

Now, I made it clear that Christians are not the only people to be persecuted and die for their faith. Many Muslims have gladly given their lives in the name of “Holy War.” Many Jews were slaugtered simply because of who they were. But I must say, just as Jesus Christ stands in a league of His own in the religious figures throughout world religions, so too the disciples and early Christians who were martyred for sharing the message of Christ stand worlds apart from those who have died for “religious causes.”

Really? There are numerous cases, across a range of faiths, were people were killed for sticking to and preaching their beliefs. Look at the Sufi masters who were killed for proclaiming they were God, or Jews asked to convert to Christianity, who preferred to be brutally murdered instead. Christians are not at all unique in being killed for standing up for their religious beliefs.

Here’s the next interesting piece:

History has shown that eleven of the twelve disciples of Jesus were martyred for their witness of Christ. Let me give a few examples. Matthew the tax collector was beheaded by the sword. Mark was tied up behind horses and literally had his body dragged to pieces for his faith.

Now here’s the big problem. These men made a bold claim. They (along with 120, and a larger 500) claimed to see Jesus die and then rise from the dead. On top of that, these men all abandoned Christ in His greatest time of need. They were complete cowards (as I would have been) and feared retaliation. Yet, all of sudden, these men are proclaiming at the cost of their lives, a message of the resurrection of Jesus Christ who is also the Messiah (or savior) of the world. They went from being coward to becoming some of the boldest men in the entire world.

Ok. What’s your source? The primary source is the Bible. In other words, the central claim of this “unanswerable question” for skeptics relies on circular reasoning to make its point. Of course this is a compelling claim to make, that “12 cowardly men” died bravely for something they “saw”. But how do we skeptics know that this is the actual history?

Men will die for a belief. These men died beacuse they saw something…

Those men supposedly died because they believed in what they saw. In other words, they still died for a belief. It may be a justified true belief, but it was a belief nonetheless. And of course this assumes they saw what they claim they did.

And that’s part of the problem. Too much is taken for granted here. Like this:

But I must say, just as Jesus Christ stands in a league of His own in the religious figures throughout world religions

How is he unique? Being killed for his beliefs? Liberating beings from hell? Being the son of God? Suffering for the benefit of mankind? You can find examples of each in the surrounding Pagan religions of the time, in Judaism and Islam, and in Buddhism. That’s just off the top of my head.

The question of why people would die for a belief is a very important one to be asking. As would be looking into the similarities throughout history within the context of religious persecution. But any critical look at history must employ logic. If you start your investigation with your conclusions all neatly in place, you’ll only end up where you began.

18 Responses

  1. Good post (and thanks for the link).

    I agree with a lot of what you say. I thought the post on Jonathan Groover’s site was good, but I will admit there are some potential flaws with it. It’s one of those observations that doesn’t necessarily prove anything in itself, but could possibly work as a supporting argument.

    Obviously, I do believe in the Bible, but I also agree with you that starting an investigation into something without allowing yourself to question your preconceived beliefs is totally pointless.

    Thanks for making your response intelligent and devoid of insult. Sometimes it’s easy for people to sound mocking when they critique religious perspectives, but I thought your post was very respectful.

    Incidentally, most of the studying I’ve done on the Bible has been in it — to try to evaluate the truth of its teachings. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time looking into its authenticity from an historical perspective. That being said, I have found some interesting passages that do lend it credence, such as passages that hint at the earth being round and suspended in space, etc.

    I’ll check around your site some more. Maybe we’ll find some good stuff to talk about sometime.

  2. The other problem is that we don’t know of any 500. Anyone can simply say that 500 saw this or that without anyone seeing anything at all, and even the original writer can sincerely believe it but be mistaken (for instance, via rumor or confusing testimony). One of the gospels says that when Jesus was killed, people physically burst out of their graves and wandered around meeting people… an event that surely would have been recorded in history, but which is just mentioned in passing in the Gospel.

    We also don’t really know their stories. The Gospels are at least to some degree mythical rendering of Jesus’ life, and Paul is the only one we really know for sure first hand in his own writing… and he really doesn’t say much of anything about Jesus’ life or any events being important in it. We don’t know why they believed or based on what. All we know is what later people came to believe about them.

  3. Nate,
    Thanks (and sure thing).
    It was definitely an interesting post.

    Finding items in a book that acknowledge known physical truths don’t really speak to the books believability.

    Some good stuff to talk about would be most excellent!

    That is a good point. All we do know is what people came to believe about them at a later point in time. Which isn’t to say the book is without merit! Even as a purely fictional story, the story of Jesus has elements that are innately inspirational and moving.

  4. You know, rereading the post title I would have (because I am wired in a sarcastic way) written: “Of Christians, Martyrs, and Proof of Purchase”. But thats just me.

  5. Its kind of humorous to watch Jews waiting so long for thier “Messiah” to come and “liberate” them.

  6. bgraef,
    How is that any different from the second coming, Maitreya or the Mahdi? Why single out any group for your scorn?

    I think someone needs a hug. Come here you anti-semetic lug. There. All better?

  7. Hey……weve only been waiting 2 millenia for the coming of Christ ;))……your only a few hundred years behind us……..lol….
    Dont feel so bad now??
    And the Muslims are one up on us…….theyve been at the bus stop for 1400 years…

  8. Pfft. Check out the time estimates for Maitreya.
    I find savior myths to be fascinating though. They can tell you nifty things about the cultures they develop in.


    your only a few hundred years behind us

    “you’re”? Whoa there johnny assumption.

  9. You missed the focal point of his argument completely. His point is that people generally make up lives to help themselves not hurt themselves. The fact that the disciples were willing to die for a belief in a resurrected body negates the assertion that the disciples stole the body of Christ, etc. Multitudes of religious affiliates have died for their belief but I don’t know of any who have willingly subjected themselves to tortures, floggings and horrible deaths for believing in what THEY KNOW TO BE A LIE. Imagine if the leader hi-jacker of 9-11 said, “Ok- so we are all agreed. The Koran is a bunch of bull and Mohammed was a false prophet. Whose in with me?” Not a chance. If you really want to critique the claims of the resurrection and offer alternative theories than you will need to deal with the scholarship of William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas. Good Luck.

  10. Oops…crucial spell check. I meant to say “people generally make up LIES to help themselves not hurt themselves…”

  11. Matt Bohlman,
    The focal point of his argument rests within a framework that uses the Bible as a reference. Its fundamentally circular.
    To critique the claims of the resurrection is not necessary. I have no need to. I am simply pointing out that an attempt to prove those claims accurate falls flat by that old friend to apologetics: circular reasoning.

  12. Not so at all my friend. His focal point is that men do not willingly die for what they know to be a lie. In the case of the resurrection all the alternative theories rely on the assumption that the diciples must have been “in the know” that Christ was not bodily raised from the dead but nonetheless they all agreed to subject themselves to beatings and ultimately a brutal end…all so that they could propogate the lie that he was. Not very probable at all. There are other arguments one can point to that defend the merits of a historical, bodily resurrection of Christ…. without even needing to open “chapter and verse.” Moreover you are mistaken to assume that Jonathan is employing circular reasoning. His source is not the Bible. Historically speaking the gospels were written before the disciples lost their lives for THAT gospel. This is why the Bible does not speak of the fate of Thomas, Peter, etc. In fact James is the only apostolic figure in the N.T. in which his grissly end is specifially mentioned. So the Bible is not the source for the fate of the disciples- the attestation of historical literature from antiquity is the source material. If you are interested I can give you some reference material for your own research. It is quite an interesting study.

  13. Not so at all my friend. His focal point is that men do not willingly die for what they know to be a lie.

    First of all, this simply isn’t true: people WILL die to avoid having to admit falsehoods, and furthermore, people most certainly will die for beliefs that they are mistaken about. If you are a Christian, then you have to concede this point, because you believe then that all other martyrs in other causes and religions DID die for what you believe to be a lie.

    There is little reason to doubt that the Apostles, if they even died as tradition suggests, believed that Jesus was important and a prophet of some sort. But this doesn’t make them correct in that belief, nor does it confirm all the claims and stories told in the Gospels, which chances are none of the Apostles ever saw or read. Rumor and confusion were rampant, and if people can believe all sorts of wacky things even today in an age of science and communication, think of how much more zany and chaotic things must have been back then.

    Historically speaking the gospels were written before the disciples lost their lives for THAT gospel.

    Maybe, maybe not, but likely not. It’s more likely that simply these stories of their deaths hadn’t been told as of yet, because the tradition of holy martyrdom wouldn’t become a popular Christian theme until later on. There aren’t any historical sources for the deaths of most of the Apostles either.

  14. Matt Bohlman,
    As Bad points out, yes they do. But the whole idea that these men ever died for their beliefs… where does that come from? Where do we get the idea that this Christ guy existed? Oh yeah. The Bible.
    But I’d definitely dig some historical evidence to look at. So far everything I’ve seen has been transparent conjecture on the part of biased apologists pretending to be historians and anthropologists.

    Good ppoint on the dying for beliefs and lies.

    A most excellent point on the Apostles. It doesn’t make their beliefs justified, otherwise one could simply prove anything at all by having some third party hold the same belief!

    Interesting point on the history aspect. I’d also argue, given the Church’s known history of book burning and revisionism, what historical sources can we actually trust on the matter?

  15. Hey F.F.T.O. and Bad. How ya guys doing? I appreciate the comments and points you have raised. I would like to first apologize for any tone that I have written in that was either arrogant or condescending. A friend of mine who I respect a lot read said he thought some of my comments lacked a great deal of Christ-like humility and kindness… and reminded me that arguments by themselves do little to reveal the truth of Christ in comparison to the lives of those who testify of being changed by that truth inwardly. He reminded that Ghandi once stated, “I don’t have a problem with Christ at all. I have a problem with those who profess to be his followers but who reflect very little of that Christ.” So in short I just want to clear the air and express my gratitude for engaging me on these topics and I do apoligize for any tone that was prideful or antithetical to how I should act a follower of the Cross….which is ultimately about me dying to my self-centeredness so that the life of the risen Christ can have an avenue of free expression in my life. I hope that didn’t sound too cheesy 🙂 I’m trying to simply speak from my heart. In saying that I would like to respond (in critique form) to a few comments you made. If I sound blunt it is just an attempt to sound concise.

    You stated,
    “First of all, this simply isn’t true: people WILL die to avoid having to admit falsehoods.”

    All I would ask of you is examples from history where this comment could be substantiated- especially in the context of a plurality. I just don’t think you will find any credible accounts. The reason being is we usually tend to make up lies to better our lives not to lose our lives in painful, torturous ways.

    You stated,
    “Furthermore, people most certainly will die for beliefs that they are mistaken about. If you are a Christian, then you have to concede this point, because you believe then that all other martyrs in other causes and religions DID die for what you believe to be a lie.”

    But this statement misses the point entirely. All I will concede is that maybe I’m not explaining my position clear enough. My point is not that people don’t die for what I THINK is a lie, but people don’t die for what THEY BELIEVE TO BE A LIE. Yes, it is true that I THINK Muslims give their lives for what I BELIEVE to be a false system of belief, but this in no way means THEY THINK IT IS A LIE. I’m not sure I can express it any clearer on my part, but I apologize if I wasn’t clear before.

    Some writers and authors (such as George Wells and Robert Price) have sought to place into question Jesus’ historicity but the fact is that virtually all serious scholars and historians (recognized as such by their peers) would never postulate the non- historicity of Jesus today. A number of scholars and historians who would adamantly defend the historicity of Jesus are in fact atheists, secularists or ultra-liberals who on the one hand have no problem denying the central tenets of the Christian faith, but on the other hand are quite convinced that a historical Jesus existed in Palestine as testified in the first century accounts of the gospels. These scholars and historians have nothing to gain by attesting to Christ’s historicity. The sole reason is that their intellectual honesty concerning probable matters of history compels them to do so. Not withstanding the fact that there are multiple accounts of Christ from early church historians and apologists (even from anti-Christian, Gnostic writings who you must assume must all be lying), the fact remains that historical accounts of Christ are found in Greco-Roman sources within the 1st and early 2nd centuries, such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger. For instance historians have an imperial record from the Roman historian Tacitus (c.56 – c.117) who speaks of “Christus” (Latinized Greek) and states:

    “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius [14-37] at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”

    Some noted scholars speculate that the source report Tacitus is using for his documentation may be the actual record of one of Pilate’s reports to the emperor which was customary at that time.

    I’m not sure if you were suggesting that there is no record in the writings of antiquity that would attest to the assertion that many of the disciples (and James the brother of Jesus) met grisly deaths for their faith in a resurrected Christ. If so, you are simply mistaken. Documents from antiquity (2nd and 3rd century) provide multiple attestation of the fate of various disciples… and even some make references to even earlier accounts from the end of the 1st century, such as Clement of Rome. A short list of some of these writing from antiquity would be Hippolytus, Josephus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Origen, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria.

    In saying all that I wonder if all this is really relevant given the possibility that you might be just as adamant that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead EVEN IF it could be shown conclusively to you that the disciples did indeed give their lives for a belief in a resurrected Christ. In other words you might just say, “Well- it would only show that history had some nutty people out there who were willing to be whipped, imprisoned, crucified upside down, stoned, beheaded and run threw rather than recant a religious lie that they themselves concocted.” Anything is possible- true, but not everything is plausible or probable. When it comes to the merits of the resurrection I feel there are other (and better) historical evidences that can place the conclusion of the resurrection squarely within the realm of probability. If you would like to dialogue with me on this I would be more than happy to discuss it… but no pressure, I know how busy things can get.

    P.S. The pendulum has swung and many noted scholars are beginning to date the gospels earlier rather than later…but generally the dates range between concervative dates of c.50 to liberal dates of c.85.

    The points you raised are good points but I hope some of my comments have addressed some of them to your satisfaction.
    All the best! -Matt

  16. The problem with christianity is that Christians use the NT scriptures for proof for everything they say and claim to be true. But the problem with that is that over the last couple decaded too much of the NT scripture has proven to be false. Plus if the things in the NT are true than Historians would mention it, which they don’t. the few things Christian use to try to claim are proof have been proven those few statements were tampered with and added and were not written by the orginal historian. Besides if all the stuff is so true in Christianity why aren’t we seeing all the mircales today that supposedly Jesus and the 12 deciples did. Jesus said He ascended into Heaven that that His followers would do the same mircales He did and even greater ones. I havent seen anyone raised from the dead or any mircalous healings in any local churches. The proof that Jesus is real should be showing in the lives of the Christian followers of today not 2000 years ago.

  17. I have read more comments and again, it doesn’t matter what happened 2000 years ago. What I want to know is why aren’t we seeing the mircales done by the Jesus followers of today? Why don’t we see Christians who lives are so different and so on fire that non believers know instantly as they did 2000 years ago that that person is a believer in Christ. The proof of Jesus and His ressurection and everything that goes with it should be shinning out in the lives of the believers today. I myself do not see Christ in His so called followers of today. I definitely don’t see His followers doing the mircales He did and making a difference in the world. There is a few television preachers who supposedly are healing the sick, but that should be a common thing seen being done by the average Christian plus seeing a dramatic difference in the lives of the Christians from the rest of the world. As far as I see, Christians really aren’t any different that non believers. They just say they are saved. The Bible says to show your faith by your works, I don’t see Christians doing that.

  18. jaz,
    Matt, sorry for the long time in replying.

    Examples from history of people dying for a lie:
    Do you believe suicide bombers are rewarded in heaven with virgins?

    Ah. That is a very good point. I think I have to agree with you there. People don’t generally die for a lie they themselves do not believe in. (although one could use a a clever example of someone dying to protect a lie they believe to be necessary as a counterexample, I think for the purposes of our discussion your point stands firmly).

    I don’t buy the “virtually all serious scholars and historians” bit. For one, how many is “virtually all”? What constitutes “serious”? How many have a vested personal interest in proving Christianity?

    There are references to *many* Jews killed by the Romans, but no indication any of them performed miracles, rose from the dead, etc.

    I don’t think the deaths of the apostles works as proof of the veracity of Christianity’s claims. Why would it?

    Excellent discussion Matt, thanks!

    I think focusing purely on the point of “what about right now” is a useful thought exercise. I think the original argument being put forth was that “people died for Jesus, they must have been on to something”, and we’ve been going back and forth about the credibility of such an argument.

    With regards to miracles, yeah, not so common. With regards to living loving and inspired lives, I do see that, a lot. I think the idea of “show your faith by your works” refers more towards being a good person, and for all the people out there giving Christianity a bad rap by example, there are a ton doing good works and being just exactly the kind of people their religion invites them to be.

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