What Makes the Deaths of the Apostles Unique?
Photo credit Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

What Makes the Deaths of the Apostles Unique?

Posted November 06, 2015 by Sean McDowell

“The apostles were willing to die for their faith? So what! Many people, such as Muslim terrorists and Buddhist radicals, were willing to die as well. Does that mean their beliefs are true too?”

One of the most common arguments for the resurrection is the willingness of the apostles to die for their belief in the risen Jesus. This argument is compelling, as I demonstrate in my recent book The Fate of the Apostles. Yet as soon as this argument is put forth, the objector will point to others who have died for their faith, implying that the deaths of the apostles is not unique.

Certainly, many people throughout history have died for their beliefs. As a form of political protest, for example, Buddhist monks have participated in self-immolation.[1] And on September 11, 2001, nineteen radical Muslims hijacked four planes and, killing themselves in the process, attacked and killed thousands of people. Clearly, the willingness to die on their parts shows the sincerity of their beliefs. Muslim radicals believed they were following the commands of the Qur’an and would be rewarded in the afterlife; Buddhist monks believed their sacrifice would save more lives in the future or lead to political freedom. Given these Muslim radicals and Buddhists were just as sincere as the apostles, should their claims be considered as reliable as well?

But this objection misses a key difference between the deaths of the apostles and modern martyrs. Modern martyrs[2] die for what they sincerely believe is true, but their knowledge comes secondhand from others. For instance, Muslim terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11 were not eyewitnesses of any miracles by Mohammed. In fact, they were not eyewitnesses of any events of the life of Mohammed. Rather, they lived over thirteen centuries later. No doubt the Muslim radicals acted out of sincere belief, but their convictions were received secondhand at best from others. They did not know Mohammed personally, see him fulfill any prophecy, or witness him doing any miracles such as walking on water, healing the blind, or rising from the dead. There is a massive difference between willingly dying for the sake of the religious ideas accepted from the testimony of others (Muslim radicals) and willingly dying for the proclamation of a faith based upon one’s own eyewitness account (apostles). The deaths of the nineteen terrorists provide no more evidence for the truth of Islam than my death would provide for the truth of Christianity. My martyrdom would show I really believed it, but nothing more.

In contrast to the beliefs of Buddhist monks and Muslim radicals and any other modern martyrs, including Christians, the beliefs of the apostles was not received secondhand, but from personal experience with the risen Jesus (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor 15:5-8). They proclaimed what they had seen and heard with their own eyes and ears, not stories received from others (Acts 1:3; 2:22-24). Peter not only claims that he was an eyewitness but that the events took place in public and that his audience had full knowledge of them. The events were not done secretly in a corner. Buddhist monks and Muslim terrorists are certainly willing to suffer and die for a faith they received secondhand, but the apostles were willing to suffer and die for what they had seen with their own eyes.

If Jesus had not risen from the grave and appeared to his apostles, they alone would have known the falsity of his claims. In other words, if the resurrection did not happen, the apostles would have willingly suffered and died for something they knew was false. While people die for what they believe is true, it is a stretch to think all the apostles were willing to suffer and die for a claim they knew was false. The suffering and deaths of the apostles testify to the sincerity of their beliefs that they had seen the risen Jesus.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog

[1]Anthony Boyd, “Buddhist Monk Sets Himself on Fire to Protest against the Slaughter of Cattle in Sri Lanka,” The Daily Mail, May 24, 2013, accessed May 7, 2014, /news/article-2330398/Buddhist-monk-sets-protest-slaughter-cattle-Sri-Lanka.html.

[2]The term “modern martyrs” refers to those who die in the present age for their beliefs. Technically, Muslim terrorists would not qualify as martyrs since they are actively murdering people rather than being put to death for the proclamation of their faith.