The willingness of the apostles to die for their beliefs is one of the most commonly cited arguments for the resurrection. In my recent book, The Fate of the Apostles, I examine the historical evidence for their martyrdoms. Here is my thesis in the book:
The apostles spent between one and a half and three years with Jesus during his public ministry, expecting him to proclaim his kingdom on earth. Although disillusioned at his untimely death, they became the first witnesses of the risen Jesus and they endured persecution; many subsequently experienced martyrdom, signing their testimony, so to speak, in their own blood. The strength of their conviction, marked by their willingness to die, indicates that they did not fabricate these claims; rather, without exception, they actually believed Jesus to have risen from the dead. While in and of themselves these facts prove neither the truth of the resurrection in particular nor Christianity as a whole, they do demonstrate the apostles’ sincerity of belief, lending credibility to their claims about the veracity of resurrection, which is fundamental to the case for Christianity. In other words, their willingness to face persecution and martyrdom indicates more than any other conceivable course their sincere conviction that, after rising from the dead, Jesus indeed appeared to them.
This raises a potential objection that I address towards the end of the book: Could it be possible the apostles were killed unwillingly? Maybe they recanted their faith under pressure, rejected the risen Jesus, but were killed anyways. There are three primary problems with this objection.
First, not a shred of evidence exists that any apostle waivered in or recanted his faith—excluding Judas. The uniform testimony from Acts and the early church fathers upholds that they willingly suffered for proclaiming the risen Jesus. And then knew persecution was coming because of both the teaching and model of Jesus.[i]
Second, the apostles were killed in diverse places, at diverse times, and in diverse ways. If the apostles were all rounded up and killed together, this objection may have some merit. But this is simply not the case. The deaths of the apostles likely took place over a span of about sixty years (AD 42-c. AD 103) and hundreds of miles apart—possibly even thousands. Some of the apostles were known to have died early (e.g., James the son of Zebedee) and yet the others continued to proclaim the gospel publicly. Given the diverse stories of their travels and fates (even though many of these are admittedly apocryphal), it is inconceivable they all unwillingly suffered and died for their faith. In reality, there is no good reason to believe this is true for any of them.
Third, if an apostle did recant his faith, it is hard to imagine there would not have been at least one mention of it in history. Historian Michael Licona notes,
"We may also expect that a recantation by any of the disciples would have provided ammunition for Christian opponents like Celsus and Lucian in the third quarter of the second century, the former of which wrote against the church while the latter wrote of the Christian movement in a pejorative manner. Thus to suggest that the disciples did not willingly suffer for their message would be to posit a scenario greatly lacking in plausibility"[ii].
Christians would also be expected to cite a wavering apostle, especially when debates began to rage about how to treat believers who desired to remain in the church after abandoning their faith under threat of martyrdom. If there were even remotely credible apocryphal story about the recantation of one of the apostles, we should expect to hear about it. But the historical record is silent.
As I demonstrate in The Fate of the Apostles, the apostles were all willing to suffer and die for their belief that they had seen the risen Jesus. While we cannot demonstrate historically that they all died as martyrs, we know they willingly proclaimed the faith amidst persecution with full awareness of the potential cost of following a publicly crucified “criminal.” While the historical record is incomplete, there is no good reason to believe they were executed against their wills. They really believed Jesus appeared to them, and they were willing to die for that conviction.
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 at seanmcdowell.org.
[i] Jesus told his disciples to expect persecution (Matt 10:16-23; Mark 13:9; John 15:18-27, 16:2-3, 33) and suffering for the sake of righteousness (Matt 5:10-11, 43-44; Luke 6:22-23). He even warned them they would be killed, as Israel had killed the prophets (Matt 21:33-40, 22:6, 23:30-31, 34, 37; Mark 12:1-11; Luke 6:22-23, 11:47-50, 13:34, 20:9-18). They expected persecution in the same manner Jesus experienced it himself (John 15:18-27) specifically because of their proclamation of the name of Jesus before men (Matt 24:9; Luke 21:12-13, 17).
[ii] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 371.