The willingness of the apostles to die for their faith is one of the most commonly cited arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. And yet in my research and experience, it is one of the most widely misunderstood. It is important we neither overstate nor understate the significance of this point. In my book The Fate of the Apostles, I carefully state the argument this way:
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.
Nevertheless, many critics have rightly pushed back and questioned the value of this argument. In her book The Myth of Persecution, Professor Candida Moss, for example, claims that Christians “like to think of their martyrs as unique. The fact that early Christians were willing to die for their beliefs has been seen as a sign of the inherent truth of the Christian message …. Christianity is true, it is said, because only Christians have martyrs.”
Two points are important to make in response. First, as I demonstrate in The Fate of the Apostles, there are many martyrs outside Christianity; the claim is not that only Christians have martyrs, but that the apostles died uniquely for the belief that they had actually seen the risen Christ, which demonstrates the sincerity of their convictions. The deaths of others for their religious causes in no way undermines the evidential significance of the fate of the apostles.
Second, the apostles’ willingness to die for their beliefs does not demonstrate “the inherent truth of the Christian message,” as Moss claims. Rather, it shows that the apostles really believed that Jesus had risen from the grave. The apostles could have been mistaken, but their willingness to die as martyrs establishes their unmistakable sincerity. The apostles were not liars; rather, they believed they had seen the risen Jesus, they were willing to die by this claim, and as I show in The Fate of the Apostles, many actually did die for it.
Here is the bottom line: the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith does not prove Christianity is true; it merely shows the apostles sincerely believed Jesus had risen to them. They did not invent the story. They believed Jesus rose from the grave and appeared to them personally. Their willingness to pay the ultimate price for this conviction shows the depth of their sincerity.
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.
Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 17, 81.