Sean McDowell | December 8, 2015

Were the Apostles Willing to Die for a Misguided Faith?

Could the apostles have been sincere but misguided in their convictions about Jesus? In my recent book The Fate of the Apostles, I make the case that all the apostles were willing to suffer and die for their faith, and some of them did. A common objection, however, is that they were sincere but misguided. In other words, the apostles were not liars—they just mistakenly died for something that was false.

One problem with this objection is that the resurrection lies at the core of the first Christian kerygma. In other words, to be a Christian was to believe in the resurrection, which is clear from the earliest Christian creeds, the New Testament itself, and the apostolic fathers.[1] William Lane Craig observes,

It is difficult to exaggerate what a devastating effect the crucifixion must have had on the disciples. They had left everything for him, and now he was dead. They had left everything for him, and now he was dead. They had no conception of a dying, much less rising, Messiah, for Messiah would reign forever (cf. John 12:34). Without prior belief in the resurrection, belief in Jesus as Messiah would have been impossible in view of his death.[2]

Craig argues that without the resurrection the Christian faith could not have come into being. It was the resurrection that turned tragedy into triumph. God had vindicated the person of Jesus Christ by raising him from the dead. Thus, he could be proclaimed as the long-awaited Messiah (Acts 2:32-36). If Jesus had not risen, Paul claims the faith of a Christian is worthless and there is no forgiveness for sins (1 Cor 15:14, 17). But since Jesus has risen salvation is possible (Rom 10:9), without belief in the resurrection, the disciples would have seen Jesus as a failed Messiah (Luke 24:21). They would have returned to their previous jobs and gone on with their lives as before. Craig concludes, “The origin of the Christian Way therefore hinges on the belief of the early disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead.”[3] If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then critics have to posit another explanation to account for the origin of Christian belief. While there are many candidates, none have more plausibility than the resurrection hypothesis.[4]

Second, it is difficult to conclude the apostles were misguided because they did not expect the resurrection to occur. While Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31; 12:1-12; Matt 16:21; Luke 9:22; Luke 13:32-33), it is clear the apostles did not understand what he meant until after his resurrection. And they were still incredulous when they first encountered the evidence he had been raised from the dead (Luke 24:13-35; John 20:24-29). As Jews, the apostles expected the resurrection to be a corporate event at the eschaton. They simply were not expecting the resurrection of an individual before Israel’s history had reached its climax. And yet according to N. T. Wright, “The resurrection was the sign to the early Christians that this living god had acted at last in accordance with his ancient promise, and had thereby shown himself to be God, the unique creator and sovereign of the world.”[5] The apostles embraced the radical view that Jesus had resurrected in time because they thought they saw him alive after his crucifixion. If this is not the case, critics have to provide a more plausible explanation for the origin of the apostles’ belief in the resurrection.

Third, the belief of the apostles is rooted in their personal experience of seeing the risen Jesus. Thomas Wespetal concludes,

The alleged martyrdom of eyewitnesses of the resurrection, one of which (James) is recorded in Acts and others of which are supported by tradition, vanquishes the objection that all martyrs are sincere but misguided—these died not for what they merely believed, but for what they claimed to have seen…[6]

The apostles were willing to suffer and die for their belief that they had seen the risen Jesus. It simply stretches credulity to conclude that they were all misguided.

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

[1] See Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles (UK: Ashgate, 2015), 17-24.

[2]William Lane Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1989), 406.

[3]Ibid., 407, emphasis in original.

[4]For an in-depth analysis of competing explanations, see Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 465-610.

[5]N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 726.

[6]Thomas J. Wespetal, “Martyrdom and the Furtherance of God’s Plan: The Value of Dying for the Christian Faith” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2005), 236.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: