I was discussing the reliability of the Bible with a Christian the other day and heard that old chestnut:
Nearly all of the disciples went to their death, unwilling to recant their beliefs.
It really sounds like a compelling point. Although loads of people die for their belief in made-up stories even today, surely it’s very rare indeed that anyone would willingly die for a story that they had made up themselves. So the testimony of the first disciples, most of whom died for their beliefs, is powerful evidence that these beliefs must have been founded in reality.
I remember making these kinds of arguments myself when I was a Christian. And then one day I was asked an important question. “How do you know?” I realised I had just been repeating reports I had heard from Christian apologists. But no matter, I thought; I’ll just dig up the sources and share them with the doubters. Well, I did quite a bit of searching online and in my apologetics books, and what I found was a bit of a shock. Go on and try it yourself! Where is the evidence to support the claim that the disciples went to their deaths boldly proclaiming the gospel? If there was evidence, the apologists would be trumpeting it at every possible opportunity. But they don’t.
The reports I had heard (and repeated myself) conjured up images of the disciples being captured by the Romans, being told they could live and be set free if only they would admit they had made up the gospel message, but bravely chosing death because they knew it was all true. But where is the evidence for this? Are we really to expect that Nero would gently untie the recanting believer, pat him on the back, and say “There you go, doesn’t that feel better now?”
This claim is made in all kinds of places. Even William Lane Craig brought it up in his debate with Bart Ehrman when he said the following:
The original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief.
Ehrman’s response sums the situation up very well:
I hear that claim a lot, but having read every Christian source from the first five hundred years of Christianity, I’d like him to tell us what the piece of evidence is that the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection.
In my opinion, the Ehrman vs Craig exchange is one of the best places to hear both sides of the debate over the historicity of the resurrection. Here’s the debate transcript, and I’ve linked to the video at the end of this post. (I’ve posted about this debate before; see my post Craig’s Calamitous Cock-Up, where I link to my video of the same name in which I expose the mathematical blunders Craig makes when he tries to invoke Bayes’ Theorem. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the debate in the future.)
If you want to use this line of apologetics, then please provide some evidence to back up your claim. By doing so, you will be doing a huge favour to the apologetic community which, so far, has not been able to come up with any adequate evidence. If you do not provide any evidence, but still want to insist on using this tactic, then you are just perpetuating unsubstantiated stories, and are guilty of using dishonest tactics. If you need to lie or stretch the truth in order to argue for your position, then what does it say about your position?