Christians often point to the martyrdom of the first followers of Jesus, those who supposedly had actually seen the empty tomb and the risen Christ, as evidence that those events actually occurred.
FMA: "The martyrdom of Jesus' apostles proves that Christianity is true!"
"Why would anyone die for something they knew was a lie?"
This argument is based on several premises, none of which can be shown to be true:
"Why, if they knew it was false, didn't they simply admit that Jesus was really dead and that he had never been resurrected?"
"They must have known that they were risking death by even preaching Christianity."
Let's analyze these premises:
- The Twelve Apostles did actually suffer martyrdom.
- They were executed for their preaching of Christianity.
- They could have recanted (denied Christianity) and saved their lives, but they did not.
- Their belief in Christianity was based on solid irrefutable evidence of their own experience of seeing the risen Jesus alive after his crucifixion.
- A martyr's death proves that the cause he died for is true.
The Twelve Apostles did actually suffer martyrdom.
Actually, the time, place, and manner of the deaths of the Twelve is unknown. The legends that the church later spread are simply pious stories to encourage the faithful, and the evidence consists solely of traditions preserved and promulgated by the church for its own propaganda purposes. Stephen's martyrdom is recounted in Acts 7, but it, too, has all the earmarks of a pious fiction (why would Stephen be allowed to preach a long sermon before being stoned?). Granting that Stephen was executed does nothing for the apologists' argument, since there is no reason to believe that Stephen had witnessed the crucifixion, the resurrection, or the post-resurrection appearances. He simply believed, and we cannot know his reasons for believing.
Peter's death in Rome is perhaps a reliable tradition, but he is the only one of the apostles reported in the Gospels as witnesses of the resurrection for whom we have anything more than late tradition. In the two epistles attributed to Peter (even the attribution is doubted by many scholars), there is no mention of the author having seen a post-resurrection, physical appearance of the risen Jesus.
They were executed for their preaching of Christianity.
This assertion - fundamental to the martyrdom argument - cannot be confirmed, and there is no reason to accept religion as the explanation for their executions. From what we know of "religious persecution" in the first and second centuries, it was unlikely that Christians (or Jews) were persecuted for their beliefs so much as for their political acts, primarily the refusal to pay homage to the emperor, and probably their tendency to incite the public to rebel against civil authority. Jesus, for example, was probably not executed because of his doctrine, but because he threatened to establish a Jewish kingdom that was not subject to Rome. His crime was political, not religious. And it is most likely that the charges against other Christian preachers were similar.
They could have recanted (denied Christianity) and saved their lives, but they did not.
This assertion also lacks any evidence, and is nonsense. Anyone who is arrested and charged with civil disobedience, treason, inciting riot, or other such crimes against the public peace, cannot avoid punishment simply by saying that they no longer believe in the cause.
Their belief in Christianity was based on solid irrefutable evidence of their own experience of seeing the risen Jesus alive after his crucifixion.
Again, there is no way of being certain that this was so. The reports of the appearances are late and contradictory, and - to judge by Paul's inclusion of Jesus' appearance to him as a light and a voice only - the disciples' belief may have been based only on hallucinations or imagination.
A martyr's death proves that the cause he died for is true.
This is the most fallacious of the premises, and yet it is the foundation of the whole argument. Every movement - whether religious or political - has its martyrs, and yet Christians think that only a Christian martyr's death is evidence that what the martyr died for is true. The Christians burned thousands of heretics, and those heretics died as martyrs for their beliefs. Why does the Christian refuse to accept those martyrdoms on an equal par with the martyrdoms of the apostles? Not to do so is blatant begging of the question.
Here is the apparent reasoning:
If X's belief is true, X will be willing to give his life for it.
The technical name for this fallacy is "Affirming the Consequent," and it is a common logical error, frequently made by Christian apologists. Simply substitute for "X" anyone who has given his life for a cause, to see how absurd the reasoning is. (Try Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Savonarola, Giordano Bruno, Michael Servetus, John D. Lee, Hitler, Julian the Apostate, ... there are thousands upon thousands.)
X gave his life for his belief.
Therefore X's belief is true.
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© 2002 Richard Packham
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"To seal the testimony of this book and the Book of Mormon, we announce the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet..."
The [Mormon] Doctrine and Covenants 135:1, written June 1844
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