A Serious Question

I received this serious question via e-mail and I'm quite busy today, so I'll throw it up for serious discussion, although it's already being discussed in the post below this one.

I'm a christian who has become quite skeptical. An honest doubter, as you might say. As an elder in an evangelical church and one who has been a passionate lay bible teacher and defender for 13 years, this is a difficult time for me.

For me, the one thing that keeps me from rejecting the whole thing is this: the testimony of the apostles. Why would a dozen men give up everything they had, and, for all but one, their very lives, for their proclamation of the risen Christ? I can see why a modern radical islamic "martyr" would give his/her life for their beliefs. They have simply been deceived into believing something that isn't true. The case is much different for Jesus's apostles, though. If what they proclaimed was not true, they would have been the very ones who fabricated and propagated this vicious lie. Why would they give their lives for something they *knew* very well was a lie (if indeed it were a lie)?

I'm curious what answers you could offer or where you could direct me to read them.


Democracy Lover said...

I'm not an expert as are so many who comment here, but a simple explanation may be that the disciples who actually walked with Jesus and learned from him, may not be authors of the N.T. books that bear their names.

I find it not at all difficult to believe that a dozen or so young men, captivated by a charismatic and exciting teacher, would not give up their dull ordinary lives to follow him around Galilee and learn his lesson's about God's kingdom. Does it necessarily follow that they believed he was the Son of the Living God? I don't think so. That he would come again to judge the living and the dead, world without end? Probably not.

I found Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth by Burton Mack to be very helpful in this area.

Albert said...

It really comes down to the authorship and dating of the gospels. While church tradition says one thing, there is in fact no hard evidence to prove who wrote what. Even dating the gospels is at best an exercise in speculation. If Jesus' message was so important why did he not write anything down himself? Why leave it to unknown others to write his message down well after the fact when it could have been subject to revision? Why are there no contemporary accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus? Why if Jesus is part of the Trinity does he ask in Mark why God has forsaken him on the cross? The questions seem endless, the answers elusive. Of all the views of Jesus, I like Albert Schweitzer's view the best, namely that Jesus was a self proclaimed apocalyptic prophet who thought his death would usher in the kingdom of God but in fact did not.

Anonymous said...

Excellent question, sir. I am in much of the same situation you describe myself.

If you want to really hit the breadth of the arguments, google "die for a lie" and browse away.

A couple of points:

The most obvious; being willing to die shows the strength of faith, not the validity of claims. From the Gospel/Pauline accounts, there's obvious more than a little confusion about who really saw Jesus resurrected and whether he was in physical form. Being willing to die means you believed the story, not that it was true. Consider as well the state of the average Jew and the great desire for the hope of being on top again - it's a powerful ideal to let go of so easily, especially after giving 3 years to the cause.

It's possible the original Christians believed in a spiritual, not physical resurrection. Note that Paul (earliest writings) never mentions a physical resurrection. That doesn't come about for a couple of decades when the gospels are compiled. Even then, you can see the growing mythology developing from Mark to Matthew/Luke to John.

Consider also the possibility of self-delusion. Joseph Smith's followers knew he was a sham, but the religion continues today out of a desire for power and wishful thinking propogated among disciples.

Also consider there's a very obvious Jerusalem/Paul conflict going on in the NT. What better way to prove your righteousness in a power struggle than to be faithful to your path unto death?

Dr. W. Sumner Davis said...

Consider the writings of some people who have been on both sides of the coin. Remeber, culture and indoctrination are very strong things; Kamakazee pilots chose to believe that theyir sacrifice would bring harmony to Japan. At Jonestown, they drank the Koolaid knowing they would die but believed in a "greater world to come." And then there's Tom Cruise.

Mark said...

You might ask yourself the question, "What caused me to become [blockquote]
"a passionate lay bible teacher and defender for 13 years.[/blockquote]

I'm sure it required many hours of study and debate, yet you persisted.

With the right combination of skills, a leader get get his or her followers to jump off cliffs or charge a line of blazing muskets. Were you led down the path of christianity by a leader? Did that leader have your best interests in Mind? Would you have known? (some of us are lucky and grab onto the right coat tails, others latch on to the wrong ones - think of the people who followed nutcases like Hitler. I bet many of them believed the vision he created but that belief cost them everthing...

Daniel said...

I think it is quite necessary to pinpoint what can be known from independent sources about everything in the gospels, before attempting to derive scenarios by which "problems" like "why would the followers die for a lie?" are resolved.

These were linked to before: Lowder and Barker give a reasonable outline of the skeptics' answer(s) to the narrative.

Dr. Sumner, I think that is the most intelligent and funny thing I've yet seen on the DC blog:
And then there's Tom Cruise.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Let's not so quickly forget the 1997 mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.

Among the suicides was the founder of the cult himself, Marshall Applewhite.

Incidentally (and perhaps significantly), Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian minister, and Applewhite wanted to follow in his daddy's footsteps corralling sheep and filling their impressionable minds with nonsense. He seems to have been institutionally educated in theology and philosophy, not unlike many of the apologists who try to pull their god out of an argument (or non-argument, as the case may be).

Using the reasoning that many Christians give us - that the willingness to "die for a lie" is just too incredible to be accepted as a possibility (while people rising from the grave is apparently not so incredible), we could easily conclude that Marshall Applewhite and his band of comet-followers were on to something real.

Do Christians who use such reasoning believe Applewhite's claim that there was a UFO hiding in Hale-Bopp's tail? I haven't met any who do.


Tommykey said...

Plus, Dawson, in Sam Harris' book, he mentions how the Heavens Gate people tried to return the expensive telescope they bought because they did not see the spaceship in the comet's tail. As Donald Rumsfeld said, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Francois Tremblay said...

I got some news for your letter writer there. The fact that they were willing to die shows that they were following a lie. Why would anyone die for a truth ? That's a ridiculous concept.

Democracy Lover said...

I think we have to first question the whole idea of "die for a lie". Yes, all Jesus' followers have died, some of natural causes, others found themselves on the wrong side of the Roman law. How many of the stories about the deaths of the "12" are true is a wide open question. I have my doubts. Did they die because they believed Jesus was the Son of God and Saviour of the World? Even more doubtful.

Given the early church's desire to make saints and martyrs of the disciples named in the canonical gospels, it's much more likely that the stories of their persecution and martyrdom are hagiographic fiction.

Matthew said...

Honest Doubter,

This is probably the best argument that Christians have in defense of the resurrection. Believe it or not, Christian author Lee Strobel apparently finds this as one of the most persuasive arguments in favor of the Christian faith. The argument originates (if I am not mistaken) with Christian author Josh McDowell. Simply stated: people will die for something they believe to be true, but no one will die for something they know is false. The disciples couldn't have died for something they knew to be false so we can only conclude they died for something they knew was true.

The argument is seriously flawed though. The chief problem is assuming the disciples were in an unmistakable position to know that it was false if it didn't happen. How do modern Christians know this? This is the chief problem! It assumes that disciples were in an unmistakable position to know for absolutely sure! The fatal flaw in the argument is that it rules out the possibility of delusion on epistemological grounds rather than trying to answer it on historical grounds. It assumes without proof that the disciples were in an unmistakable position to know for absolutely sure, ruling out the possibility of delusion. Once the possibility of delusion is allowed, we then face a new possibility, that the disciples did die for something that was false but believed, mistakenly, that it was true. They might've not have died for something they knew deep down inside was a lie, but the main question is how did they know for absolute certain, one way or the other, that it was true or a lie? That they knew for absolute sure that it was either a lie or the truth is just a possibility. It's a dubious one and one that has to be argued for on historical grounds. To rule out the possibility of delusion ( a delusion originating with visions perhaps), I am convinced, is a sleight-of-hand.

One need not, I am convinced, show that the martyr traditions of the early Church are flawed. One need to expose the epistemological flaw of this argument to realize how foolish the argument is. This, I am convinced, is enough to answer it once and for all!


Jason Long said...

I actually got the same question via email not long ago. My response:

Hi. You're not alone. A lot of people go thru the phase you are at right now. I can only suggest continuing your research and looking at the evidence as an outsider who has no bias or emotional investment. If you ever need someone to run question by who doesn't feel a duty to win you one way or another, don't hesitate to ask. Your question is a good one, but it is unfortunately loaded with the premise that the apostles actually existed and gave their lives up for their beliefs. If we are to assume that the martyrdom described in the book of Acts is true, why not just assume that the Gospels are true as well? A lot of the supernatural and mystical events that I think you are now beginning to question are also found in Acts. The question is whether we should accept the martyrdom testimony of an author who also purports men speaking in several languages at once. The balance of these marytrdom tales are derived from early Christian writers who are known (and sometimes admitted) frauds. Origen even stated that such martyrdom was few and far between. Even worse, the stories of how the Apostles gave their lives for their beliefs is incredibly contradictory. I honestly have not read "/The Search for the Twelve Apostles" /by Dr. William Steuart McBirnie, but it's written by a Christian who finds that the legends are to incredible to be believed upon evidence - but instead upon faith. I also found the following article in a search: http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1997/4/4front97.html . You can read Robert Turkel's rebuttal here: http://www.tektonics.org/tsr/tsr9741.html , but you have to be careful of his selective quoting and unwillingness to stay on topic. The important thing to remember is the unreliability of urban legend in an age with little skepticism and investigation.

John W. Loftus said...

What doesn’t count as evidence for the truth of the resurrection, according to Michael Martin, are eyewitnesses to Jesus’ post resurrection appearances who were transformed people willing to die for their beliefs. Many people who weren’t eyewitnesses of Jesus were willing to die for their beliefs too, especially since they also believed they would go to hell if they didn’t. Christian heretics have also been willing to die for their beliefs.

“Let us not forget that Muslims, Mormons, followers of James Jones, kamikaze pilots, and many others have been willing to die for what they believed. The fact that people are willing to die for their beliefs can show…strength of character, extreme devotion, and even fanaticism. But it is hard to see that it indicates that what is believed is true or even that the evidential bases of the beliefs should be taken seriously.”

Furthermore, “if we count Paul’s conversion as being evidence for the truth of the resurrection, should we not count Muhammad’s conversion to Islam from polytheism as being evidence for the truth of the claim that Jesus was not resurrected (Muslims reject Jesus’ resurrection)? The evidential value of Paul’s conversion and Muhammad’s conversion for the truth of the Resurrection tend to cancel each other out.” [The Case Against Christianity, p. 77, 91-92].

Mark Plus said...

We don't know whether Jesus existed historically, much less whether his "apostles" existed, what they witnessed, what they believed about Jesus and how they died. Ancient religions in general haven't left us good trails of consilient evidence to show how they really originated. But what we do have shows that the "official" versions don't make sense.

Widespread and successful religions from antiquity don't necessarily need "founders" any way. Nobody argues that Hinduism had to have a founder, but the absence doesn't make this family of religions any less vigorous.

Maybe christians who say that "The apostles wouldn't die for a lie" think that religions have to originate either as The Truth or as scams, like Scientology. But these alternatives don't exhaust all the possible mechanisms for religio-genesis.

Steven Carr said...

Many people are happy to die for a lie, if they feel they are serving a greater truth.

Suppose the apostles believed that Jews were heading for a major confrontation with Rome, and they wanted to prevent that. Why not invent a story to give them more credibility?

Just a supposition, but it shows that people will die for a lie, if they feel that the lie is useful in serving a greater end.

As it happens though, Paul (somebody who was there and did some persecuting himself), reports in Galatians 6 that circumcision was the issue early Christians were persecuted on, and that Christian leaders would compromise their beliefs to avoid persecution for the cross (nb not resurrection) of Christ.

As can be seen in Jerusalem today, orthodox Jews don't really care what other people believe , provided they don't break the Mosaic law (some have been known to throw stones through the windows of McDonalds, for example)

Just looking at Jews today tells us why Jews of 2,000 years ago would persecute a sect that preached that circumcision was not necessary and that it was OK to eat food sacrificed to pagan idols.

And, of course, there is no evidence that the apostles died for their beliefs.

Nero, for example, made Christians die for setting fire to Rome. Did the Christians believe that they really had set fire to Rome?

Steven Carr said...

Does the Biblical account of the lack of willingness of Peter to die for his faith on Good Friday cast doubt on Peter having witnessed the miracles of Jesus and having seen Moses return from the dead?

beepbeepitsme said...

Well, I am going to sound like a terrible heathen, but I don't consider the apostles testimony as anything but stories made up to fit a purpose. I am not even convinced that people called john, luke, matthew etc existed.

I consider that it is not a coincidence that there were "12 apostles" and there are 12 signs of the zodiac. Let me suggest it more clearly. I suggest that the apostles are actually modifications or personifications of the ancient babylonian zodiac. While I am at it, I will also suggest that Jesus is the personification of the sun as it moves through the zodiac each year and that the story of jesus is just that, the anthropomorphism of the stars and their movements.

Christ is just another personification of another sun god. There have been swathes of them. When jesus (the sun) is resurrected at easter during the spring equinox, it is the celebration that the sun has returned after the winter, and the land's return to life.

It symbolises the victory of a god of light ~~ spring, over the powers of darkness ~~~ winter. This is the promise of the changing of the seasons, not the promise of a man-god. Though I am sure christians will rattle their guns at me for saying so.

Tommykey said...

Beep, another possibility is that the 12 apostles were supposed to be symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel. The 144,000 who are supposed to be saved as per the book of Revelation is 12,000 x 12, or 12,000 people for each tribe. There are other recurring numbers. The Noah's Ark myth in Genesis speaks of rain for 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus is supposed to have spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan.

paul said...

Hello Serious Doubter,
Assuming you're reading these great and insightful posts and we're not all just writing for each other...:). Just to mix it up and perhaps add a different angle, I'm going to play the Gods advocate here. You might be better served in your quest to consider some more recent martyrs whose story (and existence!) you can better substantiate. Perhaps a Dietrich Bonhoeffer (sp.?) or Richard Wurmbrand. I would also suggest that it might help you to delineate between why you originally became a believer and why you remain one? Did you originally believe because of the apostles or is that the proverbial straw you grasp to address your doubt? If the premise for your belief is "faith" (a "substance" derived from Gods generosity so that you can believe, you might ask why you would even look for reasons to believe. Isn't reason a form of sight? Don't "the righteous live by faith and not sight"?

Darrell Barker said...

It would help you trememdously to read Bart Erhman's newest book: MisQuoting Jesus

Did you know that when the biblical adulterous woman was alledgedly brought before Jesus and when her accusers were gone and when Jesus then said: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more," did you know that that saying poses an enormous problem?

What problem? How could there be a "problem" in the inerrant scriptures?

Well, as you may not know, those words are no where to be found in the known manuscripts of the Gospel of John. It was not originally part of ANY of the Gospels for that matter. It was added later by some unknown tampering scribe.

Does that bother you? Ask yourself. Minimumly, does that make you question the authenticity of the scriptures?

And then take another look at the last 2 verses of Mark. You know the ones about speaking in tongues, and snake handling and drinking poison with out harm, yeah, those verses Jesus was supposed to have said, well they are also not in any of the earliest manuscripts known to man added by a later scribe.

Nearly all intellectually honest scholars agree that the proven lack of textual evidence is sufficient to convience that these verses are an extra-authored addition to Mark.

And THAT my friend is just the tips of the thousands of icebergs of errors and insertings by unscrupulous scribes that you will read about in a book titled MisQuoting Jesus, written by Bart D. Ehrman.

He's that author of Lost Christianities. Remember?

He is also one of the investigating scholars that has written the new book (2006) out titled The Gospel Of Judas, a very controversial book the Catholic church is detesting. (Well, duh!)

Anyway, it's "The book, The story behind who changed the bible and why."

I found it fascinating how Ehrman reports on how the oft inept scribes and so called scholars modified and tampered with the bible.

They added words and took out words, and they misunderstood words changing their meanings to the point that we cannot be certain what it is what Jesus may or may not have said. They skipped entire sentences that belonged, unintentionally leaving them out and Erhman surmises with confidence that many words not belonging there were intentionally place in.

He exposes over 30,000 variations from all the known Greek and Latin manuscripts starkly leading me to conclude that no one can say for certain what to believe.

If you're interested, you will read how the King James Bible is based on corrupted and mistake-filled third century manuscripts that don't accurately represent the meaning of the "original" text at all.

And, Ehrman convinces that there are NO "original" texts available for us to refer to as well.

FOLKS, your pastors are at best misleading you and at worst, lying to you. There are no "originals."

Apparently, scribal errors, intentional and unintentional alike, were so common long years ago that it's a "no-brainer" that the Book of Revelation threatened damnation for those who "adds to" or "takes away" words from that text.

I've always suspected "embellishment" in the bible mostly because I see the human propensity of it here and now. MisQuoting Jesus bolsters that suspect.

Erhman puts his life's work out there for you to study and even challenge. Why not find out that we have been duped all these years and it's time to put the
"bi-bull" away for much better reading.

What say ye

Darrell Barker

Darrell Barker said...

And one more thing:

Bart Ehrman's journey of following truth where ever it led him is what's brutally honest here.

This sincere former "born-again" scholar concludes

Start of Erhman's Quotes:

"The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text [100,000 Greek and Latin variants] had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it. . . . it would be wrong to say that the changes in our [current] text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them.

How do millions of people [just like you] know what is in the New Testament? They "know" because scholars with unknown names, identities, backgrounds, qualifications, predilections, theologies, and personal opinions have TOLD them what is in the NT.

Reality is never that neat, however, and in this case we need to face up to the FACTS. The King James was NOT given by God but was a translation by a group of scholars in the early 17th century who based their rendition of a faulty Greek test. . . . whether you are a reader of the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible, the Good News Bible, or something else, they are ALL based on texts that have been [dramatically] changed in places.

. . . I began seeing the NT as a very human book

. . . Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book. This stood very much at odds with how I had regarded the text in my late teens as a newly minted "born-again" Christian.

. . . even if God had inspired the original words, we don't HAVE the original words. So the doctrine of inspiration was in a sense irrelevant to the Bible as we have it, since the words God reputedly inspired had been changed, and in some cases, lost.

. . . my earlier views of inspiration were not only irrelevant, they were probably wrong.

. . . if [God] really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously "inspired" them in the first place. Given the circumstances that he didn't preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn't gone to the trouble of inspiring them."

End of Quotes

I respect this man for having spent his entire adult life digging and investigating and following the early manuscript facts, hence, truth, where ever it led him.

This is a MUST READ for any believer that can be as honest as this former "born-again" Erhman has been. The proof, the evidence of texual lies and insertions are all there for your reading pleasure, a "wake up call" if you will.

What say ye?

paul said...

i'm not "ye", but i appreciate what you wrote and the resource material. thanks for taking the time and spending yourself...remember, "the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all."

Aaron M. Rossetti said...

I once believed with everything I was that Jesus rose from the dead. I gave my life to living and spreading that reality, but so much has opened up and I really respect this individual with the courage to ask the hard questions. Here's my $.02...

At the risk of throwing up just another cute idea that could be seen as to simply justify one’s doubt and unbelief...

I was really wondering... 'Really, who would die for a lie?' This may seem simple but it hit me in this way...

'No one would die for what they knew was a lie, but someone would die for a messiah that they couldn't believe were dead.'

Let me fill out that thought….

A close friend recently and totally unexpectedly lost her husband to a heart attack at 47 yrs old. As I wept with her she told me about this wind chime that wouldn't make a sound until after he died and it reflected light to the place where he died. This, among other 'strange happenings' really sent her a message 'from him' that 'he was ok.'

I'm not jumping on the whole hallucination argument; I just know that our perceptions and observations are changed dramatically during unbearable grief. Stop and really try to imagine what hope was directed toward this man. They didn't see Jesus as just a 'spiritual savior' and he obviously didn’t let him in on that. Those were ‘revelations’ seen later on. Jesus was seen as the Messiah who the Jews had waited hundreds and hundreds of years for. The momentum of expectation was tremendous and all of it was pointed at Jesus of Nazareth. We can imagine what kinds of things were talked about considering that these followers were discussing the New World Order and the 12 seats that they would sit upon to judge the whole of the nations. They didn’t see this as a spiritual truth, but a very physical and earthly one. If they expected (perhaps until their own deaths) a physical and earthly reign of Christ, how is this possible apart from a physical and earthly king. The faith of the apostles was built in the 3 years following their master and this faith was never squelched, but it continued until their very end. With all of this in mind… stop and imagine the horror and shear terror of seeing God’s chosen Messiah hanging naked and pinned to a wooden cross!

So I’ll say ‘my hypothesis’ again…

'No one would die for what they knew was a lie, but someone would die for a Messiah that they couldn't ever believe was dead.'

Anachro1 said...

Is it just me?

Although I was raised Catholic, I could give a sh*t about Jesus. The whole mythology was totally lost to me. What I interpret 'his sacrifice' as is an imposed upon, unneccesary act that I never asked him for. Are we supposed to feel some sort of obligation or something? I really haven't a clue.

It's like when you give a party and tell your guests to not bring any food; there's always that one bitch that breings a casserole just to milk a 'thank you' out of you.

SkepticOfBible said...

Simply stated: people will die for something they believe to be true, but no one will die for something they know is false. The disciples couldn't have died for something they knew to be false so we can only conclude they died for something they knew was true.

Which would actually make Mormonism the true religion, because in the front of every Book of Mormon in a section appropriately titled "The Testimony of Three Witnesses" is a statement signed by Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris swearing in the name of God that they had seen the actual plates with the engravings on them from which the book came.

As if that weren’t enough, on the facing page is the testimony of eight additional witnesses who swear, also in the name of God, that they not only saw the golden plates but actually handled them. I understand that at the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah they still have the official signed affidavits of all of these witnesses. They are there for anyone and everyone to see.

That pretty surpasses anything that Christians have

Anonymous said...

You all say that you are ex-Christians, some of you former ministers and clergy. That does not surprise me. Many churches today are spiritually starving. You have no reason to believe, you never had one. In the world you live in you never needed God or found faith relevant. Richard Wurmbrand was on fire. He needed God in his world and he searched for God and he found God. You do not believe in God now because you did not believe in God then. You claim to be ex-Christians. What made you Christians then? You went to church, you gave boring uninspired sermons to people who did not care or listen? There is no such thing as an ex-Christian.
Why do you spend so much time trying to debunk Christianity? You know nothing about it. There is a difference between knowing about someone and actually knowing someone. For instance, biographers of JFK probably know more about him then his wife did, but they never KNEW him the way his wife did and they never will. You are all like those biographers.