A friend recently asked me to chime in on a Twitter conversation in which someone was asserting that Jesus’s disciples did not die over their belief in the Resurrection. Sometimes Twitter arguments can be completely useless, but this one seemed to include some genuine discussion and, as obscure as arguing over why someone died millennia ago may seem, in this case, it means quite a lot.Consider: if the apostles died standing for the belief that they had seen the Risen Lord, it suggests just how strongly they were convicted that Jesus really is risen (and therefore everything else He said He is). The crucial result of this exploration isn’t to know how they died, but if they died for something utterly central to understanding existence. So, let’s consider the situation.
One starting point for the skeptic in the conversation was the Gospel of Mark. Mark, unlike the other Gospels, ends rather abruptly in all but latter, more questionable manuscripts. If you read it in a modern Bible translation that makes use of those most trusted, oldest manuscripts, it ends before we ever see the risen Jesus.
(Most Bibles will include what was later added, but in brackets or otherwise noted as clearly separate from Mark’s original work.)
Over the years, some have suggested the shorter ending to Mark, stopping at v. 8, denies the Resurrection. If Mark omits the Resurrection, surely he was skeptical about it and, maybe, then, resurrection wasn’t really a big deal for early followers of Jesus after all.
Fine reasoning, if it were accurate, but it goes completely against the grain of Mark’s Gospel. The Evangelist doesn’t deny or minimize the Resurrection — he leaves us amid it. The women leave in fear as they process the incredible news: their beloved friend and rabbi was gone and an angel had just told them He had been resurrected. To be clear, the Resurrection has occurred in Mark’s Gospel, we just don’t get to meet the risen Jesus in it.
Mark leaves us to ask a question. That question isn’t whether the angel lied about the resurrected Jesus, but one for the reader: “What are you going to do about the resurrected Jesus?” No one had to doubt what the women and Mark and the Apostles were going to do about the resurrected Lord, after all: the fact the church existed and they were now reading (or hearing) Mark’s Gospel demonstrated their answer. They believe in, followed and proclaimed the risen Jesus.
Each Gospel has its own purpose and the other three all see part of that purpose being documenting Jesus after the resurrection. So do the other earliest writings. Matthew and Luke aren't written much later than Mark and the letters of Paul place the Resurrection squarely in view as the Apostle explains Christian beliefs in his most quintessential letters such as Romans, Galatians and 1 Corinthians — all of which were likely written before Mark penned his Gospel.
My skeptical acquaintance then shifted gears. If Paul is our earliest source to lean on for the Resurrection, then perhaps Paul diabolically was pushing forward a hoax. His first letter to the Corinthians complicates this, particularly the claims of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 — Paul not only argues that Jesus was resurrected, but that He was seen by an expanding range of witnesses.
Because the letter was written reasonably early, there were a lot of people who could be spoken to about what he wrote.
For example, we know the other apostles were traveling around and we also know other, non-apostolic foes of Paul were traveling around, too. It wasn’t an unverifiable claim.
What’s more, Paul had plenty of enemies who wanted to see him topple. So, if Paul were making this stuff up, his foes could have gone to Peter or James and encouraged them to correct the record. Instead, they shared the same message of Resurrection.
Does that prove that the Resurrection happened? Not directly but given that most of the Apostles would die over their proclamation of Jesus, His death and His Resurrection, it certainly supports what we confess as Christians. People generally try not to die, after all, so if they knew it were untrue, continuing to proclaim a message that largely raised the ire of the most powerful government in the world would seem utterly insane.
But don’t people die for things that are insane? My debate partner suggested an article that “proved” this by the fact that the 9/11 terrorists died thinking they were going to obtain special blessings from their God. But this is dubious as a comparison. Those terrorists didn’t think they had seen something and then died in response, rather they had been taught something and died for that.
We have examples of people dying for horribly wrong ideologies, but an ideology could be a lie and be sincerely held by someone unaware of the lie. Scripture doesn’t claim just one or two people saw Jesus and everyone else bought the claim; instead, the New Testament makes clear many people witnessed the resurrected Jesus. They didn’t become convinced to believe something someone else saw — they saw it.
First generation Christians weren't dying believing just what Jesus taught (though they did believe that), but that He died and that many of them had seen Him risen. So, while someone could have believed some religious figure had experiences they never witnessed and then "died for a lie," those early followers believed they dwelt in the midst of a large set of resurrection witnesses.
These beliefs were not the sort of “easy” beliefs we often share on social media with little cost to ourselves. Martyrdom was a looming, real threat for those who made these claims.
If those who were eyewitnesses to whatever happened were willing to face death for what they claimed to be true, they deserved a hearing then and they still do now.