This post is just going to be me repeating some points I’ve made before (for example), but I’m writing it because I don’t think anyone (myself included) has made them loudly enough yet. It has to do with the standard Christian argument that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t have been lying because they were willing to die for their beliefs.
To put it simply, this argument is ignorant. It is ignorant of very basic facts about early Christian history. The fact is that the only surviving accounts of the deaths of Jesus’ apostles are recognized by everyone who’s aware of them to be historically unreliable. Many of them are formally known as the Apocryphal Acts. The gap between when the events supposedly happened and when they were written was significantly greater than for the gospels, making them poor sources for buttressing the claims of the gospels.
On top of this, it just isn’t true that liars never end up as martyrs. See: Joseph Smith. And to anyone who claims Jesus’ disciples were different than Joseph Smith, because they could’ve saved their lives by recanting, see the previous paragraph: we don’t know that. Even if we knew they were martyred, that wouldn’t entail we know that they were willingly martyred.
This isn’t a minor error on the part of Christian apologists. It isn’t a case of an argument being not quite as strong as it’s made out to be. It’s a case of an argument being founded on a demonstrably wrong premise. And once this argument is discarded, the entire Christian attempt to “prove” the resurrection with historical evidence goes with it.
That’s because the claim that the disciples were martyred, therefore they couldn’t possibly have been lying is the main thing which Christians have always claimed distinguishes their miracle from other religions’ miracle claims. The argument is so well entrenched that even “sophisticated” apologists like William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas routinely pass over the issue with a quick appeal to authority.
None of this is to say that “the disciples lied” is the most likely explanation. I have no problem believing they were sincere. People sincerely believe all kinds of crazy things, up to and including “I’ve been abducted by aliens.”
The aliens thing, though, requires a longish digression on the weird side of human psychology. The possibility that the disciples lied is obvious once you know the actual state of the evidence, and it’s enough to destroy the standard Christian claim that the “evidence” for the resurrection can only be explained by a miracle.
On the rare occasions when Christian apologists actually address this flaw in their argument, they only serve to make the situation more embarrassing. In this thread, Calum Miller cited the “risky behavior” of the disciples as evidence for their sincerity.
That argument refutes itself. People engage in risky behavior for selfish reasons all the time. Thieves and drug dealers engage in risky behavior for personal gain. Risk-taking is one of the traits associated with antisocial personality disorder, a.k.a. psychopathy. In fact, Calum’s argument doesn’t even address my original point,
I could discuss other possible ways of shoring up the argument, but it’s probably a mistake to dignify them with a response. They’re mostly arguments which could be used to “prove” just about any religion or supernatural claim. The argument from martyrdom caught on because it admittedly can’t be used to prove just anything. Unfortunately, it’s also based on a couple of demonstrable errors.
Note: for the curious, the page images depict the deaths of the Christian saint Denis and Joseph Smith, respectively.