Faith and Doubt / Rethinking Christianity

Are Christian Martyrs Proof of the Resurrection?

I have read a few posts this week that defend the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection by stating that a physical bodily resurrection must have occurred because it would take something extraordinary and miraculous to cause the apostles and Christian followers to come out of hiding and boldly express their belief in a dead messiah, and especially to cause early Christians to become martyrs.

That argument lost merit for me in 2001. When Islamic extremists willfully and mindfully flew two planes into the twin towers I realized that it does not take witnessing a miraculous event to cause people to martyr themselves for the sake of their religion. I have drawn the conclusion that people will commit to what would seem impossible of their rational mindset when a unifying cause results in an allegiance.

In my opinion there did not have to be a physical resurrection for the apostles to continue move forward with their new found beliefs. All it took was belief and hope in the message, and love and respect for the messenger.

By the time of the crucifixion the apostles had already been mentally conditioned to an evolved form of spirituality. It would be unlikely that they would return wholly to their former beliefs because once a belief is dismissed it is difficult to fully embrace it again, mainly because in the current state of mind there remain thoughts defining why the original belief was faulty in the first place, and those lingering definitions create resistance and doubt that cannot be easily disregarded.

In the days of the ancients, visions were commonly accepted as messages from God. Someone who had claimed to have had a godly vision of Jesus, confirming all that he had taught and offered them could have been enough motivation to cling to the new faith, and to hope beyond the stark facts that Jesus lived after death just as he said that he would. Jesus taught a message of hope and worthiness in the human existence. He offered profound meaning and purpose, and lifted the spirit of the downtrodden.  What Jew who had embraced his message would have wanted to return to a religion of condemnation under the law when they had experienced the presence of Jesus and found hope in the message he taught?

The hope of the heart is powerful, the need to survive beyond the grave is powerful, and a group of like- minded thinkers is powerful, and it is enough to suspend disbelief even when facts and disturbing truths challenge the will to believe. As conscious beings, we struggle to accept that this one life may be all there is. We find difficulty assigning meaning and purpose in a temporary existence where all of our knowledge, experience and emotion seems such a waste, and for naught, if consciousness does not continue beyond the grave.

It seems likely to me that someone claiming to have had a vision of Jesus alive in an afterlife would have been enough to convince the apostles to carry forward his message. What may have been a simple reference to Jesus being alive in the human spirit may have been construed into a claim that he was a heavenly spirit living in the godly realms in order to satisfy the need to overcome the finality of death and to break free from the burden of the Jewish religious laws.

My conclusion to the question asked in this post is that the willingness to become a martyr for the cause does not require miracles, just the willingness and desire to believe in the message.

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26 thoughts on “Are Christian Martyrs Proof of the Resurrection?

  1. I love your first sentence in the sixth paragraph! In fact, that whole paragraph speaks volumes about why people choose to believe in the Christian religion.

    Good job! As always.

  2. It would be unlikely that they would return wholly to their former beliefs because once a belief is dismissed it is difficult to fully embrace it again, mainly because in the current state of mind there remain thoughts defining why the original belief was faulty in the first place, and those lingering definitions create resistance and doubt that cannot be easily disregarded.

    That was very well said.

  3. My thinking is that the Islamist terrorists crashed the planes into the towers because of something they were against not because of something they were for. But I could be wrong.

      • Guess I do not see the link between the religious murderers of 9/11 and religious martyrs who were murdered by other people. In both cases innocent people were murdered. Yet in one case the murderer was a religious person and in the other a religious person who was murdered. In one case the dogma seems to be hate while in the other the dogma is love.

        In my view the first disciples needed more than witnessing the resurrection of Jesus. Apart from a spiritual birth, apart from the coming of the Holy Spirit, these pitiful few were incompetent to live or die for God. This Spirit of love is what seemed to drive the early followers of Christ who witnessed his resurrection. Very much the opposite of what seems to drive the 9/11 terrorists.

        I guess my point is that, from what I read in the bible anyways, the early followers of Christ seemed to be very different than the 9/11 religious murderers. They do not seem to know God or have had any contact with God. There message is not to help people but to wipe out those who disagree with them. But perhaps you see it differently?

      • @KC:

        Guess I do not see the link between the religious murderers of 9/11 and religious martyrs who were murdered by other people.

        I think the idea is that the link between them is that all were willing to die for a cause which they believed in strongly. Whether or not their beliefs were based on some objective truth about history didn’t have anything to do with it, so using the martyrdom of early Christians doesn’t help in lending support to the historicity of the resurrection. Especially when the reports of these deaths are not detailed and may lack standards of reliability.

      • I get that but the early martyrs were victims and the 9/11 terrorists were not. It is different to be murdered for what you believe and to murder for what you believe. The comparison comes off as proverbial apples and oranges to me.

      • If you get it then I think you understand the only point trying to be made. The point is not that these 2 situations are identical. It is just that part of it is analogous – in other words the part that I just described which you say you get.

      • I get that people sometimes die for things they believe in (like fighting in war for your country) but I do not see martyrs who are murdered as those types of people. Mostly, I see martyrs as victims of murderers and not soldiers marching off into battle. To compare a martyr with a murderous religious terrorist is to paint the victim as one deserving of the victimization. Doubtful that anyone would make that comparison about the many Jews who died at the hands of Nazi murderers. Martyrs mostly were people who died because murderers simply did not like who they were and what they believed. To blame their deaths on what they believed is to say that these innocent victims deserved to die.

      • Ya know KC, I think what may be happening is that we agree 100% on everything that we’ve said but you think that the point being made here is more than what it is. There is nothing I disagree with in this latest comment in fact I agree very strongly with it.

      • Thanks. Looking back, my reaction was mainly to this in the original post:

        “cause people to martyr themselves ”

        Suicide bombers are not martyrs as martyrs do not commit suicide. Martyrs are murdered by other people not by themselves.

  4. This is very well written and seems to me a reasonable approach. I was also reading a blog post that went out of control last week on godlessindixie.com (not sure if that was one of the ones you saw).

    Anyways, I tried posting a few comments on that thread but realized very quickly that the Christians on that thread were not in the mood to have a reasonable conversation. They were very clear about showing that anyone who disagreed with their obvious conclusion about the resurrection of Jesus was not being honest. A reasonable stance such as what you wrote here would have been quickly noted as unreasonable by the Christians on that thread (I believe wrongly).

    The typical apologist approach that I’ve always seen regarding this (and was the exact same approach on that thread) is that people won’t die for a lie. But this ignores the fact that the skeptical scholars of the resurrection do not try to argue that the believers who died were dying even though they knew that what they believed was a lie. The main idea is that the story grew as it got passed along and any of the original apostles who may have died for it were not dying for the specific details that had ended up being written in the gospels. In fact even if they were prone to exaggerating (which was apparently more acceptable back then) their stories that still doesn’t take away the fact that they very likely felt incredibly strongly about the cause that had probably been instilled within them for at least 3 years by their leader. Any visions or heart-felt experiences could have led them to truly believe that their leader was still alive spiritually. That along with what you have written here could easily explain their willingness to die for their cause even if they had exaggerated their stories – it’s very easy to have an “ends justify the means” approach in cults like these so it’s not that they are dying for a complete lie, but they are dying for what they believe to be true but felt it was justifiable to exaggerate their claims to convince others of what is so obviously true to them. Besides, scholarship consensus is that the gospel writers were not first-hand eyewitnesses so we don’t even know if the ones doing the reporting were the ones who went on to be martyred.

    • To earnestly live with the convictions of a belief is a hard path to travel. So many pick and choose and yield to pressure. But I have respect for those who live by their convictions, even if I disagree, though I find them few in number.

  5. I sympathize with your ideas more than you know. Indeed, martyrdom is only proof of sincere belief, but we should draw some distinctions too. Terrorists seem to be motivated specifically by the reward of martyrdom awaiting them in the afterlife. The apostles seem to be motivated to undergo both great suffering and death by nothing other than spreading their faith because they believe it to be the truth. The former fits more of a selfish motivation and the latter is selfless. I’m not pressing a hard argument here, it’s just I think the distinctions outweigh the similarities.

    Another thing I wanted to bring up is that I have not heard martyrdom ever argued as proof of resurrection. It only plays a peripheral role to the deeper question: how do we explain such strong convictions and the testimonies of the apostles? Again, that’s not a hard argument, that’s not the “reason” I believe in the resurrection, just a question for you to ponder. I look forward to checking out your other material too.

    Woops, one more thing, I agree with you that the resurrection did not have to be physical in terms of a reanimated human body physical. The resurrection body Paul describes in 1 Cor 15 seems to be physical in some sense, but it need not be a reanimated human body like popular apologetics presses.

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I believe that the apostles were motivated by the rewards of an afterlife just as Jesus would have presented it to them. Why would there have been any other reason to spread the faith, if not to alert others to those rewards? Otherwise the apostles were merely trying to herd together the sheep to their way of thinking, which would have been no different than the activity of the religious elite at that time.
      To me the similarity between the apostles and religious terrorists is the motivation of the rewards promised in the next life by their respective faiths. And perhaps also the recognition by others as being more devout in the faith or beloved of God.
      Its all a matter of opinion though. And I appreciate that you shared yours.

      • Hard to read the NT and see the early disciples being motivated by afterlife rewards. That motivation (the reward of heaven and the escape from hell) is a fairly modern day narrative that runs rampant in fundamentalist venues.

        As I read the NT I see Jesus setting the example of being motivated and moved by compassion. For sure the disciples were not perfect in their love but it is hard to see the way that they loved each other in the early chapters of Acts and come away with the idea that, like the terrorists, they were motivated by afterlife rewards.

        Of course, if one grew up in a fundamentalist setting they might see it differently? Took me a long time to understand that Christianity is not all about getting to heaven but bringing a bit of heaven to earth.

      • Thanks for your response. I think the question you raise is really important:
        “Why would there have been any other reason to spread the faith, if not to alert others to those rewards?”
        I don’t disagree that the afterlife concern was one motivation. But, there are likely other motivations too. An important part of early Christianity dealt with the present earthly life. This is seen in the Lord’s prayer: may your will be done on earth. . . as it is in heaven. The earthly life was an end in itself. Also, the truth is an end in itself. Part of what motivated the apostles is the importance of spreading what they believed to be true. Here, my overall point is that motivations to spread faith are likely multifactorial.

        But, the self-martyrdom of the terrorists must have been motivated by something far and distant — an afterlife believe — to a higher degree than the apostles who were involuntarily martyred and had strong emphasis on our actions in the present age in addition to teachings about the eschaton.

  6. Actually, the leading thinkers of the early Christian church did not believe in a physical resurrection. For example Paul believed that the resurrection pertained to a spiritual body, rather than a mortal body, as did Origen who considered the concept of a resurrection to be for those that did not have “eyes to see and ears to hear”.

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