“The Apostles May Have Died as Martyrs, but this Proves Nothing.” by: Sean McDowell

“The Apostles May Have Died as Martyrs, but this Proves Nothing.”

One of my favorite arguments for the reliability of the apostolic testimony is their willingness to suffer and die for their belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. I spend over 300 pages considering the historical evidence for their martyrdoms in my recent book The Fate of the Apostles. While we cannot show that they all died as martyrs, we do know that they were all willing to suffer and die, and some of them in fact did.

Yet some critics have pushed back on the testimony of the apostles because of the supposed impossibility of miracles. If miracles are impossible, then the apostles were either deluded, mistaken, or liars in their claim to have seen the risen Jesus.

Simply put, if miracles are impossible then the testimony of the apostles is worthless—there must be some natural explanation.

First, it is important to keep perspective on the limits of the argument from the suffering and deaths of the apostles. The argument is not that the apostles died as martyrs for their faith and so the resurrection is true. That is too simplistic and skips a number of important steps. The argument is that they were willing to suffer and die, and many of them did actually die, for their belief that had seen Jesus alive after his death. Their deaths do not prove the truth of their claims, but demonstrate the sincerity and depth of their convictions. The fact that the apostles died for their faith does not singlehandedly demonstrate the miraculous. Rather, it is one piece within a larger argument that helps establish the sincerity and reliability of the apostles as witnesses to the resurrection.

Nevertheless, it is premature to dismiss the testimony of the apostles since it implies a miracle. There are thousands of well-documented accounts of instantaneous healings of people with serious injuries and severe illnesses, which took place without relapse, after concerted public prayers. Craig Keener has set up strict criteria for identifying a miracle and catalogued some of the most verified miracles in history. He conservatively estimates that roughly 200 million living people have either seen or had an extraordinary experience, not accounted for by contemporary scientific understanding, directly tied to Christian prayers.

While Hume has often been credited with undermining the possibility of recognizing the miraculous, it is widely recognized today that he overstated his case. The key question for the possibility of the miraculous is whether or not God exists. If naturalism is true then the miraculous can be ruled out a priori. But if God does exist, then miracles are possible—if not probable. Gary Habermas observes,

“If it can be successfully argued that naturalism is insufficient as an explanation of the universe and that an explanation like theism, which incorporates an external intelligent source, is plausible, then it may also be rational to believe that the resurrection of Jesus was an act performed in accordance with God’s attributes and will. If this is a theistic universe, then we might require even less direct evidence to affirm God’s intervention in this or other historical occurrences, since miracles might follow, due to what we would know concerning the nature of the universe.”

The primary question, as Habermas observes, is whether or not theism is true. In recent decades the case for theism has grown exponentially and naturalism has been put on the defensive. The case for theism can be found in such diverse disciplines as biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, astrobiology, cosmology, near-death experiences, philosophy, and others. The case for theism has grown so significantly that many atheists have begun to take notice. In fact, Antony Flew, who helped set the agenda of atheism for fifty years, changed his mind about God shortly before he died. In 2007, he released There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Flew concluded, “I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source.” How did he come to this conclusion? “The short answers is this: this is the world’s picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.”

Five years later, renowned atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel released a controversial book titled, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. While he has not abandoned his atheism, Nagel noted the failure of materialistic reductionism:

“But for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.”

Examining the merits of the particular arguments for theism is beyond the scope of this blog, but it should be clear that theism is experiencing resurgence and cannot simply be dismissed as outdated: it is a rational option. Miracles are much more probable if God does exist, as these arguments aim to demonstrate, however, the key question is not whether the existence of God can be proven (epistemology) but that he actually exists (metaphysics). The failure of these arguments would not prove God’s non-existence or that miracle-claims are false. It would merely follow that God’s existence cannot be rationally demonstrated, which is a different matter. If God even possibly exists, then miracles may occur. To rule out the possibility of the miraculous, a priori is to beg the question against theism. Thus, the skeptic must not only defeat theistic arguments, but must also provide positive reasons for establishing God’s non-existence. Until skeptics have demonstrated the non-existence of God, rational people are well within their epistemic rights to be open to embracing the miraculous if that is in fact where the evidence leads.

The fates of the apostles certainly do not prove the existence of the supernatural. But they do provide one piece of compelling evidence that cannot be ignored. Their testimony should not be automatically “ruled out of court” because of a bias against the miraculous. In fact, if anything, the powerful evidence for the miraculous makes their testimony not only possible but also even likely.

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