One of the latest Christian apologetic ploys used to validate the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that His disciples all went to their death claiming that He did, in fact, return to life after being dead for three days. Apologists claim that they would certainly not have done that if they were lying. Surely they would have confessed to the conspiracy, if indeed it was such, rather than die with a lie on their lips.
On the surface, this seems to have a measure of credibility, but it’s only on the surface. When one digs deeper, it’s easy to see how this line of reasoning crumbles, then falls apart completely.
1) False confessions: Any police detective will tell you that when they have a murder investigation underway, sometimes a person will come forward to confess to the crime who would have been unable to have done it. They soon find out that the person either didn’t have access to the weapon, or was in another place at the time of the murder.
When you consider that if they were believed, they could be facing capital punishment. They would be willing to “die for a lie”. Why would they do that? Psychiatrists will tell you that such confessions cover the range from just wanting attention, feeling guilty for some previous misdeed, or mental illness, to protecting a loved one, or an organization, or a country.
2) They were tricked: Another reason people have to die for a lie is sometimes they don’t know that it’s a lie. People can be tricked into believing a falsehood. Stage magicians do it all the time, so do politicians and preachers.
If you can’t believe that your preacher would teach lies as truth, you have to believe that preachers of other religions do. Look at the many people who willingly died at Jonestown, the Branch Davidians who died at Waco, and the Muslims who died on 9-11. You have to believe that since their beliefs were wrong, their leaders (knowingly or not) were lying to them. And they died for those lies, even their leaders did.
3) To protect a mission: Another reason that a disciple might die for a lie is that they could have been trying to protect their mission, and their budding religious movement. If they confessed to lying about the resurrection of Jesus, it could have destroyed all they worked for. They also could have died for another cause altogether, say to help free Israel from Roman control, and their narrative was set up to mislead the reader for the purpose of gaining followers.
4) Suppression of the confession: It’s also possible that they did confess that the resurrection was a fabrication, but the truth was suppressed by the people who actually wrote or edited their stories. Or the stories could have started off without a resurrection and been embellished over the next hundred years, before they were actually written down.
5) To martyr themselves: It could have been that they intended to become martyrs for their cause. It wouldn’t be the first time religious people have done this, and as attested by the current rash of Islamic suicide bombers, it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
6) It was all made up: Finally, it could have been that the entire thing was agreed upon, and made up by the disciples, in order to start a new religion. A glance toward Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and L. Ron Hubbard tells us that this sort of thing is still going on today.
Although it could be said that the disciples were operating under any combination of 3, 4, 5 or 6 above; let’s look back at 2 particularly, and see if Jesus’ disciples might have been simply tricked into believing a lie.
According to the Bible, when Jesus came back after his resurrection and presented himself to Mary Magdalene, she didn’t recognize him. In John 20:15:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
And even the disciples themselves didn’t recognize Jesus either. In John 21:4:
“Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.”
And in Luke 24:15-18:
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
The point being they could have been tricked by a second person into believing that he was Jesus and that he had actually resurrected; and since he left them shortly afterwards, they would continue to believe the lie until they died.
That version of events is much more probable than that a person was actually dead for three days, then resurrected, and bodily ascended to heaven (i.e., flew away). Keep in mind that these disciples were uneducated fishermen, religious followers, and lay folk who might more readily believe that a miracle had happened than that they were being tricked. Any stage magician will tell you that most audiences WANT to be tricked, and I would say that this recently bereft group would be very receptive to such a ploy.
There might also have been those among them who were not deceived, but who went along with it because they were committed to the mission espoused by Jesus, and would take that secret to the grave with them.
As you can see, there are many reasons why the Bible could say that the resurrection was true, when in fact it wasn’t. And the disciples could have indeed, and for a number of reasons, died for a lie.