“So what,” my friend concluded, “people die all the time for things they believe. Sometimes they even go out of their way to become a martyr. That doesn’t prove anything about their beliefs. It just means they’re crazy.” We had been discussing why the first apostles were willing to die rather than renounce the claims they were making, and I could see that my friend still wasn’t seeing the point I was making.
“There’s a difference, though, that you seem to be refusing to acknowledge,” I started. “Sure there are people who are willing to sacrifice their lives because they fervently believe something. But the apostles weren’t talking about beliefs. They were talking about things they had witnessed. If they were lying, you’d have to ask yourself why they would persist in making something up that was known to them to be false, and that was getting them nothing but pain and persecution. That would be like me insisting that God told me to plunder your house. I know he really didn’t, and I know that my telling you this isn’t going to change your view about me taking your stuff, so why would I do it? There’s nothing to be gained.”
“But there is,” he rejoined. “You said yourself that Christianity has changed the world and I agree that much of the change was good. Love your brother, be kind to your enemies, help the poor, all that kind of stuff. Maybe these early Christians wanted to lift up humanity, take it to the next level of development – moral development anyway. Maybe they were willing to die for the sake of a noble lie.” I’d heard variations on that theme before, and it never ceased to amaze me how unpersuasive such a view was. I hoped that drilling down a bit into what he was suggesting might better focus the issue.
“If I understand you correctly, you think the first disciples of Jesus knew that he hadn’t really risen from the dead. They made all that stuff up because they thought he had been a wise man and they liked where his views would take the culture. Is that about right?”
He nodded, so I asked him whether he recognized the problems inherent in such an assumption. He didn’t. I tried to summarize them.
“First,” I said, “I would want to know what profit they saw in that. The Jews of that period had a strong religious tradition and many of these men were well-trained in it. Paul, for instance, was a very learned man. They were expecting a conquering Messiah, not a victim, and they already had a functioning society and a moral structure in place. They could not have foreseen the impact Christianity would have on future generations, and many of them did not themselves appreciate the full impact of the changes that would occur. For instance, though Christians eventually worked to abolish slavery, the earliest disciples didn’t seek to make such far reaching changes. Second, the disciples went about this ‘noble lie’ in pretty peculiar way, including a lot of things that would make their message difficult, if not impossible, to accept. Remember that the disciples are being persecuted for their beliefs. The Romans would have accepted one extra God; the problem was that the disciples were saying that there was one, and only one, God and that they could not accept others. Why would they do that? They could still teach brotherly love without antagonizing the Romans. Also, why would they include what seemed to be barbaric requirements, such as having Jesus say that his followers must eat his body and drink his blood. Why all the promise of suffering that would come from being a follower? These were deal breakers for many of those who heard it. Why would they start a movement by trying to alienate their listeners?”
He didn’t say anything, so I continued. “Third, remember what the disciples were actually claiming – one, that their Lord thought he was actually God. This would make him a lunatic, when you think about it, so it would be hard to square that with the ‘come listen to what my wise friend just taught me about achieving the good life’ message. Two, they also claimed that he visited them after he died and showed them his physical, resurrected body. Why not simply say that Jesus rose spiritually? That way, if the Romans produced the body, they could continue with their claim. Why not say that their teacher had many wise sayings that people should follow, but that sadly he died and remained dead? This is what you would expect if they simply wanted to start a movement. But no, what they said was that they had actually witnessed these things. And whatever it was they witnessed, it certainly transformed them-from cowards hiding in a room to bold evangelists willing to put everything on the line for what they thought was true. On your theory, they are making all this up for no gain. Rather than getting rich or famous, it’s getting them killed.”
I summed up. “I think you’re being influenced by what we today call the ‘prosperity gospel’ – follow Christianity and you will be healthy, wealthy and happy. Quite the contrary was true for the early church. There were predictions from the beginning that following Jesus would be difficult and that it could result in hardship and division of families. So, when you really think about it, it’s simply not the kind of message that would bring hope to humanity – hope in the sense of the ‘noble lie’ – unless one condition were indeed true — that the underlying message they were preaching was actually true. In other words, the only basis for hope in the minds of the disciples wasn’t in the here and now but in the life to come. They were convinced that our eternal destiny depended on accepting Jesus as lord and savior. Consequently, they were willing to suffer here, and encourage others to withstand suffering, because they were convinced that what happens next is more important that any earthly suffering.”
In the end, I don’t think I persuaded him. But hopefully it gave him something more noble to think about.
Posted by Al Serrato