Saturday, July 03, 2010

What martyrdom arguments are designed to show

Back when I first heard Josh McDowell speak on the evidences for Christianity, he said that, of course, many people have died for a lie. What they don't do is die for something they know to be a lie.

Arguments from martyrdom are not designed to establish the truth of the claims in question. They are simply strong evidence that those who died sincerely believed in the propositions for which they were martyred. Yet, I keep hearing the skeptics argue that martyrdom doesn't prove the truth of anything, as if that was how Christians were arguing. This is a straw man. Martyrdom arguments are defeaters for deliberate fraud theories. The fact that the 9/11 hijackers flew planes into the towers doesn't prove that their peculiar version of Islam is true. What it does show is that they really believed that they would go to paradise if the died for Allah in this way.

Second, it's not the actual killing of the person that needs explaining. It's what I call martyrdom risk behavior. Here is a example of it, from Peter's speech outside the gate of Jerusalem:

Acts 2:36 "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."

In other words, Peter is telling people whom he believed had the power to engineer a crucifixion, that God had vindicated Jesus and made him Lord and Christ. So you've got a guy who, before the cock crowed, showed shall we say a pretty normal concern for his own life, now telling people whom he believes had gotten somebody crucified, that God had resurrected Jesus.

Now unless this part of the story is legend, it certainly needs explanation. Even if Peter wasn't martyred, he's setting himself up for it here.

I'm not sure Joseph Smith engaged in martyrdom risk behavior, although I am sure he knew that what he was doing was making enemies.

This wouldn't be an argument against hallucination theories. If Peter had had a believable hallucination of the risen Jesus, that would explain why he came to be firmly convinced of the resurrection.


Blue Devil Knight said...

The problem is the conclusion is fairly obvious, and weak. People believe really stupid things, and are willing to die for them, all the time.

Branch Davidians, Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, Muslim suicide bombers, etc...

Victor Reppert said...

The fact is there are theories generated that imply that the early Christians were perpetrating a fraud on the world, and their extreme risk-behavior undercuts that kind of theory.

Now if you accept the accuracy of the Gospel stories, you do have a problem with Peter's behavior, because before the cross he denies Jesus to save himself. So he's got a normal concern for his own safety. Then he proclaims to those who got Jesus crucified that God has resurrected Jesus and made him Lord and Christ. This kind of transformation does need an explanation, and you do appearances, hallucinatory or otherwise, to explain it.

I'm pretty convinced that skeptics need the hallucination theory to make a go of explaining the Christian story naturalistically. It's how Keith Parsons argued in his debate with Bill Craig.

Victor Reppert said...

You do need appearances, is what I meant to say.

Doctor Logic said...


I agree with much of what you've said up to this point:

So you've got a guy who, before the cock crowed, showed shall we say a pretty normal concern for his own life, now telling people whom he believes had gotten somebody crucified, that God had resurrected Jesus.

The implication in the above is that Peter was an average Joe until he had his vision. The further implication being that what he saw was so convincing that he suddenly became unafraid of martyrdom.

It's these implications that are faulty. First of all, you only have Peter's word for it (and probably not even his) that he underwent a transformation. If a radical were trying to convince you to believe in a specific event, he would likely try to convince you of how normal he was before the event occurred.

The ghost witness or UFO abduction victim isn't going to tell you about how freaky he was before the alleged event. He'll paint himself as an average guy like you or me.

The apostles followed Jesus around on his dog and pony show before the Resurrection. They were already radicals willing to risk prosecution.

Finally, there must be some set of cultural and psychological conditions that makes a person into a martyr. A belief that death is only the beginning, or that martyrdom leads to 72 virgins, probably isn't even a significant factor.

Bilbo said...

Hi Doc,

It's not clear the disciples were willing to risk prosecution before the resurrection. It looks more like they were willing to be part of a violent uprsing. It seems that when Jesus wasn't going to try something like that, but instead allowed himself to be arrested, that the disciples were not interested in being arrested with him.

There seems to be a difference in how they were willing to die for Jesus, before and after his resurrection.

Tim said...

"An ignorant Zeal in a wrong Cause is no Argument against the Goodness of any Cause, which is maintained and promoted by such a Zeal as is reasonable, and proceeds upon sure Grounds. Indeed, it were very hard and very strange, if that which is true, should be ever the less certain, or the less to be regarded and esteemed, because there may be other things, that are false, of which some Men are as firmly persuaded, and are as much concerned for them, as any one can be for the Truth itself. And yet this is the wisest Thing that many have to pretend against the Certainty of the Religion, in which they were baptized, that there are many Impostures in the World, and none is without its Zealots to appear in Vindication of it. I am confident no Man ever parted with any thing, but his Religion, upon so weak a Pretence.

"... It is commonly and truly said, that it is not the Suffering, but the Cause, which makes the Martyr; and if Men of false Religions have never so much Confidence of the Truth of them, and have no Ground for it, this can be no Argument against the Grounds and Proofs upon which the Evidence of the Christian Religion depends. Other Religions may have their Zealots, who offer themselves to die for them, but the Christian Religion properly has the only Martyrs. For Martyrs are Witnesses, and no other Religion is capable of being attested in such a Manner as the Christian Religion; no other Religion was ever propagated by Witnesses, who had seen, and heard, and been every way conversant in what they witnessed concerning the Principles of their Religion; no Religion besides was ever preach’d by Men, who, after an unalterable Constancy under all Kinds of Sufferings, at last died for asserting it, when they must of necessity have known, whether it were true or false, and therefore certainly knew it to be true, or else they would never have suffer’d and died in that Manner for it; ..."

-- Robert Jenkin, The Reasonableness and Certainty of the Christian Religion, 6th ed., vol. 2 (London: 1734), pp. 529, 531.