In the movie, God’s Not Dead 2, I was asked to defend the historicity of Jesus and the eyewitness reliability of the Gospels. I’ve often said that the death of the apostles is an important piece of evidence related to the veracity of their claims about the Resurrection. There are lots of folks who are willing to die for what they believe to be true but few who are willing to die for what they know to be a lie. As a new investigator of the claims of Christianity, this issue (the martyrdom of the apostles) became an important piece of evidence. But how do we know that the apostles truly died as martyrs? The records related to the deaths of the apostles are varied and diverse at times; some deaths are better attested than others. For some of the apostolic deaths there are competing traditions among early Christian groups. How can we be sure that the apostles truly died as martyrs, refusing to recant their testimony about the resurrection of Jesus?
The Apostles Began an Eyewitness Tradition
The New Testament account found in the Book of Acts provides us with a description of the disciples as eyewitnesses who were unafraid to share what they saw and experienced with Jesus, even when this testimony resulted in their imprisonment or mistreatment. The earliest reliable record of the disciples clearly indicates they were on a path toward martyrdom.
The Apostles Began a Uniform Record
As a result, the earliest uniform record of the deaths of the apostles describes them dying as martyrs. While the details related to these deaths may vary from tradition to tradition, the fact they died as martyrs is a point of uniform agreement. Just as importantly, there is no other competing ancient tradition that contradicts the martyrdom of the apostles. There are no pagan accounts, for example, that describe the apostles living leisurely lives along the Mediterranean coast.
The Apostles Began a Committed Movement
For generations following the life and death of the apostles, the earliest Christian believers sought to emulate the commitment and dedication of the apostolic eyewitnesses. How did they seek to do this? By following in their footsteps and dying for the claims of the eyewitnesses. The early Christians copied the apostles and refused to recant their trust in the eyewitness accounts.
The ancient church acknowledged the martyrdom of the original Christian eyewitnesses. The apostles began boldly on a path that led to their brutal execution, these deaths were corroborated by the earliest traditions (without contradictory record) and those who followed the apostles sought to emulate the apostolic martyrdoms as an expression of their own commitment to Christianity. There is more than enough reason to believe that the apostles died as martyrs without recanting their testimony. This commitment to apostolic claims is still a powerful testimony to the truth of Christianity.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene. He appears in God’s Not Dead 2 as an expert witness, making a case for the reliability of the New Testament.