The lives of Jesus' disciples are a phenomenon that never ceases to give Christians the idea that what they believe is the truth. After all, if these men were willing to put their lives on the line just to preach Jesus' message, surely that proves that their news was, in fact, veracious? As the reasoning tends to go, it's ludicrous to think that these men would die for something they didn't truly believe in. Would any of us resolve to be crucified for a hoax? I do, however, have a problem with this logic, and I will begin by talking about the founder of the Islamic faith: Muhammad.
Sometime in the early seventh century, a 40 year old wealthy merchant named Muhammad found new meaning to his life. He regularly went to a cave alone to meditate for several weeks at a time. During one of these trips, the angel Gabriel recited to him what would become the Koran, and he wrote it down, despite his illiteracy. He returned to his hometown, Mecca, and began preaching this new book. Lo and behold, people started listening, and he gained a sufficient number of followers.
They were not met without resistance, however. The culture in Mecca at that time was built around the practice of worshiping multiple deities. This new message that Muhammad was professing was in direct opposition to everything they knew. “Allah” actually means “The God.” The word “The” is quite important, as it is a firm distinction from the many gods that would have been worshiped at the time. This caused a backlash in the community.
The chiefs of the Kuraish (Quraysh), the dominant tribe in Mecca at the time and also the one that Muhammad belonged to, decided to completely wipe out the Islamic movement. Muhammad and his followers were persecuted and often times killed. Muhammad's family even broke off relations with him, and he was the target of an assassination plot. His followers were persecuted so openly that they could no longer stay in Mecca. In 622 CE, there was an Exodus from Mecca to Medina. Had they tried to stay in Mecca, they all would have surely been killed off. Eight years after their Exodus, they returned to Mecca with a military and conquered it. Two years later, Muhammad died (excuse me, rode off to Heaven on a winged horse).1
Muhammad was known to perform miracles as well. One Imam had this to say about them: “As for the other miracles, it is not possible to enumerate them all due to their huge number and renewing and increasing nature.”2 If he wasn't performing these miracles, would his followers really willingly die in his name?
So we can see that the followers of Muhammad believed so ardently that they put their lives on the line in the face of overwhelming persecution, which was probably just as harsh as the persecution of Christians in early Rome. What does this tell us? Can we then conclude that Muhammad's message is indeed true? Why else would his followers put their lives on the line, and indeed, die for this idea if they didn't think that it was the truth?
Jesus' disciples were probably no different than Muhammad's followers, so why do Christians use this as an argument for the validity of Jesus' divinity? In the process, aren't these people also arguing for the legitimacy of Muhammad's words?
In order to fully understand the situation, we need to look through the eyes of Jesus' disciples. We need to put ourselves into their shoes (sandals). We should try to understand what their motives might have been and what they were thinking at the time.
One explanation for the the disciples' behavior was that they simply believed Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was a magnificent liar. That's not a hard stretch of the imagination, as lying is not difficult by any means, and certain people are wonderfully talented at pulling it off. Jesus' disciples were probably not intelligent men. Five of them were fisherman, and the rest (besides Matthew, who was a tax collector) we don't know anything about their professions. How difficult is it to believe these were just gullible men who would believe anything from a skilled prevaricator? Perhaps the twelve disciples believed as earnestly as many Christians do today. Does that lend any credibility to the claim that Jesus was born from a virgin, that he was raised from the dead after three days, and ascended to the right hand of God? In my humble opinion, no, it does not.
There is also the possibility that the whole thing was, in fact, a hoax. Is it really that difficult to believe that some men would be willing to die for this? One point I want to make is that the life expectancy of these men would have been very low, and they would have known this. We take modern medicine for granted and don't think twice when someone lives over 100 years. The average life expectancy in the United States today is about 77.7 years. The world average is about 67 years. In contrast, the world life expectancy in 1900 was just 30 years.3 1900 years before that? Worse. The people in Jesus' time probably lived, on average, 20-30 years.4 More specifically, the Roman Empire had a life expectancy of 22-25 years.5 How old were the disciples, then? Presumably old enough to know that they could die any day. Why not do something that would put their names in sacred books for millennia?
I think that we could find ample motives for a person to want to feign the idea that one of these Messiahs (there were many at the time) was the true Messiah. These were generally, poor, stupid, and unknown men. Who of these wouldn't want to be famous? Jesus made a decent impact on the Jews at the time. The disciples were in the perfect position to make themselves famous. All they had to do was follow through with Jesus' plan. With death approaching them soon regardless of whether or not they chose to continue the charade, why wouldn't they have continued to preach?
It could also be a combination of these explanations. Perhaps Jesus lied to them about certain things, they believed him, but they also knew some of it was bogus. Who knows, as it's all quite complicated, and we don't really have the resources to ever figure it out. All we can do is speculate rationally. However, to use the disciples as “proof” or evidence for Jesus' divinity is, to put it mildly and succinctly, pathetic. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If this is the best evidence one can muster for the divinity of Jesus, I think one should take a long hard look at why he believes what he does.
1 Toropov, Brandon, and Father Luke Buckles. The Complete Idiot's Guide to World Religions. 3rd ed. New York: Alpha Books, 2004. 123-125.
5 Same as 3.