Will People Die for a Lie?

Sometimes we lose the mind-blowing shock of the Apostle Paul’s first-century conversion.

The number one enemy of Christianity instantaneously became its biggest proponent. In doing so, he walked away from all kinds of prestige and power and promise in the Jewish community, to become a poor, persecuted Christian who was subjected to numerous beatings, spent more time in prison than he did free, and died by beheading.

It’s tough to make a modern comparison. Imagine famed Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski holding a press conference tonight, announcing that after a short personal retreat in the mountains, he’s now a committed UNC Tarheel. He has decided to resign from his position as head coach of Duke basketball, return all the money he’s ever made there, and take up a job as a water boy for Roy Williams.

You would (rightly) wonder, “What in the world had he seen in those mountains that made him change his mind?”

That’s a silly analogy, of course. But even if it were true, that doesn’t even approach the unthinkable transformation Paul went through. Coach K’s 180 would not cost him 1/1000th of what Paul’s 180 cost him.

In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul explains that the resurrection proved two things to him he had not always accepted:

  • First, that Jesus was who he said he was: “[Jesus] was appointed to be the powerful Son of God … by the resurrection of the dead” (Romans 1:4 CSB).
  • Second, the resurrection shows us that Jesus’ death accomplished what he said it accomplished: He says, “He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The resurrection is the proof that the cross worked.

Paul previously hadn’t believed either of those things. In fact, he was vehemently against them. But he changed his mind on these issues in the space of about seven minutes one afternoon.

Makes you wonder, right? “What in the world did Paul see that would cause such a change?”

He had seen the resurrection with his own eyes!

If you think, “Well, I wish I could see Jesus with my own eyes like Paul did. Now that would settle my doubts.” Just remember: You have his testimony. And it’s a hard testimony to explain away.

What else but encountering something real would have caused that kind of change?

One religious historian pointed out that when someone is teaching something they know to be false, you will always find that what they are teaching gains them money, power, or respect. Did Paul gain any of those things? Quite the opposite. But he kept on testifying because he was convinced that what he had seen was true.

He wasn’t the only one.

The other apostles held to the very same claim—Jesus rose from the dead—even though they were all tortured for it, and all but one was killed for it. (The one that didn’t die a martyr’s death, John, was boiled in oil and later exiled in a prison for years … so his life wasn’t exactly peachy.)

But despite repeated opportunities to recant, not one of these men ever went back on their testimony. The idea that the resurrection was some kind of myth that sprang up as the apostles gradually exaggerated Jesus’ claims is ridiculous. They were willing to die (and to watch their friends and loved ones die) for that confession.

Chuck Colson, former special counsel to President Nixon and founder of Prison Fellowship, said that when the Watergate scandal broke, he and 11 other men—some of the toughest and most powerful in the world—met secretly, came up with a story, and swore to maintain it.

But these powerful men broke. Quickly.

Colson said,

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Everyone was beaten, tortured, stoned, and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.

The resurrection proved to Paul that Jesus is who he says he is and his death accomplished what he said it accomplished.

Paul goes on in the next chapter to explain one other thing that the resurrection shows us about Christianity, and it might be the most convincing proof of all: The resurrection means the gospel is power—not just another competing theory of religion but a new way to live.

The gospel is life-giving, heart-regenerating power, and the proof of that is the way it changes lives.

First, the resurrection changed Paul’s mind about Jesus. Then, it changed his life.