“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised.” – Romans 1:25
Lying has been much on my mind recently. No, not me lying (I outgrew the novelty a long time ago and besides, it’s so time consuming keeping up – maybe there’s an App for that?). Rather, lying in general.
Lying can take many forms – from simple, “no one will know’” lies like padding an expense report or shaving six strokes from a golf score, to somewhat more serious lies such as cheating on taxes or one’s spouse (in either case they always eventually find out), to the most popular lies du jour involving political intrigue, to that most pernicious, consuming lie … lying to ourselves about who we really are.
In every case, lies are like cancer cells, colonizing in the hidden crevices of our souls and if unchecked metastasizing into raging, out-of-control black holes eating us alive from the inside, fed only by more lies in a never-ending ravenous cycle.
Lies are seductive, drawing us into worlds we wish could be so we don’t have to face the world that is. And the most insidious lies are self-affirming. We believe something is true, therefore we accept anything we hear or see or even experience supporting that belief.
Of course, social media only feeds this cycle. The disparity between one’s online profile and what actual exists behind that locked front door is often so great even we don’t recognize the person we pretend to be.
Which brings us to this passage in 2 Peter 1:16: “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
Let that sink in – no clever stories (i.e. “lies”) but rather the truth, to which they were direct witnesses. No face-saving or life-saving comments whitewashing the reality of their world. Instead, an unfiltered, unafraid proclamation of what they knew to be real: a man had lived, was arrested and crucified by Judean Prefect Pontius Pilate, had died on a cross, was buried, and then he had risen.
There is no ambiguity or parsing of words here, no focus group testing to spare offending the community. Pure, unvarnished truth. And to a person they did this in direct defiance of the most severe penalty the Roman Empire could impose – death by crucifixion on the charge of sedition.
We live in a society where profession of faith is, by comparison, relatively painless. Certainly there are dangerous places in the world today to be Christian, oppressive regimes smothering the free expression of faith. According to OpenDoorsUSA.org, every day 11 Christians are put to death for their faith, 7 churches are destroyed, and 24 acts of violence are committed against Christian believers. Still, across the vast majority of the planet, humans can and do espouse their belief freely.
Why would they die for a lie?
How much easier might it have been for that handful of followers who witnessed the crucifixion and Resurrection to stay silent when imprisoned by the Sanhedrin, or when arrested and paraded before their Roman overlords? How much less painful would their lives have been had they returned to their boats and nets, their tax collecting, their lives as physicians or wives?
At the center lies an obvious question: if the narrative we know today through the four canonical Gospels had not really happened, if Jesus had not really died, or having died had not appeared to them from the tomb as a Resurrected Savior, what could possibly have motivated them to dedicate and sacrifice the remainder of their own lives in futility? Why would they suffer or die for a lie?
Consider an alternative narrative. A charismatic itinerate rabbi with no recognized pedigree emerges from the backwater villages of Galilee, whips the locals into a frenzy through a combination of clever stories and cheap slight-of-hand trickery, runs afoul of the ruling class in Jerusalem, is arrested and convicted by the Jewish leaders who because they have no sanctioned death penalty make a deal with the local Roman strongman to change their charge of blasphemy into the imperial crime of Sedition and is unceremoniously nailed to a cross where he dies – end of story.
The entombment in a fresh grave site owned by a respected Jewish leader? The mysterious rolling back of the stone and disappearance of the body? The 40 days of appearances to the faithful following the fictitious resurrection, and the eventual ascension? None of these ever happened, fabricated out of whole cloth decades after the last eyewitnesses had themselves been executed or martyred.
This is what many skeptics would have us believe – that the resurrected Jesus story was nothing but a myth, a lie passed from generation to generation, growing with each retelling.
Let’s go back to the question – why would these men and women willingly suffer persecution for a lie? There was no upside for them. No cushy pensions, no villas in Capernaum, no lecture circuit fame with their 1st century equivalents to TED Talks such as “7 Things I Learned Walking on Water.” No, the only outcome for them was rejection, persecution, death.
To be sure there are those who tirelessly argue no basis exists for assuming the Apostles actually were martyred, much less executed for their beliefs as followers of a risen Messiah. “Mass hysteria,” some argue. “Saving face,” others claim. “Grandstanding!” still another insists. For anyone interested in seeing how far the deniers will go, I recommend a blog called Cross Examined. Fair warning – this blog isn’t forgiving to Followers who believe traditional tenets.
The flaw with these and other arguments is in large part connected to a logical fallacy known as Presentism, where someone introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into past events. The followers of Jesus were first and foremost devout, practicing Jews. They were not counter-culturalists seeking a reformation of Judaism in the same way Martin Luther sparked the Christian Reformation in 1517. These were common men and women, practical and grounded, fearful of God.
The story did not tell itself
Yet following Jesus’ execution these same men and women upended their lives to share the Gospel story, first throughout Judea and Samaria in direct contravention of the Jewish Ruling Class edict “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” then into the immediate Gentile world of Asia, Africa and the wider Middle East where they were often shunned and persecuted, and ultimately into the very heart of the Roman Empire where Peter and Paul would both (by tradition) die.
Deniers miss two key points here. First, the story did not tell itself. The sharing of Jesus’ story did not suddenly appear following the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. but instead was being passed from Believer to Believer within days of the Resurrection. The later written versions sprang directly from the verbal passage.
Second, the very same power structure that executed Jesus was still in place following his purported resurrection. The persecutions of followers began almost immediately and by the reign of Nero as Emperor in AD 54, being a “Christian” was so dangerous one might well end up as lion food in the Coliseum or dipped in candle wax and serve as a true Roman Candle.
While few “sane” people might subject themselves to this in the 21st Century, the followers of Jesus in the immediate years after his death and resurrection were absolutely convinced of a different Truth. They were eyewitnesses to God’s direct intervention in the course of history and as devout men and women of faith could not reject their mission, regardless of the cost.
The simple fact is not a single Follower in the first decades following the crucifixion was ever documented as confessing – freely or by persecution or torture – the Gospel story of the resurrection was a fake, a deliberate lie. And even in those cases where someone broke under torture, recanted their beliefs and converted to other religions, no Christian has been documented as believing the resurrection was a lie.
In his book “Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection” William Lane Craig writes: “The fact that the disciples were able to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of their enemies a few weeks after the crucifixion shows that what they proclaimed was true, for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.”
The first followers of Jesus did not die for a lie. Not because their reported persecutions were not real, but because their story was. Rather than escaping pain by telling a known falsehood, they embraced the consequences by sharing the original inconvenient truth to naysayers of the day: He Is Risen!