Publications on Christian apologetics tend to serve a couple of different functions. Primarily they serve to aid people who already believe by addressing certain challenges to the faith thereby strengthening the believer’s confidence in what they already accept. This is one of the most valuable functions of the apologist, however, it is important that even when used in this way that the arguments are effective enough to hold up under rigorous examination. The average Christian may not require the most sophisticated formulation of an argument as would be used in formal apologetics but as children of the Truth we should still expect that they are arguments that work. Unfortunately some of the most popular arguments used in common conversation are not the most helpful or useful arguments when considered carefully.
One of these “unhelpful answers” as to why Christianity is true is the argument that it is very unlikely that you could get 11 people to knowingly die for a lie. I first recall reading this argument in Josh McDowell’s book More Than a Carpenter and since then I have seen it used by other apologists such as Lee Strobel etc, as well as many other well meaning Christians. The force of the argument is that most people will do whatever necessary to sustain their lives and it is therefore highly unlikely that you could get multiple people to all submit themselves to torture and ultimately death for something that they know to be a lie.
There are a few weaknesses to this argument but there is one in particular that I think disqualifies it as a serious apologetic defense. This is fundamentally an argument from probability. The person using this argument is saying that the odds of 11 people being willing to die for something they know to not be true is so highly improbable that it is more reasonable to assume that they were telling the truth. Taken in isolation as an abstract argument it seems on the surface to be reasonable. The problem is that if you use this argument then you must weigh the probability of those 11 people being willing to die for a lie against the probability that what they were saying is true.
In this case we have to ask which is more probable, that 11 people were willing to die for something they knew was not true or that God took upon Himself humanity, allowed Himself to be delivered over to sinful men, was crucified, and then resurrected Himself. To keep it simple let us just focus on a single element of the Christian message. What is the probability that a human being who has been dead for 3 days would come back from the dead? I agree with McDowell and others who claim that it is highly improbable that 11 people died for a lie, however, we must ask if that is more or less probable than one person coming back from the dead.
When taken together the various elements of the Christian gospel are far less probable than 11 people dying for something they know to not be true. Indeed, it is the uniqueness of what happened in Christ that is emphasized in the scriptures. The willingness of those men to die for the truth of the gospel is a testimony to the strength of their faith and an example to us of the commitment we are all called to. Their unwavering dedication to their Lord is therefore a powerful message for us but we should be careful not to rely upon it as a “proof” for the truth of the gospel. Our salvation rests upon us accepting that something that is tremendously improbable happened… that the almighty sovereign God of the universe sent His only begotten Son to die in our place and be raised from the dead so that His mercy and love might be demonstrated and His righteousness vindicated. We must admit that this is about the most unlikely thing that we could ever conceive of and yet we believe that this is exactly what happened. Let us pray that God would grant us the same commitment to that truth that He granted to the apostles by faith even unto death.