The conversion of Saul of Tarsus, better known by the name of Paul, is one of the most convincing (or perplexing) pieces of data surrounding the Resurrection. But why should we believe Paul’s conversion was genuine?
Today it’s easy to chalk a personal conversion (from one ideology or religion to another) to a change in personal opinion. At one point, you may have once said something along the lines of “Oh, that’s nice, I’m glad you’ve found something that gives you peace.” A conversion today doesn’t present itself as a strong argument to the truthfulness of the worldview or falsehood of the one left behind. In some occasions, it may even persuade us away from faith if we know the new convert has had a lack of self-confidence or security, depression, or other mental problems. We might then conclude that religion is simply a nice, loving crutch. It might be something that gives him/her some reassurance and peace of mind; a place where they feel welcomed and appreciated. These are, of course, characteristics of Christianity that are as important as its doctrine, after all, without love, we have nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). With this in mind, critics have surmised the same explanation for Paul’s conversion on Damascus Road. The most well-circulated argument goes like this,
Paul could have experienced a great amount of grief and guilt over his persecution of the Christians. The grief was so strong and overbearing that his brain caused him to hallucinate the risen Jesus, causing him to follow and become the person who will go to write the epistles.
But do we come to this explanation from what we know of Paul or are we simply assuming in Paul what we see in others today? To answer this we need to know who, exactly, Paul was.
Was Paul swayed by guilt, grief, or shame? Was he weak-minded, uncertain of his convictions or unsure of his actions? Did he lack intelligence, wisdom, or strength of character? Did he see Christianity as an attractive, viable, or legitimate vessel of faith? Was he on the fence and all he needed was one small push? Paul was none of these things. He was neither on the fence, weak-minded, or unsure of himself. If we saw him today we would be compelled to describe him as a man who “has it all.” He had a strong sense of conviction, character, dignity, bravery, and profound intellect. He was independent and ardent. His principles were fixed and his reputation was honourable and admired. He was a man of such lawfulness and rigid conscientiousness that he was able to stand before the Sanhedrin council and say,
I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day (Acts 23:1).
And of his past life,
Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless (Phil. 3:6).
Grief or guilt then could not be a possible option. Paul saw the Christian movement as a formidable enemy, one that continued to gain frightening momentum following the death of its leader. The highest Roman authority had been called upon to squash it completely, yet their greatest attempt to quell the religion was in vain. It seemed to gain new strength with every attempt to crush it. Thus, Paul was called in to perform what he thoroughly believed was right: to suppress this new faith by way of violent persecution in the name of preserving the true religion, the sacred rites of the temple, and its revered laws and customs.
It began with Stephen, a deacon of the early church and the first martyr of Christianity. As he was stoned the witnesses “laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul,” meaning Saul approved of their persecution. Following this, there arose a “great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem and (the disciples) were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). To Saul, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to strike. The movement had been shaken by the loss of Stephen in Jerusalem, now it was only a matter of suppressing it in Damascus, where its doctrines were beginning to be spread. From Jerusalem, Saul began his commission to kill the Christians. However, on his way to Damascus, according to his own account, a blinding light appeared in his path.
He fell to the earth and heard a loud voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He replied, “Who are you, Lord?” And He replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me (Acts 26:13-18).
The conversion of Paul cannot be understated. It is one of the most remarkable changes to ever happen to a human, one that would soon become connected to the establishment of the Christian religion in the world and the most miraculous and resolute revolution in human history. One that neither Paul, the Romans, or even Nero could destroy.
And much can be said of Paul’s conversion also. It was sincere, genuine, and thorough. Whatever the cause of it may be one cannot say, with any hint of seriousness or hope of credibility, that Paul’s conversion was feigned, insincere, or of little consequence. He believed it and it changed the very course of his life. While this does not mean, in and of itself, that the Resurrection is true, it should, at the very least, give us pause to ask how such a wealthy, powerful, and steadfast person could change his beliefs, his actions, and the direction of his devotion entirely (Paul’s zeal for God wasn’t what changed after his conversion, it was the direction of it).
He no longer sought to destroy the religion he opposed (Acts 26:9-11) but became its most prolific and influential speaker. He became a friend to the Christians, from a hatred of their belief to a love of it, and laboured even more earnestly to spread its message. He gained nothing from this materially. He suffered with them and for them, enduring the harshest trials, persecutions, imprisonment, public estrangement and hostility, and yet never abandoning them, never wavering, never regretting, never doubting, never fearing (1 Corinthians 15:30-32, 2 Corinthians 4:8-12, 2 Corinthians 63-10, Galatians 5:11, Galatians 6:7, 2 Timothy 3:10-11, and more). He rejoiced and exalted Christ to the end (Philippians 3:8).
The sacrifices he made and the sufferings he endured are enough to make certain the conclusion that Paul was a radical and genuine convert. He gave up everything for the cause of Christ (instead of wealth he now had to work for his wages (Acts 18:3), ending in his death in Rome in 68 A.D. For the skeptics, this demands an explanation. It cannot be brushed away with the same carelessness of a random conversion today. Therefore, it is to the skeptic’s arguments that we will turn to next.