Can the rise of Christianity be explained by the spread of a lie? Is the Christian faith nothing more than an elaborate conspiracy?
How do we explain the rise of Christianity and to where do we trace its origins? The answer to those questions can vary, however, the three major arguments I’ve come across are 1. Christianity began with a lie/conspiracy, 2. Christianity began with a delusion, and 3. Christianity as we know it today evolved over time. It is the first two arguments that are of most interest to us as they cut right to the origin of the faith. The evolution theory, on the other hand, can be most easily dismissed by our “Defining The Resurrection” segment and by The Impossible Faith thesis, which we will look at later.
How is a conspiracy theory used to explain the rise of Christianity? Critics offer the argument that the Resurrection belief began as a lie perpetrated by the disciples. If we allow ourselves to side-step the glaring lack of any evidence that supports this, the claim needs to address several vital details. It needs to have an answer for the rapid spread of the Resurrection claim in a social world that was opposed to it and how it overcame the “truth” so quickly. It also needs an answer for the empty tomb and the arguments we raised to support it. Then there are the conversions of James and Paul. How did the disciples convince them of the Resurrection belief when they were vehemently against it? How did the conspiracy survive in the face of enemies who were ready to expose it? Why did the disciples spread the message to Jerusalem where enemies were waiting to prevent it, instead of taking it away to a country where Jesus’ ministry was not well-known and evidence against them could not be found? Most importantly, how does it address the Christians’ reaction in the face of vicious persecution and social ostracization?
The Clement of Rome once wrote about the apostles,
Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death. Let us place before our eyes the good Apostles. Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him. Through envy Paul, too, showed by example the prize that is given to patience: seven times was he cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he obtained the noble renown due to his faith; and having preached righteousness to the whole world, and having come to the extremity of the West, and having borne witness before rulers, he departed at length out of the world, and went to the holy place, having become the greatest example of patience. (First Clement 5:2-7)
The church father Origen (c. 185-c. 254) also notes how the disciples’ devotion to Jesus caused them to stand boldly in the face of death.
But a clear and unmistakable proof of the fact I hold to be the undertaking of His disciples, who devoted themselves to the teaching of a doctrine which was attended with danger to human life — a doctrine which they would not have taught with such courage had they invented the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; and who also, at the same time, not only prepared others to despise death but were themselves the first to manifest their disregard for its terrors. (Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.56)
The disciples were transformed from men who ran from danger and denied their Lord in the face of it, to men who boldly proclaimed Christ’s Resurrection even in their last moments. The only way the conspiracy theory can explain such an unparalleled change in the disciples is to propose that the Resurrection of Jesus was both expected and desired so that it would be easy to convince the masses, but neither is true. The Jews wanted and expected a Messiah that would conquer, not perish on a criminal’s tree. Unless Jesus really did rise from the dead (thereby vindicating His Lordship), there was no convincing anyone. Indeed, the very name of the theory implies that the Resurrection belief was not popular or widely accepted.
It is now worth asking how a conspiracy theory spreads today and how people come to believe them. A conspiracy theory raised today will usually travel through the hands of various groups, videos, or online forums. In a culture that relies so heavily on the internet it is incredibly easy to spread misinformation and receive little to no repercussions for it. Conspiracy theories are often looked upon with a humorous or irritated eye-roll and little more than that.
How do people come to believe them? I don’t think a straightforward answer can truly suffice, however, I do see a pattern among those who propagate them. Those who craft and believe in conspiracy theories are often inclined to believe in their conclusions before the details are even formulated. I’ve seen the same mentality in Christians who think they’ve seen the face of Jesus on a piece of toast. The face most-likely isn’t there, but they’re probably more inclined to see it because of the things they already believe regarding signs and wonders.
Can we see the same pattern with the disciples? Was their conspiracy theory raised in a social climate like ours? Obviously not. All of them aside from John became martyrs. They were executed for what they believed and proclaimed.
Were they predisposed to believe in a dying and rising messiah? As we’ve pointed out throughout our investigation, this was not the case (see link 2 below). If critics continue to insist upon this then they are also insisting on another, far less admissible point: Jesus was much more than a simple teacher. Critics can’t have it both ways. Either Jesus was a moral teacher who could not perform miracles or He was more than that, something that would cause the disciples to insist on their belief that He was the messiah even in the face of His death (!). That’s an extraordinary claim.
Critics are also extremely vague on how the disciples managed to convince anyone of their fanciful story. How did these common fishermen manage to craft an elaborate tail that would convince the masses, despite the story of a crucified messiah being offensive to both Jews and Gentiles? As New Testament scholar David DeSilva notes,
“Christianity was founded on a premise that should have failed the moment it began in such a culture.” (Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity, p. 51)
Moreover, why did they decide to craft such a story when they had nothing to gain from it? They had no substantial motive or reason to push such a theory unless they really did experience something that would cause them to believe it.
Finally, how did simple, common fishermen and peasants formulate a story and theology so rich, so revolutionary, that it transformed lives? As St. Thomas Aquinas notes,
In the midst of the tyranny of the persecutors, an innumerable throng of people, both simple and learned, flocked to the Christian faith. In this faith there are truths proclaimed that surpass every human intellect; the pleasures of the flesh are curbed; it is taught that the things of the world should be spurned. Now, for the minds of mortal men to assent to these things is the greatest of miracles….This wonderful conversion of the world to the Christian faith is the clearest witness….For it would be truly more wonderful than all signs if the world had been led by simple and humble men to believe such lofty truths, to accomplish such difficult actions, and to have such high hopes. (Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 6)