I address this very question in my new book, "Jesus on Trial: A Lawyer Affirms the Truth of the Gospel," because I used to wonder about this, too. What, if anything, distinguishes the Christian martyrs?
New Testament scholar Gary Habermas offered an insight that I hadn't considered before, and I find it enormously probative.
"One grand distinction," he argues, " makes all the difference in the world. Like other examples of religious or political faith, the disciples believed and followed their leader's teachings. But unlike all others, the disciples had more than just their beliefs; they had seen the resurrected Jesus. This is a crucial distinction. Their faith was true precisely because of the Resurrection."
Habermas cements the point with a few more questions: "Which is more likely -- that an ideology we believe in is true or that we and a number of others saw a friend several times during the last month? If eternity rested on the consequences, would we rather base our assurance on the truth of a particular religious or political view, or would we rather that the consequences followed from repeated cases of seeing someone?"
This is fascinating -- and compelling -- is it not? Contrary to conventional wisdom, Christianity is based in history -- in historical facts. The faith didn't come first; the history came first, and the faith followed. In fact, many of the disciples were dejected and dispirited when Jesus died -- until they witnessed with their own eyes his bodily resurrection.
They weren't imagining they saw him. They didn't expect to see him. But when he appeared to them in his body, he proved to them he was real. He ate with them; they touched him; he talked to them; he opened up the Scriptures to them and showed them how they pointed to him, his sinless life, his suffering, his crucifixion and his substitutionary death on the cross for us.
He appeared first to a woman. Is this something the New Testament writers would have made up had they been concocting a believable story upon which to base the religion they were about to preach on his behalf? In those days, the eyewitness testimony of women was not considered nearly so credible as that of men.
He made some 12 resurrected appearances before different numbers of people at different times; in one case, it was more than 500 people. The Apostle Paul wrote about this particular appearance 20 years or so after Christ's death, when many people who would have been alive at the time could have affirmed or contradicted his account. He challenged them to contradict his account. No one did.
Would the apostles have been transformed from feckless unbelievers to bold proclaimers of the Gospel had they not witnessed Jesus Christ in his bodily resurrection? What incentive would they have had to subject themselves to abuse, ridicule, mistreatment and ultimately martyrdom if they had not seen him?
It's one thing to suggest that someone would die for an ideology he believes in even without physical evidence; it's altogether another to contemplate that men would die for something they absolutely knew to be false. For if Jesus Christ had remained in the tomb and had not appeared to them, they likely would have believed their earlier hope had been for naught, but in any case, they wouldn't have manufactured a mythical story that they had seen him alive when they hadn't just so they could have the pleasure of dying for nothing. Dwell on that for a moment -- seriously.
No, these followers did not die for an abstract ideology. They did not develop some elaborate theology around which they could base a religion for no reason. They were eyewitnesses to the most remarkable event in human history, and their faith was built around that. Their theology was grounded in the historical fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, which Paul admitted is essential for the validity and authenticity of the Christian faith.
For as Paul said, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; for you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).
The fact of the historical Resurrection, my friends, is essential and foundational to Christianity. We Christians don't deny that our faith depends on it. We can't. This faith is not based on idle speculation. It is not based on some man-made ideology. It is grounded in the historical truth of Christ's incarnation, his sinless life, his suffering, his death and his resurrection.
The biblical records come down to us with flawless accuracy as originally written by numerous reliable eyewitnesses who had the greatest motivation imaginable to carry this "good news" to the ends of the earth. And they did.