By Mikel Del Rosario

Evidence That Demands a Verdict

Did the Apostles Really Die as Martyrs_

Growing up, I had a lot of questions about the faith. So I went looking for answers.

One of the first apologetics books I discovered on my dad’s shelf was Josh McDowell’s classic work, Evidence that Demands a Verdict. My dad even arranged for me to meet Josh while I was transitioning to high school. But neither one of us knew I’d eventually meet his son, Sean, during our college days at Biola University.

Today, I’m helping get the word out about the newly expanded and updated Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell. I’m especially excited about the new additions to Josh’s classic work.

My Favorite Addition

Probably my favorite addition is an excellent chapter on the martyrdom of the apostles (Chapter 13), summarizing key findings from Sean’s doctoral dissertation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His academic work, The Fate of the Apostles, assessed numerous claims and traditions about the martyrdom of the apostles and I’m happy to see his findings presented for a popular audience here.

The martyrdom of the apostles has been an overlooked, but important area in apologetics. Especially since many apologists, myself included, often make a case for the historicity of the resurrection using an argument based on the disciples’ belief that they saw the risen Jesus. Even I say things like, “The disciples wouldn’t die for a lie” and “Liars make poor martyrs.”

The Martyrdom of the Apostles

But how do we know that certain disciples really died as martyrs? What’s the evidence show? In this post, I’ll share Sean’s answers for four questions I asked him about the whole idea of martyrdom and the apostles:

  1. What’s a martyr?
  2. What makes the apostles different from modern martyrs?
  3. Was the Apostle Peter really martyred by being crucified upside down?
  4. Was the Apostle Paul really martyred by being beheaded?

Before I get to the questions, listen to Sean explain why this chapter is his favorite addition to Evidence that Demands a Verdict as well:

Question 1: What makes the apostles different from modern martyrs?

Sean McDowell:

The apostles were eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, we have the earliest account of apostolic belief. It was based on seeing the risen Jesus. That’s repeated in the writings of Paul…Read through Acts and just pay attention to how every single speech focuses on the resurrection.  The apostles say, “We saw the risen Jesus. We were there. We heard him, we touched him, we saw him.”  So their proclamation doesn’t prove that Christianity is true. But it does show they sincerely believe that Jesus rose from the grave. This doesn’t get us all the way to the resurrection, but it’s one pinnacle that shows that these first eyewitnesses really believed it…they all suffered and were willing to die for it. There’s no evidence that any of them recanted, and we have good evidence that some of them actually died as martyrs. That is a night and day difference from a so-called modern-day martyr [who dies for] for something he or she believes.

The apostles were eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus…they all suffered and were willing to die for [their belief].

Question 2: What is a martyr?

Sean McDowell:

A martyr is somebody who’s willing to die, and I would say does [die]…for their belief and proclamation of the Christian faith. When you hear popular arguments for martyrdom, you’ll hear things like, “The apostles refused to recant their belief in Jesus [at the point of death], therefore they really believed it.” Well, Mikel, can I tell you, there are no early sources where, say, Peter is told, “If you just stop proclaiming Jesus, we will not crucify you.”  Those kinds of accounts don’t exist…

[The Jewish historian] Josephus tells us James was put to death roughly in AD 62. Is James a martyr? I would argue that one, the political and the religious factors overlap. So partly James was put to death for political reasons, but it’s also religious reasons.  And we can’t separate those. But I think James qualifies as a martyr. Why?  He was publicly proclaiming a message that was offensive to the Jews, an insult to the Gentiles, about a martyred savior who’d come back from the dead.  He was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, publicly proclaiming this. So if he’s put to death by political and religious forces, you better believe that something tied to his public proclamation of the faith is related to why he put them to death. I think at least he gets the benefit of the doubt there, and thus would qualify at least broadly speaking as a martyr.

Question 3: Was the Apostle Peter really martyred by being crucified upside down?

Sean McDowell:

In John 21, Jesus says to him, “You’ll be taken where you do not want to go. Your hands will be tied, you’ll be dressed by another.” And then in parentheses, the writer of John says, “This is showing how he would die.” Even Bart Ehrman has written, “This was to indicate Peter would die a martyr’s death. If Jesus was the first shepherd, Peter’s the second shepherd who will also lay down his life.” …There’s debate about that. Larry Hurtado says [that] one thing we know for sure about crucifixion is that people were stripped naked for shame. Well, in John 21, “Jesus says to Peter, ‘Somebody else will clothe you.’” So that means, he probably wasn’t being taken to be crucified.  In fact, this author argues that he was burned in the time of Rome described by Tacitus, for the circus that Nero had.

I don’t think we can prove that [but] it doesn’t really matter how he died. What matters is, we have a first-century source, John 21, indicating [Peter] would die as a martyr.  Now, I think there’s good evidence he wasn’t crucified. The earliest record that he was crucified upside down shows up in a book called the Acts of Peter, [at the] end of the second century. Why will Christians say that Peter was crucified upside down?  “Because he didn’t want to be crucified the same way as Jesus.” [But] if you actually read the Acts of Peter, that has nothing to do with it.  It’s making a theological point: The world was turned upside down, and when Peter’s on the cross upside down, he can see the world upside correctly as it is, and his death will help to turn upside right, just as Jesus’s death did.  It’s not until the third and fourth century that church historians take the Acts of Peter as if it’s historical, and then say he was crucified upside down.  So I think at best, we can only say it’s possible. Because there is some precedent of people being crucified upside down. Martin Hengel records this in his book Crucifixion.  But I don’t think we’re historically warranted to say it’s likely or even probable.

Question 4: Was the Apostle Paul really martyred by being beheaded?

Sean McDowell:

For Paul, we have the passage in 2 Timothy that says, “I am being poured out as a drink offering. I fought the good fight, I ran the race.” …but then in 1 Clement 5, there’s a reference to the martyrdom of Paul and the martyrdom of Peter.  And then we have multiple documents in the second century and no contradictory evidence that Paul, in fact, died as a martyr.  Now was he beheaded?  The first explicit document shows up in the Acts of Peter [in the] late 2nd century.  But we know John the Baptist was beheaded.  We know James, son of Zebedee was beheaded.  We know he was a Roman citizen, and that was a common means of death.  So I think we’re very confident he died as a martyr and I would say…it’s reasonable that he was beheaded.

The Evidential Value of the Fate of the Apostles

Skeptics often say, “People die for religious ideas or political causes today. Just because you die for a belief, that doesn’t make it true.” I agree. But what it does mean is that you at least think your beliefs are actually true. As the McDowells observe on page 367:

The willingness of the apostles to suffer and die for their faith does not prove the resurrection is true…But it does show the depth of the apostles’ convictions. They were not liars.

It’s a strongly evidenced historical fact that Jesus’ disciples had real experiences they believed were experiences of the risen Jesus. And they didn’t die for something that somebody told them second or third-hand. They died for their personal testimony that they personally saw the risen Jesus. And they were the only ones to know if they really saw Jesus alive or not!

While there’s no conclusive historical evidence on the details of how exactly Paul or Peter died for their independent testimonies about seeing the risen Jesus, we can be confident that they died as martyrs. Their martyrdom should at least give a person pause and open the door to a fresh conversation on the reasons for the Christian belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.


In this episode, Mikel Del Rosario and Dr. Sean McDowell discuss the fate of the Apostles, focusing on the historical evidence of their martyrdom.


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