Does Paul’s Conversion Prove Christianity?

Does Paul’s conversion prove Christianity? Some apologists have argued that it does. We all know Paul’s story: He was a zealous Pharisee bent on wiping out Christianity before it could get too far off the ground. While on his way to Damascus, Paul saw what he believed to be the risen Jesus. He did a complete 180 and started preaching the faith he was once determined to destroy. This is a big deal because Jesus’ followers were preaching bodily resurrection from day one. Paul considered himself to be charged directly by Jesus to preach the same message. When he later met with the apostles, they gave his Gospel their stamp of approval.

There’s no sense in arguing Paul was faking the funk. Everyone acknowledges he was obviously sincere. Paul talks about being knocked from pillar to post. He was beaten with rods several times, repeatedly arrested, shipwrecked, stoned, and left for dead because of his unwavering commitment to preach the Gospel. We read in Paul’s letters that he rejected honor from men, lived a celibate life, and worked to fund his own missionary journeys. There isn’t anything about Paul to make us think his faith was a put-on.

Did Paul hallucinate?

Some skeptics have suggested Paul had an epileptic seizure or experienced a mixture of guilt-induced PTSD and conversion disorder, but we don’t get much of an impression that Paul felt guilty for his actions before his conversion. And from reading his letters, he certainly doesn’t seem like someone who is a few fries short of a happy meal. He comes across as a zealous but very reasonable guy. And the seizure just seems like a baseless conjecture.

We search in vain throughout antiquity to find any similar hallucinations that turn notorious, murdering zealots into faithful martyrs. And from reading Acts, we find that it isn’t just any hallucination we need to explain away Paul’s experience, but a complex waking hallucination of the despised Jesus in glory, rebuking him. It’s also a mighty strange form of hallucination that’s followed by several days of blindness. These naturalistic explanations are rather weak sauce.

I should add that these extra details found in Acts aren’t something that the majority of scholars acknowledge as historical, so this takes us beyond a minimal facts kind of approach. We have to defend the reliability of Acts to use these extra details, which is fine by me.

Don’t overstate the case!

With all this in mind, I think Paul’s conversion is serious evidence for the resurrection. But there are some limits to it. As resurrection-skeptic Matthew Hartke notes: “Paul places his experience on par with the experiences of the other apostles, but the only depictions we have of his experience are completely different, and-let’s face it-much less compelling than the ones we find about the other apostles in the Gospels.” I think Hartke is mostly on the money here when he says Paul’s experience is less compelling. Compared to the multi-sensory, group appearances that happened over the course of 40 days, Paul’s brief vision doesn’t exactly blow us away.

Let’s think about this for a minute. According to Acts, Jesus ascended to heaven and wasn’t expected to be seen bodily again until his second coming. When he does appear elsewhere after the ascension in the New Testament, it’s always in some kind of visionary fashion, like when he appears to Stephen or Ananias. So even from a theological standpoint, Jesus probably didn’t appear to Paul bodily.

Let’s consider the details. There’s the bright light, but Paul’s traveling companions don’t see Jesus or understand what he said to Paul. There’s also the fact that Jesus’ feet never touch the ground. He never sits down and eats with Paul or invites him to touch him as we see in the Gospels. Paul’s experience is rather brief, Paul only tells us a few sentences about It. It seems clear that he had some kind of inter-subjective vision. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t veridical, but it just isn’t on par with the disciples’ polymodal experiences reported in Matthew, Luke, or John.

What a counter-apologist like Hartke wants to do is make Paul’s conversion the paradigm of resurrection appearances, which does water things down. Hartke says “that Paul is our most important witness to the resurrection, because he provides the only incontestable firsthand eyewitness testimony to an appearance of the risen Jesus we have.”

Apologist Mike Licona basically agrees, saying “I believe the Gospels are historically reliable sources for the resurrection of Jesus, but Paul is our best source.” Why is it that Dr. Licona says that Paul is the best source? Well, because he agrees with Hartke that Paul is incontestable while the Gospel accounts are well…contestable. In his big book on the resurrection, Licona says that “Historians may be going beyond what the data warrants in assigning a verdict with much confidence to these questions.” Specifically, he means questions about the very physical appearances to Thomas, the Emmaus disciples, Mary Magdalene, and so on.

Paul as part of a cumulative case

With all this in mind, I’d say Paul’s conversion is evidentially strong as part of a cumulative case for the resurrection but probably can’t overcome most skepticism all by itself. After all, Hartke assigns a low probability to the resurrection and uses Paul’s experience to argue against it! So we need to be careful not to make it the standard for all other resurrection appearances. Sorry, but we just can’t “do it all through Paul.”

So what’s the resurrection apologist to do? Well, once again we need to get tough and defend the Gospels and Acts. I’d say that if we can show that Luke really was Paul’s traveling buddy, then it would be weird to think that his understanding of the apostolic claim of resurrection would be different from Paul’s. After all, Luke also gives us Jesus eating fish with his disciples, breaking bread, holding conversations, and appearing over a period of 40 days. And in Acts, the apostles proclaim this kind of resurrection in the face of persecution.

And even in his letters, Paul admits that his experience was abnormal compared to the other disciples. If these accounts really are based on apostolic testimony, this would explain what Paul meant. In my next post, I hope to show how you can make a more robust case than the minimal facts. Contrary to what Licona thinks this is not going beyond what the data warrants. We can say these things with confidence. And I’ll be sure to point you to resources that will help you make that case.

Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on November 1, 2021.

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I am the Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in Cedar Rapids and the writer for isjesusalive.com. I’m interested in the intersection of Christianity and history.

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Erik Manning

Erik Manning

I am the Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in Cedar Rapids and the writer for isjesusalive.com. I’m interested in the intersection of Christianity and history.

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