Question: The conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a rabbi, to Christianity, seems to be the strongest argument that Christian apologists can muster for the resurrection. Even if we accept it as having been written by Luke, the book of Acts presents an account of Saul’s conversion that is less than convincing. Yes, he claimed he saw Jesus Christ alive on his way to Damascus; and, yes, he was willing to die for his belief. “That does not prove, however, that Paul actually saw Christ. It only proves that he sincerely thought he saw Him alive years after His crucifixion. He could have imagined that he saw Christ. He could have hallucinated due to a sense of guilt for having persecuted Christ’s followers. How can Christians make so much out of Saul’s conversion when it stands on such flimsy ground?
Response: First of all, it is rather doubtful that a man of Paul’s obvious intellect and emotional stability could have experienced such a vivid hallucination and allowed it to change his life. Furthermore, the event was accompanied by visible phenomena – a supernatural light at midday brighter than the sun (Acts:9:3; 26:13), and a voice from heaven – which those accompanying Paul also saw and heard (Acts:9:7). Paul’s companions would have refuted his story if they had not also witnessed these things.
There was also Paul’s sudden blindness and miraculous recovery through a disciple in Damascus who could confirm the facts. Many witnesses must have seen Paul led into Damascus totally blind. Had there been any flaw in Paul’s testimony, refutation discrediting him would have followed from many quarters. Yet no one disputed his testimony when he declared it before religious and secular leaders and crowds of Jews who opposed his message on religious grounds. The evidence is compelling.
Saul of Tarsus had been the chief enemy of the church at its very beginning, arresting and imprisoning many believers and persecuting some even to death. This course so diligently pursued must have made him very popular among the religious Jews. As a young rabbi Saul was already a hero well known for his zeal against Christians. He had everything to live for in remaining true to Judaism. That he would forfeit a brilliant future and become one of those whom he had persecuted, knowing that the same beatings, imprisonment, and eventual martyrdom would befall him as well, is indeed powerful evidence that he was convinced beyond doubt that Jesus Christ was alive and that he had personally met Him. Hallucination simply doesn’t fit the known facts.
Convincing Evidence of another Kind
Even more convincing is the leading role that Paul quickly assumed in the explosive growth of early Christianity. He had inside knowledge and taught new doctrines completely at odds with his years of training and practice in Judaism, doctrines that he couldn’t possibly have acquired except from Christ himself. Yet Paul had never met Him prior to His crucifixion. He claimed to have learned all he knew of this new faith directly from the risen Christ. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
“I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for your; this do in remembrance of me.
“After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood; this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians:11:23-25)
Paul wasn’t present on that occasion, so how did he know what happened at that final intimate meeting between Christ and His 12 disciples? Why was it left to Paul to explain what happened at the Last Supper and its meaning? Why not Peter or James or John, who were there? Clearly the Holy Spirit had Paul write these worlds as part of the proof of Christ’s resurrection. He testifies that he “received of the Lord” all that he is now teaching. We repeat: Everything that he knows about this new faith and now teaches with such authority Paul claims to have received personally and directly from the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ himself. Nor is there any other explanation.
Unquestionably, Paul had never studied under Christ with the other disciples. He was a rabbi opposed to Christ during the latter’s life. Yet suddenly, he became not only the chief spokesman for Christianity but its chief authority. He even rebuked Peter to his face and Peter had to acknowledge that Paul was right and he was wrong (Galatians:2:11-14). Whence this sudden authoritative knowledge?
Of course the skeptics suggest that Paul had hurriedly gone to the apostles and said, “I’m a believer in Jesus now, but I don’t understand this Christianity thing. I want to preach it, so you’d better give me a crash course. Otherwise I could make some horrible blunders!” Could that be true? Did Paul learn what he knew of Christianity from Peter or from other apostles and Christians?
Undeniable Internal Proof
On the contrary, it was three years after his conversion that Paul finally came to Jerusalem. And when he attempted “to join himself to the disciples…they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple” (Acts:9:26). Paul solemnly testifies: “I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ…I conferred not with flesh and blood; neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me, but I went into Arabia…. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ; but they had heard only that he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me. (Galatians:1:11-24)
That he is telling the truth is clear from the fact that Paul was the revealer of truths unknown to the other apostles. It was Paul to whom Christ made known by revelation (Ephesians:3:3-10) “the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began” (Romans:16:25) and gave to him the privilege of preaching it (1 Corinthians:15:51; Ephesians:5:32; Colossians:1:25-27). He became the leading apostle and authority on Christianity and the other apostles had to admit that he knew more than they and that he had indeed learned it directly from the risen Christ.
Paul wrote most of the epistles, more than all of the original apostles combined. It was he who stood up against the false doctrine being taught by the Judaizers who came from Jerusalem, where the apostles still resided. Paul confronted the apostle and church leaders in Jerusalem with this heresy (Acts 15) and changed the thinking in the church.
There was no explanation for Paul’s knowledge except that Christ had indeed risen from the dead and had revealed Himself and His teachings to this former enemy. Hallucination cannot account for such knowledge and authority.