The apologetics of Paul’s conversionApril 2, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Apologetics.org is continuing its series on “evidences” for the resurrection, turning this time to the conversion of Saul, better known as the Apostle Paul.
The 3rd fact that virtually all NT scholars admit (e.g., liberal, Jesus Seminar, Moderate, Conservative) is that the church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed. Saul of Tarsus thought that he was doing God’s will by persecuting Christians. He held the coats of those who stoned the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58). Then all of the sudden, Saul becomes Paul on the road to Damascus. Now Paul is the chief proclaimer and defender of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the early church! How did that happen? Paul claims throughout his letters and it is recorded by Luke in the book of Acts that the risen Jesus appeared to him. Nothing else makes good sense of this radical transformation. What best accounts for Paul’s transformation? He had every reason not to become a Christian!
Two things we need to remember: 1) conversions happen all the time, and 2) stories—especially testimonies—tend to improve with the retelling.
As an example of point number 1, consider this list of conversion stories, which includes “[T]he amazing story of a violent, drunken, racist, cross-burning Klu Klux Klan member transformed into the ‘servant of peace’.” Notice, it’s an “amazing” story, per point number 2. The purpose of a conversion story is to be dramatic, impressive, inspirational. It’s a persuasive technique intended to attract other people to the idea of converting. You don’t make a conversion story out of saying, “Well, I was really bored one day and somebody suggested becoming a Christian and I thought, what the hell, I don’t have anything else to do…” Conversion stories are supposed to be gripping, astonishing, and (while this is not often admitted) entertaining.
One of the ingredients of a good conversion story is a dramatic contrast between “before” and “after.” Consider the recent conversion (if that’s the term) of Anthony Flew from atheism to deism. Most of the people who have heard of Flew today first heard of him because Christians started making a big deal out of his conversion; he was well known and well respected in certain intellectual circles, but not terribly famous. Once he became a deist, however, the Christian version of his conversion story takes pains to portray him as the greatest atheist philosopher of the past 100 years. It’s the dramatic contrast, you see. If Flew were merely an obscure scholar with a penchant for deconstructing Christian myths, it’s not as dramatic a conversion.
Notice too that the Christian version almost never mentions that Flew’s conversion was to deism, not to Christian-style theism. Again, the story has been improved from being a story about an atheist who decided that maybe there once was something after all, to being a story about a man who spent his whole life denying God’s existence and who dramatically discovered that God really is there. The contrast is stronger, the story is better, and only factual accuracy suffers.
I remember very clearly being ashamed of my own conversion story, when I was a Christian. I used to dread testimony time because all around me were people who had been “saved” from drugs, alcohol, gangs, demon-worship, and all kinds of Jerry Springer-ish pasts. I had been converted from being a basically good kid to being a basically good Christian kid. How bland! I pored through my past trying to find some nasty tidbit I could use to show how truly evil I used to be, so that I could have a good testimony too, but the best I could come up with was that I had been guilty of pride. (I had imagined, you see, that God saw me as a pretty good person too, whereas the Gospel says God sees me as a vile, disgusting sinner. Therefore my positive self-image was a sinful conceit. Ah, evil.)
It was, oddly, no surprise to me when I found out that many of my friends’ testimonies were “improved”—that the “drug addiction” was smoking and the “demon worship” was playing D&D and so on. Instead of being shocked, I took these examples as valuable lessons in witnessing. It wasn’t lying…not really. It was a testimony. A testimony is supposed to say things in a dramatic way, to emphasize (and even exaggerate) the sinfulness of the past. Yes, you could be picky and complain that it was creating false impressions, but if it led to souls saved (or better yet, if God used it to save souls), then isn’t that the important thing?
So conversion stories are supposed to be “improved,” and when we read in Christian tradition that Saul/Paul was a leading persecutor of the early Christian church, we ought to remember that this is a conversion story. Supposedly he was some kind of ringleader, and had people thrown in jail, and so on. Acts says he held the coats of those who stoned Stephen (apparently instead of participating in the stoning). And we have no reason to doubt that he did play some role in opposing Christianity at first, and even an important role (or at least, a role that was important to him).
Does this mean he was convinced that Christianity was wrong? Not necessarily. Sometimes people fight harder against things they secretly suspect are true than against things they find unquestionably false. Conversion is disorienting, even when it’s welcome, and people can be highly adverse to changes of that magnitude. The doubt can be there, however. Nagging, gnawing, working its way inward. Many conversion stories feature this kind of outward hostility masking inward attraction. Even in the story in Acts, Paul says that the Lord told him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” implying that he had been feeling driven (goaded) towards Christianity for some time before he finally gave in and converted.
Paul was a Pharisee, and there can be no doubt that Christianity would be very attractive to a devout Pharisee, with its emphasis on resurrection and judgment and angelic messengers and so on. As a Pharisee among Pharisees, Saul was a small fish in a big pond, looking to build a reputation out of his zeal in persecuting Christians, thus betraying his ambitions via his actions. But even as he persecuted the Church, he found himself feeling goaded, driven like an ox, towards the very gospel he was attacking. The doctrines were certainly appealing, the intellectual possibilities were intriguing, and an ambitious young man like Saul could hardly fail to notice the greater opportunities for advancement in the Christian community versus those in the larger Jewish society, with its entrenched and institutionalized pecking order. The Church might as well have hung posters: “Wanted: Erudite Bible Scholar to Take Charge of New Religion.” The job opening could have been written out of Saul’s resume.
Certainly, the rest of Paul’s story worked out that way. Most of the New Testament was written by Paul, and the churches he founded helped change the whole character of Christianity, from a Jewish sect into an independent (and ultimately even anti-semitic) religion in its own right. The life was hard of course, but to an ascetic like Paul that would be rather a benefit than a detriment. By becoming a Christian, he achieved a unique stature and influence (for God’s glory of course) that he could never have managed by remaining a non-Christian Jew.
In any case, the fact remains that Paul’s career-advancing conversion can only show, at best, that Paul believed some kind of resurrection was true. It does not tell us whether this resurrection would have been “true” in the literal, real-world sense, and in fact the account in Acts specifically tells us that Jesus “appeared” to Paul in some spiritual sense that did not involve any of Paul’s companions being able to see anyone there. Even if you take the story in its most literal sense, therefore, we still are left with a spiritually risen Christ, spiritually perceived by men (or rather, by one man, in the company of many others who did not see anyone but themselves).
Plus, if we take Paul’s testimony at face value, it only proves that there’s no reason why Jesus could not show up for each of us as well. It’s a dramatic story, but it completely nullifies the whole point of the Ascension. If Jesus loves us enough to die for us so that he can be with each of us for all eternity, then why doesn’t he show up himself, in person, to each one of us to tell us? You can’t argue that he has to stay in heaven until the Second Coming, because according to Paul he showed up between the Ascension and the Second Coming. Paul’s testimony only proves that real-world conditions are inconsistent with what we ought to see if the Gospel were true.
As an apologetic, therefore, the conversion of Saul to Paul is vague at best, relying on the purely subjective opinion that Saul would not have converted unless he actually saw a risen Jesus, despite abundant evidence to the contrary from other conversion stories. Worse, the conversion of Saul to Paul shows that the gospel is really less credible, because it portrays God as being willing and able to produce genuine conversions, even among His most hostile opponents, just by showing up and saying, “Look, I’m God.” If God is willing and able to do that for a murderer like Saul, why in heaven’s name does He not give the rest of us the same advantage? Assuming, of course, that the Gospel is telling the truth about how much He wants us to be saved! But that’s not what we see in real life. Real life is consistent, instead, with what we would expect to find in a world where the Gospel was a myth evolved by human superstition, denial, and imagination. Coincidence?