The early days of Christianity were not especially pleasant for its participants, apparently. The Roman authorities were not pleased that Christians were touting a new god that was alleged to override those they had invented, and the Jews who didn’t recognize this alleged Messiah weren’t having any that this new cult was selling, either. It was Rome, though, that got particularly exercised over this emerging religion, though. Consequences ranging from forced participation in gladiatorial games to literally being fed to the lions became regular punishments for these newly minted Christians, as a cruel incentive to go back to the old ways and abandon what was seen to be a threat to their rule. Yet the martyring went on.
Nineteen hundred years later, Christian apologists point to these challenges to their early believers as proof that Jesus actually existed. They were being harassed from all sides, persecuted for their adherence to this new belief to the point of losing their lives, yet they remained steadfast in their faith. Indeed, they would be part of the foundation which would allow Christianity to become dominant in the world in the current day. Besides, would those people have sacrificed themselves on false pretenses? Would they have died for a lie?
There are at least a couple different aspects which need to be considered to answer that question. The first of these is understanding just WHO was dying in the first place. My own suspicion is that those first believers were among the most oppressed of those under the heel of the Romans of that day. They were the poor, the laborers, the least empowered of that social structure. To them, any respite from Roman domination would have been welcome. The promise of a second life, where the scales of justice would be turned in their favor and against their taskmasters, would have been a powerful inducement to joining a new church such as that.
But why believe? To us, the stories related in the four gospels and the book of Acts don’t just strain credulity; they blatantly offend our skepticism and rational thought. The idea of curing blindness with “magic mud,” feeding a multitude with a handful of loaves and fishes, healing at a distance, and then the truly big one, rising from the dead to live again, are absurd on their face. Of course we reject such assertions, because they fly in the face of science, our understanding of how things work, never mind basic common sense. We understand that these are little more than myths, tall tales with no basis in fact.
Two millennia ago, though, the situation was very different. There was no science, no methodology, no accepted rational process by which such stories were evaluated by the common man or woman. If someone you knew well spoke of a new rabbi who came to town, working wonders and speaking of a future life free of the perfidies of their oppressors, your attention was gotten, especially if you were one of those oppressed. That some of the tales told were a bit unbelievable didn’t matter. This was HOPE being offered in a time when hopelessness was a very common coin. It was a narrative that played to their need and did so likely with a considerable degree of success. That it may have been a lie didn’t matter, a factor that would be observed and understood many hundreds of years later:
All religions bear traces of the fact that they arose during the intellectual immaturity of the human race before it had learned the obligations to speak the truth. Not one of them makes it the duty of its God to be truthful and understandable in his communications.
-- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Put simply, to resist the impulse to die for a lie, one first has to know and acknowledge that one is being lied to. Belief in the face of daily life bereft of any form of self-determination or promise of future betterment only makes the tall tales that much more attractive. The question of whether they are based in fact gets summarily dismissed in favor of that magic word: Hope. If that meant subjecting oneself to the tortures of their overseers, then so be it; the triumphant final outcome had been promised, and that was the goal to be focused on to the exclusion of all else.
In short, dying for a lie is easy … when you either don’t or won’t allow yourself to know it’s a lie.