Was Paul Deceived?

by Tom Wacaster
(originally written in December 2015)

A number of attempts have been made by critics to explain the conversion of Paul, apart from the fact that Christ miraculously appeared to him on the road to Damascus. If the conversion of Paul could be explained by purely natural means it would rob Christianity of one of its major arguments in favor of the resurrection of Christ, the apostleship of Paul, and the authenticity of the Christian religion. Not surprisingly, every attempt to discredit the Biblical account has been examined and thoroughly refuted. Some have attempted to attribute Paul’s dramatic change to fraud on the part of Paul himself. It is claimed that Paul was of heathen parents, that he fell in love with the daughter of the high priest in Jerusalem, and became a proselyte and submitted to circumcision in order to secure her hand. When he failed in his plans, he took revenge and attacked the circumcision, and sought to overthrow the whole Mosaic system.

Of course, this argument fails on a number of points. For one thing, Paul claimed to be “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.” The whole life of Paul demonstrates that he did not have one selfish bone in his body. Others attribute the conversion of Paul to physical causes. It is argued that Paul encountered some kind of violent storm and was suffering from a burning Syrian fever and took the lightning and thunder as some kind of heavenly vision. But who ever heard of thunder speaking in the Hebrew language?

Then there is the “vision-hypothesis” in which it is claimed that the conversion of Paul can be explained by an honest self-delusion. It assumes that Paul was suffering from some mental disease, and this resulted in an entire change of conduct. That being the case, the “vision” he had was nothing more than a mythical and symbolical presence of Jesus in the mind of the apostle. This vision theory turns the appearance of Christ into nothing more than Paul’s subjective imagination. But this falls on at least two points. First, there were those who accompanied Paul on his trip to Damascus; men who saw the light, and heard some audible sound, as did Paul. Second, it ignores the fact that Paul relates the entire event as an objective fact. As one author noted, “It is incredible that a man of sound, clear, and keen mind as that of Paul undoubtedly was, should have made such a radical and far reaching blunder as to confound subjective reflections with an objective appearance of Jesus whom he persecuted, and to ascribe solely to an act of divine mercy what he must have known to be the result of his own thoughts, if he thought at all.”

Indeed! It should be noted that Paul ties the appearance of Christ to his own apostleship. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul set forth evidence for the resurrection of Christ. He places great importance upon the various appearances of Christ to the apostles and disciples. When Paul says, “Last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also” (1 Cor. 15:8), he draws a clear line of distinction between the personal appearances of Christ and his own later visions and closes the former with the one vouchsafed to him at his conversion. The importance of this cannot be over emphasized. As Philip Schaff pointed out: “Once, and once only, he claims to have seen the Lord in visible form and to have heard his voice; last, indeed, and out of due time, yet as truly and really as the older apostles. The only difference is that they saw the risen Saviour still abiding on earth, while he saw the ascended Saviour coming down from heaven, as we may expect him to appear to all men on the last day. It is the greatness of that vision which leads him to dwell on his personal unworthiness as ‘the least of the apostles and not worthy to be called an apostle, because he persecuted the church of God.’ He uses the realness of Christ’s resurrection as the basis for his wonderful discussion of the future resurrection of believers, which would lose all its force if Christ had not actually been raised from the dead” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church).

It should be pointed out that if the appearance of Christ to Paul was a delusion, then so was his apostleship. In contrast, the whole life of Paul, from his conversion to his eventual martyrdom in Rome, is the best argument for the authenticity of his conversion and the reality of the vision itself. If Paul’s conversion was a fabrication and the vision a hoax, then the inspired words of our Lord, “By their fruits ye shall know them,” is proven false. Could an illusion change history and effect a change on Paul and those who heard and accepted his gospel message?

My friends, the conversion of Paul, his vision on the road to Damascus, and his life are as genuine as any fact of history, worthy of serious and sobering reflection. I’ll close this little essay with this interesting observation from the pen of Wayne Jackson:

Lord George Lyttelton (1708-1773) was an Oxford educated scholar who also served with great distinction in the British Parliament. Initially he was highly skeptical of Christianity. He determined he would do a critical examination and expose’ of Luke’s record of Paul’s “conversion experience.” He believed he could establish that Paul’s radical transformation was grounded in base motives of self-interest. He knew there had to be some rational justification for such a major alteration of Saul’s life. After carefully researching the matter in a thoroughly scholarly fashion, he reversed his skeptical view, having concluded that Paul’s conversion was genuine. There was no reasonable explanation for the radical turnaround, other than the fact that Paul actually had seen the resurrected Christ on the Damascus Road. The Christian movement was founded, he therefore concluded, upon the truth that Jesus of Nazareth in fact was raised bodily from the dead (Christian Courier Website).

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