Alternative Theories On The Conversion Of Paul

The conversion of Paul is one of the most demanding pieces of evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. But is the Resurrection hypothesis the only valid explanation?

I do not find it too far out of line to suggest that the Resurrection of Jesus is the most passionately argued and debated topic in history. The account of the conversion of Paul is no insignificant event. We could well conclude that the truth of Christianity is more than possible on this account alone. For skeptics, this account possesses a gravity that demands attention and this is only confirmed by the number of alternate theories that exist on the interwebs. Let’s address each of the most pressing objections.

1. The Account Was Made Up

It’s difficult to see how critics come to this conclusion outside of an a priori rejection of the spiritual. If the account was made up then we must ask how Paul went from killing Christians to laying down his life for them. In the opening chapter of Galatians Paul says that he began his ministry almost entirely in secret, obviously knowing that the Christians would be doubtful of his sudden conversion. When the Christians eventually received word of his ministry they rejoiced and praised God that “he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed” (Galatians 1:23). There is no evidence that suggests that 1. Paul didn’t exist or 2. That he never converted.

It is a gross misconception that the ancient world was not a skeptical one. If anything, the ancients were even more vehemently critical than the most ardent of atheists today. Their staunch rejection of the new, coupled with Christianity’s offensive claims and its exclusivity, made it a religion that deserved to be met with the harshest of scrutiny. If Paul’s conversion was made up by the Christians it is beyond certain that it would have been trampled on and snuffed out immediately due, in no small part, to the ancient’s hostility towards it and their rigorous search for the truth surrounding it.  For the ancients, their suspicion surrounded religion, doctrine, and loyalty to the gods. No opposing doctrine or worldview was accepted uncritically and this was especially true for the Christian movement.

To see our answer to the theory that the account itself is a product of legendary embellishment see our earlier post here.

2. Paul Was An Imposter

Could Paul have been insincere about his conversion? Perhaps he was the one who had fabricated the account of his conversion to deceive the Christians? The biggest obstacle this theory runs into is that it leaves us in the dark concerning Paul’s motivation. Why would Paul fake a conversion to gain the trust of a movement he had long already deemed harmful? If it was a set-up why then did he suffer persecution and, eventually, execution? Could he have not, at any point, told them the truth? “I’m not really a Christian, I’m simply deceiving them for….”

Indeed, what was Paul’s end-goal? If it was to gain something that would aid him in killing the Christians then his attempt was the largest failure Jerusalem had ever seen. He killed not a single believer following his conversion. Was it an attempt to crush the movement from the inside? Then he set out to accomplish it by writing multiple theologically profound, orthodox, and convicting epistles to various churches. By pointing to the ministry, death, and Resurrection of Jesus and the Holy Spirit? His love, mercy, and grace? Some may blindly claim that it wasn’t Paul who wrote them, but by that point, we would be making a claim so far out of the established consensus of modern scholarship that it would be ludicrous to all but the most ill-informed.

Evidence is not on the critic’s side here. Paul’s conversion cost him everything: his prospects, his position, his honour, his wealth. Yet, whilst locked inside a prison cell, he wrote the words,

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:25).

He never attempted to turn back, to forfeit this failure of a mission and expose his true intentions. He remained resilient and steadfast in his faith until the end. This can only be explained by a very real, life-changing conversion.

3. It Was The Result of a Meteor

If you were to Google arguments against the conversion of Paul, this is the theory you’ll be met with immediately. This theory has the air of a scientific explanation and, in and of itself, debunks the previous two theories entirely. Scientifically, such a phenomenon is not impossible. Under extraneous circumstances, stress, and guilt, the consciousness could interpret such an extraordinary event as something relating to said guilt. However, we have established that Paul did not feel any guilt towards his persecution of the Christians (see link 2 below). Maybe the meteor sparked the guilt on its own, simply by association of it appearing on his path towards his mission in Damascus?

For this theory to be a legitimate explanation the critic needs to be of two minds, for it assumes that something really did happen to Paul on the road to Damascus. In other words, it assumes the reliability of the account. The only hurdle is that it is interpreted with a theological lens. If this scene is true, and we can trust it, then it follows that what it records before and after the event is true also. We cannot cherry-pick a portion of Scripture and leave out the rest simply because it isn’t convenient for our theory.

Firstly, Paul is not the only agent in this scene. Paul had several companions travelling with him who also experienced something (Acts 9:7; 22:9). The meteor theory has no problem with this because it confirms that what initially arrested Paul wasn’t internal. There was an objective, external source that, at the very least, set the ball rolling. However, if mental illness was the cause of Paul’s associating it with the risen Jesus than what illness did his companions suffer? Scripture does not tell us that these men also associated the meteor with Jesus (“….they saw no man”). They saw a light and heard a voice they did not understand. Why didn’t they associate it with the risen Jesus too? Why could they not understand the voice? Furthermore, they all experienced the same thing except for Paul. Paul was the odd one out. Why did Paul’s delusion differ so greatly to that of his companions and why did the delusions of his companions not differ to each other? We would surely expect them to experience the same as Paul if this event were embellished at a much later date but we have never seen that manuscript. This is an utterly pointless and potentially impeding thing to note unless, of course, it really did happen.

Secondly, immediately following Paul’s conversion, he became blind. This can be explained by a meteor. If Paul stared at it for a long while it could have damaged his eyesight (if the meteor was so incredible that it changed Paul’s life and witness, it wouldn’t be a small falling star). However, from here things take an unexpected twist by a disciple named Ananias who heard the voice of the Lord in a “vision.” The Lord said to him,

Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth (Acts 9:11),

Ananias answered,

Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name (Acts 9:12-13).

The Lord responded,

Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake (Acts 9:14).

Ananias responded faithfully,

And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost (Acts 9:17).

And immediately, Paul was made whole,

And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized (Acts 9:18).

This is not a simple story of Paul seeing something, mentally interpreting it as the risen Jesus, falling to his knees in awe, and going about his day as a changed man. There was another agent not aware of this meteor encounter nor that it had changed Paul. He knew Paul and had heard of his attacks against the Christians, yet was given instruction to go to his house, restore his sight, fill him with the Holy Ghost, and prepare him for his ministry. There was Paul, a distinct, external force that arrested and blinded him, his companions who also witnessed the event from a completely different angle, and another distinct, remote force that restored him and acquainted him with his new ministry and purpose. The meteor theory fails to account for any of this. For it to work, we must fuddle about with the Scriptures until we have forced it to.

Finally, to take a note from the critic’s book, if there was a meteor so incredible that it blinded Paul and singlehandedly caused him to be a witness for Christ, why have we never seen such an event mentioned in secular sources? As one article put it,

“If a large asteroid impact helped kill the dinosaurs, why couldn’t one influence the evolution of beliefs?”

It is a rather strange comparison, but indeed, that would be a magnificent meteor, and the article describes the best example of such a meteor as having flattened millions of trees and causing a shockwave that sends Paul and his companions to their knees, knocking them off of their feet.

If something isn’t mentioned in secular histories the most common reason is that the event in question simply isn’t that significant or noteworthy in the grand scheme of things (i.e. Herod ordering the deaths of babies and children in Bethlehem). If meteors weren’t that noteworthy they would have been a fairly common occurrence, so what made this one any different? If the meteor itself wasn’t as great as the article implies, to the point where no one aside from Luke wrote about it or ever mentioned it, why are we treating it as if it was? For it to work critics must trust the account of this small portion of Scripture because it is all they have, even while they deny the reliability of most everything else between the Bible’s covers. And not once have we been given any reason to trust this particular portion of Scripture above others. The article assumes, without question, that everything said in this account is true. If so, can we not also trust the rest of Acts or Luke’s Gospel, including what is said about Ananias? These arguments fail to be congruent in every possible way.

The remaining theories hope to pry an argument from Paul’s psyche and have no relevance to us. They are not supported by anything more than sheer, desperate speculation. The most outrageous theory I came across was that he predicted the success of Christianity and just hopped on the bandwagon! Of course, we know what happens in the end. It is only because of Christianity that we are even talking about Paul today, or that his name is even known. But proposing that he predicted it and was confident enough in his guess that he was willing to abandon everything he had, knowing full well that suffering, persecution, imprisonment, and eventually death would come from it is pure lunacy and Paul was no lunatic. We may propose any alternative theories to explain the conversion of Paul, but in the end, they are no more than that. They are theories and baseless assertions crafted by the very line of thinking that critics have hoped to destroy: blind faith.

Link 1: A look at the spiritual interpretation of Paul’s conversion

Link 2: A look at Paul’s conversion