I was working on a review for the book I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (to be referred to as IDHEF from now on) and they pulled the "Die for a lie" argument in Chapter 9. In the book, they ask, “Why would the Jews [particularly the twelve apostles] who converted to Christianity risk persecution, death and perhaps eternal damnation to start something that wasn’t true? (p. 234)” I do think it is an interesting question to ponder, but they, of course, aren't actually interested in pondering the question. The point of the question is for the reader to jump to the conclusion that they would not have done so. The reader would certainly do no such thing! Therefore, it would seem reasonable to conclude that neither would the apostles. Therefore, Christianity must be true!
It really shouldn't take too much serious thought to realize how wrong this argument is. Other blogs and websites make references to the 9/11 hijackers, Jonestown, or Heaven's Gate, but one of the better counter-examples, in my opinion, is Mormonism. Early Mormons would have been in a similar position to what is claimed of the apostles: they personally knew their prophet and they were persecuted and even killed for their beliefs.
So would those who ask such a question agree that we should probably be Mormons then? Most likely not. This is because there are assumptions or other beliefs that are baked into the argument/question. One of the first time I ever heard this question (about dying for a lie) was from a video of Lee Strobel addressing such counter-arguments. Strobel acknowledges that people will die for things they sincerely believe to be true, but he won't admit that people will die for something they believe to be false. That's fair. He goes on to say he was told what the difference between these other cases and Jesus's disciples is that they were in a position to know that Jesus rose from the dead as opposed to merely believing it. In the case of Mormons, they would not have personally seen Joseph Smith use his supposed seer stone to write the Book of Mormon.
The problem with what Strobel says, though, is that he doesn't know that the apostles were in such a position. No, he merely believes this. A very similar problem can be found in IDHEF. There, they make certain claims about the apostles in the form of a question, asking, "Why would they, almost immediately, stop observing the Sabbath, circumcision, the Laws of Moses, the centrality of the temple, the priestly system, and other Old Testament teachings? (p. 234)" What they don't do is make any effort to establish these claims as facts. In other words, is it really true that the apostles did all of these things?* Where are they even getting the idea that this may be true? (And how would they respond to someone claiming the first Mormons abandoned a bunch of their prior beliefs?) It better not be from the apostles themselves! The same goes for Strobel's belief that the apostles were in that unique position. Does he believe that because the apostles said they were?
This is what makes the argument/question disingenuous. This logic essentially breaks down to "It's true because it says it's true." I would hope most people would recognize the silliness of such an argument. What can make arguments like this tricky, though, is that the real argument is buried in a foundation of assumptions. This can fool a lot of people as the presented argument seems reasonable and many won't think twice about the foundation.
In conclusion, the "Die for a lie" argument/question is not at all convincing. The argument itself has little bite as there are people from other religions that certainly cannot be dying for the truth because of the contradictory claims made. What would give the argument its bite is in other details of the story on which it is founded. However, I have never seen that foundation to have the support it needs, leading me to reject the argument.
* I would note, too, that Paul and even Christians today have written about why Christians don't need to follow Old Testament law (a.k.a, the "Laws of Moses"). This suggests that there were early converts who did not, as the authors of IDHEF claim, stop following these laws "almost immediately." Or maybe they use the phrase "almost immediately" in a way I would not. "Almost immediately," in my mind, means a matter of days or maybe even a few weeks. If they mean it to mean 20-30 years, then I find their description to be dishonest.
Update 1/1/16: I also remembered that Matthew 5:18 (NIV) reads, "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." Note that the IDHEF authors believe that the Gospel of Matthew was actually written by Matthew, so I would find it really interesting if Matthew actually did "almost immediately" stop observing the Old Testament laws. Why would he have done so when he recorded Jesus telling people the law wasn't changing? This just makes the claim even more dubious. (I believe I've brought it up on this blog before, but it's also scary the way Christians can justify this verse. The most common justification I've heard basically boils down to "It's OK to break the law now.")