Investigating Paul’s Conversion Turned a Doubter Into a Christian Apologist

Studying the conversion of the Apostle Paul turned a learned and skeptical English statesman into a Christian apologist. In 1747, George Lyttleton penned Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul. Lyttleton wrote “I thought the conversion and Apostleship of Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a Divine revelation.” 

In this very short and influential work of 18th-century Christian apologetics, Lyttleton examines the life of Paul found in Acts and in his undisputed letters and offers the following quadrilemma:

  1. Either Paul was “an impostor who said what he knew to be false, with an intent to deceive;” or 
  2. He was an “enthusiast who imposed on himself by the force of an overheated imagination;” or
  3. He was “deceived by the fraud of others;” or
  4. What “he declared to be the cause of his conversion did all really happen; and, therefore the Christian religion is a divine revelation.” 

The statements made by Paul in his epistles which he addressed to different churches and individuals “cannot be doubted without overturning all rules by which the authority and genuineness of any writings can be proved or confirmed” according to Lyttleton. Let’s take a look at option one.

Was Paul a liar?

Was Paul deliberately spreading something he knew to be false? Lyttleton doesn’t duck this possibility. The context of the claims makes it very improbable that he was lying. For starters, Paul knew that Jesus was crucified. And with the approval of the high priest, Paul was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” (Acts 9:1-2) Changing teams would be suicidal. What earthly motivation could he possibly have?

Paul was certainly not preaching for wealth. Unlike many modern televangelists today, being an apostle was not the way to fame and fortune. In his letter to the Corinthians he wrote “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless..” (1 Cor 4:11) Paul worked with his own hands to support his own missionary journeys. He wrote to the Thessalonians “Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.”  (1 Thess 2:9) 

Did Paul become a Christian to gain a reputation? Paul was a star pupil of Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrin. (Acts 22:3) He embraced a religion that was universally despised by both Jew and Gentile. (1 Cor 1:23) In his letter to the Corinthians, he acknowledged that the apostles were seen as “the scum of the earth.” (1 Cor 4:13) If Paul was looking to gain a reputation, he could have just remained a zealous Pharisee. 

Perhaps Paul just wanted to exercise power over people. Not a chance. Paul called himself “the least of all apostles.” (1 Cor. 15:9) When the Corinthians were arguing over which apostle was the most important, Paul rebuked them for their carnality. (1 Cor. 1.13-15) Paul obviously sought no earthly power. He admonished believers to live in submission to the government and pay their taxes. (Romans 13)

What about serving his own selfish lusts? It’s hard to accuse Paul of serving his own passions. He lived a celibate life. (1 Cor. 7:7, 9:5) He appealed to his own conduct as an example of what a holy life looks like. (2 Cor 7:2, 1 Thess 2:10) Religious cult founders like Joseph Smith and Mohammad sought earthly power and married multiple wives. Paul was the antithesis of such leaders. 

Did Paul conspire with the apostles?

What if Paul conspired with the disciples? Contrary to some common skeptical tropes, Paul didn’t invent Christianity, rather he inherited it. He had no connection to any Christians outside of persecuting them. If Paul preached something they didn’t, it would ruin his credit. To fake a conversion to Christianity he’d first have to find out what Christianity taught. It’s difficult to incline someone to share their secrets of deception with you by arresting and killing them. Remember also that at one time Paul rebuked Peter. (Gal 2:11-14) Accomplices in fraud generally don’t go around publicly castigating fellow leaders.

Also, if Paul was acting on his own, he was fighting an impossible uphill battle. He was preaching to the Gentiles that a crucified Jew was the Lord and judge of all mankind. (Acts 17:30-31) He was not asking them to add one more deity to their pantheon. And preaching that a criminal who hung on a cross was hardly appealing to most Jews living in the diaspora. (1 Cor. 1:21) Lyttleton aptly asks: “If St. Paul had had nothing to trust to but his own natural faculties, his own understanding, knowledge, and eloquence, could he have hoped to be, singly, a match for all theirs united against him? Could a teacher unheard of before, from an obscure and unlearned part of the world, have withstood the authority of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno?”

If you think about it, it’s difficult to imagine a fraud overcoming these odds without the aid of miracles, which Paul claimed to have performed. (Rom 15:19, 2 Cor 12:12) If Paul was a fraud, then he must have been quite the magician. But what did he gain from it? Paul lets us know:

“Five times I received forty lashes minus one from the Jews. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, and dangers among false brothers; toil and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and without clothing.”

(2 Cor 11:24-27) 

It’s next to impossible to argue that Paul was a fraud. 

Was Paul deceived?

Did he experience some kind of religious hysteria and overinterpret what he saw? The content of Paul’s claims makes it unlikely that he was mistaken. But first let’s examine Paul’s personality.

Lyttleton says that Paul lacked the ‘general ingredients of enthusiasm.’ He wrote that he wasn’t given to ‘‘great heats of temper, melancholy, ignorance, credulity, and vanity, or self conceit.” Rather, Lyttleton says that “Only a quick and warm disposition is to be found in Paul’. Paul became all things to all men.” (1 Cor 9:2022) In the most trying moments he exhibited prudence, and had regard to the decorums of society as we can see when he’s before Felix, Festus and Agrippa.   

Paul doesn’t seem to be depressed. Even though he said he would like to “depart and be with Christ”, he was willing to cheerfully spend his life preaching the gospel. (Phil 1:21-23) Even while writing in prison, Paul repeatedly spoke of joy and living without anxiety. (Phil. 4:4-9) We also see no evidence that Paul felt any excessive guilt regarding his actions. He seemed more than content with his lifestyle. (Phil 3:5-6)

Paul certainly wasn’t ignorant and credulous. He was extremely educated and was very slow to believe the claims of the Christians. As someone who lived in Jerusalem for a time, it’s difficult to imagine that Paul was a stranger to news about the miracles of Jesus. He had the facts of the resurrection and presumably would have heard the arguments against them. He had heard what happened at Pentecost and of all the miracles worked by Peter and the other apostles up until the death of Stephen. Far from being easily duped, Paul had closed his mind to every proof and refused to believe. Says Lyttleton: “Nothing less than the irresistible evidence of his own senses, clear from all possibility of doubt, could have overcome his unbelief.”

Was Paul full of self-conceit and suffered from some kind of Messiah complex? Paul doesn’t seem to have had any delusions of grandeur, like some people who confuse their own foolishness with God’s will. We see so-called prophets on Christian TV who claim to take constant trips to heaven and feel constantly compelled to share their latest revelations. Paul saw himself as the least of all the apostles. (1 Cor. 15:9) He taught that having all the spiritual gifts in the world meant nothing without exhibiting divine love. (1 Cor 13:1-3

Conversion disorder? Epilepsy? Meteors?

Leaving Lyttleton’s book for a moment, some recent critics have offered additional scenarios based on what we know from modern medicine, such as conversion disorder. Conversion disorder begins with some stressor, trauma, or psychological distress. As a rule, physical symptoms of this syndrome affect the senses or movement. Common symptoms include blindness, partial or total paralysis, inability to speak, deafness, numbness, balance problems, seizures, tremors, and difficulty walking. Hallucinations are also among the symptoms.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV, women are 200% more likely to experience conversion psychosis. Adolescents, military personnel in battle, people of low economic status and those with a low IQ are also more likely prone to experience this phenomenon. Paul doesn’t really fit the bill. Furthermore, researchers have estimated the number of patients with ongoing symptoms of conversion disorder to be 2 to 5 individuals per every 100,000 patients per year. Given the rarity of the condition, we would need strong evidence to demonstrate that this is really the case. 

Some have speculated that Paul’s visionary experience was the result of an epileptic seizure. The problem with this theory is that complex visual hallucinations (like hallucinating a person) related to epilepsy are incredibly rare in adults. Adults who are affected by these things typically experience them as children first. The age of onset for epilepsy is generally either in childhood or from the age 60 onwards. Paul would’ve been outside of these age ranges.

Furthermore, adults and children who hallucinate during seizures are in the minority. It’s critical to differentiate between things like blindness, flashing lights, and foggy vision from things like hallucinating a talking person. Some medical literature calls both of those things hallucinations, but clearly the latter is much less common than the former. In other words, we’re talking about a rare symptom of a rare disorder presenting at an anomalous age. In addition, the specificity of the apostle Paul’s vision doesn’t match typical hallucinations which tend to be far more random. In the case of Paul, he saw the despised Jesus, in glory, rebuking and commissioning him.

Also, Paul’s temporary blindness was also unlikely to be related to epilepsy. This is because ictal blindness is most often observed in children and is very rare in adults unless they have symptomatic epilepsy, where the cause is known. That is not accounted for in the biblical story, and it would not last for three days.

Moreover, severe bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychotic breaks, etc. seem incomMoreover, severe bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychotic breaks, and so forth seem incompatible with a well-educated, intelligent person in a leadership position traveling throughout the Greco-Roman world, planting churches. In today’s world, people with those kinds of disabilities can achieve these things with the help of modern medicine. But it seems unlikely that Paul would’ve been able to accomplish this in his historical context. Some have argued that Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was some kind of medical condition. However, given the context of his statement it would appear likely he was referring to persecution. (2 Cor. 11:24-12:7)

Perhaps the silliest naturalistic hypothesis that’s been made is that Paul saw a meteor on the road to Damascus. A meteor would explain the bright light in the sky that Paul said was “brighter than the sun, shining round me.” (Acts 26:13) Such a light full of intense ultraviolet radiation could temporarily blind someone. And a meteor could also send a shock wave and knock people to their feet, as with what happened to Paul and his companions. It would also explain why Paul’s companions heard something but didn’t understand what was being said.  

But how did this meteor produce a voice and carry on a conversation in Hebrew? And how can a meteoric light have given visions to Paul and Ananias simultaneously, and in such a way that each was led to a course of action fitting in with that of the other? And how could the thunder and the meteoric light combined have both struck Paul blind and given to Ananias the power of immediately restoring his sight? There’s also the fact that Paul’s conversion and the miracle of Ananias were but parts in a long series of wonderful events. These included Paul working miracles from Jerusalem to Illyricum. (Rom 15:19) Skeptics are really reaching here. They are cherry-picking parts of the texts that support their theory while ignoring the full report.

Paul wasn’t self-deluded

Some kind of fit of madness doesn’t explain Paul’s subsequent miracles. One 19th-century apologist that was inspired by Lyttleton’s argument wrote: ‘His fellow travelers, Ananias at Damascus, Sergius Paulus the prudent deputy at Paphos, Elymas the sorcerer, Eutychus at Troas, the priests and people at Lystra, the jailor at Philippi, the barbarian Maltese, Erastus the city treasurer at Corinth, and Dionysius the learned areopagite at Athens, must have all been equally mad, and mad with marvelous uniformity; mad too with a madness which gave feet to the lame, eyes to the blind, healing to the sick, freedom to iron-bound captives, and life to the dead.”

Given the content of Paul’s testimony, any theory of him being deluded requires layer upon layer of improbability. The conversion of vicious persecutors into faithful martyrs is unfortunately quite rare. One cannot find similar conversions among numerous notorious murderers throughout history. 

Was Paul tricked by others?

Finally, there’s the possibility that Paul was deceived by others. This third possible explanation Lyttelton dismisses in less than a single page. The other apostles or early Christians couldn’t have deceived him. The fearful Christians were wary of approaching him even after receiving word of his conversion. (Acts 9:26) It was also physically impossible for them to do it. And who could produce a light brighter than the noonday sun? Who might have caused him to hear a voice speaking out of that light? Could someone make him blind for three days and then return his sight with a word? And again, no fraud could have produced the miracles which Paul worked.

Paul converted, therefore Christianity is true?

Lyttleton concludes that unless we’re willing to set aside the normal rules of evidence by which facts are determined, we should accept the story of Paul’s conversion and life as historically true. Therefore, the Christian faith is proved to be a revelation from God.

I’d disagree somewhat with Lyttleton here. To be clear, I do think Paul’s conversion is quite hefty evidence for Christianity. But unlike what Luke reports about the original apostles, Paul’s experience was rather brief and visionary. Jesus’ feet never touch the ground. Paul converses with Jesus but never touches him, nor had he previously met Jesus face-to-face. 

On the other hand, Luke tells us that the original apostles touched Jesus, conversed with him and ate with him in groups. (Luke 24:39-43) This reportedly happened over a period of forty days. (Acts 1:3) If Luke really was Paul’s traveling companion (and I’d argue that he was), then it would be absurd to think that his understanding of the apostolic claim of resurrection would be different from Paul’s. Remember that Paul’s experience happened after the ascension of Jesus, so it makes sense that his experience would be different. Paul’s testimony is a strong piece in a larger cumulative case for the resurrection. But we want to be careful that we don’t make his visionary experience the standard for all other resurrection appearances.

For someone to remain skeptical, one would need to argue that the extra details in Luke-Acts were added later. This is where the importance of the accounts in Luke-Acts and the other Gospels comes in. Are these physical details, the later miracles worked by Paul, and the appearances to the disciples just later embellishments? As I’ve argued in other places, we have multiple lines of evidence for the honest, unembellished nature of the Gospels and Acts.

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