Just the Facts: The Minimalist Approach for Talking about the Resurrection – Part 1

“The evidence for the resurrection is better than claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.” – Anthony Flew, Atheist Philosopher

Why Does It Matter?

The other year, I sent three questions to many of my friends about Jesus. I asked who they thought Jesus is (a wise dead man, a liar, the risen savior, etc.), what happened to Jesus (he died like everyone else or he was resurrected), and if there was evidence to examine, would you reconsider your belief. While the answers varied, of course, a handful of people believed he was not God, died a permanent death, and yet his followers either pulled off the greatest conspiracy ever or we’ve misinterpreted what resurrection really means. Those same people then, with the last question, said that if evidence was presented contrary, they would have to reconsider the claims of Christ.

With most worldviews or religions, three neat questions like that would not make much sense. It works with Christianity because of the resurrection claim. Because Christianity’s cornerstone is a historically verifiable event that can be investigated. Paul explains this himself in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Paul is making the claim Christians today make. Christianity is not some religious-fantasy-wishful-thinking belief. It is reality, with one of those reasons being that the resurrection did happen (explore this more with Greg Koukl’s new book, The Story of Reality).

Ok, that’s great you may say. To each his own. If it’s true for you, fantastic. And my personal favorites, “I’m glad you found your truth!”, or the slightly more condescending “I’m glad your religion gives you meaning.” Read Paul’s words above once more. It is not about personal truth (whatever that is) or wishing something to be true against reason or the evidence. If the resurrection was not a real historical event, then there is no Christianity and we’ve actually done harm by proclaiming it to be true! There is no gray area here; it either happened and Christianity is reality or it did not happen and I may as well toss my Bible away, never go to church again, never pray or even bother thinking of Jesus again. We can find that difficult to navigate in our current culture as we tend to shy away from absolutes philosophically or religiously (yet accept them elsewhere). The resurrection was intended to be known as history as the ultimate proof that Jesus is God, there is life after death, and only Jesus holds the power of salvation.

We must then seriously take His words that we are sinful by nature, destined for eternity apart from God, and that He alone offers salvation to all, found by dying to ourselves and completely trusting in Him, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult that may be. He leaves no space for anything less than that. Jesus does not offer us compromise or negotiation when dealing with spiritual realities and our eternal fate. He offers us something much better that is actually good news; assurance. 

Just the Facts

So then, what reasons do we have to believe the resurrection actually happened? First of all, the resurrection isn’t just true because it’s in the Bible. The resurrection is in the Bible because it’s true. That is an extremely important distinction to start off with.

Gary Habermas is one of the leading scholars regarding the resurrection and has given us a simple and effective way to share and discuss the resurrection. Yes, he is a Christian. But before you shout “Bias!”, here is what he did. He reviewed thousands of the most critically scholarly works with regards to the resurrection that were done between 1975 and 2003. These works were not all by Christian scholars; there were atheists, agnostics, and scholars of various beliefs. The rest of this post summarizes his findings, which are documented in one of his books, The Case for The Resurrection of Jesus, co-authored by another New Testament scholar, Michael Liconia (I highly recommend the book if any of this is either new to you or interests you further).

Among the thousands of scholarly works, he discovered 12 points of agreement regarding the resurrection. From that, he then took the strongest of them and called them the minimal facts in which one could present a powerful case for the resurrection of Jesus. For those of you schooled in some logic, before you claim this is just an argument from consensus, each of the 12 facts is backed by much evidence. Following are the five minimal facts:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion: This is obviously recorded in all four Gospels. Habermas points out to the skeptic that the scholars who agree with this note that they are simply viewing the four Gospel accounts as four separate ancient documents. In addition to the Gospel accounts, there are at least five non-Christian (and even hostile toward Christians at that time) independent accounts. These were written by Josephus (the great Jewish historian), Tacitus (Roman senator), Lucian of Samosat (a writer of Greek satire), Mara Bar-Serapion (Stoic philosopher), and the Jewish Talmud.

Critic John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, an atheist group of scholars                     trying to disprove Christianity, writes “That he [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can be.” 

2. The disciples believed they saw the risen Christ: With their belief comes two things; one, they claimed it, and two, they died for it. We know they claimed it through nine independent sources (again, scholars are treating each book of the New Testament as simply ancient writings by various authors at different times). These sources include Paul’s writings which are independent of the Gospel authors since he was not an original disciple. Next is a couple of the early creeds found in the New Testament, such as 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which existed as oral tradition before they were written and can be dated within years of Jesus’ death. Then there are the four written accounts found in the Gospels. And last are the apostolic fathers. These were the immediate successors of the apostles. Both Clement, Bishop of Rome (30-100 A.D.) and Polycarp (69-155 A.D.) wrote that the disciples were greatly changed by Jesus’ resurrection.

 Then, the apostles lives were so transformed by the belief in the resurrection, that they willingly suffered and died for it  (Take a look at Sean McDowell’s book, The Fate of the Apostles). We have at least seven independent sources which speak to the martyrdom of various apostles. These sources again include both Biblical and non-Biblical writers which include the Book of Acts, Polycarp, Ignatius (a bishop in Antioch killed for his faith in 110 A.D. who wrote seven letters to Polycarp). Clement of Rome, Tertullian, Origen, and Dionysius of Corinth.

Paul Fredriksen, a non-Christian scholar at Boston University, comments, “I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw.”

3. The conversion of Paul: He was a well-known persecutor of Christians (he was present when Stephen was martyred) who experienced something so pressing that he immediately left his old life of Judaism and persecuting Christians to becoming the Jesus’ most faithful follower.

4. The conversion of James: This was the brother of Jesus. James was a pious Jew who initially mocked his brother’s claims of deity and his conversion did not happen until after Jesus’ resurrection and a personal appearance of Jesus. James was so convinced he went on to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem.

5. The empty tomb where Jesus was buried: The majority of scholars agree Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea who part of the Jewish council. There is also the unanimous testimony of Jesus’ women followers to an empty tomb, which for that time their testimony was not as reliable as a man. If the story was fabricated, women would not have been the key witnesses. Within weeks of the claimed resurrection, the disciples preached in Jerusalem against the wishes of both the Jews and Romans. If the tomb was not empty, could they (the Jews and the Romans) just have produced the body? Lastly, consider that there is no indication Jesus’ tomb was ever worshiped as some sort of holy site. If it had been, it would indicate a body was possibly in there.

So does the truth matter? If you’ve ever been on the wrong side of a lie, then yes, you know there is truth, real objective truth, and it matters. Paul tells us that Christians are on the wrong side of a lie if the resurrection didn’t happen. But if it did happen, then we must hear Jesus’ words of love, sin, and forgiveness in that He is not just giving an opinion or making philosophical musings; He is God, as much as the Father and Holy Spirit, and is the only way of salvation.  It literally becomes a matter of spiritual life and death.

In Part 2, we will play the role of a jury deliberating over these facts to determine the best explanation for them. Is it that the actual resurrection took place? Or, are the theories that the disciples stole the body, were hallucinating, or that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross,  stronger in their explanatory power and scope?

Resources and further reading:

The complete 12 facts are as follows:

  1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion
  2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb
  3. Soon afterwards, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost their hope
  4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment
  5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus
  6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed
  7. The proclamation of the Resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history
  8. The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the Resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.
  9. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus
  10. Worshipping on Sundays
  11. Conversion of Paul
  12. Conversion of James, brother of Jesus

Gary R Habermas and Michael R Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004)

Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004)

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