Just the Facts: The Minimalist Approach for Talking about the Resurrection

“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 “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). Another helpful resource used is the excellent book by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek,  titled I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.

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. Also note that the New Testament contains the best attested to documents in the ancient world, and it is not even close (meaning, we have the most copies closest to the original events when compared to all other ancient document!). For purposes of this argument, one does not have to agree the New Testament is divinely inspired, it only relies on the New Testament being ancient writings. 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.

The Investigation and Trial

What I enjoy about history is that learning about it is often like a real criminal investigation because historians are  detectives. Let’s think of our minimal facts as the probable cause. If you’ve watched any decent police procedural show, you are probably familiar with the concept. Probable Cause is the minimal facts in an investigation which allows the police to arrest someone or obtain a search warrant. In its simplest form, probable cause means there is more reason than not that a crime did occur.

We have our minimal facts, or probable cause, regarding the resurrection. In a criminal case, an arrest is made upon probable cause being established. In court, the probable cause will be scrutinized by the defense. From my experience, the defense does not have so much an issue with the minimal facts being presented; the argument is regarding the explanation of those facts. The prosecution is arguing based on those facts that the suspect has committed the crime, while the defense is offering alternative explanations of those facts that lead elsewhere.

Let’s step into the courtroom and deliberate over the most common reasons given by skeptics regarding the claim of the resurrection and see if they reasonably and sufficiently explain our “probable cause” of the resurrection. 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?

Hallucination Theory: This is arguing that those who claimed to have seen Christ early had hallucinated and somehow convinced others to share in that hallucination. I covered this in another post if you would like much more detail. Hallucinations are simply not experienced in groups. There were 12 appearances of the risen Christ, to over 500 people, in a variety of settings, over a 40-day period. While this theory could account for the conversion of one person, such as James or Paul (not both), it cannot account for the long eyewitness list of those who claimed to have seen, touched, and ate with the risen Jesus. If also fails to explain the empty tomb. This theory would rely on another theory to explain the empty tomb; you would now need multiple unlikely theories working together to explain away the resurrection.

Wrong Tomb: The wrong tomb theory declares that the first witnesses did not go to Jesus’ tomb. There are two fatal flaws with this. First, if they did go to the wrong tomb, the authorities could have gone to the right tomb and shown the body. The tomb was known to the Jews because it was their tomb. And it was known to the Romans because they placed the guards there. Second, the wrong tomb still doesn’t explain the 12 appearances of Christ as noted above. It is important to remember too that it was not the empty tomb that convinced most of the disciples; it was the appearance of Christ that did. Any alternative theory of the resurrection must explain away the appearances of Jesus.

Apparent Death: This theory is interesting. It claims that Jesus did not die on the cross. He was able to survive, and either was not buried or, after a few days, was able to escape the tomb and find his followers. First, enemies and friends alike believed Jesus was dead. The Romans were experts in crucifixion deaths. In 1986, the Journal of American Medical Association published an article regarding the crucifixion of Jesus. It is fascinating to read as the doctors are conducting a historical autopsy of the crucified body. They note that the “Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.” Traditionally, Jesus would have been wrapped in up to 75 pounds. of bandages and spices too. It was simply too much abuse to remain alive for 36 hours in a tomb with no treatment.

To be thorough, let’s be generous and say for a moment he did survive a Roman crucifixion and burial. How would he have appeared after that? He would have been a stumbling, bloody, barely-alive mess, which could explain an “alive Christ,” but not a “risen Christ.” He would not have been a glorious display of divine power.

Disciples Stole Body/Lied: I believe this is the most common alternative, at least among the everyday skeptic. This explanation is only supported if all the disciples were liars and that just doesn’t fall in line with the facts. It would be a massive conspiracy which only resulted in all of the conspirators suffering and dying in which they gained no power, money or other things which often drive people to lie. In other words, what motive did they have to lie? The followers of Jesus would have had to construct such a conspiracy to convince thousands of others (who could have easily disproved their claims at that time), maintain lies about their conversions, as well as convinced their enemies who corroborated some of their claims.

Having investigated crimes involving conspiracy, I agree with apologist J. Warner Wallace (a former cold-case homicide detective) that there are five common elements to a successful conspiracy: lowest number of people involved, short time span, excellent communication among co­conspirators, help from strong family relationships, and low pressure. None of those factors were present for Christ’s followers. It would have only taken one disciple to break under all the persecution they suffered. None did. Last, if it was a conspiracy, why would the most important witnesses (the first) be three women? At that time, women were not viewed as reliable witnesses. There would be no reason if the disciples were lying to start their lie with the testimony of three women.

Regarding the proof of the martyrdom of the disciples, the counter-argument that people die for lies all the time does not apply here. We are not talking about later generations of Christians (in which that argument could apply). We are talking about Christians in the first Century who would have direct, first-hand knowledge if it was a lie.

Substitute Took Jesus’ Place: This is the position of Islam. It is interesting to note that other religions must explain away some aspect of Jesus’ life to advance their theology. I believe it shows how powerful the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was. Had the resurrection not happened, had there been a natural explanation, why would hundreds and hundreds of years later it would need to be addressed still? This theory was not put forth until some six hundred years after the claimed event took place. Why trust it above all the early sources? It contradicts eyewitness testimony of that time and raises more questions than answers. Were all of Jesus family members, friends, Pilate, the Jews, etc. all mistaken as to the identity of Jesus? Was the Talmud mistaken? And it still doesn’t explain the resurrection appearances. Who then “escaped” the empty tomb? Again, this theory depends on other theories to work in perfect conjunction with it.

The Disciples Faith Led Their Belief in the Resurrection: In other words, the resurrection was believed in before it happened, Jesus’ followers “created” it, and then went back and searched the scriptures to support their story. William Lane Craig best explains why that could not be by stating “…the faith of the disciples did not lead to the resurrection appearances, but it was the appearances which led to their faith; they then searched the scriptures.” An often forgotten point is the disciples’ faith grew, they did not have it all figured out from the beginning. They were unsure until after seeing the risen Christ. This theory still does not explain the empty tomb.

The New Testament Writers Copied Pagan Resurrection Myths: Even the opponents of Christianity at its inception understood that the Christians were making a historical claim of the resurrection. The writers of the New Testament write in a way explaining eyewitness testimony and evidence. As noted in Part 1, there is also corroboration from outside sources.  This theory still doesn’t explain the empty tomb, the martyrdom of the eye witnesses, or testimony of the non­Christian writings.

There were no Greek or Roman myths which spoke of a monotheistic God and a literal incarnation into human form. Any real parallels to the resurrection, of a dying and rising god, do not appear until around 150 A.D. The closest one pre-first Century is the Egyptian cult god Osiris, although he doesn’t come back in physical form as Jesus did. If you wish, compare the Gospels to the Gnostic Gospels, which were written hundreds of years later and contained elements of myth which are easy to spot. The key feature is an embellishment, which is non­existent in the Gospel accounts, Paul’s writing, and non­-Christian sources of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. C.S. Lewis, as expert in medieval legends and literature, in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, argues the Gospel accounts do not contain any characteristics of legends.

The Resurrection happened: That Jesus rose, proving His claims of deity and authority over death, is the best explanation of the facts. It accounts for an empty tomb, the conversions, the willingness of the eyewitnesses to suffer, and more. The “liability” with this explanation is that one must accept the existence of the supernatural as well as Jesus’ claims.

If true, the resurrection then…

Proves Christ was divine: Romans 1:4 “…and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,…”

Proves Christ’s power to forgive sin: 1 Corinthians 15:17 “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” The resurrection assures forgiveness of sin and eternal life with God for those who accept his gift of salvation.

Reveal’s Christ’s power over death: Romans 6:9 “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” A follower of Christ has no fear of death.

Just as in the courtroom, it is one thing to offer some alternative theories to the facts; it is an entirely different thing to offer compelling evidence and reasons to believe those theories. When countering the resurrection claims, one cannot just declare a theory as an argument. What is your verdict? Did Christ rise from the grave? If you already knew that to be true, are you more confident in it?

Finally, we have to remember that our decision to follow Christ is not a purely rational one, but it is not void of rationality either. So while the minimal facts argument is convincing, we are not only rational creatures. We are moral and emotional as well. And while we may have legitimate intellectual concerns regarding Christ, ultimately one’s rejection of Him is more of a moral and emotional rejection. It is more rational to believe in the resurrection in light of the evidence as I’ve just explained. But we know that following Christ will cost us; we must repent of our sins (our continuing mindset against God), abandon some things of this world, and approach everything in our life differently. Learning about the evidence though can help to bring down barriers. As in my experience, sometimes the mental barriers need to be taken down to let the heart see the truth, and Christianity never asks us to believe blindly without reason. As Ravi Zacharias says, “What I believe in my heart must make sense in my mind.” 

 

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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