The Verdict: The Minimalist Approach for talking about the Resurrection – Part 2

In Part 1 I introduced the minimal facts concerning the resurrection of Jesus. These facts are attested to by 75 – 95% of scholars (including agnostics and atheists). What I enjoy about history, is that learning about it is often like a real criminal investigation because historians are like 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.

The five minimal facts of the resurrection are:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. The disciples believed they saw the risen Christ
  3. The conversion of Paul
  4. The conversion of James
  5. The empty tomb where Jesus was buried

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 the facts (as in Part 1, the following is taken from the books The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus and I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist):

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


 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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