Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?

The question before us in this post is “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” As the two previous blogs indicated, the resurrection is prominent in the good news of Jesus. It is the point upon which all of Christianity pivots. It, being concomitant to the cross, is the nexus of Biblical faith. Furthermore, the resurrection serves to bridge material and spiritual reality. (I may have just lost the materialist.) The cry of the skeptic goes something like this: “show me God and I’ll believe.” The resurrection is his evidence. Rather than God writing His name across the sky or speaking audibly and repeatedly from Heaven, He spoke finally through His Son, Jesus—a living, breathing, person from a remote town in the middle East…the One by whom our calendars mark the years. Yeah, that one.

It is no small point to say there were eyewitnesses to his life:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

 

If Jesus’s resurrection was indeed an historical event, then there should be evidence to affirm it; otherwise there should be evidence to refute the claim. An historical claim can be accurately researched. There are recognized guidelines, techniques, “science” used to investigate past events and people. The homicide investigator uses forensic science to gather information, clues, in order to establish the facts surrounding the past. Likewise, historians of antiquities use science: the study of ancient documents—particularly philology as a study of source criticism especially the Greek New Testament—, archaeology which involves the “hard sciences,” as well as anthropology. Surely, the materialist has no problem with science’s ability to accurately portray the past. Is this confidence not the foundation upon which the studies of the origin of the universe and evolution are built? Our task here should be much easier, as we are going back a mere 2,000 years and remaining on Earth rather than going back billions and billions of years looking into the vast cosmos.

One pertinent academic discipline akin to philology is historiography. The Mirriam-Webster definition is: the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods. Having original sources is ideal for historians. When original sources are not available, then secondary sources are used, and so on. Therefore, it is completely logical that the nearer a source is to the time of the person and events, the better. Furthermore, the higher number of supporting sources that corroborate, the better. As with any investigation, a reliable eye-witness, even multiple corroborating eye-witnesses is “golden.”

A major historian of Jesus’s resurrection is Christian professor and author Gary Habermas. Dr. Habermas puts forth what he calls the “minimal facts” argument, which I will summarize in this post. I find it to be a compelling argument. Before the skeptic balks at my using a Christian to defend Jesus’s resurrection, let me offer two counter-points to the objection that a Christian historian must be biased who undoubtedly will produce skewed conclusions. First, if a so-called unbiased person does the homework well, carefully researches a matter, stands up well to academic scrutiny, and the results lead him to act upon those conclusions to the degree that he becomes a “believer,” does that subsequent belief negate the research? It cannot. His “conversion” merely proves his character and integrity to respond personally and consistently with his research. I would be more suspicious of the character of a person who says “I conclude ‘X’ but remain ‘anti-X.’” Or, if a biased person does that same level of good research and his bias is strengthened, does that invalidate the research? Surely not. Though everyone’s research must stand the test of careful scrutiny, one’s bias does not automatically disqualify the research. This is the case with Dr. Habermas. His research was motivated by his own personal struggles of doubt about Christianity.

Secondly, if the “biased” person acknowledges his bias and then applies, not his own criteria, but the criteria of his opponents, to his research, would that help quench the suspicion of bias and appease the skeptic? I hope so. What else could be asked of him? It would respectfully identify common ground upon which both parties could proceed. Surely, that approach would be the only way dialogue and knowledge could healthily progress between them. Someone has to compromise (in a good way) their own beliefs in order to accommodate the other. That is exactly what Dr. Habermas does with his “minimal facts” argument. He restricts his dialogue to these “least common denominators” of agreement, recognized within critical, skeptical scholarship among credible subject-matter experts. It is only right to limit the debates to the academicians for obvious reasons…they are the ones who have done the homework and who have been recognized. It promotes the best possible measures of quality control.

Habermas’s criteria for a minimal fact is:

Each event had to be established by more than adequate scholarly evidence, and usually by several critically-ascertained, independent lines of argumentation. Additionally, the vast majority of contemporary scholars in relevant fields had to acknowledge the historicity of the occurrence. Of the two criteria, I have always held that the first is by far the most crucial, especially since this initial requirement is the one that actually establishes the historicity of the event. Besides, the acclamation of scholarly opinion may be mistaken or it could change.[1]

He also accommodates the skeptic by NOT basing his minimal facts on either the reliability or inspiration of the Bible. He offers these premises regarding the Bible and proof of the resurrection:

  1. If one concedes the Bible is Inspired, then the resurrection happened
  2. If one concedes the Bible is Reliable, then the resurrection happened
  3. IF one concedes the Bible is a book of ancient literature—and everyone does—, then the resurrection happened.

The third premise is his claim.

Some convenient data, but not necessary to the argument, is:

The empty tomb is accepted by 75% of true scholars.

The other data in his minimal facts argument is accepted by 95-100%.

How can such percentages be authenticated? He says it is from empirical data, “I counted.” Habermas claims to have catalogued critical scholars and their positions from 1975-2012 citing 3400 resources in French, German, and English, using 140 subcategories, amounting to 600 pages.

Habermas’s minimal facts include:

  1. Jesus died due to crucifixion.
  2. His disciples had experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus.
  3. Their lives were transformed because of this conviction.
  4. As a result, they proclaimed this message very soon after Jesus’ death, actually within weeks.
  5. A man named Saul of Tarsus was converted to Jesus Christ by what he

also concluded was a personal appearance of the risen Jesus to him.

These minimal facts present early, eyewitness accounts. They are multiple primary sources. Remember, this is the best possible scenario for historiographers.

The date of Jesus’s undisputed crucifixion was ~30 A.D. Among the seven or so New Testament books that are recognized as authentic is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, dated at 55 A.D or 25 years after the crucifixion. In that letter he claims a personal experience of the risen Jesus, three years after the crucifixion. He also records that at the time of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to 500 witnesses including Jesus’s own skeptical brother James. These eyewitnesses obviously put the time between the sources and the event at “Time Zero.”

The importance of these dates can be understood when you consider again historiography. From a historiography perspective, Paul’s writing twenty-five years after the resurrection is almost a ridiculously close timeframe. By comparison, Alexander the Great whose authenticity is not doubted. No one doubts Alexander the Great lived and conquered the world. There are no copies of historians who wrote during his life.

If you would like to view Dr. Habermas’s lecture on the minimal facts argument, you can do so here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5znVUFHqO4Q

This blog presents a very brief explanation of arguably the best, critical evidence for the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection. In the forthcoming blogs, I will consider some of the objections raised by skeptics. I would like to leave the skeptic with these thoughts, if you find the historical research to be reliable, then your argument for scientific evidence is satisfied, your exclusively materialistic worldview has been disproven, your demand for God to make Himself plain has been satisfied. The question then is: Will you believe Him? And if not, why not?

[1]http://garyhabermas.com/articles/southeastern_theological_review/minimal-facts-methodology_08-02-2012.htm, accessed March 5, 2017.

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How Can Christians Possibly Believe Jesus Was Raised from the Dead?

faith-reasonIs the Resurrection of Jesus Believable?

The first blog post is in this series explained the warrant behind asking the question “Is the Resurrection of Jesus Believable?” and it challenged the Christian church to make Jesus’ resurrection the primary part of personal evangelism and to give it a prominent position in its teaching ministry. The short explanation for that challenge is: because the resurrection is the Gospel. I mean that the resurrection encompasses all of the component parts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the resurrection validates the cross; it validates Jesus’ claim of deity, it validates all of Jesus’ teachings; it validates the Old Testament and the New Testament, the entirety of redemptive history from creation to glory even eternity past and eternity future. All of those glorious theological truth claims, all of those supreme matters of faith in a God who cannot be seen rest upon this single historical event. Paul knew this. Otherwise he could not have written to the Corinthians, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”

The remaining blog posts will try to persuade the skeptic, and the Christian alike, that not only could the resurrection happen, but that it did happen. Where do we begin? I’ll begin where I perceive the skeptics are coming from… “it just seems ridiculous.” I get that. Why should anyone give the story of the resurrection of Jesus a second thought? Furthermore, even if Jesus was raised from the dead, how does that validate his claim of deity and all of Christianity? It seems utterly absurd and irrational. People do not, cannot be raised from the dead.

Yet millions of Christians believe it and entrust their never-dying souls to Jesus because of it. Generally speaking, these are not unthinking people. As fellow human beings, Christians do not differ from non-Christians in intellect and rationality. That bastion of unquestionable research, Wikipedia, cites: “According to [the book] 100 Years of Nobel Prize (2005), a review of Nobel prizes awarded between 1901 and 2000, 65.4% of Nobel Prize Laureates, have identified Christianity in its various forms as their religious preference (427 prizes).”[1] Certainly, this does not prove the resurrection and is not an appeal to Nobel Prize winners as authorities, rather it simply supports the point that the Christian faith, grounded in the story of the resurrection of Jesus, is believed by many people whom our society acknowledges as the intellectual elite.

isaac-newton

With Christians intellects like Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, John Lennox, Ravi Zacharias, and Alister McGrath (just to list some of my favorite geniuses off the top of my head), I think it is safe to say that the resurrection of Jesus has been believed by some rather brilliant people throughout the ages. Furthermore, I would venture to say that most Christians, at least those I associate with, do not typically entertain fantastical stories as believable stories. For instance, modern day accounts of miracles like resurrections, exorcisms, weeping statues, and healings are rightly met with skepticism by many—me included. I would demand irrefutable proof before accepting any of those things as fact. Furthermore, I really have no desire to even investigate those claims. I do not rely on them as evidence for my faith nor do I fear that if they prove fraudulent that my faith and the claims of Christ are in any way threatened or diminished. I am inclined to think the stereotypical TV evangelists who purportedly demonstrate faith healing and so-called “words of knowledge” are false teachers, maybe even shysters (since I do not know any personally, I cannot say with certainty that they are crooks). But, I outright dismiss all preachers whose message smells of the “health and wealth gospel.”  Paul’s words still ring true today:

For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain.

But I digress.

grapevineAdmittedly, most Christians work backwards in the thinking process, in their logic. Of the many Christian testimonies I’ve heard over my 50 years in the church, almost always I hear of faith coming before intellectual pursuit. That is, most Christians do not come to faith after a logical review of the historic evidence of the resurrection of Jesus; rather, they attribute their belief to a personal experience with the risen Christ, then they begin to make sense of it and study the Bible. Understanding the events as historical comes later. Just because faith is not first deduced from scientific or historic evidence, does not make it irrational. Actually, the process is quite rational. Think about it, the only way a rational person would be persuaded of a miracle is to witness it firsthand. Do we not all relate to the skeptic’s mantra from Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine, “People say, believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear?” The genuine Christian will tell you that something spiritual happened TO him. Something—rather, some-One— from outside of himself penetrated him, reached into his soul and changed him. They did not physically see or hear the risen Jesus, but they did, and still do, experience Him. The Bible expresses this experience in terms of being “born again” or having been spiritually deaf, they now hear, spiritually blind they now see, and having been spiritually dead, they are now alive. With new spiritual eyes, they read the Scriptures and believe them to be true. It is after-the-fact that the Christian goes on to investigate the historical evidence and are intellectually satisfied to find the record is “legit.” Some investigate first, but most people I’ve heard experience what I described.

I would also propose that it is the very rare Christian who can defend the legitimacy of Jesus’ resurrection using empirical data. As a result, Christians become easy targets for claims of “fideism,”—a negative term for having “blind faith,” where “blind” means irrational, unthinking, or ignorant. When challenged, most Christians can only refer to some Bible verses. And so, they come off looking like “fundamentalists” or “Bible thumpers” whose only argument is “because the Bible says so.” This works if they speak only among themselves, with other Christians. Other Christians get it. After all, Jesus taught that childlike faith is genuine faith. It can be argued perhaps that the doubters are the weaker ones…only doubters seek affirmation from empirical support, e.g. “Doubting Thomas.” I’ve known Christians, myself included, who teach that since “The Gospel is the power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16), we ideally just need to get unbelievers to read the words for themselves or at least present a Gospel formula to them—pearl-string verses like quoting “the Romans road.” But to the skeptic, a Christian who exudes “because the Bible says so” is enough to squelch any further dialogue. Jesus often confounded His detractors with superior reasoning, which included Bible verses, but more often he presented Bible truth in a logical and relatable way—like parables. Also, the Apostle Paul regularly argued from the Scriptures. Paul was a highly educated religious lawyer. His letter to the Romans, his “Magnum Opus” is a well-reasoned argument. The point is that while childlike faith is to be lauded for its trusting God, there is a time and place for adult reasoning for the faith. That was obviously true then, and it is just as true for today.

circular_reasoning_standard

Perhaps to some readers I’ve merely confirmed the skeptic’s suspicions that Christians are using “circular reasoning,” which is not reasoning at all. Did I not state that we Christians come to the debate with pre-conceived conclusions, biased toward seeing only what we want to see rather than using pure, objective research…like they do. Or do they?

Getting back to my alien and the Iowa farmer analogy…why would otherwise rational people (Christians) believe the resurrection of Jesus, especially 2,000 years removed from the supposed event? And why should Christians press the skeptic to believe when they seemingly do the same thing the skeptic does when confronted with fantastical stories?

I begin answering with, and arguing for, the uniqueness of Jesus’s miracles and especially His resurrection. While I am skeptical of modern-day miracles, I do allow for the possibility of miracles. One reason why they can happen is because they have happened. One difference between the Christian and the skeptic is the Christian believes in a very particular theism while most skeptics, secularists, believe in naturalism or materialism. That means Christians believe in an unseen, spiritual reality, specifically that which the Bible accounts for, while most skeptics believe in a purely material world.

The next blog post will present a detailed argument for the historical evidence drawn largely from Gary Habermas’s “minimal facts” argument. It should interest the skeptic and Christian alike that the resurrection can be substantiated using the skeptics’ own criteria!

 

[1]Wikipedia, “List of Christian Nobel Laureates,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_Nobel_laureates#CITEREFShalev2003, accessed December 24, 2016

Evidence

 

I polled my Facebook friends and asked a few co-workers which of these assignment topics is more important to them?

(1) “Is the Resurrection of Jesus Believable?”

(2) “Is Jesus Really the Only Way to Heaven?”

(3) “Why Would God Judge People for the Way They Live?”

(4) “Isn’t It Arrogant to Claim Your God Alone is Real?”

I took the poll to find out which question really matters to people, rather just crank out the easiest assignment. I hope this blog series will be a help to someone. I think the question I chose is the most important, challenging the non-Christian and the Christian alike. So, before I dig into the question, I need to explain why I picked it.

The results of my polling were very interesting, mainly because of the diverse group of people I approached. My FB friends are predominately evangelical Christians from the South. By contrast, my co-workers are a slice of New England—a mixed bag of practicing Catholics, nominal Catholics, non-religious secularists, and the anti-religious. Several are electrical engineers with Master’s degrees, including two Russian, secular Jews—one of whom I’d describe as “spiritual” and the other an agnostic-leaning atheist (his words) who said all the questions are the same:  “unimportant” because they come to the same conclusion of a “God” who does not exist.

So, which question won? (drum roll please)

coexist

The most popular response was number 2: “Is Jesus really the only way to Heaven?” That is not too surprising considering that pluralism is so heavily promoted in our culture. The second most popular choice number 4: “Isn’t it arrogant to claim your God alone is real?” I think that question is pretty much the same question as number 2, only with an emotional component. Speaking of emotion, one of my co-workers responded to the list with a hearty, “Oh Hell yeah, number 4!”  Number 3 was next in line with surprisingly very little fanfare: “Why Would God Judge People for the Way They Live?” With the mantra “Don’t judge!” so prevalent in our society, I thought for sure it would garner a higher ranking. The unequivocal loser of the poll, and therefore the LEAST important and LEAST relevant to Christians and non-Christians alike, was number 1: “Is the resurrection of Jesus believable?”  Now here’s the plot twist: that is the question I picked to write about! Hmmm…If I want to write about that which is MOST relevant, why pick the one that everyone agreed is LEAST important?

I asked myself, “Why did that one evoke the least interest?” The more I thought about it, the more I determined it HAS to be the one I write about because it is the proverbial “elephant in the room.” Think about it. Modern Christians don’t talk about the resurrection much, especially to non-Christians; and non-Christians dismiss it as myth. I can understand why non-Christians dismiss it. But why aren’t Christians thinking and talking about it in order to confront the non-Christian with it? After all, is it not the most spectacular demonstration of God’s existence and validation of Christ’s claims? Is it not at the very heart of our faith? I think if Christians were transparent, they’d agree that talking about the resurrection is very awkward. Do we really believe it? Or could it be that we subconsciously adopt the skeptic’s mind and feel a sense of absurdity behind such a claim? Do we inwardly agree with them…that we might as well claim that a UFO landed in a remote cornfield in Iowa and a space alien told some farmer to tell others to believe him or else the earth will be destroyed by his “Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator?” (My millennial readers can check out that iconic cultural reference here.)

martian

I think Christians and non-Christians alike unwittingly and wrongly dismiss the resurrection as irrelevant. My experience is that Christians do not bring up the resurrection in their evangelism—I know I haven’t—even though we read throughout the New Testament that it is THE VERY MESSAGE OF THE GOSPEL. (Sorry for e-yelling, but it is that important.) We try to relate to our non-Christian friends by talking to them about common experiences such as life’s many problems and tell them that Jesus gives us hope, love, and answers. Or the more bold (and precise) of us confront unbelievers about the problem of sin and rebellion against a holy God and tell them that the only way of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace with God is through repentance and faith in Jesus. All of those things are true. But they still don’t mention the resurrection.  Should we mention it? If we follow the example (dictate?) of The Apostles, then absolutely. The resurrection was foremost in their evangelism.  Consider the very first sermon ever preached by a Christian, recorded by the preeminent Christian historian, Luke, in Acts 2:14-ff. He writes that Peter proclaimed

Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.

Also, the Apostle Paul preached Jesus’s resurrection and defended his message as the genuine Christian gospel, confirmed by the most imminent authorities of the Christian church— those closest to Jesus Himself— James (the brother of Jesus), Peter, and John. He said, “I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles…for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain and those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me.”  (Galatians 1 and 2).

 

Paul clearly cited the resurrection as essential to salvation in 1 Corinthians 15:

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved…For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then [He appeared] to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then [He appeared] to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

Paul went beyond his fellow Jews with his gospel of the resurrection, and preached to the Greeks. Remember, that was in ancient Athens—the birthplace of philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle— at the Areopagus itself. Granted, it was about 350 years after Aristotle. But considering we, 2400 years and a world away, know who Aristotle was, it is safe to say the Greeks in first century Athens were serious about philosophy   Luke recorded the event and commented, “And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, ‘What would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.

Furthermore, (back to 1 Corinthians 15) Paul explained:

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthlesswe are of all men most to be pitied.

There you have the skeptic’s mind on the matter. They say to us that Christ has not been raised from the dead and Christians are to be most pitied for believing such foolishness.

Again, I think my friends and co-workers have exposed a most significant problem in our day by NOT picking question number 1. They are communicating that the resurrection of Jesus is unimportant and not even on the radar of interest. Modern Christians typically do not include the resurrection in their evangelism—which begs several questions: Do they really believe it? Are they overwhelmingly hesitant to admit it for fear of appearing foolish and pitiful in our scientifically advanced world? Or, have pastors failed to communicate the importance of it? Whatever the reasons, the church has marginalized the resurrection. If Christians ignore the resurrection message, then non-Christians surely aren’t going to think about it either!

In this blog, I must first challenge the church with this observation. If we fail to include the resurrection in our conversations, are we unwittingly guilty of Paul’s rebuke to the Galatian church and dangerously close to preaching a false gospel?— “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! …For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men?

Secondly, I have to do what I am challenging the rest of the church to do—persuade the non-Christian of a few things; namely, that not only could the resurrection of Jesus happen but it did happen, that belief in the resurrection is rational, not irrational, and finally, there are subsequent life-changing implications due to the fact of the resurrection.