A Resurrection? I Object!

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

Sherlock Holmes Quote[1]

-The Sign of Foursherlock

 

I ran Plantinga’s argument (see Blog #4) by my nineteen-year-old son, to see how acceptable the acclaimed philosopher’s thoughts would be taken in a real-world context. My son didn’t buy it. Perhaps his innate common-sense realism just didn’t buy into it. Nevertheless, it could indeed be the case that any naturalist who may read this blog won’t buy it either. Firmly holding to his materialistic ground, the resurrection skeptic sets forth several options that explain the resurrection naturally. This post will consider some of the common naturalistic explanations that have been proposed and the common retorts. Gary Habermas rightfully explains that to say “resurrections just don’t happen” is insufficient. Denial is a claim only and not a theory.[2] The skeptic must provide his own explanation. Hopefully, by the end of this post, reader and author alike will confirm Sherlock Holmes’ point above and accept the truth, no matter how improbable it may seem.

The first refutation of the resurrection of Jesus is found in the pages of the Bible itself. Matthew 28:11-15

Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

The obvious thing to note here is that the text plainly tells us this naturalistic explanation is a hoax, a conspiracy, and the real story had just been presented. If we take the Bible for what it says, the objection must immediately be dismissed. But perhaps the Bible is using some sort of psychological trick to disguise the truth and the hoax actually lies with its own explanation. The author is the conspirator after all and the disciples did steal the body.

For the sake of argument then, let’s consider the events and why that theory is implausible. It is implausible for several combined reasons. First, these tombs were built intentionally to keep grave robbers out, not to keep dead people from escaping. A 2016 article form the Biblical Archaeological Society explains that the traditional thought that the tomb was sealed with a disk-shaped stone is very unlikely. Of the 900 contemporary tombs, only four were disk-shaped. Of course, the rare of anything is set apart for the ultra-rich, nobility. The other 896 were square (cork-shaped) and were used by commoners, even wealthy ones like Joseph of Arimathea. The disk-shaped stones were designed to be re-opened, to entomb multiple family members over the course of time. The cork shaped ones, as seen in the picture below, could not be moved about easily, once set in place.

tomb-with-stopper-260x195

Moving a giant cork-shaped stone would certainly be a very difficult project physically for the disciples. Though perhaps eleven men could do that. However, they would have to perform this feat with a Roman guard on duty. Here “guard” indicates a company, and not a single soldier. Notice the plurality mentioned in the Matthew text above. Having been in the military, I know that falling asleep on watch is a punishable offense. I am sure for a Roman soldier, the penalty could cost him his life. These soldiers would all have to be asleep to such a degree as to remain undisturbed despite such activity all about them. This theory simply replaces one miracle with another. It is highly unlikely that the disciples, who were observed in public soon afterwards, stole the body of such a locally famous person and successfully hid it. Also, it is very unlikely that these disciples would be willing to die for a hoax, and most did die for their testimony of Jesus. Furthermore, the empty tomb is only half the story. The stolen body theory does not answer the eyewitness’ accounts of Jesus’s appearances.

The more common theory in our day is the hallucination theory. Habermas writes:

After a decades-long hiatus, the subjective vision theory [hallucination] is making a comeback and is again the most popular natural response to Jesus’ resurrection. The most influential version is that argued by German theologian Gerd Lüdemann. After a study of the major resurrection texts in the NT, Lüdemann appeals to “stimulus,” “religious intoxication,” and “enthusiasm” as the states of mind leading to the visions seen by Peter, as well as by others who concluded that Jesus was alive. Lüdemann prefers to speak of these experiences as visions rather than hallucinations, but he is clear that nothing literally happened to Jesus himself.[3]

One problem with this theory is that the disciples’ state of mind was far from being euphoric. They were quite the opposite. The disciples were grieving the loss of their leader. The spirit of the objection is the disciples experienced an extreme emotion—great joy or great grief. But the better rejoinder is not to argue the disciples’ emotional state as the stimulus for hallucinating. Rather it is not likely that groups of people experience the same extremities and the same hallucination simultaneously. The 1 Corinthians 15 passage, which is one of the “minimal facts” approved texts, states that Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred brethren at one time.” Furthermore, Paul states there “many of whom remain until now.” The implication is that his readers did not have to take Paul’s word for it, they could talk to the eyewitnesses personally, if they wish to corroborate the story. This theory also does not account for the Apostle Paul’s testimony, witnessed by others, of an experience with the risen Christ three years later. And we must remember that he was not a disciple in a euphoric or depressed state, instead he was an enemy to Christians, a thoroughgoing unbeliever. Paul was not the only skeptic to have changed his position on the matter of Jesus’ resurrection. The story of “doubting Thomas” and Jesus’ own skeptical brother, James, provide two examples of non-euphoric eyewitnesses. For these reasons, the hallucination theory also seems implausible.

The last naturalist theory that gained wide acceptance in generations past was the so-called “swoon theory.” This argument proposed that Jesus did not really die and that he recovered. The swoon theory has largely faded into oblivion. Jesus’ crucifixion is among the most reliable historical accounts in ancient history. The depiction of His death unmistakably describes death. First, the Romans were experienced crucifiers. They employed various techniques to hasten the death if needed. They would brake ankles in to prevent the person’s ability to push himself upward to inhale, ensuring suffocation. This technique was considered, but the crucifier recognized that Jesus had already expired, according to the Apostle John. To ensure death, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ heart with a spear. The famous description “blood and water poured out” indicates the pericardium sac, surrounding the heart, had been punctured. An article entitled, The Science of the Crucifixion by Cahleen Shrier, PhD. explains this. The swoon theory also decreases in feasibility when we consider again the cork-shaped stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. If Jesus survived crucifixion and a stab to the heart, how could he possibly remove the stone seal? Again, the naturalist theory replaces one miracle with another.

Given the reliability of the death of Jesus, acknowledged even by skeptics, as recorded in the Bible, no naturalistic theory can account for all of the data. Surely, we can see that all naturalistic theories fall short. When this is combined with the overwhelming historical accounts in the affirmative, the skeptic surely must acknowledge that best explanation is the improbable one; namely, Jesus was raised from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is true.

This post is meant to be an introduction to the various alternative, naturalistic explanations that are offered for the resurrection of Jesus. I urge the reader to research the topic using the links I provided. You will find ample material to read or watch which present far more exhaustive and reasoned arguments from both sides of the issue.

[1]http://sherlockholmesquotes.com/ accessed March 10, 2017.

[2]http://garyhabermas.com/articles/trinityjournal_latetwentieth/trinityjournal_latetwentieth.htm accessed March 10, 2017.

[3]Ibid.

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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.