Resurrection Considered


Image Credit: Corinth, Temple of Apollo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

My previous series considered Evidence for God: 50 Arguments from the Bible, History, Philosophy and Science, and found the evidence wanting. In fact, by my reckoning, thirty-seven of them were not direct arguments for the existence of God. In these cases, they generally defended a theological difficulty or similar. Six argued for deism, five for a nonspecific theism that could have applied equally to any religion and only two argued for Christianity. These two were the related questions of Jesus’s miracles and his resurrection. I wanted now to focus in on a book referenced there: The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona.

Lee Strobel (Author of The Case for Christ) tells us: “This compelling book is the most comprehensive defense of Jesus’ resurrection anywhere. If you’re interested in knowing the evidence for the resurrection and sharing it with others, then you must read this book!” It is currently rated at 4.5 stars on Amazon.

The preface begins: “At some point in their Christian walk, many believers ask some difficult questions: Is Christianity really true? Are there any good reasons to known which religion is true? Could it be that God does not really exist? These are important questions, and we have an intense interest in their answers. After all, if atheism is true, then why should we subject ourselves to the teachings of Jesus? Why should we insist on views that alienate others, especially the claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven? … Not many Christians ask such questions. Some never question their faith, perhaps because they are afraid of the answers they might receive. If life is comfortable, let’s not shake it to the point that radical change is required. Besides, how can anyone really find definite answers to these ultimate questions?”

The authors apparently “did ask these questions as young men. … After several years, we arrived at a strong conclusion: The evidence suggests that God exists and has actually revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. The evidence attests that Christians have the most accurate view of reality.”

The book has four parts:

  1. A Life to Die For: Sharing Your Faith. An introduction including history 101
  2. “Just the Facts, Ma’am”: The Minimal Facts Approach in which they share a quintet of facts
  3. “Yes, But…”: Encountering Opposing Theories
  4. Wait! There’s More!: Other Issues

I will go through the book in order once again, and consider the evidence that they provide. We start with chapter 1, which is broken up into a number of sections.

They define Gospel “by a minimum of three essential facts … : (1) the deity of Jesus; (2) the death of Jesus in our place; and (3) the resurrection of Jesus.” The good news according to the apostle Paul is that “if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is a message in stark contrast with today’s pluralistic society, a fact that they lament.

But I have to ask: is this good news? Let us look at it more closely and let us suppose that we are constrained by the truth. Then confession and believing in your heart will be involuntary to some extent: either you are persuaded or you are not. I have looked at the information available and I do not believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. In fact, I am not persuaded that God exists at all. So this is not good news for me. I am not going to pretend to believe something that I do not, and in any event, you have to believe it in your heart, so pretense is no good.

Now, if I want to be pedantic, their quotation they provided does not cover what happens if you do not believe. But there are plenty of other verses that fill in that gap for us. 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might”.

So this glib talk of “you will be saved” brushes over the fact that it is salvation from God himself. He is offering us salvation from himself if we will only believe. Suppose he had linked it to belief in a pink unicorn? How are we supposed to do this? The “good news” is that if we can somehow force ourselves to really believe something happened then God will not punish us.

As an aside, this is the most common understanding of the so-called gospel of grace, but many of the hell verses in the Bible are linked to various forms of wickedness. In many cases, wickedness seems to be defined by belief, which brings it back to the grace doctrine. This allows Christians to write off people who do not believe as wicked. The word “godless” is essentially synonymous with debauched and evil in common usage. But it is not atheists who are brainwashing children by telling them that they have to believe something unlikely or they will burn in hell for ever, rejected by God.

But this is the gospel that will be defended in this book.

Jesus’ resurrection is a crucial issue

The authors next make the point that Jesus’s resurrection is the key test of Christian claims. They note that “Paul was so adamant about the importance of Jesus’ resurrection that he wrote, ‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still under condemnation for your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ have perished!’ For Paul, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, Christianity is false, we will be judged for our sins by the true God, and Christians who have died are lost.”

It is interesting that Paul essentially assumes that there is a God who will judge us regardless of whether Christ really died and rose again. In other words, from Paul’s perspective, he already presupposes the existence of God and judgement after death – the very thing that Christ’s death and resurrection is meant to establish for modern readers who are not persuaded of this point.

They note that other religions (they give Islam and Mormonism as examples) essentially say that if you read their texts with an open mind God will reveal the truth of them. This leaves us with a problem: “Both provide different ways to God. Yet both cannot be the only true way to God. This leaves us with the conclusion that the exclusivity claims of one or both of these religions are incorrect, as are their truth tests.”

They continue: “Jesus’ test is different in that it leaves no room for ambiguity. Either Jesus rose from the dead confirming his claims to divinity or he was a fraud. This external test does not negate the inward assurance that Christians believe comes from God, rather it substantiates it. The Christian is not wrong to advise the seeker of religious truth to pray that God will speak through Scripture and to approach God’s Word with sincere openness. Romans 8:16 informs us that assurance from God’s Spirit comes to the Christian. What Jesus’ resurrection does is to confirm that the assurance we experience is really from God’s Spirit. The external evidence of Jesus’ resurrection confirms the truth we have received via God’s written revelation” (emphasis in the original).

…if it did not happen then we can safely reject Christianity even if we have felt a personal assurance from God’s spirit that it is all true

The essential point here, which they have wrapped up in nice sounding words, and perhaps would not put so baldly, is that a spiritual experience of any kind from any religion cannot be trusted. If we come to the conclusion that Jesus’s resurrection actually happened, we may need to go back and reframe everything we know; but if it did not happen then we can safely reject Christianity even if we have felt a personal assurance from God’s spirit that it is all true.

Now I have argued that this is not necessarily the right way to look at things. They are essentially saying that if Christ rose from the dead then we are forced to find a way to reconcile the various contradictions and problems that are in the Bible. I would say that the various contradictions and problems in the Bible demonstrate that Christ did not rise from the dead. But I will put this position on ice for the purpose of this book and consider the evidence for the resurrection that they provide; I will also hold them to the position discussed above that if the evidence is insufficient then rejection is required.

Incidentally, they say that either “Jesus rose from the dead confirming his claims to divinity or he was a fraud.” This is a false dichotomy based on a chain of reasoning. To be true, we would need also to believe that (1) Jesus of Nazareth is fairly reflected by the Jesus of the Bible; (2) the Jesus of the Bible said he was divine; (3) Jesus was competent to make this claim; and (4) the people around him understood him clearly. None of these has been established. So I will not be aiming to establish that Jesus was a fraud. The more common version of this claim is the so-called “Lord, Lunatic, Liar or Legend” apologetic. But this also is too simplistic – the truth is perhaps a complex mixture of them all. My primary focus will simply be to consider the evidence for the resurrection and determine whether there is enough to accept it. Alternative explanations for the Bible are a secondary issue.

Did Jesus Predict His Resurrection?

The authors include a box which poses the question of Jesus’s prediction of his own resurrection: “Contrary to New Testament teachings, some scholars doubt that Jesus actually predicted his resurrection. However, there are at least four reasons for holding that the claims are authentic”. I will discuss each of their four reasons in turn.

Firstly, they say, “Jesus’ predictions concerning his resurrection are usually denied because the resurrection itself is denied as a historical event. However, if the resurrection event is historical, then the reason for rejecting Jesus’ predictions concerning it is ineffective.” This is not a reason to accept the predictions, but rather a defense of a reason to reject it. For example, Jesus could have predicted his resurrection and then been wrong. However, note the use of the word “denied”. This is an inaccurate portrayal of the skeptic’s position. The resurrection is not accepted because there is insufficient reason to accept it; it is not a principled denial that is unmoved by evidence. If the resurrection did not happen, then any predictions that Jesus did or did not make are irrelevant. The important point is that we cannot use his predictions as evidence of the resurrection.

Secondly, they appeal to the “principle of embarrassment”, in which they say that Jesus’s predictions would not have been included because “we are told that the disciples did not seem to have a clue what he was talking about or simply did not believe”. Similarly, “Thomas refused to believe (John 20:24-25). Now it seems quite unlikely that the disciples or early Christians who highly respected them would invent sayings of Jesus that would place them in such a bad light.” They will use this principle to argue for the resurrection later. In the case of Thomas, it seems very clear that the story is incorporated with the very specific didactic purpose of telling people not to be skeptical, and to be willing to believe without evidence.

Consider another verse that the authors adduce, Mark 9:31-32: “He [Jesus] said to them ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” Here the authors claims that this must be authentic, because they would be too embarrassed to include a verse that made the disciples seem foolish. Is that really the only possibility? Here Mark is walking a fine line (or, more accurately, Mark is reporting a story that evolved in a community that needed to walk a fine line): Jesus needs to know that he was going to die and rise again, or else he would not appear to be sovereign; but the disciples need an excuse for abandoning him. The solution is that Jesus is made to say something and the disciples made to not understand. That this is plausible causes the “principle of embarrassment” to evaporate into nothing immediately, especially since this solution requires no supernatural events. This solution would also be an example of a phenomenon that is observed frequently in religious evolution, whereby new facts are created to explain away a contradiction (”surely Jesus would have prepared the disciples so that they would not have fled?”). But the important point is that the mere plausibility of this explanation means that we cannot use the principle of embarrassment to affirm that Jesus made this prediction.

Third, they reference “Jesus’ use of the title ‘Son of Man’ in reference to his resurrection predictions.” The phrase translated ‘Son of Man’ simply means human being. Jesus may have used it in reference to himself, but that does not in itself validate any attached predictions that are ascribed to Jesus. They note that Jesus is not called this in the New Testament epistles and say “the principle of dissimilarity points to authenticity here.” Bart Ehrman points out that Jesus appears to be referring to a third person in many of the Son of Man verses (Matthew 16:28: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Or Mark 8:38: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words…, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”). Since early Christians had begun to believe that Jesus was himself the Son of Man, the principle of dissimilarity suggests that these sayings are the authentic sayings of Jesus. The Son of Man was an apocalyptic figure, and there is evidence that Jesus was an apocalypticist, so it is likely that Jesus believed and said that a heavenly figure known as the Son of Man would soon descend in the clouds in power and restore God’s kingdom. Early Christians began to believe that Jesus was himself the Son of Man and some of the sayings evolved that way.

Fourthly, we are told that “Jesus’ predictions concerning his resurrection are multiply attested”. But these predictions all occur in books that also relate the resurrection and are concerned to demonstrate that this was part of a divine plan. They are also not independent, since Matthew and Luke have a copy of Mark. It is also striking that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, does not relate this prediction.

In summary, scholars doubt that Jesus predicted his resurrection because there is insufficient evidence to accept it. If it turns out that the resurrection is true, we may be forced to reconsider this point, but the prediction is not itself evidence for the resurrection, and cannot be accepted based on the reasons that the authors have presented.

Proof does not aim at “absolute historical certainty”

The authors next address the question about what can reasonably be known. “Can Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead be proven? The answer may vary depending on one’s definition of what constitutes proof.” They tell us that “[l]ack of attestation does not mean that the event did not occur, only that we may have difficulty verifying it from an objective historical perspective.” In a footnote they quote Graham Twelftree as saying: “It must be stressed: We cannot move from ’unproven’ to ’disproven.’”

I would stress that we do not have to. If something has not been established you would be unwise indeed to accept it. It is much harder to know for sure what happened so many years ago, but this should make us less certain not more. We should be less willing to accept outrageous historical claims, not more.

They give an example: “Suppose that Bob claims that he was state champion in high school wrestling competition (sic). We did not know Bob in high school and are not in a position to verify this claim, nor do we know any of Bob’s old schoolmates. His high school burned down a few years ago, destroying trophies and official records of the event. Any year-book or newspaper account from the period could be inaccurate. Should we believe Bob? If our experience with Bob has revealed that he is a trustworthy person who has never lied to us before, then we may have reason to believe him, especially if there is no evidence to the contrary. Likewise, we might argue that we have assurance that many of the events described in the Bible occurred, even though historical inquiry has not yet produced confirming evidence through the spade of the archaeologist or the pen of the secular historian.”

A more apt analogy would be as follows: Suppose that Bob claims that he could fly when he was in high school. Suppose that he furthermore claimed that because of this we had to change every aspect of our lives. Even if our experience with Bob has revealed that he is a trustworthy person who has never lied to us before, then we would do well to be skeptical of his claim, especially if there is no independent supporting evidence.

The authors also subtly throw into their analogy the sentence: “Any year-book or newspaper account from the period could be inaccurate.” What they are doing is creating a false equivalence: skeptics cannot trust anything, which is ridiculous, so you should not be like them. Later on they say: “Can we know with 100 percent certainty that all of us were not created just five minutes ago, complete with our memories and the food in our stomachs? Of course not. … Can we know with 100 percent certainty that George Washington was the first President of the United States of America rather than a mythical figure?”

This way of thinking confuses and conflates a number of issues. Firstly, we tend to accept the word of a friend in a social setting. Perhaps we are a little skeptical, but it does not really matter in the grand scheme of things. It is the equivalent of a little white lie, where we accept a friend’s word in situations where it does not matter. Imagine if you were asked to testify in a court of law. Suppose you were asked: “Was Bob the state champion in high school wrestling?” We would say: “that’s what he told me.” If there were a newspaper article affirming it, that would be a completely different matter, but that would not be our evidence to give. Secondly, skepticism is healthy, but it should not be debilitating. The skeptical view is open to evidence. Obviously we cannot know that the world was not created five minutes ago, but where is the evidence for that claim? By definition there is none, so we do not accept it. This is consistent with not accepting Bob’s claim that he can fly based on his say so, and with tentatively accepting that he won a wrestling competition. I say “tentatively” because we have a single data point, but if it became important to know for sure we would look for corroborating evidence.

Clearly, the authors are leading us to the point where the evidence need not be watertight to accept it. The example of Bob’s claim to be able to fly shows us that this is not so. To accept an extraordinary claim will require an extraordinary quality and quantity of evidence, even if Bob is otherwise trustworthy in our experience. They quote Graham Twelftree: “A position is demonstrated, when the reasons for accepting it ‘significantly’ outweigh the reasons for not accepting it. … This leaves a large gray area where positions are held to be ‘likely’ or ‘probable.’ … A finding of historicity is essentially a default position, meaning that we have no other reasonable way to account for the presence of a story in the text.”

This is false. When searching for truth we should be skeptical of everything. When considering historicity we should consider whether the source of the information is disinterested, whether it may have been tampered with, whether there is corroborating evidence and so forth before being persuaded. We should not accept anything important uncritically, and in the case of the Bible none of those criteria is met. They essentially affirm this with their discussion of historical criteria in the next chapter.

They tell us that “[s]urprisingly, Jesus’ resurrection has quite a bit going for it in terms of data, which makes it an interesting topic for historical investigation.” As to this, we shall just have to wait and see.

They “point out that for the Christian, there is difference between knowing that Jesus rose from the dead with reasonable historical certainty and living on the personal assurance that Christianity is true. Paul wrote is Romans 8:16 that ‘the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.’ … The historical certainty we have of Jesus’ resurrection only reinforces that God’s Spirit has indeed spoken to us.”

This is somewhat carefully phrased, but as discussed above, and as they themselves acknowledged, the corollary of this is that without the historical certainty of the resurrection we are forced to conclude that God’s Spirit did not talk to us, and that Christianity is on no firmer footing than Mormonism, Islam or any other religion which claims to grant a feeling of assurance from God.

Evidence is part of sharing the gospel

To close this chapter, the authors argue that presenting this evidence in order to persuade someone is a legitimate method of evangelism, while accepting that you cannot “’reason’ someone into becoming a Christian.” This is because “God alone draws people to himself for salvation.” Learning the evidence then is just for those people who are interested in evidence. Others may be interested in your experiences.

This is a confusing point. What is your experience other than a different form of evidence? Of course, they are separating the historical evidence from experiential evidence, but either one is evidence that a person will evaluate using their brain in the usual way. But, the authors tell us, none of that matters because either God will make you believe or he won’t. So then does the quality of evidence not really matter after all? The authors seem to imply that it does not.

This brings us to the question of faith. According to the authors, faith is belief in action. They give the example of a high wire expert who walks over the Niagara Falls with a wheelbarrow filled with 150 pounds of potatoes. He asks the crowd whether they believe that he could do it with a person in the wheelbarrow. They do. He then asks for a volunteer. “Believing the facts is one thing. Acting upon them is faith.”

I will accept this definition of faith for the purpose of this discussion after the following two comments:

Comment 1: This is not the standard definition of faith. Even the Bible’s definition in Hebrews 11:1 is “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This is more in accord with typical definitions, where it is a choice to believe something despite the (lack of) evidence. Faith does have a second meaning of confidence, and it is perhaps to that meaning that the authors are latching.

Comment 2: This ability to redefine words and phrases is a powerful adaptive mechanism, enabling the survival of Christianity through the ages. Modern Christianity would probably be unrecognizable to ancient Christians. If you find that point too controversial, then suppose that your flavor of Christianity is authentic: then you would probably admit that other forms of Christianity have diverged so much over time as to be barely recognizable as the same religion, so some form of change over time must exist. In this instance, the concept of faith has evolved so that Christianity can adapt to the modern need to have evidence.

In any event, we take as our working definition of faith that it is acting on your beliefs. Now we see that this is a contradiction, or at least a muddle. In the previous section, the authors do not see an experience of God as an allowable form of evidence. But in this one, people come to God only if he draws them to Himself. And faith is just an action that stems from our sincere beliefs. How can we make sense of this?

The resolution is as follows: be as skeptical as you like, and examine the evidence for the resurrection as objectively as you can. If you find it convincing, it will be because God made you find it convincing, and so you should act on it. If you do not find it convincing then you should drop your faith, even if you can feel God’s presence in some way.

They close the chapter: “People offer all sorts of reasons for not accepting Christ. Many times they reject Christianity just because they don’t like it for some emotional reason. They may be offended by Jesus’ claim to be the only way to heaven or the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual behavior. Others excuse themselves with intellectual objections, such as the impossibility of Jesus’ resurrection or the problem of evil. Whatever the superficial objection, it may be a smoke screen for a deeper reason that the person simply does not want to believe. For someone with a hidden agenda, neither a personal testimony nor any evidence will make a difference. … The Holy Spirit’s work is essential in order for a person to come to Christ. Who you are and your personal testimony are also very important. Evidence is a tool in your pocket. If you are sharing your faith actively, you will find yourself reaching for it frequently.”

Here we see the slippery eel so prevalent in such conversations. The authors have been at pains to point out that adherents of other religions claim religious experiences, so we cannot trust that as evidence. So we must focus on the validating claim of the resurrection. If you believe this, and act accordingly it will be faith. If you do not believe it, that will be a superficial objection: you just do not want to believe it for some reason (note the “emotional reason” they refer to above is actually a moral reason). If you become a Christian it is because God called you. If you do not it is because of your own hidden agenda. The authors want to present the evidence for the resurrection, but must also be humble servants of God. So if their evidence convinces you, it is all Him. But if it does not, we must exonerate God since He is perfect, so it must be your fault. You must not want to believe.

These contradictions are enough to see the whole thing as a man made construct. But no! I shall consider their evidence as objectively as I can. If I am not convinced by it, I shall act accordingly (“faith” by their definition). I will not presume that God failed to move me to belief. I will presume that there is simply no God to begin with.