Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion and death is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. The apostle Paul, after giving an account (1 Cor 15) of this event, says that if it didn’t happen, the Christian religion is useless. He adds that, then, Christians should be most pitied because they are still in trouble with the God of the universe. But even on a practical note, it would seem that for people who spend a good portion of their time on Christian activities, that time could be much better spent.
Paul makes a pretty strong claim. If Jesus is either myth or dead somewhere, the rest of our apologetics are pointless. And it wasn’t just Paul highlighting the importance of the resurrection; the other disciples based their case on the testimony of this event throughout their writings. Even Jesus points to the centrality of this event in Matthew 12:39-40. It is the key piece of evidence.
It is also an interesting claim in that it is historically grounded and testable in a unique way among world religions. The majority of world religions make no historical claims crucial to the religion. Sure, if Siddhartha Gautama never lived, it might throw a bit more skepticism on Buddhism, but it would have little impact on the truthfulness or falsity of the Buddhist worldview. Anyone could make similar claims about reality, which would need to be evaluated based on their own merit. Who made them, apart from his piety and sincerity (which might help credibility), is fairly irrelevant.
For a Christian who recognizes the nature of inspired Scripture, little more is needed. The claim of Jesus’ resurrection is well supported by the Biblical texts. But how are Christians supposed to respond to the challenges of the skeptics concerning this historical event? How can a Christian be sure this event happened as recorded?
First, a bit more about the Biblical witness. There is not room in this article for a strong defense of why Christians hold the Bible as the trustworthy (and usually inerrant) Word of God, nor is there room to get into topics like textual criticism, or detailed evidence and argument concerning historical reliability. (1) However, we can argue from the historical evidence generally agreed upon by historians to make a very strong case. This kind of defense won’t get you all the way to certainty, but it demonstrates the reasonableness as well as the best-explanation nature of the historical claim. Rather than being crazy to believe, it becomes rather crazy not to.
Many skeptics immediately dismiss the Biblical account from the start. They say that since the Bible is the Christian text, it has to be tossed out based on bias. This is simply faulty reasoning. Let me give you an example to make this clear. Suppose you were a juror at a murder trial. The first witness is called; the wife of the victim. You listen to her testimony and hear the horrifying story as she recounts watching the fateful event. After she finishes, the judge instructs the jury to ignore this testimony, as the witness is biased. After all, she isn’t impartial because she believes the defendant murdered her husband!
The next witness is a bit different. He certainly was impartial initially. He didn’t know any of the people involved. But, he saw the defendant run from the victim’s home, bloody, with weapon in hand. He ran into the house and saw the victim, comforted the wife, and called for help. He can’t be 100-percent certain of what happened, but he’s fairly convinced he knows. Again, the judge strikes this testimony from evidence, citing bias. After all, he believes the defendant is guilty, so he is hardly impartial either.
Do you see the problem here? With this kind of reasoning, we would have to toss out all testimony-based history (which would be nearly everything). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our reason in evaluating the testimony. If we found out the wife recently took out a huge life-insurance policy, or discovered the second witness actually had a grudge against the victim, we’d probably have a different take on what bias might mean in those circumstances. Problematic bias doesn’t mean you’ve been convinced of something and are no longer neutral, but that you have an unreasonable disposition towards one conclusion.
Mike Licona and Greg Koukl make the point that if Christians can’t write history, Jews can’t write about the Holocaust, nor a feminist about women’s issues. If we throw out historians on the basis of bias (in that they believe something on the issue), there would be no historians. (2)
But even if we were to discount the biblical testimony, the event would not run counter to the nonbiblical evidence. We just wouldn’t have nearly the detail to go on – though we might still have enough to reach a fairly certain conclusion.
Making the Case
Unfortunately, we don’t have a time machine, and video recorders weren’t yet invented at the time of Christ. (3) We do have a lot of witness testimony and some archeological evidence to consider. The key is in how we go about evaluating this evidence. Most skeptics consider alternate explanations prematurely, which fail to match the overall evidence or even take the majority of it into consideration.
Gary Habermas states this clearly:
“… the more popular approach through the centuries has been to pose a naturalistic theory to account for the data. Such a move basically attempts to allow for historical facts where the evidence is the strongest, while veering off in a natural direction before getting to the punch line involving the resurrection. Here they need to propose an alternative scenario: ‘Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. What really happened was (fill in the blank).’
However, this is probably the most difficult method of all. In fact, when faced with this option, the vast majority of critical scholars opt out. They are often well aware that when an option is chosen, the weight of the known historical facts comes crashing clown against their proposal. In fact, they are so well aware of this eventuality that only a few attempt it. Even among scholars, it is generally conceded that none of these options work.” (4)
And, we Christians need to appreciate that this debate is nothing new. The apostle Paul also faced an audience skeptical of resurrections. Mike Horton notes with his typical humor:
“Paul doesn’t say, ‘Yes they are; the dead are raised.’ He says, ‘If the dead are not raised, generally speaking, then Christ is not raised. But reverse that, if Christ is raised, then your universal a-priori is hooey.’ It’s amazing how many people with a scientific or historical mind will come to Christianity as if it were any other religion making subjective claims about how I feel and what is good for me and what I find useful, and will simply say, in a similar way, abstractly, resurrections don’t happen. As if people who use electric washers are the first people in the universe to ever have said the dead are not raised. Paul is saying, that is what folks are saying here. The problem is, you have a resurrection on your hands; deal with it.” (5)
Now that we have set the groundwork for taking an honest look at the data, in part 2, we will take a look at the evidence and lines of historical argumentation, as well as the faults in some common alternate explanations. We’ll also look at what we could learn using nonbiblical testimony.
It is worth noting that a hyper-skeptical position exists which holds that the whole account is simply a myth based on past ‘dying and rising’ gods. This type of position has been thoroughly refuted within scholarship – even scholarship otherwise critical to Christianity – yet it can be quite popular within the general public and on Internet forums. See our other article which generally critiques this concept of parallels, or look for the many great refutations by various scholars which get into the details.
- “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?” – William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman debate. March 28, 2006 – College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts
- Habermas, Gary. The case for the resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids MI: Kregel Publications, 2004.
- More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell
- “Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?” by William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann (debate)
- The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas & Michael Licona
- “The Resurrection of Jesus” by Dr. William Lane Craig
1. We cover those topics in other articles.
2. Stand To Reason – 04/27/09 – “Mike Licona – Resurrection Myth Stories”
3. I often wonder if skeptics would trust a video recording anyway, as they can be faked.
4. Gary Habermas, “The Case for Christ’s Resurrection.” In To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian World View, ed. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland, 180-198. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. – http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/inbook_to-everyone-an-answer/habermas_case-for-xp-res.htm
5. White Horse Inn – “What the Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 2” – 2013-06-08
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