Basically, as a Christian, I think we, myself included, all ought to be able to show that there is a case for the resurrection on historical grounds. Even if Christians know that the resurrection is true by the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, you cannot use that when persuading and defending it to other people. So you have to make a case using the available evidence and the normal rules of historical investigation. You can’t assume the Bible is inerrant with your co-workers and you can’t focus on Christian-ese or peripheral issues, either. So how can you do it?
Part A: Historical methods
The way I normally start is with the standard rules used by all scholars who analyze ancient biographies. Basically, there is a list of criteria that scholars across the spectrum use for deciding which parts of ancient literary sources are more likely to be true. It’s amazing when you see debates on this because both sides basically agree on the methodology.
And, if you apply the methodology carefully, then both sides actually agree on what facts in the biographies are authentic. I am talking about agreement on authentic facts by atheists and fundamentalists alike!
Here are some of the rules used for analyzing ancient biographies:
1) multiple attestation – if the fact about X is asserted by two or more
sources, then the fact is likely authentic.
2) dissimilarity – if a teaching of X is different from popular teachings
and concepts of that time and place, it is likely authentic.
3) embarassment – if a fact is embarassing to X or X’s community or the
writers of the biography of X, then it is likely authentic.
4) enemy attestation – if a fact about X is corroborated by enemies of X,
or X’s community, then that fact is likely to be authentic.
5) early attestation – if a fact about X is in an early source, then that fact
is likely to be authentic.
And there are others.
So, if you want to talk about the resurrection at work without being laughed at or fired, you can use these criteria to identify historical facts.
Part B: Minimal facts
Using the historical methods above, you won’t be able to recover MOST of what the New Testament writings say about Jesus. For example, the guard at the tomb is only in Matthew, so you cannot use that as a minimal fact. And John is a pretty late gospel, so most of that can’t be used. So what parts can be used?
Well, here is William Lane Craig’s list of facts:
1) the empty tomb
2) the appearances experienced by various people, including Paul
3) early belief in the resurrection emerged in Jerusalem
And, here is Gary Habermas’ list of facts:
1) death by crucifixion
2) early belief in resurrection
3) appearances experienced by disciples
4) Paul’s appearance and change of heart
5) James’s (Jesus’ brother) change of heart
6) the empty tomb
Probably the most celebrated defender of the resurrection writing today is N. T. Wright. He makes a bit of a different case where he asks what sort of historical occurrence would be adequate to explain the changes in theology and practice that occurred when 1st century Jews in Jerusalem became Christians. His argument is that the changes (“mutations”) require a historical resurrection. Here is Wright’s list:
1) the empty tomb
2) the appearances to various people
and 7 mutations (changes) in the way that early Christians changed
their views of the meaning and centrality of the Jewish doctrines of
the Messiah, resurrection, eschatology, etc.
You’ll be surprised to know that few of these facts are disputed by atheistic historians like Gerd Ludemann, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The only one that’s sometimes disputed is the empty tomb, but some guys will give it to you. I just read N.T. Wright’s debate against John Dominic Crossan, who is on the far-left fringe. He gave up the appearances AND said he was “OK” with the empty tomb.
So, once you apply the historical criteria, and you hammer out your list of facts, what comes next?
Part C: Inference to the best explanation
Once you have the list of facts, you need to explain why the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead is the best explanation for the facts. This is done by showing that the hypothesis is consistent with all of the available data.
The atheist is likely to jump in at this point with an alternative explanation of the facts. Their explanations will not involve any miracles – instead, they try to account for the facts by proposing a naturalistic hypothesis. Here is a list of a few together with my defense against them.
1) Jesus wasn’t really dead
– crucifixion is lethal and you can’t fake being dead
– this doesn’t explain the early belief in the resurrection, since
a half-dead Jesus would not inspire a belief in the resurrection
2) Jesus’ disciples moved the body and lied about it
– it doesn’t explain the appearance to Paul, etc.
– it doesn’t explain why the early church was willing to be persecuted
3) The Jews moved the body and lied about it
– they had no interest in helping a rival sect
– it doesn’t explain the appearance to Paul, etc.
4) The Romans moved the body and lied about it
– they had no interest in helping a trouble-making sect
– it doesn’t explain the appearance to Paul, etc.
5) Somebody else moved the body
– it doesn’t explain the appearance to Paul, etc.
– there is no evidence to support the claim
6) The early church hallucinated the appearances
– group hallucinations are impossible
– it doesn’t explain the empty tomb
– it doesn’t explain the theological mutations about “resurrection”, since seeing a ghost does not imply a bodily resurrection
Keep in mind that when judging explanations, the simplest explanation is usually the best. If a skeptic has to join together multiple hypotheses, then this weakens the appeal of their explanation, because it’s “ad-hoc”.
I wrote another post on the resurrection here, with some links to debates. Here is a list of the virtually indisputable facts about Jesus, from respected, skeptical, non-Christian scholars like Norman Perrin and E. P. Sanders. More debates are here.
UPDATE: Welcome, visitors from Robert P. Murphy’s blog Free Advice. Please take a look around – the purpose of my blog is to help Christians to integrate their faith with other areas of knowledge, especially economics! For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Murphy is the author of the greatest book on economics ever written (and I’ve read The Road to Serfdom!). This is a book for everyone – and it’s the first book laymen should read on economics.
26 thoughts on “How every Christian can learn to explain the resurrection of Jesus to others”
If I may be so bold, I would also recommend Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Christianity to anyone that wants a scientific take on the validity of the resurrection.
Yes, it’s a little ‘out there’ (and written from a very Catholic perspective, so that has the unfortunate potential to turn off many out of the gate), but he does lay down a scientific* (and a very mechanistic, free from miraculous intervention) explanation, via what we currently know about quantum mechanics to posit, if nothing else, that the resurrection was a plausible event. (And it certainly isn’t any less plausible–and a great deal more testable, at present–than any of the multiverse theories strung up around the academy.)
I don’t suspect it’ll change any minds, but it is, most certainly, a stimulating and fascinating read. (It didn’t change my mind but, then, no one has taken him up on the proposition he lays out.)
*In the traditional sense, i.e. empirically testable and not the popular, debased, form where rhetoric replaces rigor as in, say, the global warming ‘debate’.
Actually, in Christianity, there is a faction of scholars who prefer to “front-load” all of the biological design and miracles. I think this is done in order to keep God outside of time, subsequent to the big bang. I don’t hold this view – I think William Lane Craig’s view is correct. God existed outside of time causally prior to the big bang, then after the universe was created he exists temporally with it. That way, he can cause effects in the universe, and some of these would be miraculous. One of these days, I will go back and read his popular book on time, (I think it’s called Time and Eternity), and write a summary of it.
If you like Frank Tipler, you’ll probably like Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana over at Reasons to Believe. My favorite is Ross’ “The Creator and the Cosmos”. But I also liked “God and Time”, because that book helped to transition me from being a young-earth creationist to an old-earth creationist. That and his debate on the John Ankerberg TV show with Kent Hovind. But I know there are better young-earth scholars like Marcus Ross and Paul Nelson, and I don’t knock those guys. YEC just isn’t for me right now.
Well, I will say this for the idea of front-loading: it’s very empirically clean. It allows for a non-interfering prime mover; it explains the existence and precise calibration of natural laws; it explains the massive information-coding in DNA without resorting to intellectually-empty just-so explanations; it allows for the existence of an objective moral order that isn’t just a string of memes passed down, virus-like, through the ages; it allows for the existence of a universe set up in every way to support sentient life and all without the sticky idea of a creator that’s essentially spinning the universe on his finger like a cosmic basketball (e.g. miraculous, supernatural, intervention)–essentially taking God out of the machine and giving him the honor of cutting the ribbon on a Rube Goldberg-like contraption minus, hopefully, something less trivial than universal heat death as its ultimate outcome. (Naturally, this doesn’t, in any way, rule out a revelatory god, but as I mentioned in another post, I need more evidence to make that sort of leap, so I’ll just leave that stone in place for now.)
Unfortunately, the downside of it all is that a lot of the theists that want this to be true also tend to see it as another (sigh) form of ecumenicalism, except this time it’s to accommodate all the nuttier and (in a sane world) fringe ideas like multiple universes and Darwinian evolution on anything more complex than a virus or bacteria that the religious atheist crowd takes as gospel truth. Sadly, Tipler isn’t much different in this regard.
As I noted above, some of his contentions are ‘out there’ and, amongst those, is that he takes evolution by natural selection as objective fact and also insists that in order for modern physics to be correct, that multiple universes also have to be true despite (or, perhaps, in spite of) a complete lack of empirical (or, hell, much circumstantial) evidence to support either of these contentions. Still, his theory to prove the viability of Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection can, to some degree, be taken on its own without dealing too much with either of these problems. (And, as I said, it’s truly riveting reading, even in the parts that read more like Star Trek than science fact.)
Meanwhile, the rest* of the front-loading (or, if you prefer, theistic evolutionist) crowd seems, in large part, to go out of their way to ignore ID (probably because they’re terrified of the ad hominem ‘creationist’ label, so they toss all intellectual rigor in the trash to avoid such a horrific fate, brave Christian/Jewish/Muslim etc., warriors that they are).
The irony is, of course, that though they toe the religious atheist line on matters scientific (and, generally, keep that God guy locked away in the attic so that their pals don’t think any less of them), the RAs really have little use for them except as a spear point (or perhaps a club is a more accurate metaphor, considering the ham-fisted nature of their arguments) to drive into the heart of those that haven’t gotten onboard the HMS Dawkins. (This would include any school board that even dares–the dastards!–to so much as think of including something as mild as criticism of Darwinian evolution in their grade 10 biology curriculum, as if Science itself will be burned away in a supernova of hillbilly ignorance.) What it boils down to is that, in my view, they’re essentially a bunch of useful idiots that haven’t gotten around to figuring it out just yet**–sort of like the general public is being used to acquiesce to the passage of draconian cap and trade laws under the all-seeing eye of Al Gore, High Priest of the Church of AGW, when the issue at hand isn’t the environment, but control over peoples’ lives by politicians that know much better than they do.
So (deep breath), with all that said, I will take a look at the authors you mention and, hopefully, they aren’t willing to cede the high ground for a hearty handshake and pat on the back (as well as some snide snickering and a “Kick Me” sign taped to their backs.)
*Yes,I realize I’m paiting with a broad brush, but a lot of the more vocal and (of course!) go-to people for the media on these issues are a large part of “the rest.”
**I have to be honest here: I have a serious problem with anyone that accepts, uncritically, Darwinian evolution (and, really, the only way you could begin to accept the house of cards that is Darwinian Evolution is uncritically) and the multiverse theory, the latter of which is, quite literally, not provable via any empirical method but is taken as an article of faith by far too many RAs, primarily as a device to explain away any intelligent designer/prime mover/god in complete violation of Occam’s Razor. (And, yes, by all means toss the Razor out the window when the evidence—not the wishful thinking—but the evidence demands it, but not before!)
And, of course, there’s also the sticky facts of the information coding in DNA, the Cambrian Explosion, universal fine-tuning, etc., that can’t really be adequately explained away as the product of that revenant, most jealous and all-too-limited of gods, Chance, and its blind, deaf and dumb offspring, Nature.
Parting note: I apologize if a large chunk of this turned into a rant of sorts, but I developed a bit of a head of steam and let the current sort of carry me on my way–hopefully it wasn’t too jarring (for you, anyway–I’d hope that some RAs are reading this and their heads just exploded in impotent rage).
Sorry I took so long to approve this comment, I was out running errands and having lunch. You’ve really thought these things through, certainly more than I have. The authors I mentioned (Ross and Rana) are NOT theistic evolutionists. Actually, they are the polar opposite of them. You may find them too conservative, because they are old earth creationists – they do believe that God acts in nature subsequent to the Big Bang. I am just offering them as a alternate point of view, because I know that a lot of scientists seem to appreciate their approach. I don’t think your rant was too mean: I didn’t edit a word of it.
I am all for honest alternative points of view, so I thank you again for suggesting them (and I will get around to them once I find a spare moment).
As for thinking (and reading; so much reading) all of this through, yes, you could say that ;)
I notice two main points in the argument you’ve outlined here that lead me to find it unconvincing. First, I think it is not at all warranted to treat the three synoptic gospels as independent sources for the resurrection account. The consensus, I believe, is that two of them are adapted from the other, and I am aware of no reason to seriously question that. Some people do view John as a separate witness, but I agree with you that it should be discounted because it is late. In addition, I suspect that the author of John was already familiar with the synoptic account before writing his version. Thus, excluding John, the Gospels constitute only one source of information about the events surrounding the resurrection. Since there are no other sources that give any details, this means that the criterion of multiple attestation is not met, and I cannot accept any of the “minimal facts” you list.
Second, as various people have observed, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Here, the listener is asked to accept that a man who was thoroughly dead came back to life bodily after three days. In our observable experience, of course, this never happens, and even Christians will agree that something like this has happened approximately once (perhaps a few more times if you include the case of Lazarus, etc.) in the history of the world. This would seem to be an excellent example of an extraordinary claim. Ifwe accept the fact of the crucifixation, and the empty tomb, and the subsequent apparent appearances of Jesus to his disciples, I will grant that no very plausible theory suggests itself to explain all of these events. However, the condition of not knowing what did happen doesn’t bring me very much closer to supposing that a resurrection did. Less implausible hypotheses are possible. Maybe Jesus had an identical twin brother that nobody knew about. Who knows?
Thanks for you comment. My understanding is that there are several independent sources. Mark is the earliest gospel, and the whole thing is admissable. The material unique to Matthew “M” is a source. The material unique to Luke “L” is a source. The material shared by Matthew and Luke “Q” is a source. The sermons and creeds in Acts are a source. The 7 letters that scholars agree Paul wrote are early sources. And even certain parts of John are independent.
Your denial of the minimal facts puts you in the 1% most radical fringe. That’s fine.
Hume’s argument about extraordinary claims has been defeated for decades. See this book: Hume’s Abject Failure. This book is written by a non-Christian, published by Oxford University Press. And you can see your objection defeated by William Lane Craig in his debate with Bart Ehrman here.
Check it out.
The twin theory was debated by Robert Greg Cavin and William Lane Craig here. The full list of debates, including many debates on the resurrection is here. You will find debates with Gerd Ludemann, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, James Crossley, Roy Hoover, etc.
Q of course is the *non-Markan* material in Matthew and Luke.
Earman’s work criticizing Hume has itself been criticized of course (there is rarely substantial agreement among philosophers). See E. Sober, “A Modest Proposal,” Phil. and Phenom. Res. 68 (2004) 489.
Bart Ehrman’s off-the-cuff reconstruction (for illustrative purposes only) in his debate with WL Craig seems to me quite plausible and impossible to falsify. Indeed it strikes me as infinitely more plausible than any miracle-based reconstruction.
An interesting aspect to the empty tomb theory is the seeming importance given to it in today’s world of apologetics, which it was apparently not given during the time of early Christianity. Paul never mentions it, although many argue that it is implied. Even more startling is its omission by Peter in his Pentecostal sermon. He mentions the tomb of David which he says is still with them, and this looks like a perfect entry to discuss the “empty tomb” of Jesus. What happens, however? He makes to reference to this “empty tomb.” It almost makes the reference to David’s tomb unexplainable within the sermon’s context.
At one level all of the “minimal facts” aren’t actually facts at all. The death of Jesus by crucifixion, as an example, is never attested to by anyone except a Roman centurion who probably had never been asked to “pronounce” a crucified victim as dead at any point in the past. Certainly none of the antiquity writers who write years later can attest to the death of Jesus. They can attest to a crucifixion, but not to a death. I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t die, necessarily, only that there is virtually no attestation to it. It has always been interesting that even Pilate in Mark’s account is disbelieving to the news that Jesus had died so soon. Why was Pilate so disbelieving to this news? A curiosity to be sure at the very least. What was it that Pilate knew that made him disbelieving to the news of Jesus’ death? I have always looked for a reasonable answer to this question. If you can supply me with one, I would certainly welcome it. I can discuss the “minimal facts” approach with anyone interested in an alternative viewpoint to these so-called “facts”. Each is very suspect at some point. Thanks.
Your statements are fine, but they put you to the left of the most radical atheistic scholars, such as Crossan, Borg, etc. Virtually no one educated to the level of PhD doubts these minimal facts, except for the empty tomb, which still has a sizeable majority in support of it. For example, in a recent debate with Mike Licona, Bart Ehrman accepted all 3 of Mike’s facts. Similarly, Gerd Ludemann only denies the empty tomb. These guys are definitely on the far left, and they are all anti-supernatural.
I can’t see what point you’re making but I can point out two things
1. In his pentecostal sermon, Peter did say Jesus’ body was gone when he said that his body had not seen decay (Acts 2 :29-32)
2. Pilate disbelieved that Jesus was dead so quickly because as we can deduce from the other two men, crucified people usually lasted a bit longer (or so I think)
3. The attestation to Jesus death is the fact that he was buried. You don’t bury living people. Besides, if you agree that he died, why raise that point?
It doesn’t seem that any of your points make any point at all. They just point out stuff that make no difference (except the first, which I corrected).
None of my statements puts me either to the left or to the right. I think you are so accustomed to saying those kinds of things that you simply use these statements to dismiss actual, legitimate observations or questions. For instance, my observation concerning Peter’s omission to any reference to the “empty tomb” is simply an observation that seeks a reasonable explanation, especially in the light of the context and his reference to the tomb of David. And I am still looking for an explanation for Pilate’s surprise at the news of Jesus’ death. I will offer it again and await your response. What was it that Pilate knew that caused him to be surprised and disbelieving to the news of Jesus’ death? Thanks.
So you believe in the swoon theory. Name just one Ph.D historian who agrees with you in a published research paper or book. If you can name one, then you’ll be on the scale of scholarly opinion. I need a name.
Dear Knight, corresponding with you could easily lead one to a gnashing of teeth and a rending of garments. For whatever reason or reasons, you refuse to answer a few questions borne from simple observations I have made concerning scripture and what we find there. Not only that, but you ask me to name just one Ph.D historian who agrees with me when, in fact, I haven’t made any claim whatsoever with regard to what I believe. Are you always this defensive? Take a deep breath and relax. Think about the questions and try to answer them without completely forsaking your intellectual curiosity. With regard to the Swoon Theory, I am neither a believer or a proponent of that theory or any other theory. I read and ask questions looking for what I hope will be the most reasonable and satisfactory answer to the questions posited. If anything, I align myself most closely with the Academy, I suppose. If you need to look that up, just Google it. I’m sure they will explain it to you. In parting I will leave you with another question, just one of many that I could present. To whom does the resurrected Jesus first appear? I know you can answer this one. By the way, I do have a few scholarly credentials, although I’m not looking to be on any scale. Thanks, again.
Hello Knight, Great blog. I have book marked it and will be back often. I write code for a living, listen to Habermas and Craig Debate whenever I get the chance, read uncommondescent.com faithfully, etc., etc. I do not think I have ever run into someone with whom I line up so closely. Now, if you are Arminian and homeschool, that will be a little scary.
I am Armininian and I am almost guaranteed to homeschool if I get married and my wife agrees and finances are accomodating. I also might like single-sex Christian private schools for high school, if I could find one.
Knight, how are you? Was perusing this site and actually forgot that I had corresponded with you on this particular topic. Are you still clinging to the minimal facts approach to the resurrection or have you seen the error of your ways and this approach?
I am fine. Go listen to the William Lane Craig vs James Crossley debate right away.
Knight, the audio on my computer has not worked for some time. One of my kids is working on correcting it. In the meantime I looked for a transcript of the debate but could not find one. Do you know where I can find it? Thanks.
There isn’t one!!! Gah!
Knight, wanted you to know that the audio on my computer has been fixed and that I have listened to the debate. I am immediately unpersuaded by the arguments of either Craig or Crossley to their particular positions. Craig’s especially seems to be a weak attempt to defend an already arrived at position and he is unable to see the weaknesses and the inherent pitfalls to that. For example, and I will make this quick because I am out the door, he wants people to think that the so-called appearances by the resurrected Jesus is the source of people’s belief. The empty tomb, however, by itself is the primary cause for the conversion and belief of the first disciples, if you accept John 20:1-9. This creates an enormous problem for Craig and his position. It creates a syllogistic argument that goes like this:
If a tomb is found to be empty, a resurrection must have taken place;
The tomb of Jesus was found to be empty;
Therefore Jesus was resurrected.
The belief of these disciples creates not just a problem for Craig’s position but it appears to lay a foundation for things yet to come.
I have much more that could be said, but like I said I’m out the door. Be in touch and hope you will continue to be well.
That’s not Craig’s argument. His argument is based on FOUR minimal facts, not one. He argued that the best explanation of the facts (burial, empty tomb, appearances and early belief in a bodily resurrection) were well-evidenced and accepted.
It’s good though. You listened to a debate! Yahoo! I’m proud of you.
OK, my last comment, and then I must get to work.
“[Craig] argued that the best explanation of the facts (burial, empty tomb, appearances and early belief in a bodily resurrection) were well-evidenced and accepted.”
Burial, OK. Empty tomb, OK. But the appearances are not proven–the claims about the appearances are. The fact that a document proves that Mary or Paul said they saw something doesn’t mean they did. I wouldn’t need an explanation of why they saw something, just an explanation of why they said they did. A lot of other people around this time go on record about a lot of things, and you don’t automatically believe them; people were making similar claims about Mystery cults and Mithras and other prophets, but none of that proves they were correct. I assume you would have a higher standard of proof for anyone who claimed to see a UFO. Finally, an early belief in bodily resurrection proves nothing–just that the disciples had a good media campaign. What other people believe has nothing to do with what is true.
You’re making a leap of logic common to most theists: that God or miracles are an simple, elegant explanation with few assumptions, but they aren’t. Because claims concerning how God and miracles work are not borne out in everyday experience, they actually take quite a lot of assumptions and a lot of selectivity about evidence. Such an “easy” explanation rasies far more questions then it settles, making it not “easy” at all.
And please don’t answer, if you choose to answer, by saying “Oh, you’re a proponant of ____ theory.” Cataloging arguments is not the same as responding to them.
Knight, Glad to find that you are still operational and still promoting your faith. As to Oguni Tracy’s reply to my short comment from over 2 years ago I will say this: 1– I happen to accept the historicity of the Empty Tomb. I simply pointed out that back in the earliest days of Christianity those early believers seemed less pre-occupied with the importance of this empty tomb story than we are today. Also, and please re-read Acts 2, it seems extremely odd that Peter would bring up the tomb of David, which appears to be a lead in for mentioning the tomb of Jesus, and then simply not mention this tomb of Jesus. In other words it looks like he should continue by saying something like, “But the tomb of Jesus, which is known to all of us, is empty and his body resurrected.” Nothing like this happens, however. It just seems odd given the context. 2–I point out the surprise of PIlate at the news of Jesus’ death, because it seems to expose the blatant eisegesis and historical fantasy of people like Mel Gibson and Lee Strobel who want to advance this fanciful notion that Jesus was nearly in a death-like condition prior to the actual crucifixion. Truth is, we simply don’t know what the physical condition of Jesus was prior to the Cross. Nothing wrong with admitting that we simply don’t know something. However, the historical make-believe that some apologists engage in to further promote pro-Christian notions and misconceptions, because they apparently serve some pre-determined position or tendenz, borders on fraud. The point about Pilate’s surprise at the news of Jesus’ death is to demonstrate that if Gibson, Strobel, and others were correct about their depiction of Jesus prior to the crucifixion, then Pilate’s reaction is unexplainable. Rather than surprise, Pilate’s reaction should have been something like, “Wow, I’m surprised he lasted this long.” After all, who better than Pilate knew of the physical condition of Jesus prior to the Cross? No one. Pilate’s reaction seems to expose to some degree the wrongness of the position that Jesus was brutally beaten and almost dead prior to the Cross. 3–I have always considered it somewhat convenient that the crucifixion and burial of Jesus happen as they do in a remote corner of the world during the Bronze Age. After all crucifixion is more a process of execution where the method and the element of Time are both required. And the burial really isn’t a burial at all, but rather an entombment. Forgetting some elements of the Christian faith and dogma for a moment, why not have Jesus beheaded and stuck in the ground 6-feet under for 3 days, and then have a resurrection. Now we’re talking. Not much room for debate now, I suppose. What we actually have, however, is a story riddled with convenience where maybe, just maybe, some things believed aren’t actually true at all. Enter Faith. Nothing wrong with Faith necessarily, but it’s best to call your beliefs what they actually are. Thanks for listening. Knight, I think we could have a lively debate in person.