Ten resources to help you talk to non-Christians about the resurrection of Jesus

First, let’s briefly talk about whether the Bible supports talking about the resurrection with non-Christians.

There are lots and lots of Christians in the world, but almost none of them are comfortable talking about the resurrection with non-Christians, in a way that doesn’t use crazy Christianese language and doesn’t assume that the Bible is inerrant. But I think that this situation is wrong for three reasons.

First, Jesus says that his resurrection is a sign so that peope will believe in his other theological claims.

Matthew 12:38-40:

38Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”

39He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Second, Paul says that if the resurrection didn’t happen then we are all wasting our time with Christianity.

1 Corinthians 15:13-19:

13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.

14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.

16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.

17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.

19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

And third, Peter uses the resurrection as evidence in his evangelistic efforts.

Acts 2:22-24, 29-33, 36:

22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

29“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.

30But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.

31Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.

32God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.

33Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

So, how can you do what Jesus, Paul and Peter do with your non-Christian friends?

You can do it, too – and you must

It’s true that non-Christians don’t like to hear that they will go to Hell unless they have a relationship with Jesus. And do you know why they think that? Because they think that sin and Hell are just your personal opinions. Not-very-nice opinions. Opinions that they can ignore because it’s just your personal preference that you were raised in. They think that religion is like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy – myths designed to make people feel good about themselves.

Just think for a minute what they must think of your blind-faith pronouncement that they are going to Hell unless they “believe in Jesus” (whatever that means to a non-Christian). How would you like to hear someone tell you that you are going to Hell for not liking vanilla ice cream? You’d think they were crazy! And that’s what non-Christians think of you, unless… Unless what? Unless you present publicly testable arguments and evidence to show them why they should consider the claims of Jesus.

No one complains that it is “mean and divisive” if their doctor diagonoses them with cancer. Because a challenging diagnosis is not the doctor’s personal opinion – it’s true objectively. You need to make your presentation of the gospel exactly like a doctor’s diagnosis. Am I making sense here?If you are telling them the truth and you can show them publicly testable reasons and evidence, what sense does it make for them to be offended? They might as well be offended by their credit card statement or their speeding ticket.

I have Jewish friends, Hindu friends, Muslim friends, atheist friends, etc. Telling people the truth with publicly testable arguments and evidence that they can assess for themselves works. What doesn’t work is denying the reality of sin and Hell and then trying to be nice to non-Christians who are going to Hell so that they will like you. That‘s not Biblical. That’s just reinventing Christianity based on your own emotional need to be happy and to be liked by others and to feel good about yourself.

Some things to help you talk about the resurrection

The main thing to remember about talking about the resurrection in public with non-Christians is that you can’t assume that the Bible is true. Serious Christians get around this by using standard historical criteria to filter out the passages of the Bible that are most likely to be historical. A passage could be as small as 1 verse or it could be several verses. Some of the criteria would be things like: 1) how early after the events was the passage written? 2) in how many places does it appear? 3) Are the places where it appears independent from one another (e.g. – Mark and Paul), 4) does it embarass the author in some way? Using these criteria, historians can extract a bare minimum set of facts about Jesus.

Once you establish these minimal facts, you argue that the best explanation of the facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead. Your opponent either has to disprove one of your minimal facts, or he has to propose an alternative explanation of those minimal facts that explains the data better.

Usually, the only point of disagreement is whether the tomb was empty. Most atheists will give you the crucifixion, the burial, the post-mortem appearances, and the early belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus in the early church.

The top 10 links to get you started

So with that out of the way, here are the top 10 links to help you along with your learning.

  1. How every Christian can learn to explain the resurrection of Jesus to others
  2. The earliest source for the minimal facts about the resurrection
  3. The earliest sources for the empty tomb narrative
  4. Who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb?
  5. Did the divinity of Jesus emerge slowly after many years of embellishments?
  6. What about all those other books that the Church left out the Bible?
  7. Assessing Bart Ehrman’s case against the resurrection of Jesus
  8. William Lane Craig debates radical skeptics on the resurrection of Jesus
  9. Did Christianity copy from Buddhism, Mithraism or the myth of Osiris?
  10. Quick overview of N.T. Wright’s case for the resurrection

Debates are a fun way to learn

Two debates where you can see this play out:

Or you can listen to my favorite debate on the resurrection.

18 thoughts on “Ten resources to help you talk to non-Christians about the resurrection of Jesus”

  1. How does “Jesus was bodily resurrected” entail “non-Christians go to hell”? That Christianity is true does not mean exclusivism is true. Indeed, one might offer reasons against exclusivism which do not rely on ‘Christianity is false’. After all, see universalism.

    (I also don’t rate the likelihood of resurrection arguments persuading reflective opponents. They will have good grounds for setting the ‘Jesus actually rose from the dead’ prior sufficiently low that any sort of confirmation you could get from ancient historical scholarship won’t be good enough.)

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    1. A person who does not want to be a Chrsitian can always assume or speculate about whatever he wants to in order to avoid the actual evidence.

      I once heard a debate with Robert Greg Cavin that argued that the resurrection was best explained by the fact that Jesus had a hiterto unknown identical twin brother who showed up just after he died, stole his ody and them impersonating him. (Also flying to Paul on the road to Damascus to appear to him – that’s right it’s Jesus’ invisible flying twin brother). Why did the twin carry through the hoax to the point of crucifixion? I don’t know. “One might offer reasons” for why he did. Or perhaps adherents to this theory “will have good grounds” for setting the sanity of such an individual sufficiently low.

      Cavin got his Ph.D from UC Irvine on this theory. Once can belief whatever one wants to believe. God allows people freedom not to believe. All they have to do is not look into these things, but instead to speculate about unobservable multiverses to explain the fine-tuning and unobservable aliens to cause the origin of life. And unobservable invisble flying insane identical twins of Jesus. No problem.

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  2. I see you haven’t answered why the resurrection being true entails exclusivism.

    Let’s pick some not-so-weird hypotheses: that of some hallucinations, that the disciples stole the body to keep the cult going, that Jesus swooned or whatever and never died in the first place, and so on. You would no doubt want to provide historical considerations against these counter-explanations to show them improbable. Suppose these considerations check out. So what?

    Because doubters have two cast-iron considerations which show the resurrection account _ridiculously_ improbable: that revival after three days is nomologically impossible and (if applicable) that Christianity us probably false. I’ll stick to the former, to avoid confusions on the latter.

    Thanks to lack of good observations, and good first principle medical knowledge, coming back to life after being dead for three days at room temperature is absurdly unlikely (and, to pre-empt the move Craig makes, suitable suspension of these norms to let it happen is also absurdly unlikely thanks to induction of all time when it hasn’t happened). People dying for something they should know to be false isn’t nomologically impossible (self-delusion isn’t that hard). Mass hallucination or similar also isn’t nomologically impossible (observed before, and see cult behaviour). The disciples managing to squirrel Jesus’s corpse out under guard isn’t nomologically impossible, or that the authorities didn’t present the body for whatever reason to quash the cult also isn’t nomologically impossible.

    Of course, all of these are unlikely for the reasons that apologists love to repeat. But they are still more likely (let alone the disjunction of all these counter-explanations) than the alternative they push – because that’s the one that violates vast bodies of inductive evidence that we construe as the ‘laws of nature’. So this is why the historical case is unpersuasive to someone who doesn’t already accept it’s conclusion.

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    1. I agree with you – if you assume God doesn’t exist, then the resurrection is unlikely.

      You mention 3 not so weird hypotheses. 1) the disciples stole the body, 2) swoon theory, and 3) hallucination theory.

      Please name a history-Ph.D credentialed scholar who has defended 1) in the last 50 years in peer-reviewed/academic press literature.

      Please name a history-Ph.D credentialed scholar who has defended 2) in the last 50 years in peer-reviewed/academic press literature.

      Regarding 3, it doesn’t explain the empty tomb, so I gave reasons for that being early (pre-Markan burial narrative), multiply-attested (Markan burial narrative, and implied by Paul – even atheist Crossley grants that it is implied by Paul in 1 Cor 15), and unlikely to be made up (women were the dicoverers, not the male disciples). And indeed in recent debates you have atheists as far left as John Dominic Crossan teling N.T. Wright that he is “OK” with admitting the empty tomb into evidence. (Greer-Heard 2005)

      For atheism, you know my arguments against atheism and for theism.

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      1. You don’t seem to be understanding the thrust of my argument.

        I am only pointing at nomological possibilities. This means I’m at remarkable liberty to ignore or contradict whatever historical consensus there is: this is because it is certainly nomologically possible that the historical consensus has got it wrong about (for example) the empty tomb. So the demand to present Ph.D’s who think whatever doesn’t need to be met for my argument to go through. That probably (empty tomb) or probably (not hallucination) really doesn’t matter: that’s because people should assign probably (nomologically impossible explanation) far, far lower.

        The only thing I want to show is probably not resurrection. For this one merely needs to point out revivification (let alone resurrection) is nomologically impossible, which is shorthand for saying it violates vast amounts of out background information about the way the world works. It’s reasonable to say that this disconfirmation swamps whatever resources ancient historians have to build a minimal facts case – after Hume, it might well be reasonable not to believe the resurrection account even if all the famous historians in antiquity went over there and saw it for themselves.

        Of course, if someones a committed whatever, then arguments to the contrary have to be damn good to get them to change their mind. However, in this case the background beliefs required to run this argument are pretty ubiquitous amongst modern man. The ‘historical argument’ seems about as sensible as showing Houdini escaping from something, and then showing it must have been magic because you can knock down a selection of naturalistic explanans. So the argument has no persuasive power to a reflective opponent.

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          1. I don’t really have an hour or two spare to pick through the videos for a couple of remarks (besides, I’ve heard Craig’s lines before). What objection to humean-esque counters do you think works?

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          2. Cool. But I know basic Bayes already, as well as Craig’s argument. So why shouldn’t I assign P(R)<<P(E|¬R)?

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          3. Because our primary reason for believing P(R) to be low is that the P(E|~R) is low. To see that one just needs to recognize what P(E|~R) means. P(E|~R) is the probability of a false positive. Why do we think that P(R) is low? because dead people usually don’t have empty tombs and don’t show up at seaside cookouts. If we heard reports of this sort of thing on a regular basis, we’d have a good reason to question whether dead people stayed dead. But since we don’t hear such reports, we suppose quite rightly that P(R) is low. But the fact that we don’t commonly hear such reports implies P(E|~R) is low. (unless P(E|R) is low and P(R) is high. This would obtain if people rose from the dead all the time but we just never hear about it. Which would be weird.)

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          4. correction a false positive is actually:

            P(E|~R) * P(~R)

            but if P(~R) close to 1 then P(E|R) is approximately equal to a false positive.

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      2. WK:Once you establish these minimal facts, you argue that the best explanation of the facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead.

        Even if you were to establish Jesus was “raised from the dead”, it seems you still have much work to do to show it was your specific deity.
        Perhaps there “natural” processes which make this possible (though very improbable)?
        Perhaps Jesus was some kind of magician, able to do this?
        Perhaps it was Satan who perpetrated the charade?
        Perhaps it was the trickster deity Loki?
        Perhaps it was aliens, using advanced technology?

        I don’t really see a reason, on the face of things, to accept that it was Yahweh who definitely resurrected Jesus, even if we you were to demonstrate that his coming back from the dead were more likely than not.

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  3. Brian_G:

    [Started new thread to avoid my reply being a centimetre wide]

    I don’t think that’s quite right. One of the reasons we set P(R) low is because it is seldom reported, but that isn’t because of how rare false positives are, but the rarity of these claims in general. P(E) is low, so (presuming – like you say – that people aren’t coming back from the dead but no one talks about it) P(R) isn’t going to be any better – regardless of whether these are true or false positives.

    But there’s other stuff that drives P(R) down even further. One is general scientific principles about what happens when people die which precludes them springing back to life, but the real elephant here is all the reports we have of ¬R. Usually, common reports of ¬X are no big deal (its light during the day most times, but that doesn’t give major disconfirmation for eclipses). However, if our observations are uniform that dead people don’t get up, then we can adduce that dead people never get up, so a fairly big strike against R.

    So P(R) is very, very low. Why is P(E|¬R) much higher? Because we can see how people could be convinced how someone rose from the dead without it actually happening. Maybe the guy never properly died in the first place, maybe someone hallucinated it, maybe someone lied, maybe someone convinced themselves it was true, etc. etc. All of these seem prima facie plausible, so P(E|¬R) doesn’t face the big strikes P(R) does. Better, when we examine instances of E, most of them are ¬R. Barely anyone in the western world thinks resurrections are likely save those which are reported in their own religious tradition. So if the bulk of resurrection accounts are false, then it seems P(E|¬R) > P(E|R).

    So P(E|¬R) seems not too implausible, whilst P(R) seems highly implausible. Plug that into Bayes and, of course, P(R|E) is minute. Of course, Christians aren’t talking about resurrections in general, but the resurrection of Christ in particular. But for sceptics (the people this argument is meant to shift) I don’t see any prospect for the ‘historical case’, no matter how good, to shift any of the probabilities I’ve sketched sufficiently to make P(R|E) better than minute. P(R Christ) won’t go much higher without prior beliefs like God exists, and P(E|¬R) – the usual target of this sort of apologetic won’t go far because we can offer (like I did) a disjunct of ¬R (hallucination, robbery, swooning, whatever) which gives a passable P(E|¬R) on its own – that’s because the disconfirmation available to ancient historians simply can’t compete with the disconfirmation our experience gives ‘dead people stay dead’. So the argument doesn’t fly against reasonable reflective opponents.

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  4. Let’s try this

    The probability of true resurrection reports is low.
    P(E|R)P(R) << 1
    The probability of false resurrection reports is low.
    P(E|~R)P(~R) <<1

    True resurrection reports and false resurrection reports must be in the same ballpark. If false resurrection reports were much higher, then we'd expect to be hearing them more frequently. (This would also be true for any specific subcategory of false reports –swoon theory, hallucination theory, stolen body, etc.) The history of the human race gives us many examples of dead people staying dead. However, it also gives us many examples of people not falsely reporting resurrections. There may even be more examples of the non-occurrence of false resurrection reports then there are examples of non-resurrections. Since every dead person could potentially produce many false reports, but only one resurrection. Now, if true resurrection reports are just as unlikely as false ones, then

    P(E|R)P(R) = P(E|~R)P(~R)

    let x = P(E|R)P(R)

    Bayes Theorem would then be

    P(R|E) = x/ (x+x) = x / 2x = ½

    This by itself, just gives the resurrection a 50/50 shot, but if we add multiple reports, we can tilt the scale in favor of the resurrection. I think the problem that the skeptic must contend with is that given a low probability of a false resurrection report, multiple independent reports, will make the probability of the resurrection go up even faster. (For example, the probability of three people independently giving the same false excuse for being late would be much higher then three people (independently) falsely reporting a resurrection, because false resurrection reports are so much more improbable then excuses for being late)

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