Ten resources to help you defend the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection

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.

12 thoughts on “Ten resources to help you defend the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection”

  1. Thank you for writing such an instructional post, that wasn’t in “Christianese” -lol. Also just wanted to mention the story of the rich man and Lazarus, because the resurrection is mentioned there as well,

    “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

    On the face of it, it may look problematic in that it would suggest faith over facts, but it is quite the reverse in that it takes more faith to believe that someone rose from the dead than it does to follow the Moses (the law) and the Prophets (scripture).

    Jesus is saying that when we abandon reason and instruction we cannot understand the resurrection, and that we must make reasoned appeals to the unbeliever.

    Thank you Wintery Knight for giving us a reasoned and instructive post on the resurrection! Very Good!

  2. Two things in this post strike me as potentially worrisome – neither are related to the resurrection defense, but rather stem from it.

    1. The quote from Acts seems to go against the high christology of later writings. So, while it may support your goal in one sense, it could harm in another.

    2. If we assume the resurrection is a fact, I don’t think it’s at all clear that this conception of Hell follows from it. You would basically end up in the same place about biblical reliability that the minimal facts cases hope to avoid. You might say that R makes their overall reliability more likely, but that’s not necessarily the case.

    I don’t bring these up to be a jerk and pick a fight. I’m curious to hear your answer or any other theist’s answer.

  3. Mike,
    In answer to your first question, remember that this is a sermon. Telling the Jewish crowd right off the bat that Jesus is Yahweh would probably have gotten Peter stoned. Peter seems to be starting out with facts that the Jewish audience could accept like “Jesus was a miracle worker” and “Jesus was a prophet” (both facts appear to be confirmed by Jewish historian Josephus) while building up to the Resurrection as God’s ultimate vindication of Jesus. Then consider Peter’s statements in v.33 and 36 that Jesus is “exalted to the right hand of God” that he has “received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit” and is “Lord and Christ,” which obviously go well beyond the kind of claims that anyone could make for a mere human being. Additionally, the word Peter uses in this speech for Lord is the Greek kyrios, which is exactly the same word used to translate God’s personal name YHWH in the Septuagint. This same word is used throughout the NT of Jesus, not just in Acts, and is a strong claim to his divinity. So again, I find it highly dubious that the Jews would have concluded from Peter’s sermon that Jesus was a mere man.
    2. I don’t think that the concept of Hell follows from the Resurrection directly either. But what does follow directly from the Resurrection is Jesus’ lordship and his exclusive claims on all of us. I think that’s the main point that WK is driving towards. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then we have to choose to either reject him or to follow him. But we can’t just dismiss him or ignore him. And if he is Lord, then presumably he knew what he was talking about when he warned us of hell and offered us forgiveness through his death for us on the cross.

  4. Hi, Neil. I still think there are problems.

    1. If the word is properly translated as “God” then that makes the sentence say that God made Jesus God. Do you see there is still a problem there with the christology of John 1? If teh whole speech were filled with vague possibly compatible references, that would be one thing, but the references actually seem pretty clear.

    I would also say that you can say that Jesus had an exalted status, even one above all other men ever, and still it’s not the same as saying he is identical with God.

    And as another point, I would question whether the translators of the septuagint who made the manuscripts with this similarity were Christian. I don’t know the answer to that, but it could be illuminating.

    2. Actually, that also does not follow without further argument. God raising Jesus from the dead does not tell us anything about God desiring us to follow this Jesus or other theological points. My point is that even if you could establish the resurrection as fact, which is tough, you still have to have the reliability debate about the rest of the text. It would tell you more about evidence for God and miracles than anything about Christianity in particular.

    1. Mike,
      1. The NT actually consistently refers to Jesus as “Lord” (kyrios) and God the Father as “God” (Paul certainly does this all over his letters, even in places like Phillipians 2:1-11, esp. verse 11 where he is clearly, clearly affirming Jesus’ deity). So unless you also believe that nearly all the NT undermines traditional Christology, I don’t think you can hold that Peter’s sermon in Acts does. And as I said, I think there is a clear trajectory in the sermon from “low” to “high” Christology which makes perfect sense given Peter’s audience.

      As to the translators of the Septuagint (also referred to as LXX), they were certainly not Christians! The LXX was translated by Jews about 150 years before Christ. But the point is that most LXX manuscripts replace the Hebrew Tetragrammaton YHWH, which was God’s personal name, with the Greek ‘kyrios’. So the Jews would have been extremely sensitive to the idea of calling any human being kyrios.

      This point is even more interesting if you consider Mark 1:3 where Mark quotes Isaiah 40:3 in saying that God will send a messenger to “Prepare the way for the Lord”. The Hebrew text of the Isaiah passage that Mark quotes uses the divine name YHWH (which Mark renders in Greek as kyrios). Then Mark continues: “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness” (Mark 1:4). But who did John the Baptist “prepare the way for”? Jesus! Therefore, in the first four verses of the very earliest gospel we see Mark equating Jesus with YHWH through his use of ‘kyrios’. Again, powerful evidence that the earliest Christians viewed Jesus not just as somehow divine but as the very same God worshipped by the Jews.

      2. Technically yes. Existentially, I don’t think so. I think it’s extremely fair to say that Jesus is one of the top five most influcential people in all of history (Mohammed, Alexander the Great, Buddha, anyone else?). I think it’s also extremely fair to say that Jesus made absolutely extraordinary claims about himself and his relationship to God _even if_ we are willing to take a fairly skeptical approach to the gospels. Here’s a list that I used in one of my essays.

      “[Jesus] claimed to be able to forgive sin (Mk. 2:1-12, Mt. 9:2-8, Lk. 5:18-26, John 8:1-11), claimed that a personal relationship with him was the only way to know God (Matt. 11:27, Lk. 10:22, Jn. 14:6), claimed that he could heal the sick and raise the dead (Matt. 11:5, Lk. 7:22, Jn. 5:28-30), claimed to have preexisted from all eternity (Lk. 10:18, Jn. 8:57-58), claimed that our love for him must be greater than our love for our mother or father or children (Lk. 14:26), claimed that we must love him more than our own life (Mt. 10:37, Lk. 14:27), claimed that our eternal destiny depended entirely on our response to him (Lk. 12:8, Jn. 5:24), claimed that he would rise from the grave three days after being crucified (Mt. 16:21, Mk. 10:34, Jn. 2:19), and claimed that he would return at the end of time to judge all of humanity (Mt. 19:28, Matt. 25:31-46, Jn. 5:28-30). It is not just the magnitude of these claims but the sustained way in which they are made that is unavoidable. I have deliberately cited Jesus’ statements from across all four gospels and throughout all parts of his ministry.”

      Now Jesus still might just have been a megalomaniac. But, as I said, I’m just establishing what I think are fairly non-controversial statements:
      1. Jesus is one of the top five most influential people in all of human history
      2. Jesus made extraordinary claims about himself

      Now, let’s say that we were also able to make a case that the Resurrection _actually happened_. Can we really say that one of the most influential people in all of human history who also happened to demand the complete devotion, love, and allegiance of all human beings and who also happened to be physically raised from the dead still does not require us to do _any_ serious existential questioning of his demands? I find that hard to believe! If Jesus was Resurrected, then this fact demands a personal response in a way that the Resurrection of some other historical figure would not. If Napoleon’s second cousin was raised from the dead, then I might just write that off as a historical oddity. But if Jesus was raised from the dead, then, given who he claimed to be, I have a serious choice to make.

  5. I’ll have to comment on 1 another time. On 2:

    You seemed to have missed my point, but maybe I wasn’t clear. The point of the minimal facts case for the resurrection is to make the case without getting into the murky debates about NT reliability. But ironically because of this feature, it also means establishing the fact has no conclusive bearing on the rest of the NT. You quoted bible verses, but that is exactly my point. Why does the resurrection mean Jesus said or did those things? Why does it mean later interpretations by writers of the NT were accurate?

    I’m not looking to get into a NT reliability argument. I’m merely pointing out that people seem to make this jump from R -> Christian doctrines, but the minimal facts case for R is actually quite separate based on its deliberate removal from that debate. This was sparked by the connection to Hell in the post.

    1. Ah, that’s true. If you take purely a minimal facts approach to the Resurrection, then I agree that it doesn’t lead to anything of great personal importance. In fact, if an argument for the historicity of the Resurrection is completely divorced from any treatment at all of the historical figure of Jesus, then his Resurrection has precisely the same insignificance as the resurrection of Napoleon’s second cousin; it is just a historical footnote. But obviously, I don’t think any honest person would (or should) stop there. Nor do most apologists. The case for the Resurrection does ultimately lead to the case for Jesus himself. Belief in the Resurrection is necessary, but not sufficient, for having faith in Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus calls us not merely to believe in the Resurrection but to trust in him.

      As for the NT reliability argument, wouldn’t you agree that a far, far stronger case can be made for the general historical reliability of the NT than for the Resurrection itself? Indeed, for the minimal facts approach to even work, the minimal facts themselves -which are based on the NT gospels- must be historical. Personally, I think the general historical reliability of the gospels is justified based on tremendous amounts of evidence. Have you heard the Baukham-Crossley debate? I found it fascinating that Crossley, an atheist, concedes that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. He just doesn’t believe the theological claims about Jesus because he’s an atheist.

  6. Excellent post. It is so critical that we can defend with scripture AND extra-biblical evidence the Resurrection. It’s like Paul said “If there is no Resurrection, then our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins.” If we are not convinced in ourselves and able to defend this CRITICAL point of Christianity, we are doing ourselves and others a HUGE disservice.

  7. Neil S. and WK,

    Sorry it took me so long to respond. I was tied up elsewhere.

    1. I wish I knew more about the translations, but it’s not an area of expertise. But here are a few thoughts.

    I didn’t mean the LXX but the earliest manuscripts. I would guess these are a few centuries post-Christ and possibly maintained by Christians. That does not by itself mean anything but may give us pause.

    Also, the christology point was not specifically against Jesus being viewed as divine. The passage suggest Jesus was made divine by God. That’s a problem regardless of the translation of kyrios, which is disputed.

    2. I’m on my phone so please forgive my brevity. No, the general reliability would not necessarily be more probable. It depends. If nothing else, the prior prob would be lower since it contains R. I would suggest a piecemeal approach of tackling probs of certain books and then certain passages within rather than grouping the NT together as one.

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