I have a couple of friends in Northern Ireland, and one sent me an alert about this article in The Irish News, authored by the top living defender of Christianity, William Lane Craig.
Most churches don’t do a good job of explaining the vital importance of the resurrection when discussing why anyone should consider Christianity as a worldview. Here is how William Lane Craig sets the stage for his defense of the resurrection:
Most people are happy to agree that God exists; but in our pluralistic society it has become politically incorrect to claim that God has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus.
What justification can Christians offer for thinking that the Christian God is real?
The answer of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus. It is God’s vindication of Jesus’ radical personal claims to divine authority.
So how do we know that Jesus is risen from the dead? It is crucial that Christians are able to present objective evidence in support of our beliefs. Otherwise our claims hold no more water than the assertions of anyone else claiming to have a private experience of God.
Fortunately, Christianity, as a religion rooted in history, makes claims that can in important measure be investigated historically.
Suppose, then, that we approach the New Testament writings, not as inspired Scripture, but merely as a collection of Greek documents coming down to us out of the first century, without any assumption as to their reliability other than the way we normally regard other sources of ancient history.
We may be surprised to learn that the majority of New Testament critics investigating the gospels in this way accept the central facts undergirding the resurrection of Jesus.
I wish more pastors and churches could explain the importance and significance of the resurrection for Christian believers and seekers like that. This is the place in history where God has chosen to make the Christian religion mandatory on everyone.
Paul explains in Acts 17:24-31:
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.
25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.
27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.
30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
The resurrection is very important.
In another place, Dr. Craig summarizes his reasons for thinking that God raised Jesus from the dead.
4. The resurrection of Jesus. It seems to me that there are four established facts which constitute inductive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus:
Fact #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in the tomb. This fact is highly significant because it means that the location of Jesus’s tomb was known to Jew and Christian alike. In that case it becomes inexplicable how belief in his resurrection could arise and flourish in the face of a tomb containing his corpse. According to the late John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University, the honorable burial of Jesus is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.”15
Fact #2: On the Sunday morning following the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers. According to Jakob Kremer, an Austrian specialist on the resurrection, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.”16 As D. H. van Daalen points out, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.”17
Fact #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is a fact that is almost universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars today. Even Gert Lüdemann, perhaps the most prominent current critic of the resurrection, admits, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”18
Finally, fact #4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to. Despite having every predisposition to the contrary, it is an undeniable fact of history that the original disciples believed in, proclaimed, and were willing to go to their deaths for the fact of Jesus’s resurrection. C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University concludes that we have here a belief which nothing in terms of prior historical influences can account for—apart from the resurrection itself.19
Any responsible historian, then, who seeks to give an account of the matter, must deal with these four independently established facts: the honorable burial of Jesus, the discovery of his empty tomb, his appearances alive after his death, and the very origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection and, hence, of Christianity itself. I want to emphasize that these four facts represent, not the conclusions of conservative scholars, nor have I quoted conservative scholars, but represent rather the majority view of New Testament scholarship today. The question is: how do you best explain these facts?
I like to listen to debates with non-Christians, and the most frequent response I hear from atheists is to sort of sidestep discussing this evidence and start to talk about Bible difficulties: why God allowed some group of ancient people to be slaughtered, or whether there were one angel or two angels at the empty tomb. This is a stupid approach. What we should expect from non-Christians is that they either deny the WIDELY-ACCEPTED evidence, or that they propose a different and better NATURALISTIC explanation of the widely-accepted evidence.
If you listen carefully to how atheists respond to historical evidence, you’ll find that they generally do neither, and that’s because their unbelief is volitional (from their will) rather than cognitive (from their mind). They want to dispense with a God who will hold them accountable, so they just refuse to discuss evidence that could compel them to face a relationship with him that would constrain their pursuit of pleasure. Try it yourself and see what your favorite atheist does.