The Resurrection of the Son of God
Let’s turn our attention to the one miracle central to the Christian faith: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Apostle Paul, Christianity’s earliest and most successful evangelist, treated the resurrection as the basis of Christianity’s validity:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12–19)
Paul was not alone in emphasizing the resurrection’s centrality. Among the gospel writers, Luke carefully situated the crucifixion and resurrection narrative in a “current events” context, mentioning people whose existence and testimony could have been easily verified, such as Pilate, Caesar, Herod, Barabbas, and Joseph of Arimathaea. Luke is very concerned with this sort of historical approach (see Luke 3:1–2) and describes Christ’s resurrection as a real event in history (Luke 24:36–ff).
So was the resurrection a real event? Many scholars think so, and their careful examination of the resurrection seems to have led to an abandonment of serious efforts to disprove it. Much of this is due to the persistent life-long work of a philosopher, Gary Habermas. Habermas, a professor at Liberty University, calls his methodology the minimal facts approach and presents it in a book co-authored with Mike Licona:
When presenting the evidence for the Resurrection, let’s stick to the topic of Jesus’ resurrection. This means that we do not digress into a side discussion on the reliability of the Bible. While we hold that the Bible is trustworthy and inspired, we cannot expect the skeptical nonbeliever with whom we are dialoguing to embrace this view. So, in order to avoid a discussion that may divert us off of our most important topic, we would like to suggest that we adopt a “minimal facts approach.” This approach considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones…Most facts we use meet two criteria: They are well evidenced and nearly every scholar accepts them. We present our case using the “lowest common denominator” of agreed-upon facts. This keeps attention on the central issue, instead of sidetracking into matters that are irrelevant. This way we can present a strong argument that is both supportable and compelling.
So while Habermas does not reject the truth of the Bible as a whole, when it comes to studying the resurrection he moves beyond questions of the Bible’s inspiration or trustworthiness in order to focus on evidence and basic facts that even skeptics acknowledge as legitimate.
Habermas’s approach is different than the “appeal to the majority” approach of asking what a majority of biblical scholars might believe. After all, just because a bunch of people believe something doesn’t make it true. However, if there are facts that the majority of scholars accept, and if these facts, when taken together, point to a conclusion, then we should take that evidence seriously.
What are the minimal facts?
First, Jesus died by crucifixion. Michael Licona points out that many sources, both Christian and non-Christian, report Jesus’s execution including the four gospels and the works of Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, and Mara bar Sarapion. Each of these authors was familiar with crucifixion and knew the chances of surviving it were, at best, extremely bleak. Licona concludes, “The unanimous professional medical opinion is that Jesus certainly died due to the rigors of crucifixion, and even if Jesus had somehow managed to survive crucifixion, it would not have resulted in the disciples’ belief that he had been resurrected.”
Second, Jesus’s disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them. Paul testifies to the fact that the disciples believed and claimed it:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James then to all of the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3–8)
In this passage Paul seems to recite a sort of creed that probably dated back to before his conversion, in the immediate aftermath of Christ’s resurrection. Scholars agree that 1 Corinthians was an early book, probably written in the 50s AD, at a time when there were potentially many hundreds of people alive who could verify its core truths.
Also, the disciples clearly underwent a radical transformation, caused by their conviction that they had seen Jesus alive after they knew him to be dead. They were so convinced as to be willing to die for this belief. Lots of people have died for their convictions, but as Habermas points out, “Jesus’s disciples were in the right place to know the truth or falsity of the event for which they were willing to die.” People often die for what they believe to be true, but it is a rare thing indeed for someone to willingly die for what he knows to be false.
Third, the Apostle Paul was radically converted. What explained the transformation of Paul from highly esteemed persecutor of Christians to promoter of the Christian message? Only one thing: he believed he had seen Jesus. Of course, people convert from one belief to another all the time, but Paul’s case was different. Habermas and Licona explain:
People usually convert to a particular religion because they have heard the message of that religion from a secondary source and believed the message. Paul’s conversion was based on what he perceived to be a personal appearance of the risen Jesus. Today we might believe that Jesus rose from the dead based on secondary evidence, trusting Paul and the disciples who saw the risen Jesus. But for Paul, his experience came from primary evidence: the risen Jesus appeared directly to him. He did not merely believe based on the testimony of someone else. Therefore, the difference is primary versus secondary sources. For most, belief is based on secondary sources. And even when religious belief is based on primary grounds, no other founder of a major religion is believed to have been raised from the dead, let alone have provided any evidence for such an event.
Fourth, the skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed. Gospel accounts indicate that Jesus’ brothers, including James, were unbelievers who did not hold to the truth of Jesus’ message. In the book of Acts, however, James is mentioned as one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. What happened? The ancient creed we referred to earlier mentions Jesus appearing to James. Simply put, James apparently converted to Christianity because he believed Jesus appeared to him after rising from the dead. How much did he believe this? According to Habermas and Licona,
His beliefs in Jesus and his resurrection were so strong that he died as a martyr because of them. James’s martyrdom is attested by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria. We no longer have any of the works of Hegesippus or the writings of Clement where the event is mentioned. However, sections have been preserved by Eusebius. Therefore, his martyrdom is attested by both Christian and non-Christian sources.
It is difficult to explain these facts apart from the resurrection. Where did Jesus’s body end up? Why were so many changed? And why did they all risk their life? There simply isn’t a sufficient naturalistic answer.
There are also other compelling arguments scholars have advanced which, while not meeting the minimal facts criteria, are nonetheless intriguing:
First, the tomb was empty. This conclusion is slightly less attested by the majority of scholars, but is still a powerful piece of evidence because Jesus’s execution was a public event. If Jesus’s body had still been in the tomb, it would have been easy for his enemies to display the corpse and expose the claims of “resurrection” to be a hoax.
Also, it’s not only Jesus’s friends who report the empty tomb, but Jesus’s enemies (though they thought the disciples stole the body). From all the available evidence, the tomb was empty. Here’s something more: the emptiness of the tomb was first witnessed by women. In the near-eastern culture of Jesus’s time, in both Jewish and Roman traditions, the testimony of women was not considered strong evidence. William Lane Craig says,
If the empty tomb story were a legend, then the male disciples would have been made to be the ones who discover the empty tomb. The fact that women, whose testimony was deemed worthless, were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb can only be plausibly explained if, like it or not, they actually were the discoverers of the empty tomb, and the gospels faithfully record what for them was a very embarrassing fact.
Second, more than five hundred people witnessed the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:6), including Mary, Peter, and ten other apostles, and it changed their lives. These witnesses were so moved by the resurrection that they committed their lives to it and to the one whose divinity and righteousness it vindicated. The disciples did not abandon Christ—as they might have, since death by crucifixion was, according to their expectations, a sure sign of a failed messiah—but instead were willing to die for the gospel they were proclaiming, because the resurrection absolutely defied their expectations. Indeed, the resurrection of Christ took a group of scared (Mark 16:8; John 20:19) and skeptical (Luke 24:38; John 20:25) men and transformed them into courageous evangelists who proclaimed that resurrection in the face of threats on their lives (Acts 4:21; 5:18). It must have taken quite a life-shaping event to do that.
Third, the theology of the disciples was drastically changed. Apart from the resurrection, the disciples’ theology makes no sense at all. Nothing short of a miracle could have so radically altered the theology they had grown up with all their lives. William Lane Craig explains:
Jews had no conception of a Messiah who, instead of triumphing over Israel’s enemies, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal. Messiah was supposed to be a triumphant figure who would command the respect of Jew and Gentile alike and who would establish the throne of David in Jerusalem. A Messiah who failed to deliver and to reign, who was defeated, humiliated, and slain by His enemies, is a contradiction in terms. Nowhere do Jewish texts speak of such a “Messiah.” Therefore, it’s difficult to overemphasize what a disaster the crucifixion was for the disciples’ faith. Jesus’ death on the cross spelled the humiliating end for any hopes they had entertained that He was the Messiah. But the belief in the resurrection of Jesus reversed the catastrophe of the crucifixion.
Clearly, something immensely powerful happened, so that the disciples immediately developed a whole new theological tradition for which they were mocked, persecuted, and even put to death by both Jewish and Roman authorities. The Bible is clear about what this “something” is: Christ had risen from the dead.